Personal nonfiction. Dancing with Your Critics.

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Who has critics?

We all have critics. In writing and in life. OK, some of us have more active critics than others. Inner critics and outer critics. The worst are those nasty voices inside our own minds that nip and nag. “That’s no good. No one will ever read that. You don’t know what you’re doing. etc. etc.  & etc.” That’s the inner one. And then there are the outer critics. Most writers want an audience. We want others to read our words and to like them. It’s natural. But, whether it’s family, or our critique group, or the N.Y. Times Review of Books (we should be so fortunate!), critics often find more to fault than to praise. And even when they do admit to actually liking what we’ve written, we writers mostly focus on the words of criticism. We’re wired that way.

Listening to the Critics

All of these critics, the inner ones and the outer ones, can be healers, can be killers. It’s not so much what they say – you can’t do much about it – but where you have leverage is in your relationship to them. What you do with what they say is actually more important than what they say. You have a choice. You can fight them – get angry, rail against them, mope, try to shut them up, argue with them. Or you can learn to dance with them. In my experience, fighting them is a losing battle. Particularly with my own inner critics, I’ve tried to silence them in every way I know how. I’ve never succeeded. In fact, the more I try to shut them up, the louder and more persistent they get.  The home team always loses.

Learning to Dance

I’m learning to dance with my inner critics. It’s changed the relationship entirely. I get to decide the music. When I notice my critic coming over to me, I greet him with a bow. “Ah, your’e back. Welcome.”

That surprises him. “What can I do for you? What do you want?”

“Uhh, well, I uhh.” When someone comes expecting a fight, and you greet them with flowers, it changes the relationship. “That piece you wrote this morning … I just wanted to get your attention. I think you can go deeper. You have more to say.”

“Really,” I respond. “I’d like that. Can you help me?” Now we’re on the same team.

I don’t mean to be flip about this. When you work with the inner critic, you’re working with a wild beast. But wild beasts often hide needy children inside them, too. They want something – mostly recognition, acknowledgment, legitimacy. When you engage with them in dialogue like this, probe to find out what it is they want, and offer them something, they often come around.

The Steps in the Dance

That went by pretty fast, so let me summarize the steps in this particular dance.

1. Notice the critic. Pay attention. Don’t try to run away, cover up, pretend there’s nothing going on.

2. Accept his presence. This means putting aside your judgments and natural inclination to bring out the cavalry. It’s not time for a declaration of war, but rather an invitation to dance.

3. Issue the invitation. “Will you help me?” Even a nasty critic has a hard time turning away when you genuinely, openly ask for help.

4. Listen. Take note. Say “Thank you.” You know how to do this.

You Be the Judge

It’s now up to you to decide, whether to accept, modify or reject your critic’s advice. This is still your dance, your music. Take some time to let go of any residual resistance. Set your writing aside.  Go for a walk. Breathe. Do whatever helps you to relax and et go. Now contact your core purpose in writing (if you’re not sure what it is, defining it is an essential step to take) and in writing this particular piece. Remember this is your story, and only you can ultimately decide what is right. Allow the motivation and the words to flow to you. They are there. Waiting. Your job now is to be open, to listen, to write and to enjoy.

How do you Dance with your Critic?

I’d love to hear from you about how you (do you?) dance with your critic. What have you found helpful? What are you struggling with? Writing about it may be helpful. Let’s learn from one another.

Upcoming Events

For those of you in the Rogue Valley/S. Oregon area, I’ll be presenting at the Ashland Public Library, Sunday, April 22, 2:00 p.m. Free talk on “Discovering your Story – The Joys of Mindful Writing.”

And for those who are on the writing path, or aspire to be, please consider my upcoming workshop, May 2 – 4, at Peace House, Ashland.  I promise fun, writerly connections, inspiration and tools for the journey. Early Bird registration ends 4.24 so contact me now for further information and to register,  peter@petergibb.org

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