Dani Shapiro
December 29, 2008

On the Inner Critic

We all have one. Some of us have a whole chorus of them. That little voice whispering in your ear, that gremlin sitting on your shoulder as you write. The sole purpose of this whispering gremlin is to tell you some version of the following:

You can’t do this.
Who do you think you are?
You’ve done it before, but this time, you’ll fail.
This project is worthless.
You’ve lost it, babe.
Better throw in the towel.
Or just simply: this sucks.

When I was starting out as a writer, I used to think that after I finished my first book, that little voice would go away. It didn’t. Then I thought that after I got my first positive review in the New York Times Book Review, it would go away. It didn’t. Then I thought that when I started publishing in The New Yorker, it would go away. Or had a bestseller. Or…I think you’re getting the point. Not only does that little whispering voice not go away…it gets louder. Seven books later, sometimes it practically shouts. Precisely because it’s an inner voice. Your inner critic doesn’t actually care what happens in the outer world. Accolades don’t silence it. If anything, it gets fed by success, because on top of “you can’t do it” comes the particularly insidious “you’ll never be able to do it again”.

It can be confusing, too, the inner critic, because sometimes he (or she) is right. Suppose the work really does suck! Sometimes it’s best to throw in the towel. So how’s a writer supposed to know when to listen? I think the answer is this: it’s best never to listen to the inner critic. A writer has to develop her own other way of judging her own work–and only after the work is well underway. The inner critic tends to leap in at the beginning, or even before the beginning.

You can’t do that!
Why even try?
That’s a silly idea.

This–certainly–is not the time to listen. This is the time to make peace with the inner voice. I’ve come to think of it as an animal whose ruffled feathers I can tame. I try talking to it. Later, I’ll say, soothingly. I’ll check back in with you later. But for now…what the hell. I’m going to shut you up, and take a flying leap.