This week’s exercises in my Artist’s Way volume focus on perfectionism. This builds on the concept presented in earlier volumes of TAW of the inner critic or censor, and the notion that the critic (by insisting that nothing is good enough) keeps writers from getting anything done at all. Julia Cameron presents techniques to manage that dissenting voice in your head so that you can actually write new work. The morning pages are one such tool, because many people find the writing of those pages possible because no one will ever read them. Another tool is identifying the voice of your censor – assuming it’s based upon a real critic in your life – and steadily diminishing the influence of some hurtful incident or pattern or person. A third is managing the people in your life, and ensuring that you are surrounded by a positive and supportive circle, instead of a group intent upon keeping you down. The idea here is that the inner critic is created when we are small and are criticized for creating, and that it can be fed by failure and rejection.
What JC doesn’t mention is how the editorial process for the publishing of a book can feed a writer’s inner critic. I see this all the time with the writers I know. The editorial process is supposed to improve a book and polish it a to gleam, but it’s an imperfect process. Sometimes it’s fabulous. Sometimes it’s hell. There’s no way to know for sure before embarking on the voyage.
There’s a good reason for this, and it’s not malice. Most people involved in the publishing of a book want the work to be the best it can be – but they might have different views of how to get there from here. Sometimes editors and authors disagree on the correct direction for the book or for a scene or even for a paragraph. Sometimes criticism is not presented constructively and dispassionately. Sometimes writers are very sensitive and cannot accept any criticism of their work, no matter how useful it might be. And there is always more to be learned, no matter how much we already know. I think it’s human nature to try to learn from the grammatical corrections to a copy edited manuscript, for example, in order to not repeat the error.
But what can happen is that over time, by following this process for book after book after book, an author can become more and more self-critical. That author writes new work at a slower and slower pace, until there is virtually nothing being created. If you allow yourself to stop to check the placement of every comma, for example, and to ensure that every word is spelled correctly, etc., it’s easy to see that progress will be less quick than otherwise. Imagine questioning everything, not just grammar but characterization, dialogue, pacing, setting, story, conflict etc. and doing it all simultaneously. It’s easier for that doubt-filled writer to go and do something else – maybe scale Mount Everest – than to write a single paragraph.
(It’s interesting that while bad reviews will upset a writer, they are less inclined to stop the flow of new work for most writers. Maybe editors at publishing houses are considered to be validated sources of criticism(?) I’m not sure why there’s a difference, but there is.)
The first time this happened to me, it terrified me. I had always written quickly and easily, so to sit at the keyboard and generate nothing was frightening. That was when I found THE ARTIST’S WAY for the first time and I’ve been a devotee ever since. I know a newer writer who is going through this for the first time right now. It’s heartbreaking to watch her question every choice – she probably questions every comma – but I and the others in our group can really only offer encouragement to her. She has to work through the crisis on her own in her own way, because only she can identify the obstacle that is tripping her up. I think that for her it’s the process of publishing which has affected her output, which is why I mention her predicament here. Well-intentioned industry people have tried to make her work more marketable and she has tried to comply. The problem is that the meddling has made her afraid to trust her own instincts in terms of what she wants to write.
I find that there’s a slow build in the power of my inner critic. The drive for perfectionism and the doubt in the work is fed by having to defend every single element of every single manuscript every single time. It’s not that industry don’t have credentials and that they’re always wrong. They quite frequently have a great deal of expertise and insight to share. The defense of the ms – probably like the defense of a thesis – can be an exhausting process and one that leaves the author wondering whether the book has any merit at all. When an author is prolific, or has an aggressive publishing schedule, there’s not enough time to silence the critic before beginning the process anew. Left unchecked, my inner critic would silence me at five year intervals, simply due to the demands of the publishing process.
That’s why I do my morning pages, and work through TAW’s exercises every 12 to 18 months one more time.
Another exercise that often works is similar to the morning pages in that it encourages the free flow of the work. Every author writes some kind of scene easily – murders, sex scenes, battles of wills, whatever. To let yourself write whatever you write best, with the assumption that it’s just an exercise to loosen you up again and will never be read by anyone, often starts the flow again. It sometimes also takes you as a writer into new territory, which is always invigorating to explore.
How well fed is your inner critic? Are you a perfectionist? How do you keep that voice or tendency in check so that you can continue to write?