Business Musings: Critical Voice

Business Musings free nonfiction On Writing

For years, Dean and I have taught that the critical voice is the enemy of the creative voice. I actually use a diagram when I teach that illustrates the point.

It comes from this observation: Human beings crave stories. We do most everything in storytelling form. Learning often comes in the form of storytelling. If were lucky enough as children to have literate parents, they probably read to us (and our siblings) before we could even speak.  Even if our parents didn’t read to us, most everyone writing today can’t remember a time without television. I’m sure all of us were plopped in front of the TV in the hopes of a major distraction from whatever we were doing to annoy the adults.

We absorbed stories from the moment we were born.

Then, long about age ten or so, earlier if our families had some kind of cutting wit, we learned how to be critical of stories. We were taught that not all stories were created equal. Some were acceptable and others were not.

We absorbed that lesson too, but it came later.

So our creative voice—the one that naturally knows how to tell a story—started learning before we could even walk. We often call that voice the subconscious because it communicates in a nonverbal way some of the time—and, like a child, retreats in the face of criticism.

The critical voice is, in development, ten years (or so) behind the creative voice, but the critical voice has two great advantages in our brains. That voice learned how to be critical after it learned language, and that voice learned criticism from authority figures. Kind of as a way of destroying fun.

Writers who get caught in the rewrite trap are deeply entwined (and usually invested) in their critical voice. They often use that voice to stifle and destroy the creative voice. The critical voice takes all the joy out of writing—which is often the very reason we started writing in the first place.

I usually tell my students that the critical voice is the parental voice. They should watch parents interact with their toddlers to understand where that voice came from, and why it gets so deeply ingrained.

The parents’ job with a toddler is to prevent that cute joyful creature from killing itself by walking into traffic or pulling a hot oven door open or grabbing the sharp edge of a knife.

The toddler’s job is to enjoy the world, learn it, and experience it in all its glory. Because that’s a dangerous job, we learn to trust that parental voice quite young. That gives the critical voice too much power when we’re old enough to decide for ourselves what is good and what is not.

And that’s the sum of the lesson we teach the students. We also get them to write fast, not rewrite (fiddle with words), but redraft (write it again from scratch) when they don’t like what they’ve done, and so on and so forth.

I figured I had a pretty good handle on critical voice until I read this article from 2016 by Maria Popova. She reviews a book titled Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips, which I hadn’t heard of, let alone read.

Much of what she quotes from Phillips, and many of her own ruminations, are familiar to me. They’re things that I’ve worked out on my own, or with the help of Dean, or from other essays on art and exercise. (You can’t run properly if you’re terrified of putting your foot down wrong.)

But this little interaction—these two paragraphs—have stuck with me since I read the article in March. I’m going to give it to you in two parts.

First, Popova’s lead into Phillips’ description:

But this self-critical part of ourselves, Phillips points out, is “strikingly unimaginative” — a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic at the same time:

Pay attention to the description here of the critical voice as a person. Not a person we can understand, like a parent trying to save a child. But someone you would meet as an adult: a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic.

“A relentless complainer.” I don’t know about your critical voice, but that truly describes mine. I was raised by an OCD woman whose main focus was on cleanliness. If there’s a spot of dirt in my beautiful kitchen nook, which overlooks the city, and is usually filled with sunshine, I’ll see the dirt and if I’m not careful, I’ll hear my mother’s voice, complaining about how that dirt “ruins” my nook.

The nook is just fine. And the dirt is probably nothing more than a smudge. But I’m not enjoying the sunshine or the beauty or the constantly fascinating way the city changes. I’m letting a smudge spoil my moment.

Because I’m listening to that self-critical voice, that relentless complainer.

Here’s the second paragraph from the Popova article. This paragraph actually quotes from the Phillips book. And if you thought “relentless complainer” was harsh, read this:

Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.

I have met this person socially. I know a number of people—and so do you—who are absolutely miserable, who get their favorite cake on their birthday and complain that there’s no ice cream. Who sees the world in shades of gray, instead of its vibrant rich colors.

This person knows how to make a witty cutting remark and has no qualms verbally destroying anyone in their path. This is the kind of person you rescue tender-hearted souls from. You don’t let children near this person for fear this person will say something so mean—and memorable—that the kid will never get over it.

And we let this person live in our heads.

I let this person live in my head.


Lately it’s been a constant battle for me to silence my internal critic. As I’ve gotten healthier, my internal critic has been appalled at how ill I was—as if it was entirely my fault. Granted, I probably should have taken a few steps earlier than I did. But I had no idea that the move would help me recover as much as it has.

And as I’ve recovered, I’ve realized just how sick I was, and how much I let slide. I was raised by an insecure perfectionist, so letting things slide is a bad, bad, bad thing in the world of my creative/critical voice. When I’m balanced, I don’t mind letting things slide. I know what I can and cannot do, and I usually have a good retort for that malicious critical voice.

But retorts haven’t worked as well lately, because on some level, I blame myself for getting ill. (Wonder where that comes from. Dunno, and not sure I want to guess.)

Since I came across Phillips’ description, I’ve been thinking hard about the creature he portrays, wondering why I’ve let a person like that have so much control over something so valuable to me—my creativity.

Ironically, my critical voice is under control compared to most writers. I know that the critical voice—that “relentless complainer”—has no creativity in him. He’s nasty and cruel and bent on destroying joy.

So why do we let him in?

I’m not entirely sure. The article has some points on this—that we value complaint over enjoyment, which is something I’ve noticed.

The other thing I’ve noticed over the years is that it’s easier to complain about things than it is to do them. Easier to pick on someone else’s efforts than to make efforts of our own.

Again, look at Phillips’ description of that internal critic. If we were to meet him socially, we would think him boring and cruel. And we do, when we meet people like that. We go out of our way to avoid them.

So why do we recreate one in our psyche?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve discovered a new way of banishing my critical voice. I imagine this “relentless complainer” as if I’ve seen him at a party, and I mentally walk away from him.

I don’t want people like that in my day-to-day life, so I’m going to do the best I can to root him out of my own head.

It’s not easy. I’ve got almost fifty years of training that tells me the “boring and cruel” voice is better than my own childish joy at storytelling. But I have always believed children should be nurtured, so I’m trying to set in my brain the image of that internal critic berating my inner two-year-old. Nothing makes my adult self jump into a fight faster than someone mistreating a toddler.

Which means that so far, this little imaginative exercise is working for me.

I just have to notice the abuse when it happens.

Or rather, notice that relentless critic when he’s at the door, not when he’s in the house, berating the children.

It’ll take practice, but I’ll get there.

And I hope you will too.



This weekly blog is reader-supported.

If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: Critical Voice,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / bigmen.

20 thoughts on “Business Musings: Critical Voice

  1. Regarding feeling guilty about illness – most of us would rather feel guilty than helpless. Guilt creates the illusion you had control once, even if you flubbed it up. That mistake in thinking happens a lot when it comes to illness and to other bad things in life. It takes strength to accept that sometimes our decisions and actions or lack thereof have absolutely no impact on an outcome.

  2. It’s a constant struggle and a problem I haven’t overcome. Thanks to you and Dean and writing in the dark and cycling, the critical voice while writing has been mostly strangled. But the other critical voice – the one telling me my stories aren’t any good/edgy/interesting/diverse/clever/etc. enough is one that’s constantly battering me. I’m afraid to imagine an embodiment of that voice in order to walk away from it, but it might just be worth a try.

  3. Nothing was more important to my mother than her nice clean house and her control, not even the emotional well being of her children. There’s something I internalized in childhood that told me it’s easier not to try something hard, don’t take risks. In other, words it is safer to do nothing.

    The frustrating thing with this is when I’m writing and come to a hard part, could be a choice I have to make, or I can’t come up with what’s next, I’m not thinking I can’t do this. There’s no critical voice berating me. It’s like my brain threw its hands in the air and says, “I’ve got nothing.”

    I’ve come a long ways at being more productive and getting past stopping myself, yet it still amazes me when I do the avoidance and procrastination. It’s more like the drive line has been severed and the drive is there no more. Never voices yammering critically in my head, just drive gone.

    I have been talking to a therapist regularly the last few years and that has been helping. Yet I’ve been thinking it never really goes away, does it? There are always triggers that will bring up that stopping point.

  4. All right, Comment Part 2, and stand by for first level irony.

    Though I’ve always liked writing since I was a child, for most of my life my primary form of creative expression was the visual arts. Architecture and graphic design, especially. Those arts don’t lend themselves to linear creation; i.e., to doing a clean first version with cyclical in-progress revisions, and calling it done. In architecture you do concept diagrams, then you generate alternatives. When you’ve picked the one that best fits the needs of the program, you do the preliminary design, then when that’s set, you go back and do design development, and then, finally, the construction documents. It’s tracing on top of tracing on top of tracing (or it was, when I was active in the profession :-D), making developments and improvements all along the line. It’s not a matter of “This is bad, I hate what I’ve done,” but rather, “Oh, wow! Here’s a cool thing we can do to make this design even better!” No intrusive critical voice involved (unless the client is a jerk— lol); it’s simply the process.

    I write the way I design. It’s incredibly freeing to know my first draft is a preliminary sketch and I can go back and make sure it says what I really want it to say. Best cure for writer’s block ever. Whereas feeling I must get it right the first time, or throw out my lovely idea, or start over from scratch, and have to get that one right the first time, inflicts me with paralysis. Total, utter paralysis. Heck, it’s not till I’m a good way into the writing or even finished the first time around that it might occur to me, “Hmmm, the villain is sure obsessed with getting the hero under his power. I wonder why?” And I go back and see possibilities latent in my story and think, “Oh, yes! There’s the seed of it! I’m going to develop that and make something out of it!”

    What’s more, my brain works slowly. It might be a week or a month after I’ve written a scene that the true implications of it strike me, and usually the coup happens when I’m away from my laptop. And when the new awareness comes, I can hardly wait to get back to my novel and do something with it.

    I’m not sure if I can get anybody here to believe me, but for me, the editing and revising is part of my creative voice. It’s the next exciting stage in my discovering how neat my novel really is, of forming it into the true embodiment of the idea I came up in the first place.

    True, a clean draft the first time would increase my output, definitely. But at this late stage in my life, my accepting what works for me and my writing process is, I believe, the best way for me to foster my creativity. I love this blog and enjoy the comments. They spark all sorts of ideas in me, but I don’t comment a lot. Why? Because I’ve been afraid— here’s the irony— I’d be criticized if I said something like, “When I was working on my second draft, I realized . . . ” But here I am, admitting my weirdness. Kris, I’m not trying to change your mind about revising, or trying to get you to say I’m in any way right. I’d just like— well, not to feel I’m persona non grata here because my experience is different. 🙁


    1. Dean calls what you do “cycling.” You’re not alone in having that as part of your creative voice. Many writers do. Even more don’t, however. And too many have internalized the critical and not the creative. If you’re excited about what you do and the way you do it, that’s a sign of creative voice, not critical voice. Kudos to you for recognizing and nurturing that! We’re all different, and we all have our different ways. I’m so glad you found yours.

      1. I call this ‘layering’. Everytime I edit or revise I’m adding a new layer to the novel.

        Having been a project manager, I guess I’m used to breaking large projects down into manageable chunks and following a process.

        I am a great believer in trusting the process. Of course, it takes time to find a process that works for you as an individual.

        My critical voice also takes the form of, ‘well if I cannot do this to the required standard I won’t even try’. But the process keeps me coming back and chipping away at it again.

    2. Outlining and revision are also part of my creative process. I’ve found that my creative brain works best when the creative process is divided up into different parts – the outlining phase is for the big-picture ideas part, the drafting phase is for prose and details, and then revision is another look at the big picture. Another way to look at it is that the outlining phase is for letting my imagination play, and the drafting phase is for translating those ideas into words. My creative brain shuts down when I try to do all the parts at once; when I divide it up, I can give each facet of the process my full attention, I have better ideas, and I have so much more fun with writing. I’m glad there are other people out there who work this way, because I hear a lot of people talk about how outlining kills the fun of writing and revision isn’t creative, and that’s been the complete opposite of my experience.

  5. At this stage of my writing career, the critical voice doesn’t really bother me where it comes to any aspect of book production. Oh, yes, I have early readers who’ve told me they don’t understand why I included a particular scene (I do!) or who think I shouldn’t use more than one exclamation point in the entire novel or who don’t think my back cover blurb or my cover is working. I assess their input, incorporate what’s useful, and ignore the rest. These voices are outside of me. I don’t internalize them, and when I go back to writing or cover design or formatting, I’m back to the creative fun.

    Where I struggle with the critical voice is with publishing and marketing. I’ve read all your business blogs, Kris, and David Gaughran’s, and I follow Mark Dawson, and the Novel Marketing guys, and how many other experts on the subject. It’s all great advice; I took it to heart last summer when I was about to publish my ebook. “Yes, yes, wow, I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna do it all right.” But I still screwed up the launch. Why? Because I wasn’t aware of one simple aspect of Amazon publishing that no one ever mentions because everyone assumes it’s obvious. And I rushed my launch because I wanted to avoid the wrong Also-Boughts— and then Amazon took Also-Boughts away.

    So now I’m about to publish the paperback version and the critical voice is all up in my face. Do I really, truly know which bits of marketing advice apply to my situation? No, I don’t. So why not just keep on writing and designing and formatting? That makes me happy, whereas as soon as I have to pay attention to publication and marketing I’m going to do the wrong thing— again— and once more be left with minimal sales.

    Or so the critical voice says.

    To make things even more pleasant (ha!), I’ve got friends and contacts on social media who’ve told me to let them know when the paperback is coming out. My mind tells me I should do exactly that, now. But the critical voice in my gut says, “No, why bother them? They don’t really care. Sure, you think your novel’s pretty good. Doesn’t matter. Nobody cares about it, nobody ever will.”

    That’s the Objector I took on the pen name and formed the publishing company to leave behind, but I see it’s with me still. 🙁 I have to get past it; I will get past it, but it’s tough.

    There’s another aspect of my writing life where the critical voice disturbs me, but I’ll put that in a separate reply.

  6. Great post, Kris. Thank you. I think all writers, and others, must deal with the Creative/Critic subconscious (monsters from the id), and devise work arounds. I know I do… constantly. And some great suggestions for beating down the Critic, both in your OP and in the comments.

    (BTW, my mother was also a clean freak… to the point of too often ignoring her 3 children and other stuff to clean, clean, clean.)

  7. I’m interested in the different forms that the critical voice takes. For a long time I didn’t connect to the concept of the inner critic; I would read other writers’ descriptions of an imaginary editor hovering over their desk with red pen in hand, complaining about their grammar or criticizing their writing for not being literary enough, and I was grateful that I didn’t have that voice in my head. But I’ve realized that I do have an inner voice that will strangle my creativity if I’m not careful; it just doesn’t fit that image. Mine is more of an inner bully, either mocking the most important parts of my story, or poking at them with a sort of amused disgust, or warning me, with the voice of a well-meaning friend, that people will see me for who I really am if I write THAT. Which makes a lot of sense, because that’s the voice I absorbed growing up, a lot more than a snooty critic or a voice telling me nothing I do is good enough.

  8. [I don’t know if workshop rules apply here – “no religion” – if so, feel free to not approve this comment.]

    I think one drag on creativity and on life generally, for religious people, is that a lot of us imagine God as a “relentless complainer” with a “malicious critical voice.” I find myself falling into that image even though I know better! In fact, it really affects my writing. A better image has led to better writing, I think, or at least more joyful writing. I wonder if the same is sometimes true for non-religious people; if their “ultimate concern” or passion or “bliss” looms over their shoulder, complaining.

    1. That is a great insight; I’m glad you have found a better image. I was raised religious, even though I don’t consider myself to be anymore. For me, my “ultimate bliss” is a version of life that I’m afraid of not living up to.

      My critical voice is really the voice of fear telling me that if I don’t take risks then I can’t get hurt, not a wonderful voice criticizing me for all the great things I’m not doing! When I remember to focus on play, or on the inspiring parts of my life, I relax into creating without worrying so much.

  9. As I was reading this, I was trying to picture what my own inner critic looked and sounded like but I found it a bit difficult. Its darkness and shadows, amorphus and anways changing its shape. And its venom doesn’t just seek out to destroy the stories in me, but most dreams I dare or have ever dared to dream. And if that is the critic, I wondered, what is my other? She’s also rather amorphous, though made of starlight, and moonlight, laughter and giggles, and wonder most of all. And it occured to me that I have seen the critic before. Visually. Have you ever seen the movie The Never Ending Story? It is The Nothing. It seeks to consume and devour every bit of joy and wonder in the world and unmake it all. The main character, Bastian as I recall him, was being bullied in the “real” world and the story was an allegory of magic and imagination being childish and unwanted. The key to saving the world in the book (Spoilers!) was to give the Primary Power of the world a name – one that had never existed in that magic world before. To create it there by giving it from Bastian’s own heart.And sharing, an act of creation that consumes the Nothing and pulls that world back into fullness and color and light. So it must be then that my crtic is The Nothing and my creative is The Magic. And by creating, by sharing, The Magic will always win – should one just take a chance on courage and believe in themselves to try.

  10. Interesting – this is something I’ve been struggling with right now. I’m listening to a book on success and the inner critic is something being talked about. The two examples provided of why the critic is so strong makes perfect sense to me. If you come home with a report card as a child, with four A’s and one C, it is the C that gets all the attention. Where you didn’t perform is what is harped on, not all the great grades you did get. Second is if you fill four glasses of water without spilling a drop and on the fifth you spill that is where you are criticized for being clumsy or not being careful. We focus so much on our failures that we fear them and hence beat ourselves up for them.
    So – with my writing, my marketing, my self promoting, I’m trying very hard to both remind myself of my successes AND when i start on a failure (and lordy is marketing creating so many failures) I’m trying to adopt the whole, “Well that didn’t work, wonder why not and what can I try next?” Instead of beating myself up.
    But mostly I keep reminding myself the writing is supposed to be fun, and eventually I’ll figure out a way to make the other parts at least tolerable.
    Remember – Don’t should on yourself.

  11. Being ill certainly cultivates the complaining voice inside me. I’m practising being kind to myself, but I find it hard, and like you I carry the weight of critical parents, which at times weighs heavily upon me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *