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I’m too self-critical

I want to write a book but

The judge will turn up

So far in this ‘I want to write a book but’ series I’ve talked about finding time to write, ideas, getting started and structure. This post is all about self-criticism. Both Natalie Goldberg and Dorothea Brande talk about this phenomenon in their bestselling books on the writing process. Brande calls it ‘the judge’ and Goldberg ‘the editor.’ The judge or the editor is our critical faculty, given a voice. I’ll call it ‘the judge’ here because ‘editor’ has a writing-related homonym: being an editor is a whole other writing role. The judge will turn up – it’s all in how you think about him / her.

Here are five facts about ‘the judge’:

  1. Our brains are trained to look for problems
  2. Sometimes the judge is personified
  3. The judge can often turn up when it’s not needed
  4. The judge is not necessarily a bad thing
  5. If the judge shows up, you must be making progress

Let’s look at them one at a time.

1. Our brains are trained to look for problems

Our brains are trained to look for problems, to scan the field, as it were, to check for danger. It’s normal to have a critical faculty. It keeps us safe. Without it, we’d walk into traffic. Being aware that the judge exists and it’s totally normal, everyone has one, is the first step in coming to terms with it. Sometimes in our writing life this critical faculty can become overly critical, by a little or a lot. What can we do? Well, the first step might be to accept that it’s there and that it’s totally natural.

2. Sometimes the judge is personified

Sometimes the judge is personified – it’s the voice of a critical parent or teacher, for example, and we associate it with a negative experience. For some writers this happens to such an extent that they find it hard to get going or to writing anything at all. Sometimes (and this could be a difficult leap) laughing at the judge or at least not taking it too seriously is the key.

3. The judge can often turn up when it’s not needed

The judge can turn up when it’s not needed. When you’re staring at a blank page, when you’re trying to write a first draft, when you’re reworking a scene, and you need your creative powers to come to the fore, an overly judgemental critical faculty can make us contract and to censor ourselves, to edit before we’ve even written a sentence. If this happens, tell it to come back later when you could do with some critical assistance.

4. The judge is not necessarily a bad thing

The judge is not necessarily a bad thing. If we add mindfulness to the mix, the judge gives us a chance to identify our sticking points, the areas that the brain has decided are a problem. We can then offer ourselves reassurance, such as ‘I know you’re worried about this, but it’s ok, I can handle it.’ We could also take positive action. If my brain throws up ‘You’ve always been terrible at planning, why should this novel be any different?’ I can decide to read over my favourite book on planning or join a course.

5. If the judge shows up, you must be making progress

The primitive part of our brains likes three things: ease, familiarity and safety. It will try to avoid difficulty, lack of familiarity and danger. Whenever we step outside our comfort zone, all three of those things come up, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot and the judge will show up in an effort to get us to change course. So if the judge shows up, you know must be making progress by moving into unfamiliar territory, challenging yourself by making things slightly less easy and safe.

What to do about it

How you think about ‘the judge’ is all important. Goldberg suggests that we write anyway, that we don’t try to suppress the voice that tells us we’ll never be a writer, the voice that says ‘who do you think you are anyway?’ and tells us to give up, but that we listen to it, acknowledge it and then ignore it or laugh at it. An alternative is to deliberately design alternative thoughts to think whenever it comes up strongly. I give an example under four above. Other examples include:

‘I am a writer because I write.’

‘All I need to do is turn up.’

‘My voice deserves to be heard just as much as anyone else’s.’

‘I am enough.’

‘I’m taking small steps.’

‘I don’t have to be perfect, I’m practising.’

Focus on turning up

Another thing you can do, if you’re affected by the judge a lot, is to simply focus on turning up and to reward yourself for it, no matter how many words you write. What matters is that you sit down at your desk and write something. Gradually, as you form the habit, it will become familiar to you. We know that our primative brains like familiarity, along with ease and safety:

  • A regular writing habit removes one of the three ‘problems’ – lack of familiarity – that our primitive brain tries to avoid.
  • You can also make it as easy as possible to get into your writing, by organising your writing on your computer so it’s easy to find, or by carrying a notebook.
  • You can make your habit feel safe by writing in the same comfortable space each time, and by following a routine.

Focus on self-care

If all three – ease, familiarity, safety – are challenged by a particular writing project, for example, it’s mentally taxing, it’s unfamiliar, and it makes us feel vulnerable, it’s possible you’ll hear ‘the judge’ more often or more clearly. In which case, my advice would be to look after yourself in other areas of your life as much as possible. Make other areas of your life easy, familiar and safe, at least temporarily, and practise extreme self-care.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. Need more help with structuring your book? Here’s how you can work with me.

P.P.S. Here’s the next post in this series: Writing is silly isn’t it?


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