Those Critical Voices
This one's for Maggie.
Anne Lamott wrote a GREAT book on writing, called Bird By Bird. If you haven't read it, I strongly suggest dropping everything and picking up a copy, whether you consider yourself a writer or not (and gee, if you're Blogging, there's a strong chance that you do indeed write. Funny how that works, innit?)
Anyway, Lamott managed to squeeze a few extra goodies in, that have a lot to do with general living, and living happier. One of the things she talks about is Radio Station KFKD.
We all tune into this station now and then. Sometimes the knob gets stuck there. KFKD is the station that blares out how awful we are. How much we suck. How fucked we are, and why, and how we can't do a damn thing about it, and it's all our fault. And the voice is soooo familiar. It's your mom, or your dad, or that treacherous teacher who told you wouldn't amount to anything. It's the voice you've been running from all your life. And there it is, louder than life, coming from that radio in your head.
These shit-critics aren't to be confused with the ones who push you to do what you're meant to be doing. There's a big difference between the voices who light a fire under you, and the ones that throw you on the pyre.
Well. I figured out one way to shut those voices up. And that's by NOT shutting them up.
Here's what I did.
My first week as a freelance graphic designer. My first real gig as such. I was working in a print shop, (the same one that's jut gone over, actually) and I was having a hard time acclimating. The laser printer wasn't working, jobs were backed up from a month of going without a designer, and I was having a hard time just trying to find some of the electronic files. So the critics were well into their chorus. And that's how they sounded, like a Greek chorus always behind me, commenting on everything I did. The Chorus of Grandmothers, I called it. Each voice was a waspy, dried up old woman's voice. Pinched. Judgmental.
“You did that wrong.”
“You're going way too slow.”
“You'll never catch up. But they'll fire you before you have a chance anyway.”
“If you ask for help with the printer one more time, the pressman will think you're stupid, and he'll yell at you and tell you you're getting in his way.”
“They are going to find out that you don't know what you're doing. You are a fake. And they will fire you, and you'll never work again.”
And I was messing up. And I was slow.
But it wasn't my fault. It wasn't because I was a fake. It was because the Chorus of Grandmothers was getting in my way.
There was a photo on the wall. I looked at it every morning when I came in. My eyes wandered to it throughout the day, whenever I was having a problem.
It was not a tranquil beach or forest, or anything like that. It wasn't an inspirational poster, giving me some insipid platitude on confidence or perseverance.
It looked like this:
A dilapidated mill. It made me slightly queasy looking at it. I was waiting for it to fall into the river.
The Chorus reached a crescendo while I looked at all those rotting boards, all those gaps in the wall.
And I thought, Wait a minute...
“Ok!” I told the Chorus. “You want something to criticize? Why don't you go criticize that old mill? It's falling apart. Look at it. Look at those warped boards. Look at all the holes. I bet it's FULL of dust and dirt. Go criticize it.”
And for a while, everything got quiet. I got something done.
And then they came back, one by one. But I didn't let them stay, and I didn't let the speak all together. I sent them back on their way.
“What are you doing back here? You're not done criticizing that old thing. You forgot about that broken bottle in the corner. You missed all those cobwebs. Pah, and you call yourself a critic!? You suck as a critic. You're the worst critic I've ever seen. You missed a bunch of flaws in that mill. Now go back there and don't come back until you're finished.”
It took a couple of days. But they stayed there. Sometimes (and sometimes I still have to do this) I had to take them back there myself. I had to stand in the middle of the mill and point to the cobwebs and the gaps in the floor and the mouse skeletons and say, “There! Look at that! You missed it. How could you?” I pictured all those voices as skulking grey shadows circling the room, muttering to themselves as they tallied and tallied again every speck of dust.
It works for me. I still have days when they come back. But they don't cripple me like they used to. And I recognize them right away, before they can assemble. I picture the old mill and send them back on their way.
I hope this helps, Maggie.