Eliminating the internal critic: for young writers

Hi Ms. Mixon, I’m 15 years old and I’ve loved to write ever since I can remember, but for the last two months or so, I’ve been stuck staring at a blank page. Whatever I try to begin seems stale and tacky, and my narrative voice has become awkward and grating. I’ve tried stream-of-consciousness writing, writing in different genres and styles, going outside to hunt for ideas, and even simply describing whatever happens to be going on around me, but nothing seems to work. I’ve had dry spells before, but nothing like this, and I hate that it’s sucking the joy out of something I love so much. Please, can you help me?—Heba

Ah, Heba, perhaps you’re not clear on exactly what you expect to produce. You’ve tried a lot of great writing experiments, and yet. . .what went wrong? Surely you produced some words? That counts!

It’s possible you’ve picked up an Internal Critic recently, and their constant commentary on your writing—in the process of getting it down—is the problem. Were you in a class about two months ago in which someone inadvertently taught you to self-edit as you write? Or did somebody give you negative feedback on your work? To excess? When you weren’t expecting it? Is there someone now in your life trying to ‘assist’ you to become better without actually knowing how such ‘assistance’ works? Have you met someone recently you would like very much to impress?

When I was 15, my dad was extremely ambitious for me. He gave me oil paints and an easel and then tried to critique my amateur, untutored attempts at painting (based on watching an afternoon TV show he called “The Happy Little Painter” in which a fairly competent guy demonstrated painting with lots of asides about ‘happy little strokes’). The problem was that my dad isn’t a particularly happy little person and was even less so back then when he had a house full of angsty teenagers. So you can imagine how very helpful his criticism of my painting was. “Why can’t you do it like that guy on the show?”

Not enough little happiness in the world to answer that question.

Eventually the process degenerated into him asking me why I wasn’t Nadia Com?neci, the Romanian 14-year-old who won three Olympic Gold Medal in 1976. Which was perhaps the least helpful critique I’ve ever gotten in my life.

I did not become a painter (much less a gymnast). However, he left me alone about writing, so I did become a writer.

The best way to begin your cure is to disassociate yourself from whatever is causing you to read your work as “stale and tacky,” “awkward and grating” as you write it. I mean, maybe it is. Who knows? But who cares?

Write for the love of the writing. You can write standing on your head backward with the wrong hand, if you like, and so long as you’re enjoying it, nobody gets to say you’re doing it wrong.

In Dodie Smith’s lovely 1930s novel I Capture the Castle the brilliant-author father has been suffering a dry spell for ten years when his children finally lock him in the castle tower with a cot, some food, and a typewriter and refuse to let him out until he types something. He types pages and pages of, “The cat sat on the mat.” Weeks on end: “The cat sat on the mat. The cat sat on the mat. That cat sat on the mat.” Eventually this evolves into a novel exploring the acquisition of language by a young child. From that simple beginning.

Keep writing whatever you feel like writing. Let it be terrible and don’t worry about judging it. Just write it if it feels like being written.

Avoid trying to ‘say something.’ Focus on recording tangible details. Flannery O’Connor described writing as recording whatever stimulus you receive through your five senses. Go ahead and record that—in long, excruciating detail. Everything. Unedited. The more stuff you write that you know you’ll never use in a publishable piece, the greater your freedom will grow. You can write anything! Garbage! Tripe! Vomitous spew! You betcha! And all great writing grows out of that freedom.

You’ll never run out of material to describe in your immediate daily experience. You’ll never run out of dialog to record that you and your friends and family say all day long every day. Keep a detailed journal. It counts!

Read books you love. Don’t try to mimic them. Just read them, enjoy them, use as they are meant to be used—for the sheer pleasure of reading. When you don’t feel like writing, don’t. Go out in the world and have adventures. You’ll write about those whenever you’re in the mood.

You’re very young still—you’ll go through a lot of ups & downs as you work your way through life with this craft at your side. So don’t worry about it, just claim it in your own unique, individual, quirky-&-boring, tacky-&-refreshing, cliche-ridden-&-special way. Sometimes more quirky—sometimes more boring. It’s okay! Let it be that part of your life where you get to screw up as badly as you darn well please, and nobody can stop you.

Your skills will improve. By osmosis, if necessary. And then when you’re an old, crusty, opinionated professional like me. . .they will still be there for you.

Your writing belongs to you. Nobody else.

Also see: 2 Tricks for Breaking Writer’s Block in One Day.