How the inner critic and creative anxiety cause writer’s block

Writing blocks and the inner critic

In my writing group we shared our experiences with the inner critic and how it blocks our writing and creativity. In preparation for the meeting, I researched about this topic and found some books on this topic by Eric Maisel. In this essay I will present what Eric Maisel calls ‘creative anxiety and some methods for overcoming it that you might find helpful.

In the book Toxic Criticism, Maisel talks about the inner critic in Chapter 4, called ‘Silencing Self-Criticism’. He believes that the inner critic is formed when we internalize criticism from outside. He calls that the “moment of  translation”, which is the moment between the external message (or situation or experience) to the internal reaction. His main point in this section of the book is that it is our choice to go from an unfortunate external situation/fact to an internal toxic criticism. He gives three main reasons why we might do this, even thought it’s harmful to us and our creative practice:

  • We think it’s the honourable, or moral thing to do (we’ve been bad, very, very bad, so we deserve punishment!)
  • We think it will motivate us (we’ve been so bad, so very, very bad, and we better work extra hard to make up for it!)
  • It helps us avoid our real work (we’re so bad, so very, very bad, and we’ll never amount to anything – why bother!)

To overcome this, he suggests ‘sticking with the facts’ – be honest, or truthful, but don’t be critical. So you can sit with the fact, “I haven’t written in weeks/months/years” but don’t make any value judgements about yourself. For example, “so that must mean I’m not meant to be a writer.” Or, “I’m a lazy cretin.”

He also suggests writing a letter to your inner critic. Tell your inner critic to take a hike! Or you can write a letter to someone who once discouraged you from writing and go tell them to go to hell!

Another thing he suggests is that we should spend some time mastering our minds and gaining  practice in overcoming anxiety. Maisel believes that the inner critic is rooted in anxiety, and developing strategies to overcome anxiety is one of the best cures for writer’s block. In his book, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Maisel covers many of these techniques. He also talks about many causes of anxiety for writers. I’ll cover a few of these things here:

Causes of creative anxiety

Just by it’s wild, unpredictable nature, creativity can produce a lot of anxiety. The anxiety of being judged, of not producing enough, performance anxiety, anxiety of failure, or being required to make decisions, etc. Here are some main types of creative anxiety:

  • Anxiety of creating or not creating: as a person who finds meaning in being creative, you will suffer anxiety whether you are creating or not, so “why not choose creating?”
  • Anxiety of mattering or not mattering: how can your stupid story matter when there are so many more significant things happening in the world? When there are so many better writers?
  • Anxiety of identity: when you’re not being the creator you feel you ought to be, you can have anxiety about your identity. Who am I? Am I a writer, or not?
  • Anxiety of the creative life/surviving: how will I pay the bills? is this sensible?
  • Anxiety of choosing: Will my character go here, or go there? What is her name? Should I write a novel, or a short story? All these decisions, I need to make the right one!
  • Anxiety of process (fear of missing out): If I focus on this one project, then I won’t have time to do all of these other things I really, really want to do.
  • Anxiety of ruining: I’m going to fuck this story up, I probably made the wrong decision back there.
  • Anxiety of failure: No one is going to read this and like it! Oh my god, what am I thinking – seriously! I can’t share this with my group – they’re not going to like it!

Ways to overcome creative anxiety

He gives lots of ways to overcome anxiety, including meditation, breathing techniques and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques, but my favourite of all of them is the first – called ‘Existential Decisiveness’.

Existential decisiveness. Indecisiveness about what matters, about whether you personally matter, about whether meaning resides over here or whether it resides over there, and about what constitutes the right life for you breeds anxiety. When you tackle these issues directly and become existentially decisive, you become less anxious. The first step in becoming existentially decisive is returning the control of meaning to you by asserting – and really believing – that you are in charge of the meaning in your life.

More Reading

  • Mastering Creative Anxiety: 24 Lessons for writers, painters, musicians, & actors from America’s Formost Creativity Coach. By Eric Maisel.
  • Making Your Creative Mark: Nine keys to achieving your artistic goals. By Eric Maisel.
  • Living the Writer’s Life: a complete self-help guide. By Eric Maisel.

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