I think most writers (hell, most artist/creative types) are all-too familiar with the Inner Critic. They come in a few forms, from horrifically cruel (“Everything you create is crap and should never see the light of day!”) to deceivingly optimistic (“You are capable of WAY better writing than this, you should completely scrap this and start over” x10 until you have a shit-ton of amazing beginnings and no middles or endings because you can always “do better”). It’s that thing that makes you never want to show anyone your work, that keeps you in perpetual states of revision, or worse, keeps you from ever starting at all.
Now I don’t know how it’s worked for others, but I did not ALWAYS have an Inner Critic. SHOCKINGLY, there was once a time when I very blissfully wrote things, always had fun doing it, and did not send myself into fits of existential crisis while doing so.
Sounds amazing right?
Well, I was a child, first of all. Things are usually waaaaay more blissful as a child. That’s why we take acid, so we can feel like a kid again (that’s a different topic though).
Aaaaanyway, it’s story time because I know the actual time of inception of my Inner Critic. Not down to the DAY or any crazy business but the general year and uh, time period.
It was an age of innocence…and dragons!
So way back in the day, child-me did a lot of reading (like, A LOT of reading. Like my parents put a RESTRICTION on how long I was allowed to read because they said I needed to go outside more). And one of my favorite books was Eragon. Ignorant farm boy meets dragon, becomes chosen one, gets a shiny silver hand and rescues Elven princess. It was EPIC. I was AMAZED. I was swept up in the adventure, I thought the writing was FANTASTIC. I was convinced, in my 11-12 year old brain, that Christopher Paolini was the next J.R.R. Tolkien. Plus, I was crazy inspired by the dude having gotten published at 16. That’s what I wanted to do! So on top of being a book that I got an awesome amount of enjoyment out of, I was also incredibly inspired by the author.
Like most kids with a computer readily accessible within the home, I spent a good amount of time perusing Google for my entertainment – which meant, of course, searching Eragon. I signed up for this author’s newsletter, that’s how devoted I was. I eagerly awaited the release of Eldest, the next book in the series, and read it ravenously when it released. It was the kind of devotion and I excitement that I, as a writer, really hope my readers feel for me. I think its what any writer would want, honestly. Their writing worked: they gave someone an adventure, they gave some awkward kid just finding their way in the world a moment of joy and wonder.
But alas, the hallowed halls of Google contains some very dark chambers one may stumble across, and I managed to do exactly that. I found something that wasn’t an Eragon fansite at all. Quite the opposite in fact.
I found Eragon Sporkings.
Enter the Spork
Eragon Sporkings was a critique site. But not JUST critique…this was like an author’s worst nightmare. It was pages upon pages devoted to “sporking” (aka, literally shredding to pieces) every aspect of the book. EVERYTHING. Like making fun of it line by line. Saying how terrible it is, LINE BY LINE. (You can still apparently find it, by the way, if you search for it, and the critic “sporked” some other books as well.)
My 13-year-old brain was BLOWN. This was one of my favorite books…I loved it…how could someone hate it so much? Now here is where my brain would perhaps differ from other fans, but I’ve always been one of an almost painfully open-mind ( I was also, ya’ know, 13). As a fan, I probably should have been viciously defensive. This was MY favorite book! It didn’t matter what anyone else said because I loved it!
I honestly wish I had reacted that way and left it at that.
But I kept reading. And reading. And the more I read the sporkings, the more I began to doubt my own judgement. Even at that age I cared about developing my skills as a writer. I wanted to improve and I knew I had room to do so. I had looked up to this author, this series, and here was this other person (to this day I don’t know what their qualifications were other than just being a reader) saying that it was bad writing.
Had I been duped into liking BAD WRITING???
I’m gonna take a moment here to remind ya’ll that I was 13, okay, maturity and critical thinking was still developing and easily influenced.
I studied that website like a writer’s Bible. I was desperate to learn every single mistake that book had made so I could avoid them in the future – and avoid any of my own sporkings. I think that swiftly became the real fear: that if I didn’t manage to avoid every mistake – both the big ones and the petty small ones – then some older more experienced reader out there was going to get their hands on my book and just rip it to shreds.
That’s how the Big Bad Inner Critic came on the scene, and she was brutal. Fueled by sporkings and the absolute pettiest of petty critiques, she didn’t let me write anything that wasn’t “perfect.” No more first drafts, it was going to be written right the first time, no excuses!
I still managed to churn out my first full length novel by the time I was 15. I’d poured over the sporkings all I could and had moved on, but the lingering worry over them remained – I never wanted to give someone a reason to tear up my work like that.
The Critic Matures
After the first teenage novel – which was exactly of the quality you’d expect from a young writer, but that I tried to love nonetheless – I have never finished another full-length novel.
TO THIS DAY, I have not finished writing a story of that length. In fact, when Love and Exorcisms (currently being posted on Wattpad) is completed, that will be the first since I was 15. It’s not from lack of trying. I don’t even know how many dozens upon dozens of attempted first drafts I have saved, numerous different versions of different stories. Every one of them abandoned and restarted because they weren’t good enough.
It became habitual after a while: I’d write a super excited, awesome opening chapter, but then I could never really follow up to that percieved greatness. I could never quite achieve how amazing the story “should have been,” the version of the story that was in my head. I used to joke that I should just write a Book of Beginnings, because the first chapter was the only thing I was good at writing.
I started going to university at 17 and the entire time I was there (a total of 6 years), I never managed to write past the first few chapters of a story. That got discouraging in itself, but I’m really not here to complain about how its taken me so long to finish writing a book.
As silly as it is, that initial obsession with an honestly petty and overblown critique of my favorite book at 13 spiraled into a little sporky voice that still pokes at the back of my brain. The Critic started out as downright cruel, as in I convinced myself I was not a good writer at all, and shouldn’t even attempt to write until I had somehow managed to “be better” despite…not…writing. But I grew up, and the Critic grew with me. She’s now more the Falsely Encouraging type, who instead of mentally ripping my efforts to shreds, seductively whispers, “You can do soooo much better. You should just throw all this away and start over ~” I don’t know how much better it is, but at least she doesn’t tell me I’m a terrible writer anymore. We’re slowly achieving symbiosis: she has her place to exist and keep my ego from over-inflating, but she also needs to just take a seat until at least the first draft is finished.
Maybe someday I’ll give her a name…
Also, I’ll proudly say that I still like Eragon. I don’t care about Mary Sue sins or cliched plots or whatever the hell else: I liked it. 13-year-old me LOVED it, and was swept away in an epic adventure that gave her joy. I wasn’t “wrong” for liking it – as I once convinced myself. I was a kid, and it made me happy and inspired me.
And honestly, that’s exactly what that book should have done, and it did it well.