Guest Post: Matthew Temple on “Surviving the Inner Critic”

[Today’s guest post comes from a fellow writer and one of my favorite followers/followees on Twitter. I’ve asked him to write his take on a topic we all find ourselves struggling with—the inner critic. I hope you’ll enjoy what he has to say.]

Surviving the Inner Critic
by Matthew Temple (@clownfysh)

Writing is a nearly impossible task.  Doubt makes it harder.  But you have to doubt, don’t you?

In the Secret Garden musical, Lily sings the lyrics of Pulitzer Prize-winning Marsha Norman:

Come to my garden,

Nestled in the hills.

There I’ll keep you safe beside me.

Come to my garden.

Rest there in my arms.

There I’ll see you

Safely grown and on your way.

Stay there in the garden,

Where love grows free and wild.

Come to my garden.

Come, sweet child.


There’s a reason it’s a secret garden.  There’s a reason it’s nestled away.  There’s a reason that such a beautiful thing, in that story, grows behind locked walls.  There’s a reason it grows in secret.  It needs protection to grow, as the germ of a seed is protected by its shell.  When it’s a tree, it no longer needs protection.  It will stand the storm then, it will survive the cold.  Not so as a germ.  The germ needs the shelter of its seed.  It needs a quiet moment, protected from harm.

It’s the same way with writing, with critique.  Critique has its place.  The storm has its place.  Maybe the storm is there to keep the tree strong.  Maybe the storm is there to tear down some trees, so that only some remain.  That is the outer critic, the critic that takes place once the tree is grown, once the writing is done.

Before that, though, there is another critic.  There is a doubting voice that is the writer’s own.

The inner critic is there for a reason.  The inner critic is there to protect you.  Criticism can destroy, if you take it to heart.  In some cases, this destruction is an accident, a side effect.  In other cases, criticism is designed to be destructive.  Your inner critic is there to save you from destruction.  It suggests that you never do anything that others will dislike, that others can attack.  A well-functioning inner critic will make sure that she is the only one who can ever get a piece of you.  If your inner critic reigns supreme, you will never create anything at all.

There are two sides.  One is the creator, one is the critic.  One ad-libs, the other censors.

It’s like hair.  It’s an energy flowing through you.  You don’t make your hair grow.  It grows on its own.  You can cut it.  You can style it.  You can dye it.  What you do is shape it while it grows.  Your hair doesn’t grow into a haircut, though.  First it grows.  Then you get it cut.  It would be too much to try doing both at the same time.  If you try to cut hair while it’s growing, you won’t be able to cut with a plan.  If you try to grow hair while it’s being cut, your growing will be stifled.  The inner critic is the hair cut.  The creator, the one who ad-libs, is the growing of the hair.  Both are hard, and both are necessary.  They are hard enough, though, that it is best to do one, and then the other.

Writing is weaving.  When you make a collage, you first gather lots of pieces.  You’re not sure how or if you will use them.  You just gather clippings that you like.  The ones you don’t use, even though they don’t show in the final product, are part of the creation.  You couldn’t have gotten to the finish without them.  The chapters that you cut, the sentences, the words, are not lost.  They’re not wasted.  They’re like the practice of a dancer.  They’re the chocolate left behind in the mixing bowl.  It’s not in the brownies.  But it is on the fingers and in the mouths and in the smiles on the faces of the children in your kitchen.

The ad-libber is like the child on the playground.  The critic is like the fence.  You need the fence, so the kid doesn’t get run over!  But the one who plays is not the fence, and the fence is not the one who plays.  You don’t have to be them both at once.

You can write in private.  You can make a rule: I will burn this book when I am finished.  I will write my document and then delete it.  No one but me will ever see it.  You can make that rule now and then decide whether to follow it, later.  The critic doesn’t have to be here now.  Because you’re safe.  You’re safe writing in a burn book.  And we need to be safe, that’s why we make this rule.  That’s why burn books were invented.  That’s why counsellors and priests don’t tell our secrets.  Because we are all trying to be honest, because we all have that need, and to get started doing it we need a safe place, a playground, where we truly can dance as if no one was watching.

So: first: pretend there is no street.  Pretend there are no cars.  Imagine a world with no psychological dangers, no other people who might hurt you or hate you for what you write.  (This is an imaginary world.  Just pretend, momentarily, that it exists.)  Agree that before you expose yourself to reality—the reality that the world is dangerous—agree that before that time, your critic will do his job.  Before you really walk into the street, before you show your work to someone else, the critic will be there, to do his job.  But for now, he isn’t needed.  For your beginnings, make a safe place where you can speak or write honestly, with just yourself.  You’re the only kid on the playground.  This is an empty beach.  You are the last person on Earth..not the next to last..you will not be found.  You’re entertaining yourself before you die.  And it will be millions of years before life returns, and no one will ever read this.  Give yourself that peace.  You deserve it.  It may actually be that no one..or very few people..will read your writing anyway.  So for now, give yourself the peace of eliminating all voices from your thoughts, except for one.

You can’t be a growing tree while in the same moment being a pruner of trees.  You can’t grow the branch and trim the branch at the same time.  It’s contradictory; it’s too hard.  Ad-lib now, censor later.

The first draft is mixing ingredients in a bowl.  The second draft is taking the entrée out of the oven.  The third draft is wiping up drips from the rim of the plate.  You can’t wipe the edge of the plate before you put the dish in the oven.  So don’t try.  Allow an utterly un-presentable mess in your kitchen.  And lock your kitchen door.  Don’t wash the plates before you even start cooking.  Let the garden grow.  Then trim the leaves and sweep the path.  There is time to clean before your guests arrive.

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