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10 Rounds with the Inner Critic, But Still Standing

I mentioned a few weeks ago that one of my audacious writing goals for 2009 is to learn how to teach memoir writing.

The classes start in about 10 days time, and I’m delving into memoir books to read (for ideas, method and approach) and some suggestions and techniques to get me on my way.

Of course to teach memoir writing you also need to have some experience of writing it.  So that’s where we’re asked to start: writing some work of my own.

And that’s where I got stuck at the weekend.  Totally and utterly stuck.

My inner critic was running rampant.  Having a field day.  This is the kind of stuff he was chucking at me (for yes, he is a he):

  • You don’t know how to tell a story
  • You can’t write anything interesting enough about your life that anyone would ever want to read
  • You won’t be able to teach if you can’t write
  • You’ll never be able to complete the course if you can’t even piece a paragraph together
  • You haven’t got anything interesting to say anyway
  • Your life doesn’t amount to much does it?
  • Look at what a mess you’ve made of things.  Why would you want to rake over all that?
  • Best stick to what you know.  Whatever made you think you could write anything else?
  • You’ll need to shape up if this how you start [and yes, I haven't even started yet].  Doesn’t look like you’ve got the stamina for this.
  • Looks like this is the sort of the thing that other people would be good at - those who can spin good stories.  People who’ve lived interesting lives.  Not people like you.  Nice idea, but no, not for you.

Yes.  Ouch.

Some of them were jabs I could defend myself against.  Some I could see coming.  Others were more subtle, insiduous, knowing exactly where to find my weak spots.  And then hitting them.

Boxers - Nyrkkeilijät by Matti Matila on Flickr

Some people say that the best way to get through a bout of stuckness is to start writing.  Just write.  You’ll write your way through it.  Just write.

This doesn’t seem to work for me.

When I feel as though concrete’s been poured into my veins - and set hard - I can barely raise my arms, never mind move my pen.

Okay I can write out all the gunk onto a page that I’ll shred.  And that does help to process it, to see it for the nonsense that it is.  And to start to pick your way round it.

But I can’t ‘write’.

So what I do when the inner critic threatens to get the better of me like this?

I break state.  Go off and do something different.

I worked in the garden.  Turning over the earth.  Digging up nettle roots.  Clearing the ground.

I watched a robin, waiting to see what morsels I’d leave him.  Listened to his song.  Thought how I enchanted I was by his singing - though he wasn’t doing it for me.

I went for a walk.  Breathing in the big sky, and the cold choppy sea.

Once my mood had lifted I spent some time on Twitter.  Chatting to people who know how to make me laugh, and sometimes cry, and sometimes get happily distracted chasing down recipes for snickerdoodles.

And then I asked myself the questions I’d ask someone I was working with.

Do you want the inner critic to get the final say?


What would you say to someone else who claimed there was nothing interesting about their life?

Okay.  Point taken.

What’s your positive intention?  Because you know, that’s where the answer lies.


Well I don’t have a burning desire to write my own memoirs.  But I do want to learn how to teach others.  I do believe that other people will come up against just these blocks, these painful assaults, and will think - oh, I’d better stop, this isn’t for me.  I do want to learn how to find the words, the questions, the encouragement and the support to help them believe, to see, to recognise that they can.  That their stories are valid.  That their words count.

And so I know that I need to learn how to do this too, however hard it might seem.  However gruesome the prose.  However inadequate the stories.  However peculiar the life.

Which means finding the way in.  Working my way round the blocks, the criticisms, the problems I’ve thrown in my own way before I’ve even started.  Being willing to be tenacious, even when it’s the last thing I really want to do.

Finding the simplest, the easiest, the most basic place to start.

So, just tell me, quietly: what are your roots? Just tell me, where are you from?

And so I go back to the beginning.  Which is, after all, the place we all need to start.

Photo Credit: Boxers - Nyrkkeilijät by Matti Mattila on flickr

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  1. Roland Hesz says:

    Inner critics are on the run lately, having a field day I see.
    But you tell him off for good :)
    Breaking away is a really good way to deal with being stuck, plus it had a good effect on your garden I see.
    And I wish you luck with this endeavour.

  2. Robert Hruzek says:

    Y’know; my own style of blogging is reminiscent of memoir-writing, don’t you think? Now all I need is a book deal!

    Actually, learning about writing memoirs is not a bad way to develop a writer’s depth. Researching, digging into one’s past is a good way to solidify the foundation we all stand on, don’t you think?

    Robert Hruzeks last blog post..Holding Hands

  3. Bo says:

    Seems some old poet from another era wrote, “The best way out is always through.” Your inner critic ramble reminded me of Frost’s words.

    I love a good procrastination and sit-down strike, too. Then finally I start bargaining. “Oh, just write for twenty minutes. It doesn’t have to be good. Put something down.” Then finally I have to yell “Oh, just DO it!”

    I wish there was an easier way to get myself to just do it first off. Then I wouldn’t spend half my day worrying myself silly!

    Bos last blog post..And So Today the Sun Shines

  4. jon says:

    1. I want to read your memoirs.
    2. I know that voice.
    3. I wondered why the cookies resonated across continents.
    4. concrete poured into veins-that image speaks.
    5. You know, of course, that this is a part of a chapter in your memoirs of writing? (ah yes. You know that.)

    jons last blog yourself focus

  5. Karen Swim
    Twitter: karenswim

    Joanna, this morning I was flipping through a notebook in search of a poem and found “Sisters Bonded by Blood but Not My Love.” Bad title aside it was two typed pages of memoir writing. I had forgotten that I written it and was surprised that it did not suck. I have no desire to write my memoirs either but this morning I realized how that form of writing enhances your ability to convey raw honesty in other forms of writing. Your post was so timely this morning both for the tips on triumphing over the inner critic (blasted contender) and the nudge to stretch with writing forms that we would not approach. Good on you for lasting to the final bell. I wish I could be in that class!

    Karen Swims last blog post..Love and Poetry

  6. David | beplayful says:

    Thanks Joanna. It’s wonderful to know I’m not the only one reeling from these voices.

    David | beplayfuls last blog post..Miniguide #2: How to Doodle

  7. Ulla Hennig
    Twitter: ullahe

    I’ve read somewhere in a blog post that we can tell stories to someone sitting nearby, but have difficulties in writing them down. I don’t know if it of any help, but what about imagining one of your blogger friends just walking through your door and asking you “Hey, could you tell me something about you? I am really interested in learning more about you, more than I can learn from your comments on our blogs”. Maybe you would shrug your shoulders and say “Well, there is not much I can’t tell”, and then - maybe - you would begin to tell your story. Because you know that someone’s interested to hear your story. I am sure interested to read your story. Ulla

    Ulla Hennigs last blog post..Digital Rose

  8. Joely Black (@TheCharmQuark on Twitter) says:

    I’ve known that voice. Usually it speaks from a deeper place of fear of not being good enough. When I can give that space, and talk to that to reassure it, then I find peace.

    Joely Black (@TheCharmQuark on Twitter)s last blog post..A post about that other thing I do that isn’t writing

  9. --Deb says:

    Ouch! Your inner critic is MEAN!

    Mine is just as critical, mind you, but she’s more tactful than that. She’s also refreshingly “on my side” for a critic, too. Kind of like a Mom (or a big sister)-she picks on me all she likes, but heaven forbid anybody else should!

  10. Gennaro says:

    That’s a tough inner critic, but out of stern criticism often comes improvement. It’s not easy to take, for sure, but in the end we learn from it.

    One approach I take to writer’s block is to ignore the assignment and write about something else for awhile that interests me. In the case of the memoir, why not start out of chronological order? Start writing about your success with this blog. Write about the comments in this thread. Something different.

    Gennaros last blog post..Things To Do In NYC (For Free)

  11. David Atkinson says:

    This is still a tough one for me as like many of us I still hear that inner critic trying to convince me that I’m not good enough to write so I’ve still got a few rounds to go with my inner critic but am getting the better of him.

    looking for a knock out with my next post !!!

    Thanks Joanna for an awesome reminder.

    David Atkinson

    David Atkinsons last blog post..3 Bloggers I Would Love To Meet

  12. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Roland, thank you so much for your support. As you’ve now discovered, my gardening work is not all for the good of my garden! It does prove a great way to get the better of my critic though.

    Robert, yes, it is, and you’re a natural story teller. And yes, I agree about the importance of wriitng our past for our writing… and for life.

    Bo, thank you for all those words. I’m smiling at thought of you muttering to yourself like that… sounds familiar. I know what you mean about wishing for a short cut… but perhaps the tussle is part of the process. Part of the working through.

  13. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    jon, thank you so much for those words. Your support, in all the different ways that you give it, means the world to me.

    Karen yes, for me it’s reminiscent of some of the ideas in ‘writing the bones’ - getting to the honest stuff, the essence, the truthful words whether spun into a poem, an essay, a novel or a fragment of hidden away words. Thanks for cheering me on - maybe I should bring you into play more often, I’m sure you’d knock my critic’s lights out!

    David please be assured, you’re not alone. Not alone in feeling under siege sometimes… not alone when you’re ready to fight back.

    Ulla thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comment, so full of generosity and wisdom. You’re quite right, it’s the kind of thing we, I, would be happy to sit and chat about… but get stuck when it comes to making the words solid on the page. I will experiment with pictuing myself sitting down and chatting to you over a cup of tea and a cake in a cafe in Berlin. Thank you.

  14. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Joely thank you so much for sharing that - that reflects my experience. Not… enough is a favourite chant of my critic. Recognising where that’s coming from, doing things to help put the fear back into perspective, being in touch with others who will always accept you as good enough… yes all those things help bring peace.

    -Deb yes, very mean” I’m glad yours is a bit more tactful. I wonder if mine could be trained? Your critic sounds a lot more constructive… esp if she’ll defend you from attack :-) Isn’t it fascinating how our minds work?

    Gennaro thanks for that. I’m not sure I could say I improve from this critic, but I do learn from the experience - and get stronger each time I get past his jabs. It’s also good advice to write something different from the assignment. I hadn’t thought about that but I am such a resister, I hate following instructions, even when it’s a course I want to do. Maybe going in a lateral direction would help me past that. So refreshing being coached by you guys today!

    David the inner critic can be most persistent, and often not in a very unhelpful way. Do keep focused on your positive intention and trust your instincts to find the right words to express it. You’ll be fine. Looking forward to a knock-out post!

  15. --Deb says:

    I tend to think that my “inner critic” is my twin sister, looking over my shoulder. (She does that ALL the time.) She tells it like it is, but usually tries to be more helpful than not … lucky for me! In fact, the idea for my still-unfinished novel came from a particularly vivid dream-story that I dreamt she was telling me … she’s good to have around, even if it is only ethereally!

    -Debs last blog post..Anticipation

  16. Davina says:

    Hi Joanna. You’re still standing — yayyy. As I was reading this I found myself thinking that you probably don’t really believe any of what your critic said. All this “crap” was just being purged to clear the way for you to start writing. Imagine trying to write with all those voices screaming at you. Yuck!

    I agree. Sometimes it doesn’t work to just write, write, write. Taking breaks does help.

    Davinas last blog post..Guest Post: Emotions — The Universal Language

  17. Lillie Ammann says:

    Battling that inner critic is a constant for most of us. It’s amazing that we can encourage and coach and mentor other writers yet still face the same insecurities ourselves.

    Lillie Ammanns last blog post..500 Posts … Now What?

  18. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    -Deb That’s fascinating Deb - not least because I suspect she probably is looking over your shoulder. I’m definitely going to try asking mine if he couldn’t be just a wee bit more constructive

    Davina you’re right, I don’t believe those things, but at the time… it certainly feels like the accusations must be right. Which is so hard to get past them. But also why it’s so good when you do… Thanks for the encouragement

    Lillie sometimes I think it makes it worse actually - because we’re ‘supposed’ to know how to deal with this stuff, so look not only are we inadequate writers but inadequate mentors and coaches too! Boy, has he got an answer for everything! It’s goog to know I’m not alone though… and that’s it’s just one of those things we need to learn to live with. Thanks Lillie

  19. Andrew says:


    Ha ha ha! - I just had to have a good laugh at your magnificent description of the workings of your inner critic.

    That sounds a lot like my own inner critic, but with slightly different subjects, and I can relate exactly to how you feel.

    I think you are right, a short break can work wonders when the inner critic takes over. In some cases - it may be all that is required to interrupt your negative thought patterns.

    Andrews last blog post..How healthy is Apple’s disclosure?

  20. Janice Cartier says:

    This is rich. I need some time with it. But I looked up Memoir. Now there’s an interesting thing, the evolution of the genre.
    Hm, I am smiling here because the new piece I am doing will lend itself to this too… paintings can be like memoirs. They are the experience of something, autobiographical, yes, but more importantly, they are the “fiction” created when we filter who we are through the experience, or just a s truly, filter the experience through who we are.

    Janice Cartiers last blog post..Blue Skies

  21. Mamashares says:

    Ok…your first mistake was making your inner critic a man. It sounds to me like his intentions were to distract you from your work. I’d tell him to bugger off, and then call in an inner critic who is female, empathetic, and of course, a stickler for great writing.

    Good luck.

  22. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Andrew I’m glad my tussles made you laugh ;-) It’s good to know that others have similar battles - one more weapon in our armoury I think. As well as taking a break, like you say

    Janice, one of the reasons I’d love to get you to Scotland is so I can tap into your brain. You know part of what I’m resisting *is* the genre, there’s something about it I’m not comfortable with, and what I think I’m grasping for is a form of writing that I can write or maybe teach is that filtering of experience, telling an autobiographical truth. It’s also got something to do the places where we are or find ourselves… hence the importance of the photos (and your paintings) too. Clearly I need more time with this too!

    Mamashares I can assure you I didn’t consciously conjure him up as a man! I do have a very constructive if super tough inner editor - who is female, and like you say a stickler for grat writing. Things are much more fun when she’s around ;-)

  23. Janice Cartier says:

    Yes, I intend to tumble Memoir around a bit in that * brain* of mine. Play a bit.

    Hm. Scotland… making some notes … jotting some ideas…

    Janice Cartiers last blog post..Blue Skies

  24. Jim Murdoch says:

    I’m actually working on a related post at the moment where the inner critic crops up and one question I ask is: Who is the inner critic? The assumption is that it is part of ourselves and of course in one respect it is but it is also a proxy for people in our past (parents, teachers, peers even) who have stood in judgment over us. In my case this would be my father who, if I came home with a grade of 98% his first question would always be something like: “What happened to the other 2%?” Now he’s dead but lives on as a part of my inner critic.

    Jim Murdochs last blog post..Author cameos

  25. Terry Heath
    Twitter: terryheath

    I think your inner critic and mine have been talking to each other. Maybe they’ve gone to some ICA (Inner Critic Association) seminar together, but whatever they’ve done they’re pretty darn good at what they do, don’t you think?

    Terry Heaths last blog post..Crows and Social Proof

  26. Daphne says:

    Hi Joanna,

    I hope your inner critic has taken a vacation by the time you read this comment. They do like to haunt us. I loved your phrase “break state”. It’s the first time I’ve heard it expressed this way, and I will certainly remember it. You write beautiful phrases, Joanna.

    Daphnes last blog post..8 Lessons A Nearly-Dead Dog Taught Me About Living

  27. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jim I ask myself that question too. I don’t think mine is one person, but has maybe picked up some some of the most critical faculties of a number of different people. But I think you’re right - that’s how the critic is so effective. It’s personal, and that’s how it gets under your skin.

    Terry sounds like there are a whole bunch of mean critics out there!

    Daphne yes, I’ve got it back under control now. Blogging about it helps. Breaking state is a great expression - it reminds us that *we* can decide to do something to change our state, rather than dwelling in it.

  28. Alexander says:

    Inner Critics are a pain in the butt. Every time my inner critics starts I tell it to go some where (you know where), If that does not work I let the Lord help me out. Great Post, God Bless!

  29. wilson says:

    Nah, don’t doubt about your ability, Joanna. I can tell that you’re one of the superior and talented storytellers! :)

    wilsons last blog post..Your Body Type Determine Your Healthy Condition

  30. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    wilson, I’m so glad you’re around to keep my ego going ;-)

  31. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Alexander, aren’t they just? I’m going to try and get a bit tougher with mine for sure!

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  34. Jeannie says:


    Writing is the hardest job in the world. There you go, you outta known. So write about it. heh-heh

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  36. Joanna
    Twitter: joannapaterson

    Jeannie, you know writing about it is the only cure I’ve ever found ;-)

    Thanks for dropping by

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