Essay: Creatively speaking, would you shut the hell up?

An overdose of criticality

There's a time and a place for everything, so learn to switch off that internal editor until your all-important first draft is complete, writes Mark Cantrell 

 First published on Indies Unlimited

ONE of these days I’ll figure out how to switch off.

No, I’m not talking about relaxing, well not exactly, but stepping out of this world and into the ‘zone’. That’s the place where the state of consciousness alters when the muse is in full flow – at least until the inability to power down the critical faculties crashes me back down to Earth.

When the words flood the screen there’s a kind of freedom, but all too often the internal critic comes smashing through the door to stick his damn finger in the dyke. The other finger he tends to wag my way; admonishing me for the terrible state of my composition. If I’m not quick enough, he takes a dive for the delete key, too, the bastard.

That’s the trouble with internal critics, at least with mine, they’re unsympathetic swine, with little or no regard for the literary process. Going off half-cocked instead of chilling out in the back brain until you’re ready for them, they can seriously cramp a wordsmith’s sanity.
If the creature doesn’t hit mid-flow and crash me out of the ‘zone’, then it undermines my regard for the latest draft I’ve sweated to finish. Snarling that my work is rubbish, it harasses me into a screaming fit, to send me wailing back to the keyboard and start afresh. Stretched thin, and wound-up, brittle me becomes lost in an endless round of sweat, tears and turmoil, while my critic cracks the whip.

Times like that, writing loses its joy, but bloody-minded obsession, maybe that slave-driving critic, won’t let me walk away. I have to keep going until, somehow, I come through the other side with words the critic can’t dismiss. I must admit, there’s a certain smug satisfaction to be had in leaving this mental gremlin speechless, but I know it’ll be back for another headbanging session sooner or later.

We all have our crosses to bear, this is mine; the problem is, as a journalist, I am expected to get my copy right first time. In a busy newsroom there’s no luxury of reworking and polishing an articled until it’s ‘just right’. The deadline doesn’t give a damn about precious sentiments of literary art; that’s not what a news or feature article is all about in any case, so get a grip and get that copy filed.

That’s journalism, but what works in the newsroom can play havoc with the author, at least in my case, because it doesn’t necessarily remain there: that damned internal critic demands the same right first time standards for my creative writing too. One of these days, I’m gonna kill the sod – that’s if he doesn’t get me first.

Now, it is possible to get that passage, that scene of a novel right first time. I know because I’ve done it, but right first time doesn’t mean to say finished first time. A draft is a draft – and it remains so until the novel is completed ready for publication. Until then, it’s subject to change (and these days with the delights of digital publishing, it can be subject to change long after it’s ‘gone to press’ too).

Novels grow organically, I find. For all the planning and thought that goes into their conception and development, they still begin to exert themselves as the characters find their feet – and their voice – and the plot begins to blossom. Sooner or later, the novel starts kicking back and asserting itself. You become less the writer, more the secretary, as the story comes alive.

That’s no bad thing. A novel that remains limp to the author’s touch throughout is nothing but a stillbirth in the making, but when it begins to come alive the newborn beastie needs a little tender discipline to ensure it reaches a healthy maturity. Cue that internal critic; he ought to be a crucial ally but that journalistic ‘right first time’ malady transforms a stern ally into a monster smashing up the lab.

To some extent, I probably owe the critic a begrudged vote of thanks, but let’s not go overboard. Here’s the thing: while at times those over-worked passages have resulted in the goods, more often than not any benefit has been outweighed by the headache and the pain involved in the endless re-working. The better re-writes have come at their proper time – in those second or third draft phases.

All the internal critic has really achieved is to hold up the novel’s progress by forcing me to waste time and effort (not to mention sanity) on a part best left to lie fallow while I focus on subsequent sections.

A novel is rarely – if ever – a continuous stream of structured thought. The whole is assembled from – and hopefully greater than – the sum of its parts. The parts, of course, are the disparate scenes and passages that are slotted together to create the seamless whole. At first, it may be a little clunky there, threadbare here, wonky at some of the joins, but as the first draft is revised and re-written through the second, the third, the fourth, however many revisions it takes, then so the work becomes its sturdy, polished self.

The first draft wants flow and momentum. This is the raw material, the ectoplasm of thought manifesting on the screen as words and passages, but however much the one initial manifestation might find itself intact in the finished manuscript, there are plenty more that will require kneading into the ideal shape, others still to be discarded and moulded afresh.

It’s all too easy to be caught in the ‘right first time’ trap of endlessly trying to perfect each passage – each module – before moving on to the next. Sure, sometimes, there’s a case to be made for taking another attempt, but for the most part you want to be getting your raw ideas down and moving on. Otherwise you’re going to fall foul of creative exhaustion, burning mental energy that’s better expended on the next passage, and winding yourself into a tight ball of frustration.

Take it from me, it’s painful and the internal critic’s sergeant-major-style barking only makes it worse. When I find myself caught in this trap, all I can do is work through it – find the draft that pleases the critic or else – by luck or sheer will – force myself to unwind and relax back into the project. Then I can move on and take the novel forward. And that’s the essential thing; plenty of time to rework later and you’ll have a much clearer idea of the work it requires too.

When the time comes, you can let that internal critic go to town. Until then, if yours is as bellicose and exacting as mine, you might want to keep the thing bound and gagged until you’re ready to set it loose.

The above article was written for the Indies Unlimited wesbite and appeared there on 15 March 2012.
Copyright © February 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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