The critic is considered to be the dialectic of genius. This insight was formulated early by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as “not every critic is a genius, but every genius is born a critic…genius has the proof of all rules within itself.” Kant scholar Jane Kneller has read this to indicate that, as opposed to the externally oriented and culturally dependent critic, “genius demonstrates its autonomy not by ignoring all rules, but by deriving the rules from itself”.
The word critic comes from Greek κριτικός (kritikós), “able to discern”, which is a Greek derivation from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation.
Every November I get a little queasy and uncomfortable. That’s because it’s National Novel Writing Month. It’s not that I’m directly opposed to the concept of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month – after all it can pull you out of writer’s block, or any other self-imposed hurdles that keep you from actually producing a body of work, instead of just talking about it, and it could turn writers into authors. It’s the emphasis that it puts on just throwing words at the page, seemingly without discrimination or concern for the finished body of work.
I put out a tweet a few days ago stating my concern:
I think one of my main objections to nanowrimo is that writing a novel isn’t just about throwing words at the page. Sometimes you need to take scissors to it.
I got some flack there. Apparently there is plenty on the nanowrimo forums about it being a draft, etc., but that’s not my point. My point isn’t that you produce a finished polished work in a month at lightening speed, because that’s rarely possible, unless maybe you’re someone prolific like Stephen King. My point is that the whole flurry of tweets, posts, blogs, and so forth creates an atmosphere that seems to negate the self-critic. It doesn’t focus attention on the hard work that needs to be done to create a book, ready for public consumption. It’s part of the whole, to me disturbing, lack of discrimination that I see, as if producing art was easy, something anyone can do anytime, and that it doesn’t take dedication, commitment, and a hard long apprenticeship.
I remember I was teaching drawing some years back at a college, and I had a difficult student. She was sullen, reluctant, and didn’t want to do the work. The quality was poor, even though she was coming to class and doing the homework. I asked her what the problem was, and she replied that she was a painter, and she was forced to take drawing, but there was simply no point to it! I feel the same about the writer that only emphasizes self-experience and getting the words out at the cost of actually honing the craft, learning what works and what doesn’t.
That is where I listen to my lovely self-critic. The muse may inspire, but the critic gets out the scissors. I love my critic. He walks with me every step of the way. Sometimes I override him, but we have a good collaborative relationship, so he doesn’t take it hard, or say “told you so” when it all goes wrong. Sadly, all too often, the critic gets the boot from people’s writing practice because he gets blamed for that which he is not responsible for: the nagging negative voice of low self-esteem. The critic believes you can do it, but just wants to help you do it better. Low self-esteem doesn’t even want you to try. Critic will tell you off for wasting time playing mindless games, always pushing you to achieve your goals, reminding you that time is finite (don’t kid yourself it’s not), and that the best time to get your dreams accomplished is now. Low self-esteem is always telling you that a game is better, or cleaning, or laundry, or you can do it tomorrow.
Critic is willing to tell you the hard truths: that page is crap – do it again. Low self-esteem will say: that page is crap – just toss it out and go back to bed. If you are truly listening to your inner critic, and now your low self-esteem, a lot of time the news is good: this idea rocks; you are doing great; don’t listen to that agent that doesn’t think your work will sell; wow, didn’t you write a lot today. Critic misses you when you’re not writing, and tries to remind you to do it. Low self-esteem just tells you you’re a loser for not writing.
Discerning the difference can be tough, but it’s worth the challenge. One needs to be ignored, overridden, and combated. The other needs to be taken on as a partner in the endeavor, for he has many words of wisdom to impart.
Back to nanowrimo – it’s fine idea, as long as you take your critic along for the ride.