Tag Archive | inner critic

Emily Hanlon’s Ten New Year’s Resolutions for the Fiction Writer

emily-hanlon-emily-at-pendlehill

Emily Hanlon

Emily Hanlon posted these New Year’s resolutions for fiction writers, and she’s given me permission to reprint them here. I first encountered Emily through the International Women’s Writing Guild years ago, when they were holding their annual summer conferences at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. I gained a lot from her five-day workshop, and I’m delighted to be back in touch with her. She gives workshops both live and online as well as mentoring individual fiction writers.

Reading Emily’s bio, I just learned that like me, she’s a graduate of Barnard.

Ten New Year’s Resolutions for Fiction Writers!

Forged in Fire: Creativity and the Writer’s Journey!

  1. When I begin a new piece, I write without thinking or planning.
  2. I welcome the unexpected in my writing.
  3. My best writing comes from my heart and the fire in my belly.
  4. I become my characters, they do not become me. I go where my characters take me.
  5. I love my first draft writing for its chaos, fertility, and uncovered gems.
  6. I do not think about being published until the piece is finished.
  7. I set up a writing schedule that supports, not defeats, my writing. I will not use failure to keep to my schedule as a reason to give up.
  8. I write the story that is gestating within me—even if it scares me or makes me think I am losing my mind.
  9. Writing is a craft. Craft supports writing, it does not define it.
  10. I am a fierce warrior for my writing and creativity!

Excellent advice for all writers, fiction or nonfiction. It’s especially applicable to “pantsers,” who write by the seat of their pants without outlines or preconceived ideas. Planners who like to know where they’re going before they embark on their creative journeys may find some of the ideas intimidating, even downright scary, but you can take what you need and leave the rest.

car-night-road

Personally, I’m a pantser. My novels are character-driven, and the plots evolve chapter by chapter. I like E.L. Doctorow’s quote: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” But I’m not gutsy enough to carry that method to the extreme. I prefer having at least a rudimentary map, though not a GPS; I don’t like taking directions from anyone else.

Of the ten resolutions above, I have the most trouble with #6: I do not think about being published until the piece is finished. For me, it’s impossible not to think about publishing; it’s the omnipresent elephant in the room. But when the writing is going well and I’m in a state of flow, I forget about publishing. It’s only in the before and after times, or when my inner critic kicks in, that publishing becomes an issue.

My favorite may be #7: I set up a writing schedule that supports, not defeats, my writing. I will not use failure to keep to my schedule as a reason to give up. Schedules are a major nemesis for me, one I’ll discuss in a future post. Even in retirement, with few fixed obligations, I have trouble maintaining a regular writing schedule, and that danged inner critic makes me miserable when I let distractions lure me away from my desk.

edvard-munch-aften-pa-karl-johan

Edvard Munch

Much of Emily’s coaching focuses on getting in touch with our shadow sides. Lately she’s been giving hour-long online workshops where students from throughout the country and abroad can participate free of charge. You can learn more about Emily Hanlon, her coaching and workshops, by visiting her website: www.thefictionwritersjourney.com.

What do you think of these ten resolutions? Which ones inspire you, and which ones scare you? I’d love to hear from you, so please leave comments. And subscribe to my blog by leaving your email address in the column to the right. Creatively speaking, I feel 2017 will be a great year, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Slump-A-Dump: Rapping my way through a creative block

Writing as everyday spiritual practice was the topic of one of my recent blog posts, but writing mindfully and staying in the present moment is a lot more difficult than it might seem. Since I’ve been feeling creatively blocked lately, I decided to follow my own advice, switch genres and write a poem about my current state of mind.

Simple enough, right? Hardly. My inner critic kicked in big-time. I found myself playing with rhyme and rhythm as a rapper might, but my “umpire” kept telling me I was making a mess of things. No sooner had I come up with the first few lines than I began wondering if the poem would be appropriate for posting on my blog. I could envision myself reading it at the next open mic at the Social Justice Center in Albany, but how would it come across online? Would the constipation imagery turn people off?

Is the word “turd” too vulgar for my readers?

I decided I could care less. I’ll let you be the judge, and I’ll try not to worry what you think (although as always, I welcome your comments). I recommend the following exercise: write a poem, and make it as crass, corny and vulgar as you can. Have fun, and don’t worry about quality. Who knows what makes for good poetry anyway? 

So is this poem an example of everyday spiritual practice? Writing it, I found myself immersed in the moment, and I feel more centered and energized now than before I began, so I believe it qualifies.

Slump-A-Dump Poem

Humpty-dump-dump, I’m sure in a slump.

Got that internal ump telling me I’m no damn good,

saying to give writing up – hell, well, maybe I should,

but that leaves a huge hole where there used to be soul.

***

Hey, I sound like a rapper, with my heart in the crapper,

chasing rhythms and rhymes, trying to get through this time

of gloom and despair – came on me from nowhere,

snaking up through thin air, twining me in its grasp,

this rhetorical asp has its coils round my throat.

Now my umpire gloats as I strangle on words

hard and dry as old turds that refuse to come out.

The frustration’s so painful, I choke back a shout.

***

I blogged about writing as spiritual practice –

sure, that’s what my act is, but the matter of fact is

I feel like a fake, and that critic keeps raking me

over the coals, telling me I’m too old

to go on any longer. Sure, if I were lots younger,

I might join the dance, have a chance to advance

in this crazy charade of a writing career,

refuse to accept that the end’s far too near –

no, that just isn’t so – I’ve got decades to go.

(Yeah, right, if I’m lucky, and relentlessly plucky.)

***

So I sit on my rump in this bitch of a slump,

fingers clawed over keys, hoping for a fresh breeze

blown my way by some muse who might choose

to fill up my sails, lift me out of these doldrums,

stop me going insane from this sludge in my brain.

***

Maybe writing this doggerel will lift all the fog, or I’ll

stay in this slough of despond – but no, I don’t want

to give in to being mopey and dopey. Nope,

I must persevere. Tell that muse, “Hey, I’m here!”

Tell the ump she’s a chump, and soar out of this slump.

Writing as Everyday Spiritual Practice

Can writing be an everyday spiritual practice? It all depends on how you approach it. Scott W. Alexander defines everyday spiritual practice as “any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you.”

Scott’s collection of essays by Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay leaders describes a wide range of practices that qualify, from meditation through charitable giving, working with a spiritual director, even recycling, to art. What makes an everyday spiritual practice is “intentionality, regularity and depth . . . your commitment to making the activity a regular and significant part of your life.”

So writing certainly qualifies, doesn’t it? For me, it meets the above criteria, but something’s often missing. On a good day, when I’m in the zone and the words are flowing, I might tap into that sense of the “miracle of life,” but the feeling is fleeting. A common thread in the practices these authors describe is their potential to bring us into present time, to function fully in the now. Past and future fall away, and the present moment is everything. But is this even possible with writing? It’s an inherently linear, temporal medium, and every word is inextricably linked to before and after.

Part of the problem is that pesky inner critic, the one who keeps saying “Forget about it – you’ve got nothing to say, and no one will want to read it anyway.”  She tells me I’m fresh out of ideas and that my best writing days are behind me, and of course that blanket condemnation carries the strong stench of self-fulfilling prophecy. Then there’s the problem of writing with an audience in mind, which is antithetical to the idea of spiritual practice.

Sometimes switching genres helps. For me, poetry sometimes works – if I don’t get too hung up on the notion of reading my latest creation at an open mike. Haiku’s a good discipline, with its five-seven-five constraints:

            Lush green maple leaves

            Summer’s come far too early

            Lone mourning dove calls

Not great maybe (there’s that nasty critic again) but I had an Aha! moment when I got the syllables to come out right. There were images and themes I’d have liked to include – the dead tree among the maples, the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf – but those can keep for another poem.

My major everyday spiritual practice is my Nia exercise class at the Y, which I attend with near-religious regularity at least twice a week. Lost in the rhythm of the music, the jazz dance and martial arts moves, I tap into a mind-body-spirit connection that grounds me deeply in the here and now for all of a minute or two. Then I glance at myself in the mirror and the spell is broken – I start comparing my weight to my fellow dancers, critiquing my range of motion. But I take a deep breath, blow off my inner critic and return to the dance.

 Come to think of it, blogging’s a lot like Nia, and perhaps it qualifies as a genuine spiritual practice too.  I blog semi-religiously, two or three times a week. Does it deepen my relationship to the miracle of life beyond me? Certainly the notion that my words are flowing out to the universe via the World Wide Web inspires awe and wonder, as does the fact that I’m getting over 400 visits a day, though whether I’m actually connecting with that many real people remains a mystery. 

Intention to practice regularly is all-important. I recently took a week off from blogging for the first time in over a year, and the decline in my sense of wellbeing was all too apparent. So I hereby recommit to this everyday spiritual practice of sending my message out into the ether in hopes someone’s there to receive it. And even if they don’t, I’ll try to avoid getting hung up on looking into the mirror.

Do you view writing as an everyday spiritual practice? I’d love to read your comments.

Writing workshops – are they worth it?

Several women writers I know are off to a three-day writing workshop at a local retreat center, and I admit I’m jealous. Expense was a factor. Still, I could have gone, but I don’t write well in groups, and I’m resistive to the idea of following the directions of other writers, so I took a deliberate pass.

My voice flows entirely differently when I’m alone at my computer. Maybe it’s because of the way I taught myself touch typing in high school. I remember sitting at my mother’s old Smith Corona manual typewriter, fantasizing about the jazz musicians I had major crushes on – Miles Davis and Charles Mingus chief among them. The words flowed from my fingers, and by college, I was capable of turning out twenty-page papers with minimal typos in frantic all-nighters. Then while trying to make it as an artist in SoHo, before becoming an art therapist, I had numerous menial jobs that jacked up my words per minute even higher.

For me, writing in longhand just doesn’t cut it. When my hand can’t keep up with my ideas, my thoughts turn sludgy and slow. The proximity of others close by, scribbling away on their own papers, conjures up thoughts of final exams, wracking my brain for the right answers and scrawling them frantically in blue books. Remember those essay questions, the way you had to watch the clock and ration your time? Time’s usually at a premium in these workshops, too, and you’re expected to come up with something reasonably coherent and contained in the span of a few minutes. When the facilitator asks if you need more time, that probably means there isn’t any.

Then comes judgment time, when the workshop leader inevitably asks, “Who’d like to share?” I’m usually one of the first to volunteer, because I find it hard to focus on others when I’m waiting my turn. The work is almost invariably met with appreciative murmurs, oohs and ahs – I can’t remember a time when anyone’s actually critiqued me harshly. But the impact of the praise is diluted by the fact that everyone gets equally favorable reactions. I’m my own most severe critic, and there’s always someone whose work is insightful and profound enough to make me feel inferior.

Of course work produced in this high-pressure environment can serve as a springboard for more writing after the session is over, as most workshop leaders acknowledge. There’s always time to expand and explore, to mine the longhand scrawls for little gems that can be tweaked and polished at leisure. But I confess I’ve never gotten around to reworking the pages I produce at these events. Instead I stow them away unread until they resurface months or years later, whereupon I scan them and toss them in the recycling basket.

Would it make a difference if I brought a laptop to these affairs? Maybe, but I’d be terrified to find out. What if my random musings were just as mundane and sludgy even if I could type them? My facile fingers argument would be blown, and I’d be exposed as terminally mediocre.

So there’s my argument against writing workshops. Having written it, I’ve got to admit I could easily write a blog post of equal length detailing all the reasons these workshops can be wonderful. There’s the collegiality, the energy generated by being in a community of writers . . . but I’d better quit while I’m still feeling negative, or I’ll berate myself for not signing up for that workshop after all.

What about you? Do you enjoy going to writers’ workshops and retreats? Can you do your best work there, or do you think they’re just a waste of time and money?

Five reasons I’d rather write than paint

A new gallery, the River Front Art Coop, is opening in downtown Troy, and I’m schlepping some of my work down there this afternoon with a view to showing it on consignment even though when it comes to the visual arts, I’m feeling pretty rusty. I did the cover illustrations for both my mystery novels, but aside from a few collages, I’ve neglected what used to be my primary means of artistic expression.

 All my formal training was in the visual arts, so why have I reinvented myself as a writer instead of a painter? Off the top of my head, I can think of lots of reasons:

  • Writing is so much speedier. At the computer, my ideas flow from my fingers. Saying it’s effortless would be lying, but for me, it’s a heck of lot easier than painting, and you can say so much more in a shorter time.
  • Writing is cheaper by far. A decent computer and Internet connection, a ream of bright white multipurpose paper from Staples, a new toner cartridge now and then, and I’m good to go. Have you priced art supplies lately?
  • Writing requires less space. In a space six by six feet – that’s 36 square feet – I  have my L-shaped computer desk, my file cabinet, my comfy office chair, a little wicker stand that serves as a cat bed, and a picture window with a lake view. In our present home, alas, there’s no space that’s remotely adequate for my needs as a visual artist. If my longing to paint becomes overwhelming, I’ll have to build or rent studio space.
  • Writing makes me happier. I believe I’m better as a writer than I ever was as a painter. I don’t have that inner critic nagging me about what a mediocre writer I am – at any rate, not until I begin dealing with the marketplace. When I’m drawing or painting, in contrast, my inner critics are relentless and nasty. They tell me my work is crap – pedestrian, amateurish, unoriginal. Where do these voices come from? Some are former art teachers. They weren’t actually all that discouraging, but I’ve internalized them anyway – especially a world-famous art therapist who told me my work was “hopelessly vulgar.”
  • Writing enables me to reach more people more affordably. Over the course of decades, I’ve developed a jaundiced view of the art world. One-of-a-kind works of art are luxury items, and few people can afford to buy them. For centuries, the visual arts have been the province of the privileged – commissioned by the church or supported by wealthy patrons. Books, on the other hand, are still relatively affordable. And writing on the Internet, I can reach a potentially limitless audience for free. It feels much more politically correct than hanging my work in a gallery.

 Nonetheless, those big empty walls at the River Front Art Coop have a powerful allure. The space is magnificent – a high-ceilinged commercial space that reminds me of my old lofts in SoHo, with a view of the Hudson from windows at the back. I miss the camaraderie of the community of artists I knew in New York City, and perhaps the three women starting this gallery, including the stained glass artist Terry Faul, will be able to help fulfill that particular void in my life.

So after I publish this post, I’ll get to work unearthing some art work and loading it into my Focus hatchback. I’ll try to shush the inner critic who tells me the work isn’t good enough, subject myself to their scrutiny and see what happens. Who knows, I may be seduced back into the visual arts, at least part-time. If I clean up my office, I might even find space for that new drafting table I haven’t unpacked yet.

A Dialogue with my Inner Critic

Pablo Picasso

There’s nothing like a deadline to jolt my muse awake, and today I have two of them. Tonight is the fifth anniversary of Poets Speak Loud, an open mic at Tess’ Lark Tavern. After the reading, they’ll walk to nearby Washington Park to toss a beret onto the head of the Robert Burns statue in honor of the late social activist and poet Tom Nattell. I wanted to write something new for the occasion rather than recycle one of my old poems. I also need something new to submit to Oriel, the annual literary magazine for my Unitarian Universalist congregation.

I haven’t written a new poem in months, not since I became obsessed with blogging. What to do? I decided to write a dialogue with the nasty Inner Critic who continues to plague me daily. Here it is:

Golden Years (a dialogue with my inner critic)

Monday morning, and my calendar’s nearly blank.  

I’m truly blessed, free to follow my bliss wherever it leads.

            Your bliss won’t take you far, not till Social Security

            replenishes your account tomorrow.

Hey, I’m not talking big-time travel here, I’m talking feeling states.

I’ve paid my dues and earned these Golden Years.

            Golden? That’s rich – you have to scrimp and save.

            No raise this year – the benefits are frozen.

Speaking of frozen, today looks good for skiing. Maybe I’ll play hooky,

drive to Jiminy Peak. The view of the Berkshires from the top is gorgeous.

            Yeah, right, it’s skiing down that stinks. You want to break a leg?

            Besides, the wind chill’s minus ten below.

I guess you’re right – I’ll hit the Y instead, go to my Nia class,

then do the weight machines.

            Why bother? You’ve been doing that draggy routine for years –

             you’re still as fat as ever. You’ll never be as skinny as those other women.

But there’s still hope – I’m in the weight loss program, Lose to Win.

I’m journaling my diet, e-mailing the instructor everything I eat and drink.

            That’s a crock – you know you cheat and leave the bad stuff out.

            You haven’t lost a pound.

 

I’m feeling great now that I’ve done my workout, eaten my sardines

on Wasa crackers with V8 – it’s finally time to write.

            And miss your favorite soap? Give me a break!

            John is in jail, they’ve kidnapped Jessica. You’ve got to see what happens.

No, I’ll be strong and write my blog post now, then start that chapter

for my latest opus. One Life To Live can wait – I’ll catch it on SoapNet later.

            Why not give up those writing dreams for good? Nobody’s reading anymore,

            they’re all too busy with their blogs and Tweets and Facebook status updates.

Yes, it’s a grand new global world. People are visiting my blog in droves,

saying how they love my writing. Three hundred visitors some days.

            How does that translate into book sales? Hah – it doesn’t, does it?

            I’ve seen your royalty statements – they’re pathetic. Play Solitaire instead.

No, it’s addictive and it brings me down! How can I get you out of my head for good?

I know – I’ll write a poem about my golden years and all my blissful options.

            You haven’t written poetry in ages. It’ll be garbage,

            but no one will know the difference, not if you read it at an open mic.

Hey, that’s an idea! There’s one tonight – Poets Speak Loud, at Tess’s Lark Tavern.

They always clap and cheer, and say how cool I am.

            They’ve got no class, and probably they’re drunk. Oh no, I’m feeling faint.

            I think I’m going out of your head . . .

Good riddance, Doppelganger!

©2010 Julie Lomoe

I took poetic license with the ski conditions – it’s pouring rain throughout the Capital Region and the Berkshires, and Jiminy’s closed today. Last night, when I began this poem, I didn’t realize how devastating this January rain storm would be. The radio is blasting flood warnings for Stratton and Bromley in southern Vermont. I wonder if all that machine-made snow will contribute to the flooding as it flows off the mountains. What if that were a motive for murder on the slopes . . .

Oh well, back to the subject of dialogues and inner critics. This is a great technique I learned many years ago, and a wonderful way of jump starting your creativity. I’ll blog more about it on Wednesday. For now, I’m off to the Lark Tavern and Mary Panza’s wonderful open mic, Poets Speak Loud. I’m looking forward to a fabulous blue cheese bacon burger too. And no, I won’t report it in my diet log.

Talking back to your inner critic – an exercise in creativity

Writing about dreamwork yesterday, I got to thinking about other techniques and exercises I’ve used as a creative arts therapist. Back in the 1980’s, I gave numerous workshops at colleges and growth centers in the Hudson Valley – “Empowering Yourself through Creative Art Therapy,” that sort of thing. I even taught at Omega Institute for a couple of years.

Here’s another exercise you may be able to use. As writers, probably most  of us have negative thoughts and voices running through our heads. Some of my own:

This work is a pile of crap . . . .I’m never going to get anywhere . . . .I might as well give up . . . . I just don’t have the talent . . .

I’m sure you can add many of your own, but there are ways to exorcise these messages. I used this one many times as a guided visualization, but you can do it on your own. If you like, you can record it and play it back to yourself, or have a friend read it to you and take turns. Here goes . . .

Get comfortable, relax and close your eyes. Focus on your breathing . . .(Here you can use any type of relaxation induction that works for you, for a minute or two.)

Picture yourself working in your ideal studio. This might be your regular writing space, or it might be a space you create in your imagination. Perhaps you’re writing, or perhaps you’re practicing another art form you love or that you’d like to try. Take some time to visualize yourself in this space. What are you creating? Whatever it is, you’re feeling very pleased with it. (Pause)

Suddenly there’s a knock on the door. You stop working, go and open the door. It’s your critic. Who is this person? (Pause) You invite them into your space to show them your work. Now imagine what they say, and what you say in return. Imagine a dialogue between the two of you . . .

Now give them a final message, say goodbye and usher them out the door. . . In your own time, come back to the present space and open your eyes.

In an actual workshop, at this point I would have people make drawings or paintings about the experience, then share in a group discussion. I might also encourage them to write down the dialogue they had with the critic and maybe expand on it and carry it further, or maybe get into some sociodrama and have them act out the scene with another person.

When people meet “the critic at the door,” they come up with many different characters. Most often it’s a parent; often it’s an influential teacher from their past. Occasionally it’s someone well known, an artist or writer, or an unknown figure of some kind. Note that the phrase “your critic” is neutral – neither positive nor negative. Critics can give either rave reviews or bad ones. With people I’ve worked with, though, 20% or less have encountered positive critics, people who say, “That’s great, I love it – keep up the good work.” For most of us, the critics are negative.

I hope I’ve given you some helpful hints on banishing your inner critics if they’re evil, and cheering them on if they’re good. I’d love to hear from you – who are your inner critics?