Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Inner Critic

As writers and artists, we have one. I never realized whose voice it was—telling me that my work wasn’t good enough, that I needed to stretch beyond my comfort zone. She actually sprung out of my subconscious and took form in one of my novels, though I didn’t recognize her as such at the time. She hovers over me, whether I’m painting or writing…

Let me introduce you to Marvelle, by way of an excerpt…

Leila hunched over her work, sitting before the garden’s centerpiece, a Grecian maiden perched in a dried-up fountain. Spanish moss grazed the greenish patina of her shoulders, glowing in the gradient light of late afternoon. She loomed as guardian over Leila. Her watchful eye seemed to alert the artist to unwanted attention approaching from behind.
Sensing an intrusion, Leila arched her aching back and quit with her paintbrush. She pulled the paper block to her chest. Cocking her head, she met an old woman’s piercing eyes.
The matron frowned, folding her arms and taking an abrupt suck from her cigarette. Standing less than five foot, the well-into-her-eighties matron swept a strand of white hair up and poked it into the knot crowning her head. She drew a long drag from the cigarette that doubled as a gesturing baton, leaving a thin trail of smoke. “Well?”
Leila wondered if this might be Marvelle. She clutched her work even tighter.
The old woman flicked her butt to the grass. Grinding it under foot, she thrust out her hand with all the authority of God.
“Don’t be ridiculous, child! Let me see!” Her smoker’s voice chopped with a Bostonian inflection.
Taken aback, Leila glowered at the encroachment while sizing up her opponent. A long, loose-fitting tunic hung from a buttoned neckline and square shoulders, covering most of her shapeless trousers. She looked well on her way to the grave, and yet Leila hesitated to disobey.
Crooked fingers snatched the tablet and held it at a distance, then brought it closer to her spectacles. “You’re overworking it, child.”
“Yeah?” Leila stated, regarding what had always been obvious to her.
“And you’re including too much detail.”
“I like detail.”
“That’s fine, da’ling, but until you can make your point with a few strokes you have no business with detail. You haven’t earned the right.”
Leila’s attention darted from fierce wrinkles to her own disappointing efforts. Was this feisty and officious bit-of-a-woman the ‘dear old soul’ of whom her had grandmother spoken?
“Your perspective, however, and proportions are impeccable. Perhaps you ought to stick with sketching, and not waste your time with paint.”
“I like to paint.”
“Could have fooled me. You look as uncomfortable as a cat in a shoebox, and your work is as passionless as a peck on the cheek.” She wielded the pad as though swatting mosquitoes, and then shoved it back at Leila. “You can’t tell me you’re happy with this.”
“I wasn’t expecting a great work of art. It’s just a pastime.”
“Rubbish! What prevents you from greatness?”
“What?” Wide-eyed, and then with a squint, Leila sat erect.
“Fear—that’s what! When you’re ready to own up to it, come and see me, da’ling.” With that old woman spun on her heal and jauntily headed back toward the house, belying any readiness for the grave.

For all intents and purposes, Marvelle could be standing over my shoulder as I type, trying to form a story. She always sees the flaw, but I think she also sees the potential.

Is your inner critic ‘cruel…but fair?’ Does she ever allow you any peace or gratification?


  1. Hm, we write what we know? If Marvelle is your inner critic, she has an astute eye, and is quick with observations. She seems a good critic to have on a writer's side :)

  2. Perhaps she is all that, Joanne, but she kinda scares me!

  3. Yes, I wouldn't mind a Marvelle isn't of the crabby voice I have whispering in my ear as I write! Although that crabby voice has helped me eliminate some pretty awful writing, so I suppose it isn't all bad! :)
    Judy (South Africa)

  4. I really like this piece! I think we all have inner critics. The key is to make sure the inner critic came from within you and not from someone else.

  5. Thanks for this post. I can totally relate.

    It's a tough balance to strike — how much does this figure just hate me, and how much is he trying to protect me from harm? In some ways, his uncompromising standards are a real help. The creative paralysis... not so helpful.

    I call my critic/demon/editor/helper "Mr Mudflaps". Here's what he looks like:

  6. Judy, You're right--it isn't all bad, but I'm not sure why our Inner Critic can't have a kind, lilting voice rather than the crabby. If she did, we might not take her as seriously. I shudder at what my writing would be without her!

    Domey, I'm glad you like this piece--you probably recognize it from my NfU submission!

    I think to some extent, the inner critic (at least mine) is molded by the external, yet I think she has grown far more selective. Even if she doesn't always have all her facts straight, she does seem to be on step ahead of me.

    Hamish! Hi!
    I think all of us Artist-types relate on some level. While Marvelle was fun to write about (she turned into one of my favorite characters, with the stongest 'voice' in the novel), she can sometimes accuse without offereng anythign helpful. I think at times she's Just Plain Batty!

    ...oh, and I tried to find Mr. Mudflaps but the internet doesn't like his URL! I'm so curious!

  7. my inner critic has a lot of voices--some more harsh than others--but he's my friend, even if we don't see eye to eye all the time.

  8. Paul, I think it must be a good place to be when you can ultimately view those voices as a friend. I'm never entirely sure of mine...perhaps with time...

  9. The inner critic ... I haven't really thought much about it, although I've certainly heard tell of them.

    The way I see it, when I write or illustrate, it's a matter of selection and taste. If I was able to express myself, and my work is grammatically correct/accompany the story adequately, then I will have succeeded with my task. Not everyone is going to like my work. And, just as certain, the work could be better. (That's when the other "voices" would come into play - that being 'when to let it go.')

    It's all a matter of perspective, I'd say. Or, maybe I'm denying my 'inner critic' and blocking him or her out! Oh my! :)

  10. Craig, it sounds as if you have a relatively healthy inner critic that allows you some piece of mind. There is that point in a project, when we have to ignore the voice that tells us 'the work could be better', otherwise we'd never finish any project.

    I think that sometimes it's difficult for me to differentiate between the voice that wants me to bust out of my safe and comfortable place and grow, and the perfectionist who is waiting there with the hammer when I get up the courage...

  11. you may consider firing Marvelle and replacing her with Ms. Chicoine. Perhaps that would be a fitting change.

  12. Oh Glenn, that would be very dangerous. Ms Chicoine is quite merciless compared to Marvelle! At least I can ignore Marvelle when it suits me...Ms Chicoine is relentless and often forgets there are consequences to yeilding the 'hammer'!

  13. My inner critic never shuts up. Luckily, however, his voice can be drowned out by external (i.e. actual) critics if they come back overwhelmingly positive.

  14. Nate, yeah, my inner critic's voice gets drowned out with positive feedback, too...for like TWO SECONDS!!
    I like yours better--ever think of leasing him out?...okay, I know that'd be impossible. How about doing an Inner-Voice Anti-Empowerment seminar?

  15. My inner critic has always been there, but the older I get, the softer she speaks. She'll always be with me, though.

  16. Helen, perhaps your inner critic's softening voice is an indication of maturing as a writer...I feel as if I have a long way to go...

  17. What an awesome post on the inner critic. Fortunately my inner critic isn't so scary, though she might not be as wise either.

  18. Oh, the inner critic. So darn...critical. This was a great post!

  19. Stina, if yours is kinder, all the better! Mine probably wouldn't need to be so scary if I were motivated by less, lol.

    Lydia, yeah, and she's always so darn...inside my head!

  20. I like this. I feel connected to the MC. Totally interesting.


  21. Hi Donna, glad you liked it! I've seen you around a bunch and so it's nice to have you stop in :)

  22. My inner critic is called Aunt Aggie. I wrote about her once - she is an unkind goblin who doesn't like to be seen. She is always negative and I have to kick her to the kerb, but only when I tune in and realise what she is saying - sometimes the negative doubts can be unconscious. I love your story here, the characters are all so vivid.

  23. Jayne, it sounds as if your Aunt Aggie is a lot like my Marvelle! At least 'kicking her to the kerb' gives us enough distance to sift through her negativity, and hopefully come away with something positive! :)

  24. Why do we pick on ourselves so relentlessly? Maybe it's just right brain versus left brain. Or maybe it's multiple personality disorder. LOL! (Not sure which one of me is laughing. But I think it's the laid back one.)

    Ms. Marvelle seems to be a good friend. Just try not to give her all your power. Oh, and I really loved the writing in this story.

  25. Sharon, Thank you so much. Some how I knew you'd be able to relate to my Marvelle. We have so many 'voices' in our head, lol. Sometimes they are like imaginary friends, and sometimes like an alter ego, sometimes I wish they'd just go and get a life of their own and leave me alone!

    For better or for worse, they are a part of our artistic temperament!

  26. Well, I sorta' like Marvelle -- a crusty, honest, old smoking vixen that bluntly tells us the truth, even when we don't want to hear it. If an artist doesn't have a Marvelle, then they will never make it. Constant adulation buys you little.

  27. It's true, Jerry, Marvelle is not big on adulation, in fact, she revels in pushing the limits of her student's discomfort. In some ways, I wish she were a real live person to whom I was accountable, though she'd scare the bejeebers out of me!

  28. What a great post! My inner critic is rather like yours. But she has my mother's voice. Hard to escape from. Second opinions help a lot.

  29. Anne, the harsh inner critic seems to be universal. I think for the sake of our creativity and dignity, it does pay to have a second opinion. Thank goodness for beta readers and crit partners!

  30. Dear Bridget... What would "We" be without our Marvelle-ous inner watchdogs and straw bosses?

    As artists we are driven by our very natures... to dwell in a realm of dreams and Self-driven intuition. But at the same time... all about us there exists a world full of rule makers and critics.

    "To make a descriptive definition of the deepest content of art is as impossible as it is to define the deepest definition of life. Art is created through intuition. In our daily, social,and intellectual life, all of which are only partial expressions of vitality, intuition can lose its force due to many forms of oppression. But in art intuition is free, insofar as it is not oppressed by subjective factors."
    -Piet Mondrian
    A great piece of philosophical writing to consider and wrap your head around! And hey! The guy was a bad painter either! Do ya' think? HAHA!!

    Seems that some of us enjoy many of the joys... and tribulations that accompany us on our paths to Self- expression! I know that "I" enjoy... and look forward to our "conversations" your "Two Voices" Bridget!

    Good Writing and Painting! And good luck with marvellous Marvelle!
    Warmest regards,

  31. Bruce, I'm so glad you stoppe in!

    I's so true, what you said about artistic intuition. I think that when I have created, based on intuition alone, I have felt most content with my work and enjoyed the process so much more. Sure, it had some glaring weaknesses, but I was blissfully ignorant of them. It wasn't until I became more aware of the "world full of rule makers and critics" that 'Marvelle' made herself heard.

    As you know, I still struggle with the subjectivity of 'art,' which Piet Mondrian spoke of. Although his work isnt' something I'm 'intuitively' drawn to, there are aspects of it that I can admire. I suppose then, there is room for all of us... :)

  32. Love it. Love the musings on the muse. Stephen King said his muse is a fat, cigar-smoking guy in the basement; I'm pretty certain that mine is a waspish, elderly lady with half glasses and an old fashioned typewriter in a Dickensian office.

    Marvelle is wonderful.

  33. Oh Alison, it sounds as if my Marvelle and your Muse would get along wonderfully!