Business Musings: Taming The Critical Voice

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It’s too soon to declare victory. In fact, I’m not sure victory should ever be claimed. Not when it comes to the critical voice that lives in our heads. You know, the one that just shouted out loud (in my head) telling me that sentence two has a passive construction. Um, yeah, Doofus. On purpose.


As I mentioned in the post on critical voice, I’ve been struggling with mine for years now. Ironically, it seemed to me, the healthier I got, the louder the critical voice got.

I’ve been doing all kinds of internal work on that, playing mind games, figuring out if there is a real reason for that voice to be shouting, maybe even seeing if something triggered it.

No matter what I did, the critical voice stuck around. I couldn’t seem to banish it.

Then I wrote last week’s blog post. And did some heavy thinking. And got lots of praise from folks in person about the post.

One night, just before I fell asleep, an angry, hurt voice rose in my head. It was the critical voice and it said, I kept you alive, and this is the thanks I get?

I sat bolt upright in bed. Because that was the answer.

I had been very, very, very sick for years. More than a decade. Maybe even decades, as I recount in Writing With Chronic Illness. I relied on my discipline to get me to writing (and to exercise and to do some basic living tasks). Inside that core of discipline is a relentless, somewhat vicious voice that did not belong to one of my parents or even any teacher. (Again, see last week.)

It was my voice, reminding me that if I didn’t get a little something done, I would feel worse the next day.

I relied on that voice. It helped me get pages done when I could barely sit up at the keyboard. It helped me go outside to run even when it was drizzling and windy. It got three meals per day in me when I had to labor to figure out what to eat.

In short, it not only kept me alive. It got me to accomplish more than anyone thought possible.

So…we move to Las Vegas, and the environment itself makes me healthier. I can eat actual nutritious food, with little thought about getting it or preparing it beyond What am I eating today? That makes a huge difference. I can exercise 24/7—not always in optimal conditions (the gym isn’t my favorite, although I have a choice of four in my gym’s network, as well as workout facilities in my building). The sun is out 292 days of the year. Las Vegas is, according to one statistic, the second sunniest city in the United States (after Phoenix), both with nearly 3900 hours of sunlight per year. (That’s 85% sunny year-round.)

Since I have (on top of everything else) seasonal affective disorder, the amount of light makes a huge difference on my wellbeing. It’s amazing how different my mood is when I wake up to sunshine as opposed to clouds.

Yeah, I still have health concerns, and I’m not going to minimize them. Travel is nearly impossible. I’m building on familiarity here, and regular routines, and that helps. We’re finding medical professionals within easy driving distance (not possible on the Oregon Coast), and we’re participating in some life events that simply didn’t exist there either.

Right now, our social lives are a bit lacking—we don’t know a lot of people here yet—but that’s changing, and will continue to change as we build a life here.

All in all, healthier. All in all, more energetic. All in all, happier.

So what the heck does that relentless complainer—the critical voice—have to complain about? Well, I ordered it not to complain about interruptions in the schedule. I did that Month One last year. If I signed up for a concert or a run or planned a lunch—no complaining. I couldn’t do that in Lincoln City, so complaining about it being a schedule-buster was a no-go.

It took one or two tries but the critical voice’s heart wasn’t in it. And about a month ago, I pointblank asked it what it hated about Las Vegas, and the quick involuntary (and somewhat surprised) reply was, I got nothing. Which is Relentless Complainer for Wow. I really like it here.

So, my under-control critical voice, the thing that kept me alive and working for decades (literally), now had nothing to do. But it’s big and it wants to work (who can blame it, really?) and so it was casting about, trying to find employment.

In all the wrong places.

And because it kept me alive, I listened when I shouldn’t have.

I’d love to say that once I had that revelation, writing became easy again. It didn’t quite work that way. Because I had my finger on the problem, but not on a solution.

With the realization that my critical voice actually had a function, and that function had worked before but was no longer needed, came another realization:

The critical voice is all about fear.

Yeah, yeah. We’ve discussed that, kinda sorta. But not really. I compared it in that previous blog post to the parental voice, and you all know (if you think about it) that the first Don’t do that! out of a parent’s mouth is usually as the kid reaches for something deadly.

I see it daily from my balcony writing perch. Just yesterday, a woman and her toddler were heading out of a parking lot, down the sidewalk toward the courthouse. The woman was checking through papers she had pulled out of her purse, and the kid kept up with her. Then, suddenly, the kid veered off and headed toward the street.

I’m thinking, Please see him. Please see him. Please. I don’t want to watch the kid run into traffic, because I’m too far away to do anything. Even a scream wouldn’t have helped.

Mom notices right at that point, and starts running toward the kid, shouting the kid’s name. I can’t hear the name, but I can hear the panic—and the fear.

The kid ignores her, but doesn’t go into traffic. Seems the kid’s destination all along was a shiny silver van, the exact same color as the one they had vacated in the parking lot. Maybe the kid thought it was the family van. Maybe the kid was impressed that there was another. Maybe a teeny tiny unicorn had landed on the door.

Who knows? But what I do know is this: that woman grabbed her kid’s hand and held it tightly all the way to the courthouse. And she had words with the kid.

The words were probably kid-appropriate and probably had a refrain of don’t you ever starting every single sentence. But behind those sentences? Sheer terror. Every adult within eyeshot saw that kid heading toward the street. Two cars stopped (thank heavens) and one parked itself kitty-corner across a lane to prevent a truck from barreling through.

We were all anticipating a really ugly disaster.

Except that toddler, who didn’t have the life experience to know that darting out between cars on a busy street was a stupid and possibly deadly idea.

Fear. That’s what’s behind the critical voice.

That was what was behind mine all those years. If I didn’t get a good meal, I’d get a headache. If I didn’t exercise, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed the next day. If I didn’t get a thousand words done, I wouldn’t be able to inch my way toward a deadline.

The critical voice knew that, and so did the creative, and they worked in tandem to get to the computer healthy enough to write and enjoy what I was doing.

Because that’s the flipside. The creative voice is pure joy.

That little kid yesterday? The one who nearly ran into traffic? He was literally bouncing as he changed direction. He was joyful from the moment he got out of the family car until his mom caught up with him. And then joy fled…for the duration of the reprimand, only to return by the time they were heading into the courthouse.

I have no idea what stress that poor woman was under, but the kid had no idea. He was enjoying being somewhere new.

Long about November, I realized writing wasn’t fun anymore and it scared me. Writing has always been fun for me. I couldn’t figure out why the writing had stopped being fun, and it wasn’t until my realization about the bored critical voice that I understood.

My joyful little kid was living with a scared adult who had no idea what was menacing us, but knew something had to be. Because something always was.

And the upshot was that the scared adult was on edge and yelling at everything and everyone, including the defenseless (and occasionally reckless) little kid.

Great. Another point resolved.

The critical voice is about fear, and the creative voice is about joy. Which meant that when I was feeling joyful, I was using the creative voice and when I was terrified, I was using the critical. Last fall was all about the critical, and I was nearly choking the kid to death.

I had no idea how to stop it entirely. The realizations were good, and I was inching my way out of it, but then the mystery class showed up.

I taught a mystery writing class for professionals that ran from April eleventh to the sixteenth, and frankly, I was worried about it. I was just getting a handle on the critical voice, and then I was going to stop and use it as the primary tool in my teaching arsenal? I was afraid I was going to backslide. Or rather, the critical voice was.

The creative voice was looking forward to the class.

Which was boatloads of fun. I learned a lot. I hope the students learned a lot. I got tons of ideas, and when I was done I was ready to write—with joy.

Because I had finally found the last piece.

In response to a student’s question about how to tame the critical voice after the workshop, I gave my pat answer—which I actually listened to for once.

I told the student to give their critical voice an assignment. Critical voice, I said, excels at assignments and homework and getting things done.

Oh, crap, I thought as I walked home that afternoon. My critical voice has no assignments at all.

I don’t let my critical voice help with first drafts and I rarely do second drafts. I’m not writing anything that needs reorganization skills (like some of my big novels do). I’m not fighting the weather to train for runs. I’m not fighting my health. I have all of the projects outlined and planned. I know where I’m going and what I’m doing—unless the creative voice sees a tiny unicorn on a shiny silver van door, and then I’m veering off in a new direction.

Critical voice was searching for work, and devastating everything in its wake.

So I’ve started giving it assignments. It has to figure out my day’s schedule. It needs to learn some new skills. I’m taking a licensing class in preparation for the Licensing Expo in June, and that class is tougher than I thought it would be. I have some other educational opportunities to figure out, and I got behind on most of my work when Allyson Longueira at WMG got sick and I had to help figure out the new schedule (which sounds easy but isn’t).

Will it all be enough to keep the Relentless Complainer quiet? Oh, probably not. But it will be enough to keep him (and yes, my critical voice is male; don’t ask why because I don’t know) out of my creative side? I have no idea. But it’s working so far.

Even as I’m writing this. I mean he popped up on that first paragraph there, and creative voice slapped him down quickly, but that’s an old familiar pattern, one I’ve had for years. The pattern is rather like old companion cats who bat at each other just for the sake of habit rather than due to any real annoyance.

Give your critical voice something to do. Yep, okay.

I learned long ago that the wrong assignment for my critical voice (and that of many writers) is having it look for flaws in my work or in the writings of others. Creative voice needs to enjoy story, and writing, and editing, and all forms of storytelling. Critical voice gets in the way and makes fun unpleasant.

But critical voice is great at scheduling and organizing and getting us to the fun. And that’s just as valuable. Critical voice is also great at learning new things, which it is now doing with the upcoming licensing class.

We’ll see what else it needs to do. I’m thinking of taking a few exercise classes in which I will be the worst person in the room. It’ll add work to my workouts, make me cross-train and get me out of the neighborhood. (I have no trouble leaving the condo every day, but I’m beginning to find my routines here—and that’s not always a good thing.)

I’ll figure it out. I’m certainly a lot calmer now.

It took a lot of inner evaluation and some deep dive into my own systems to train my critical voice.

And the key to figuring out how to do so was that grumbling reminder: the critical voice had kept me alive and functioning. In other words, there is a place for that part of my brain—an important place. That place, however, is not in the middle of my creative process.

Figuring out how to separate all of those in this new life here in Las Vegas was a lot harder than I had imagined it would be.

But I finally did figure it out. And I’m 14,000 words into a story that I wanted to be 5,000 words (heh. The creative voice decided to veer off and explore some things), so I want to get back to that. And…and…and…

The sense of joy is back. And, oddly, no hard feelings this time between my creative and my critical voice. Just an understanding of changed circumstances and jobs.

Kinda nice for a change.

This is all about me, because it can’t be about you. I don’t know what drives your critical voice or how your creative voice works. You do, though, deep down. And if you want the creative voice to control things, then you need to figure out how to keep your critical voice busy with important tasks that are not writing-related.

Good luck with it. It’ll take time to figure that stuff out.

But it will be worthwhile.

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


11 thoughts on “Business Musings: Taming The Critical Voice

  1. Thanks for sharing this! My critical voice mostly manifests with pedantic comments while I’m drafting. I used to try to outrun that voice while drafting, or lock her in the basement. Never worked. I’d lower my laptop screen so I could still type but couldn’t see the words appearing, but then I’d get nervous that the cursor wasn’t moving. Then I heard Dean describe his cycling process on a podcast. When I tried that, I turned a corner. Turned out my critical voice was happy to just fix typos in the pauses of the drafting cycles. Fixing typos is so second nature to me that while my crit voice was happily mending those, I was able to think about what came next in the story. Letting her in for that sort of deliberate approach makes the drafting process slightly longer, but I actually save time in editing. It’s an individual thing, of course, but we coexist pretty happily now.

  2. Holy crap. Give my critical voice a job so it will leave my fiction alone.

    You, my friend, are a genius.

    Now I just need to peruse the classifieds to see what kind of job the critical brain might like…

  3. For the last year I’ve been happily writing a five book series, which I just finished. This is the happiest I’ve ever been writing. Ever. I just wrote before because there were stories to tell, but I wasn’t having fun. Reading your post made me realize that during the past year, my critical voice has been managing my daily schedule, the publishing schedule, the household schedule, the garden work to be done schedule and everything else. Apparently, I’ve been keeping her busy enough that she’s leaving me alone to write. At least for the time being. Such a gift that is. Thanks for the revelation!

  4. That’s interesting. I’ve had terrible problems with allergies. It’d be six months out of the year, and included getting sick (coughing) for nearly six months every year. Doctors were like “Just take Robitussin and it’ll be fine.” And I wrote a lot in spite of how I felt. But in late 2016, I went gluten free and the allergies cleared up–and I’ve struggled to write since. This gives me something to ponder.

  5. That line about the critical voice saying ‘I kept you alive and this is the thanks I get?’ has been circling my brain, as I tried to place where I read it recently, and I finally remembered. In a book called Lost Connections by Johann Hari.

    The book is about depression and it’s causes, but in many ways (to me at least) it ended up being a rather fascinating (from a writing perspective) exploration of the psychology of trauma. And somewhere in there was someone who talked about their depression like you talked about your critical voice. As this entity who was saying ‘I got you through the worst thing that’s every happened to you, and now you think you can just get rid of me?’ or something along those lines.

    It’s got me thinking more about survival instincts and self criticism can work together healthily and unhealthily.

    Anyway, I recommend checking out the book. It’s a very interesting read.

  6. As you may have suspected, I’m having to make some major internal changes in my writer landscape after the mystery workshop. Your critical voice was able to tell me what I needed to hear, which actually other people have been trying to tell me: someone else just told me last night, “I’ve been telling you that you’re a professional for a YEAR but fine, go ahead and believe a long-term professional if that’s what it takes.” And someone else may have said more or less the same thing the day after I got back, and has also been trying to tell me for quite some time. And that doesn’t count my spouse, but he always says nice things, so can you even trust him?!? [Whistles]

    So your critical voice was able to tell me to move forward when I didn’t want to hear it. Not useless, is helpful, scary to trade up for new problems, just gonna. You did a good job, and all the times you said true things about what I was writing before now, I used those to leverage myself up, too. You’ve always been going a good job for me. In case you needed to hear that 🙂

  7. I realized I’ve been fighting my critical voice a lot lately and it’s really slowed my progress. Just yesterday I wrote a scene that the creative kid inside was having a blast with and this booming voice said ‘What the heck are you doing? This is stupid.” it IS a real fight to ignore the critical. That scene may or may not make it or it might lead to something awesome, I just have to let the creative side run with it for now.

    The idea of giving the critical voice a job outside of the writing makes sense… have to make some homework assignments.

    As a fellow new transplant to Las Vegas I hear ya about the weather and environment making things so much better. Glad to hear you’re on the upswing health-wise.

  8. Many many Thanks. Yours is an interesting take. One I’m going to try. You see, my critical voice is so invasive that even if I write a lot, then I end up publishing next to nothing. For me, even works I’ve revised repeatedly are always sort of works in progress.

  9. So, no wonder I’m driven to write nonfiction while I’m writing fiction.

    When I struggled with that MS last year (starting in May) by late October I avoided the laptop and just wrote it long-hand—and the story flew, even with all the holiday gatherings that interrupted. I switched to long-hand since it prevented me from backing up and correcting on computer. (While I’m an extremely fast typist, I’m even faster longhand). I only switched back to the laptop when I finish the MS. I published that book in mid-January.

    I used the same method for the next book, published on Feb 28.

    Meanwhile, my brain kept throwing up editing stuff on a NF MS or charts for the BF, all sorts of info that was fact-based. I published that at the end of March.

    I was 10 days into my current fiction project, and something said, “Hey, do a blog a day about your writing process. Won’t that be fun. Just the facts, ma’am.”

    I thought it was an addiction to the laptop driving me to do the blog series. It’s the critical voice needing an outlet, though, isn’t it? And here I thought my brain was crazy addicted to fixing facts LOL.

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