Most of us carry a very large critic inside our heads when we sit down to write. I have an exercise that helps writers defeat this critic who keeps them from writing.
Dialogs to Diffuse The Power of Critical Voices
Years ago, I was flying Southwest Airlines from Seattle to Tucson where I was going to teach a weekend writing class. Then Southwest Airlines gave boarding passes at the gate, first come, first serve, and loaded their planes in boarding groups rather than assigning seats to passengers. The boarding passes were given out one hour before departure and people started lining up before the agent actually arrived behind the counter, so they could be in the first boarding group. I was standing behind an elderly man and a middle aged man, both dressed in Western gear, tight jeans, cowboy boats, and cowboy hats, their belt buckles sparkling under the florescent lighting. They may have been father and son. Their conversation went something like this:
Older man: There sure were a lot people downstairs at the check in.
Younger man: Yup, these days, you can never give yourself enough time.
Older man: They sure wanted us here early and there’s no one ready to see us.
Younger man: Yup, that’s how it is, hurry up and wait.
Older man: I guess we could’ve gotten all jammed up at that place where they check the carry-ons and the people for weapons.
Younger man: Yup, these days you can’t have enough security.
I realized that the conversational style hadn’t really allowed either party to say very much. The answers they gave one another were clichés and just seemed to shut things down. “What if,” I thought, “writers applied a strategy like this to a situation where there were higher stakes?” An exercise was born: Think of an area in your life where you have to interact with someone you feel has annoying power over you. Think of lines that annoying person says. After each line, imagine answering that person with a cliché. This will create a patronizing tone and put the “I” (you!) in the driver’s seat.
Here’s a case where a writer chose to have a dialog with her inner critic by answering in clichés:
- That’s not bad for a first try, but why are you calling it an essay?
- A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
- This little part isn’t historically accurate.
- Historical, schmistorical.
- People aren’t going to like it.
- You can’t please everyone.
- You may think you can write, but how do you know other people will think so?
- Bite me.
- Your ego is getting in the way of your writing.
- Takes one to know one.
- Your style is too uninventive, not colorful enough.
- I’m saving my pennies for a rainy day.
- You could be spending your time more productively.
- Penny wise, pound foolish.
- You aren’t listening to me.
By the time this dialog ends, the writer is drifting into her own space. She is leaving behind the critical voice that keeps the writing from happening.
Any time we resist being pushed around, we are helping to free ourselves from the forces that trample our desire to express ourselves. If you are having trouble getting a first draft finished, stop and do a dialog like this one. Your writing energy will ramp right up.
By Sheila Bender, author of McGraw Hill’s Perfect Phrases for College Application Essays.