It’s easy to feel frustrated, lonely and overwhelmed writing. It’s a fuzzy, poorly defined project. Washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, (both good substitutes for writing), are projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The details of dishwashing’s plot aren’t riveting, but are a comfort in relief to the writing’s unknown topography.
Writing is often a machete through the jungle, trailblazing-type scenario. Vines can seem like boa constrictors and vice-versa. A toothy, slinking predator like a critic could drop onto a tender young idea just finding its legs and swallow it whole. Many times we’re the critic.
Dr. David Burns has a tool he calls the relationship journal. It’s meant to work through difficult interactions we have with others. The idea is to take a difficult interaction with someone and journal through a five questions to determine if you used to good or bad communication techniques with them.
**spoiler alert** If it was a difficult interaction your communication probably fell short of “good.”
Good communication here means what you say leads to greater openness and trust with the other. Bad communication means what you say forces them to close down, and makes them feel defensive, unheard, disrespected. (Probably all three).
You might see some qualities of good communication already on display through their negatives. Good communication lets the other person know they’ve been heard, let’s them know you respect them and admire them. What if you don’t particularly respect or admire the other person? Did I mention this is a technique to be used with people hope to develop a closer relationship with?
What is good communication?
- It acknowledges what the other person has said, and what they are likely feeling.
- It lets the other person know our own feelings.
- It shows our genuine respect for the other person, even in the heat of battle.
My curiosity with regards to writing is: Could I use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic while writing or editing?
Do I have sometimes have difficult interactions with myself? Yup. Am I someone I want to be closer to and have a better relationship with? Um, yes.
Maybe it sounds vaguely looney tunes to converse with myself and acknowledge my feelings to myself. I don’t know about you but I dialogue with myself constantly, and quite often, adversarially. Why did god make me this way: an angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other, and slavedriver cracking a whip behind, all of us bickering? (Maybe I could use the techniques of good communication with god too. But I digress).
What might it look like to use the techniques of good communication with my inner critic?
As an example, let’s say I’m John Prine writing a song to be called “Billy the Bum.” I’ve just written the line; “He was just a gentle boy, a real florescent light.”
My inner critic screams; “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever;”
I respond; “You do better.”
Step 1 of the relationship journal is to write down what the other person said.
We’ve got that.
Step 2 is to write my response.
We’ve got that too.
Step 3 is to determine if my response demonstrates good or bad communication, i.e.
- Does it acknowledge what they other person is thinking and feeling.
- Does my response let the other person know what I’m feeling in a direct way?
- Does it show respect for the other person?
What do you think? I agree; nope, nope and nope. I didn’t acknowledge what my critic said. I’m pretty obviously feeling resentful, angry, and worthless, I didn’t acknowledge that either. Finally, my response shows disdain and a suspicion the critic-gremlin-monster is worse at writing than I am.
Step 4 is consequences, did my response made the situation better or worse.
I think my response cause my critic to solidify its belief the line is crappy and I’m a bad writer and made it even more adversarial.
Step 5 Revise my response using good communicaiton. So how could I do better?
Dr. Burns says there are Five Secrets to aid good communication, I have to use all of them if I want a better relationship with my critic.
- Disarming technique: Agree with the other person; find some sliver of truth in what they are saying no matter how mean-spirited, unfair and wildly off-base they seem to be. (He claims there is always some sliver of truth in what they say which you can agree with).
- Thought and feeling Empathy: Thought empathy is paraphrasing what they’ve said to you so they know you heard them. Feeling empathy is acknowledging what emotions they are likely feeling.
- Inquiry Ask if there’s more they’d like to tell you about what’s going on for them. This shows you are interested in what they have to say and care.
- Assertiveness. Acknowledge and directly state your emotions to the other person using feeling words. Dr. Burns’ advice here is the phrase “I feel like you . . . “ sounds like it might be conveying your feelings but is usually attacking and blaming the other person.
- Affirmation. Find things you genuinely like and admire about the other person and tell them those things, even in the heat of battle. (This isn’t about bullshitting the other person and blowing smoke up their ass, especially if the other person is you. You deserve better).
Here’s my revised response I just wrote up:
Critic: “That line blows! Your writing sucks. You’re the worst writer ever.”
Me: You’re right (Disarming), that line is pretty out there and weird (Thought Empathy). It sounds like you really dislike it. (Feeling Empathy). I haven’t heard anything like it before. I feel kind of insecure about it to be honest, even a little embarrassed I wrote it down. (Assertiveness). You have great taste. We both like all the same music. (Affirmation) Could you tell me more about what you don’t like about that line?
Critic: “How is Billy like a florescent light? What does it even mean?
Me: Well, I guess Billy is weirdly dim, and being near him evokes a kind of angst and depression which soaks into the bones: soft, gentle, insidious.
Critic: Oh, That’s kinda cool actually. It works better than I thought.
Me: Thanks, I didn’t really realize how well it worked either. It just kind of popped out. It’s cool you helped me think about it more.
(Did I mention this takes some practice? David explains often how The Five Secrets can sound simple, even simplistic, yet seasoned therapists have difficulty adopting this technique and using them with grace).
I’m kinda of shocked by the result here. I’ve been hearing line from Billy the Bum for 10 or 15 years and by going through the relationship journal with my inner critic got some new insight. I chose the line because it’s always stuck out to me as brilliant, but a little weird. I often contend John Prine’s genius is actually something just short of being daft; he kept that line in despite it being weird and it works. (Maybe the line working was obvious for you from the beginning)
There is a time tested method of setting the critic aside while you write, and it can work well. But by conversing with the critic and showing it respect, (showing myself respect really), I can feel it giving me more leeway to do the work. “You have great taste, we both like the same music,” is stupidly true. (My critic could go on and on for hours about why Oasis sucks. Sometimes we do). I’ll try this out soon on a real song, see how it goes, and get back to you.
David speaks about relationships and the relationship journal on his podcast here.
He talks about these techniques at length in his book “Feeling Good Together“