I should begin with a clarification; I’m thinking of inner critics here. Whether an individual literary critic who says something about a single piece or section of literature should be considered is a whole nother question, and I’m unwilling to jump into the lava pit of that debate. But when it comes to the voices in our heads, the nasty ones, I will relate a refreshingly brief tale and feel fine about it.
I have had a sensation in my mind since I’ve taken up the pen—or more often a device with a keyboard—to write down the stories I’ve invented. Well, if it started as a sensation, it quickly grew words, in much the same way larvae pop out legs as they metamorphosize into insects. Somehow this uppity sensation talked to me, although it didn’t have much to say. It seemed to have a belief that quantity beat quality of prose, and so it felt free to repeat its sentiment whenever I was writing or rewriting. And the sentence was this.
You should just stop writing, because you suck and you’ll never be a real writer.
Mean! That my own brain would conjure this up meant something, I figured. I counted on my organ to tell me which way pointed up, what color the sky was, who the faces represented that I saw every day, so it wouldn’t go all Judas on me and lie, would it? It must be the terrible truth. Trusting my own self was all too easy, and the message too believable. I kept at writing for years because the stories insisted on flowing to me—escaping the Coconut Grove fire, personal knockoffs of the Encyclopedia Brown genre of YA mystery, and other explorations in writing that a kid of ten would conjure. But the critic kept at me, stealing some of my joy at first.
It was amenable to this fuel, and then it got greedy, chomping on my desire to write like an exotic, forbidden meat. By the time I finished with college, broke and worrying about making even the cheapest of rents, I had given up on writing. No human had ever told me to give it up, although my parents, both former working class children, wanted me to have a “real” job that would incur a better than decent compensation. But other than that requirement, I didn’t have the experience of anyone telling me I wasn’t good enough or that I was wasting my time.
I simply didn’t get the praise that a scant few in my writing workshops received, and that was enough for my personal critic to shout at me.
See? Half of them didn’t even get what you were writing about. You’re a joke.
As nice as I think I can be to people, I obviously have a mean streak inside me.
Into my 30s, I came back to writing, making fun of my fellow members of the queer community, because laughing serves as my lens as I encounter most people in life, and there just isn’t enough writing about lesbian bars or small town pride marches, damn it. And even though I penned a few short stories that decade they count more as reflexes of prose than actual storytelling.
The latter half of that decade was drawn up in the avalanche that became my sex change and then the spring melt love affair with my partner, which didn’t leave a lot of time for writing beyond journaling the audacity and ludicrousness of it all. And even then my critic found a way to ingratiate itself into my life, only now it had morphed its message to focus on my transition:
You’re not really transgender, you’re just doing this for attention. You’re going to regret all of this, stupid.
Wait a minute, another part of me responded. I understand now. You’re just here to cast doubt on every decision I make! You’re actually, now that I think of it:
Spiteful critic had been discovered for what it was—not a figment of Truman Capote’s cigarette smoking, snarky self, nor an embodiment of all of my workshop teachers and professors, but only as a smoldering, angry chunk of used up tar. An ugly chip of doubt and insecurity. And I didn’t need to listen to it, not now, not ever.
My life coach gave me an idea about The Critic. “Tell it to take a vacation,” she said, in her usual chipper tone, and the way she spoke, I believed I could give a dendrite in my head advice about leisure and it would take it.
“Take a vacation,” I said. “Take a long trip around the world.”
I swear, The Critic packed its bags and departed, grumbling about the inconvenience of visas and overhead compartments.
I typed away, just writing, saying well I will do this for now and see where it takes me. Maybe I’ll continue to like this tale, or maybe I’ll trunk it. No worries. Here’s a journal, let me send in this short story. From time to time The Critic would pop into my writing, reminding me that I’m a terrible writer and then I would say to myself, “Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation? You don’t want to miss anything! Get out of here.” And it would shuffle off. I think I’ve given it a complex, but I don’t have a stitch of guilt about that.
I was surprised one day, about a year ago. A small, quiet voice looked around the echo chambers of my mind to make sure the coast was clear, and then gave me a little whisper, and I haven’t forgotten it since.
You really need to tell these stories. Good for you.