I spoke to my group today about the good critic and the bad critic. This idea is closely related to The Fear, of which I wrote yesterday.
I am crazy for utility, as I get older. I really, really like things that work, that have purpose, that do something in the world. I’ve always hated waste, but as I reach middle age and the hours whoosh past my ear, I particularly hate the waste of time. I like utility for many reasons, but one of them is that it saves time.
The good critic has utility. It is the voice of humility, which has a tenderness in it. The good critic, who should arrive, wearing her white hat, when you start on the second draft, says kindly, but very firmly: ‘Well, you are not very good at that, but we’ll work on it.’
The good critic is the one who makes you practice. Just as great musicians still practice their scales and arpeggios before they go out to perform an intricate sonata, so proper writers should practice the basics. Any form of daily writing will do it. I’m afraid I sometimes see this blog as my daily practice. I say afraid, because really it should be a selfless thing, devoted to the Dear Readers. But it builds my muscles; it builds the muscle memory that is needed for writing to stay fluent.
The good critic may say: chapter two does not quite work, or that character is flat on the page, or that passage is overwritten. The good critic does not say these things in glee or malice, but in a spirit of improvement and possibility. The good critic keeps you honest and keeps you grounded. It does not let you float into the fiery heights of hubris.
The good critic comes with a charming suitcase full of solutions. The solutions are not easy. They almost always are: work, and effort. And time too. And dedication and thought and care. Do it again, do it better, think about it harder. Don’t skimp. Don’t think you can cheat your readers, or cheat the process. The process must be honoured, and it is slow. The good critic is not about fleeting tips or quick shortcuts; the good critic has no magic wand. She is quite stern, and she should be.
The good critic is the voice of the possible.
The bad critic has no utility. It is really important that you trust me on this. I know her well, and she is a bitch. She is the wrecking voice of contempt. She smashes and trashes and laughs as she stomps all over your fledgling hopes with her beastly stiletto heels. She will grind you underfoot, if you let her. And then she will bugger off to torment some other innocent.
The bad critic is the bearer of shame. Shame is a wholesale destroyer. It does not say: you are weak at dialogue, so let us work on that. It says: you are entirely hopeless and you could not write fuck on a dusty blind and you should probably not be allowed out in public.
The bad critic is also relentless. It is the voice that never stops. It does not just home in on one area of frailty, but gallops from one field of idiocy to the next. Not only can you not write dialogue, but your office is a mess, your hair is a fright, and you can’t cook. You are too fat, too thin, too boring, too verbose, too shy, too garrulous. Whatever you do, it will be the wrong thing. The bad critic says: you might as well give up, because you will never amount to anything.
The wonderful thing about all this is that you have a choice. You are a sentient adult; you have agency. Every time you hear that barking voice of shame, you may choose to listen to it. If you really want, you can let it in, pull up a chair for it, give it a cocktail, and listen to its screeching song. You can do that. Or, you can say, no thanks, not today. I’m busy, and I’ve run out of gin. So fuck off.
Use whatever strategy suits you best. Sometimes, as you may have gathered, I find excessive swearing helps. You may imagine yourself punching the bad critic in the nose. Whatever gets you through the night.
The bad critic is cunning and invasive as bindweed. It may not be possible to banish the sound of shame from your entire life with one act of will. Like almost anything to do with writing, it involves daily practice, building up that particular muscle set through patient repetition. So you may wish to start small. Just tell it to bash off for half an hour. Promise yourself one single morning, with the door shut, whilst the bad critic hammers fruitlessly at the door. She may soon get bored and leave.
The most important thing to know is that this bad critic will not help your writing in any way. Shutting her out is the most generous thing you can do for yourself. With her in the room, your creative self will never be able to unfurl its wings, and you will never know how high you may fly. And that really is a waste.
You have the power. You have the choice. You can fly, if you let yourself.
No time for pictures again. Just the obligatory foal photograph. Because IT’S A FOAL: