8 min read

‘How Do I Overcome My Inner Critic?’

It’s better to change than to improve.

Hi there,

Time has leapt away from this year like mud slinging down a mountainside. So much that I thought would happen definitely didn’t happen, but I’m all the more grateful for what did happen, including writing to you.

This week’s letter is a big (and common) one. Before that, though, I wanted to let you know about some holiday offers for me.

2020 Limited Edition Holiday Offers

Image: A handwritten card from The Reading, signed by Yanyi, with the note: "To Yanyi— Art is a garden, not an operation," sits on a blond wood desk.
Photo: A card with The Reading logo has a handwritten note on it: To Yanyi— Art is a garden, not an operation. It’s signed by Yanyi.
  • Signed notes for gift subscriptions to The Reading [1]: Have a friend with writer’s block? If you’d like to give a year to The Reading as a gift this season, you can request a signed note from me to your recipient. After giving a subscription, fill out this form [2] with your requested message, the registered email, and physical address. Limited to one note per recipient; this offer ends on Lunar New Year, 12 Feb 2021; available internationally. Give a gift here.
  • Signed copies of The Year of Blue Water: Usually I keep a stack of copies of my books for readings in-person, but obviously that didn’t happen this year. If you’d like a signed copy of my book for yourself or a loved one, along with a personalized message of your choice, you can order a copy until they’re gone. These can come with a signed bookplate, too, if you’d like to give a copy to a friend. Limited to 10 numbered hardcovers and 30 numbered softcovers; available to orders within the US. Order here.
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[1] Unfortunately, Substack doesn’t yet allow delayed gift subscriptions, so be aware that once you buy a gift for someone, they will be instantly notified.
[2] The personalization form must be filled out within 48 hours of your order to ensure the inclusion of your message.

Photo by Yanyi: You’re looking at a window of an interior room. A figure faces away, looking down, on a modern leather couch to the left of the window. Behind the figure is a white-washed cherub sconce and an abstract collage. To the right of the window is an ornate streetlamp looking down on a side table with a mirrored tray, a glass of water, and a fluted vase holding up a stalk of dried flowers.
Dear Yanyi:

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on everything writing, especially writing today, now.

As an emerging writer, I sometimes feel like I keep looking in the wrong places (or to the wrong people) to grow myself as a writer. Three years ago, I thought school would be the best choice for me to be set on the ‘right’ path to learning the ins/outs of writing. I have taken numerous workshops (in-person when that was a thing but most recently online), I have completed a few writing residencies and am now in the final year of completing my MFA in Creative Writing. There is no doubt that I write differently now than how I did when I first started writing yet I can’t seem to shake the belief that even though I understand the mechanics of organizing my thoughts better, my writing still sounds like it did when I first started: that it still feels very infant. And when I re-read my stories or go to edit them, those feelings become paralyzing.

I guess my question is two-fold and you are welcome to answer whichever one speaks to you: how do you deal with this kind of paralysis? How does one stop themselves from comparing what we make with the writers who are winning the awards or getting published in reputable literary magazines? Is this a natural aspect? Is there is something that helps you? Does it get better after your first manuscript/book is published?

And, to the second aspect, what is the best path for a writer to improve their writing? Is it as simple as producing content over a long period of time and accepting that becoming a better writer is a life-long quest...? Am I just too impatient with my three years in? Is there a moment that you remember that was a pivot point for you? I am so curious.

I guess it is easy to say, you’re writing for yourself. Just keep going and change will come. That the mastery will come over time. But so often, the rejections and/or the lack of what I feel is ‘publishable’ work seem to be saying the opposite. That I’m not doing this writing thing the way it is meant to be done. That maybe I am not giving it enough of my time (I work and mother and school and it’s a struggle on any day). Who am I to attempt this herculean feat...?

Okay, maybe there are many questions in there. Lots of food for thought hopefully.

My best,
Manj

Penticton, BC (Canada)

Dear M,

You’ve written a letter of many questions and, though you might be self-conscious of their number, having them together tells me so much more about you than if you had asked only one. I also don’t think you’re alone in having these questions all at once: many writers have to deal with the inner critic and how to improve at one point.

Of the questions you asked, here are the ones that jumped out to me: how do you stop comparing yourself to others and just write? How do you improve as a writer? And, perhaps, a secret question. You are already doing so much: in the face of all these rejections, why should you keep going?

While you have done residencies, workshops, are finishing out an MFA, and you certainly acknowledge your writing is different, you still think it’s “infant,” and you’re wondering if there’s any epiphany I had to get over that inner critic. In order to get there, I have to talk about a common artistic pedagogy that you’ve probably encountered or asked for.

In the workshops I teach, I require that students ask two questions of their own about each piece they bring in. One of the things I see again and again is students asking for “brutal honesty”—the implication being that their ego can take the fire of harsh words if there is gold in the ashes. While I do concede that this method provides familiarly instant results, I believe they do more harm than good.

Brutal honesty is about hacking a piece down into its most acceptable parts. It’s reportedly the fastest way to get to what’s good—and the fastest way to do away with the bad. In writing, in the face of a society that wants artists to prove that we’re workers, that our time is valuable, and that our desire to make art is real, brutal honesty is optimization: to make as much as possible, but only the best, as quickly as possible.

Brutal honesty is about conquest. And it’s the primary way artists are taught to receive criticism today. But what is the best, M? Brutal honesty won’t tell you this. Brutal honesty is impatient. Brutal honesty is interested, first, in destruction. Destruction of what you’ve built, perhaps save for a few stones and pillars, in order to build atop your ancestral land. Brutal honesty doesn’t teach you how to make your own decisions—why certain kinds of writing matter to you or how to write not for a deadline but for ever—it teaches you to move over and then to follow its structures and commands.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as participating in brutal honesty, it’s a pervasive part of artistic pedagogy. The faster it eliminates, the stronger its expertise. The harder the blow, the more loving its honesty. The deeper your silence, the more you grow. This violence manipulates modesty into dependence: dependence on authority figures who can tell you what’s best; dependence on prizes and publications that show you what’s best; dependence on a budding inner critic, your double in every way who, just like those instructors, builds their empire at your expense. This inner critic knows exactly what to say in order to scare you, punish you, and bully you into insecurity. This inner critic mistakes violence for honesty, domination for perfection, content for art, productivity for life.

The lie behind brutal honesty is that there is a ‘right path’—one that makes your disappearance acceptable. The lie silences by force. And the prestige it bestows on those who believe it ruthlessly teaches you to seek and emulate its violence again in the process.

The process of unraveling brutal honesty is one of unraveling a previous system of authority you’ve inherited. The inner critic, like the outer critics, never truly goes away. On some days, I get to my desk and it’s as loud as it was when I first started writing. The sentences that come don’t align with what I’ve come to say. But I’ve learned not to be swayed by the ugliness of the new. For there is a writer and a reader in you. It’s important not to confuse the two.

As a writer, you are always your first reader. The world may not yet reflect what you choose as your best. This advice may not get you published or help you win a prize. It may not help you get better in the ways you initially asked. But I’d rather you learn how to change for yourself, to write in accordance with yourself, because there’s no technique, trick, or lecture that will conceive for you the voices you’ll need in the span of your life.

For you’re right, M. You cannot improve if you only write. You must change. You must experiment, play, break down, and further your field of vision. But you must not only change the way you write: you must change the way you read. It is not enough to be free. In order to be free, you have to practice freedom. And the most distressing, terrible, and vital freedom is the exercise of believing yourself in not knowing best, but knowing something, and that something, being important to you, is worthy of being written, too. Someone will need what you’re going to say. And you will know this because you’ve needed it.

The goal of the reader is to discern and decide: what do I love? What do I hate? What exists—and what do I want so much that I would search forever for it? My inner critic lives with my reader. I changed my reader by changing who I was reading for. I practice this through reading for close friends and students. In the beginning, the generosity I couldn’t afford myself was easy to give to others. Rather than with domination, I’ve learned how to read with love. New systems of power don’t grow when we’re alone. I had to realize new ways of reading for a community in order to realize it for myself.

Joan Didion once suggested that “[w]e tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Of course, she continues: “At least for a little while.” For your voice must not improve: it must transform. In how we choose to change, in that coltish voice, lives a self where another reader can truly recognize you. And within that small exchange, there’s a spark of a world where there are reasons to write beyond domination and control. Perhaps, beyond that “little while,” it’s not that we stop telling stories, but that we change who they are for—that we’ve changed each other and we’ve changed ourselves.


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