I once took a writing workshop with an incredibly angry, aggressive man. His idea of poetry was a stream of expletives and rage. He’d start every class by loading himself up on sugar and caffeine before unleashing a wave of criticism in our workshop groups. There was quite literally a point or two when I worried about my safety. He was the exact personification of the reluctance I’d always had in taking a writing class.
Mr. Angry was eventually kicked out of the class, which was a relief to us all, but at the same time my writing suffered. Knowing I was going to face him every Tuesday and Thursday meant I’d been steeling my nerves, but I was also polishing my material. I began to adjust my short stories to withstand his critiques. I anticipated his attacks, and my writing was ready for him. How was such a negative presence in workshop helping me write better? I had given my internal editor a more aggressive face, a more bombastic personality, and a more critical eye. The supportive voices in class were helpful in some ways, but they never forced the same polish as Mr. Angry. I’ve since incorporated him as my internal critic and editor. He’s a frightening presence, not really a friend, and an important weapon in my arsenal in the battle for getting published.
To start writing we need a softer touch, a lot of encouragement, practice. We take baby steps into the craft, open our minds, discover our voice. Nurturing this stage of things is crucial, but if we’re going to publish we need a brutal reality check. Your mother might tell you she likes your work, but any critique that’s pure gush and not truly critical isn’t getting you where you need to be. So a crucial trick is knowing when to turn the internal Mr. Angry on and off. If he’s there from go you may never get a project started. He’s busy telling you that you suck, and listening may cost you your confidence. When you’re stuck, face down on the mat, you’ve got to shut that critic off or you won’t pull yourself up and get back to work. When you’re truly down is a good time to rely on your support network, get a little encouragement, go back to the well for some nurturing. Read a really good book, remember why you love a great read and why you want to contribute to the conversation. Get back to work.
But when the draft is done and you need to make your work into something that might actually sell, take Mr. Angry out of his box and start asking him questions. Let him pelt your writing with useful critique. Separate issues of confidence from issues of craft. In studying Philosophy you learn to counter argue, to question assumptions and keep digging until you break an argument. The person will invariably strengthen their position or abandon it. And sometimes you’ve got to abandon a bit of your writing. A story or worse, a novel, just isn’t publishable. It might be too derivative, too poorly written, or too predictable. A good way to avoid ending up with such a piece of writing is to critique it. Put it in front of Mr. Angry and let him rip. When he’s done, and you’ve plugged those holes, let him have another go. This is how counter-arguing works: you keep attacking the weak spots until they’re gone. When Mr. Angry is exhausted, and you’ve successfully revised away everything he spotted, get a critique group. Exchange your writing with other writers. Get their input. If you’ve honestly listened to your internal critic you’re going to find that you’ve hit the issues already. And if not, don’t despair, you need to refine your inner critic as well as your craft. He’ll grow as you do, adding new attacks as you add new techniques. The process will always be there, iterative, and evolving. Balance your inner editor/critic with the flow of your work. It can be tricky. You need to always improve, but you also need to always be working and striving. If Mr. Angry gets out of control and is stifling your work, kick him out for a while.