When it comes to writing, sometimes perfection stands in the way of content creation. If you’ve ever stared down a blank screen, watching a blinking cursor condemn you for a wordless page, then you know what I’m talking about.
Your time is valuable, but sometimes the words won’t come when summoned. Sometimes every sentence is a struggle, every thought curdles like cottage cheese, the narrative thread snags on a tangent and untangles before the terminal punctuation.
We all have what’s known as an inner critic; it is an amalgamation of every critique you’ve ever received, the feedback from all your writing teachers, the grammatical rules they forced upon you in grade school. The voices pile up like plaque and keep you from greatness.
Our inner critic can doom any creative enterprise before it begins.
Before I went to graduate school for a master’s degree in writing and a PhD in English, I took several courses at a community college. Through boredom or serendipity, I stumbled upon a love for photography. My Introduction to Photography course taught me composition and how to manually develop film. I had so much fun in the darkroom watching my art materialize before my eyes, that I didn’t think much about whether I had produced something great.
Intermediate Photography didn’t go so well. I fell in love with Jerry Uelsmann, who combined images from several negatives to create a dreamlike landscape on the paper. Modern software allows anyone to emulate his style by using a simple collage feature. Digital photographers create fantastical scenery on their screen in a matter of hours whereas Uelsmann would spend days in the lab, ruining print after print until he got it right.
I wanted to be like Uelsmann, so I spent hours mixing pictures of drains, hands, stumps of wood, decrepit houses, and clouds. My instructor saw my frustrated efforts and pulled me aside to figure out what the hell I was doing with my camera. He asked why I was trying so hard to copy what another photographer had done.
I told him I wanted to be a great photographer that created meaningful images.
He said, “Just take pictures and let the critics worry about what they mean.”
His statement was incredibly liberating. I left the lab; I took pictures of things that really interested me, mostly abstract patterns in nature or industrial machines. I found my own artistic voice and style.
It would be easy to look to the “masters” of our craft and try to emulate them. The common advice goes something like this: Want to create something lasting and important? Read great literature. However, emulation can lead to a forced outcome where writing ceases to be innovative and becomes stagnant and predictable instead. The more we try to elevate our writing to be like someone else, the further we stray from our own authorial voices.
In graduate school, I stumbled across composition scholar Peter Elbow who wrote “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience.” Elbow was the man who introduced me to the concept of an inner critic. Like the photography instructor, Elbow advised writers not to get bogged down with unrealistic expectations.
We do not need to aim for greatness. We just need to write.
The most important part of the writing process is the creation of new content. If you remove the reader from the equation, you are free to write whatever you want. You may stumble across a great idea. You may write absolute crap. But either way, you will continue to write.
So, the next time you are losing a stare down with a blank screen, write like you don’t give a damn what critics or other people think. Give yourself permission to fail with every sentence. Start a thought, abandon it. Make a mess with words. Somewhere in that chaos, the ideas will emerge. You will find your voice and the things you really care about.
The world needs more writers who don’t give a damn about readership statistics or profitability. It needs people who take risks, most of which will never pay off. We don’t need cookie-cutter authors fresh from MFA programs, who write like their mentors or instructors. We don’t need more literary fiction, puffing out its chest, lifting its nose at the reader as if the story is more clever than modern (post-modern) audiences deserve.
Readers read for a lot of reasons: as an escape, for entertainment, to be challenged, as a defensive technique against would-be stalkers in an airport. Readers want genuine characters, fresh plots, and exciting twists, but more than anything, they just want a story they can’t put down. You can’t anticipate what these stories will be, so stop trying. Write something that matters to you, first and foremost. Then find the market that will appreciate your brilliance.
Critics will always have their opinions on which stories matter and what everything means. Let them have their endless debates about aesthetics and literary canon. Your job is far simpler: Write like you don’t give a damn about them.