On the Critical List: N M Browne
I have spent most of my writing life burying my inner critic, entombing him in concrete, and consigning him to a deep and inaccessible grave. Too much analysis, too much self consciousness can strangle a nascent idea and kill it dead. I would never have written a word had I not managed to fool my critic into believing I was doing nothing very serious, just pIaying, lulling him into a false sense of security before sneaking up behind him and disabling him with a sharp hatchet blow to the skull. You will note that he is male. I try not to analyse that fact too closely.
All this psychological aggression is primarily defensive: at the beginning of the creative process there is nothing, just a murky kind of potential, then gradually, if you are lucky, you may get a glimmering of something, a glimpse through thick fog of a ghost of a story seed. The last thing you should do is expose these half formed, germinating almost-nothings to the harshness of a critic’s cold gaze: especially mine. My personal critic is a snide, sardonic and uncharitable bastard. Why do you think I buried him so deep? He and I have hammered out an uneasy truce over the last thirty years. Usually he is held captive and silent in his fortified tomb for most of the first draft and then vampire- like arises to suck all my joy and confidence away for a few, grim hours a week as I edit.
I have also spent the last few years teaching Creative Writing and it has got me thinking about the usefulness of my inner critic and the balance between self belief, self deception and self criticism. I’ve come to believe that at least a drop or two of delusion is needed to oil the wheels of creativity. Would we ever write if we didn’t believe at some level that we could do it? Of course we have probably all come across someone with an excess of confidence, so much self belief that they are impervious to the possibility of improvement. Such turbo powered assurance makes creating anything that might actual be worth reading significantly less likely. Somewhere between abject, doubtful despair and ebullient certainty there lies a sweet spot, but I have no idea where it is.
That’s why Creative writing teaching is a risky business.
Obviously it’s risky for the students because they lay themselves on the line and put themselves in my hands, an unnaturally contorted position that isn’t very comfortable for either us. They pay good money to meet my critic much earlier in their process than might be ideal and, for all his many faults, he does his best to give value for money. Too much honesty too soon can be crippling: too little too late and self belief can set like concrete so that the writer struggles to move forward at all.
It’s perhaps less obvious that teaching can be almost as risky for the teacher. We are all vulnerable; teacher and student together on a vast, storm-wracked ocean in the same unstable boat. Be warned that the inner critic can be as subtle as he is brutal and there’s nothing he likes better than to sabotage the voyage and scupper your craft. Once you let that bastard out of his lead-lined, cast- iron box he’s the very devil to get back in. Or is that just mine?