To my Toughest Critic-- Myself

Dear Toughest Critic,

I know I haven't been meeting your standards lately.  My desk is always messy and I am pretty much relying on caffeinated beverages to stay awake long enough to do any writing.  When I do write, I delete most of what I've done.  I think you want me to say sorry for this.  Or perhaps you think I need to make some excuses.  I have excuses, but I also know that sometimes it is really important to give myself a break.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the process that I use when I am rewriting.  I said that I manage 1000 words every day.  Almost the same day that I posted that, the process I had outlined fell apart in my hands like a soggy biscuit.  Sure, it's worked for me before, so it was natural to assume that it would work for me again.  But I'm reminded of a quote I once saw on another writer's blog: You are not a tap.  You cannot just turn it on and expect something to come out.  There was a point not so long ago where I reached the absolute bottom of any energy reserve I had saved, and all I wanted to do when I wasn't at work was sleep and read.  I felt ill, but I was in perfect health... I just couldn't face the page.  I think every writer experiences this in their own way.  The thought crosses my mind that this is the point at which, if I was going to give up completely, I could do it.  Instead, I focussed on letting myself repair.  I listened to my body, and it said it was tired, and it was a little scared that the six or seven years of hard work it had been putting into this book might come to nothing, and could it please have a week where it wasn't writing, or thinking, or talking about the novel.

I realise now that I've had breaks from the book before, but they've been active breaks, in which I would collect information in a little space in my mind for my book, and have thoughts like when I start writing my novel again I will...  So I wasn't completely relaxed at all.  This year and last year have been my first full time writing years since I decided on writing as my path.  Which means I've now had more than 18 months of this, 18 months of hearing feedback from readers and even from people in the publishing industry that has been a mix of keep going, you're almost there, and also (dishearteningly) that perhaps this is my practise novel.   Maybe it is my practise novel, but I love it, and I want to feel like I've done the best job I can with it.  So I took last week off, and I am 7000 words behind schedule, and I just plain don't care.  (Okay.... so I care a little.)

I have seen other writers despondent about their own work, work that I know to be of a higher standard of my own, and I feel for them, but I also take comfort in the knowledge that if those better than I can feel this way, then this is normal, and this too will pass.  I am recognising the importance of taking care of myself, of going to yoga, and colouring my hair when I look at myself in the mirror and feel drab, and getting up every day and making an effort with what I put on my body, for it is far too easy to go back to bed when you stay in your pyjamas.  I am learning the fine balance between treating my art as work, and keeping it a form of expression.  I am learning who I am as a writer.

So I just wanted to say, Toughest Critic, thank you for pushing me to be my best, always, because I know you mean well, but please don't feel upset that I am learning when and how not to listen to you.
And please tell your fellows, the Critics who plague my friends and loved ones to go easy as well, because they're all doing better than fine in my eyes.



This post is dedicated to LA and KL with my love.


  1. Dear Em,
    In this letter, you've made the personal become universal, by nailing a truth for us all. It's amazing—beautifully written, honest, insightful. Thanks for writing and thanks for sharing. Your work just gets better and better.
    All my love. xx

  2. Oh, Emily, this sounds like a tough time. It's great to have goals. But it's also great to know when to let them slide, as it sounds like you'r working out. Just don't say you're 7000 words behind your target. Adjust your target - don't keep count of what you've missed otherwise the pressure will still be building during your break. Hang in there. Take as long as you need. It's a long game.

    1. Thank you for your support, Annabel, it means a lot :)

  3. Hi Emily, I came across your post from Twitter where a writer you know was looking out for you. You sound like you're very self aware and know when to push through and when to step back. The fact that you have kept going until this point shows how dedicated you are. Comparison really can rob us of joy and the freedom to create our best work. A friend of mine gave me some great advice one day when I shared with her some doubts I was having. She told me that my inner critic was only full of chatter because it didn't want to see me hurt if I didn't succeed. So she told me to politely ask it to sit on my left shoulder where it could have the job of watching as long as it stayed quiet. As long as it had a job and wasn't bringing me down with all the doubts and criticism, it would be okay. I try to remember this on those days where the words don't come as easily. Hang in there, focus on what gives you pleasure, keep that at the forefront of your mind and bring it back to what's important. All my very best wishes for a happy writing future x

    1. I'm going to try asking my critic to sit on my shoulder silently too. Thanks Vanessa!

  4. Hi Emily,

    I found your post through Annabel, on twitter. I've been writing now for a long time and I want to tell you three things.

    First, I want to tell you this: you're clearly a writer. Welcome to the club. There's not one writer I know (well, maybe one, but he's the exception) who doesn't feel what you've described on a regular basis. I know many wonderful writers, award winners and best sellers, and every one sometimes feels like this beautiful, elegant and magical story that's in their head turns to dust when it hits the page. It's normal.

    Second, I want to tell you about the Dunning-Kruger effect. It's a psychological theory of cognitive bias, and it suggests that the better you are, the more you underestimate your ability. Google it. It's worth understanding what's going on in your head. What your feeling is actually a good sign.

    And finally, I want to tell you this: at the very heart of it, nothing matters except the work. Publishing people don't matter, schedules don't matter, even (yes, even) readers don't matter. You are having a wonderful, intense relationship with a story that is a part of you, and as you lift it in to the light and turn it around in your mind, you are changing to accommodate it. You are dancing with it. Dive in and splash around and don't worry about anything else. If you let it, this will be enough.

    I think that this is what Woolf meant, in the last para of To The Lighthouse.

    'Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was - her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in attics, she though; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked her at canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.'

    Toni Jordan

    1. Toni, thank you so much for taking the time to write this beautiful reply to my blog post. I am a huge fan of your writing, particularly Nine Days, and this has completely made my day. Emily


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