Last night, I was visited by my inner critic.
I had a dream in which a middle aged, plain-looking British man with a pen and a literary journal in hand approached me. In the dream, I recognized him as my employer. As my editor. He approached me and told me that, yes, he printed my story. I had a few fancy ideas he liked. But then he told me that mine was also the worst story in his publication. The worst, bar none, and no doubt about it.
“You see here,” he said, pointing to the middle paragraph. “Read that aloud to me and tell me that’s not poor writing.”
I am blessed with the ability to read text and words in my dreams, and I can even look away from a paragraph and back again and see the same words spelled, punctuated, and grammatically arranged without a single technical error. The text the British editor showed me was my writing, and it was indeed without technical error. Yet the style, the voice, the narrative choices — these were the things the British man said were terrible. These were the things I felt I knew to be terrible.
“Bloody awful,” said the editor, shaking his head. “I can hardly believe I even printed it. Do better.”
He shoved the copy into my arms and walked back down the darkened suburban street, a mist of cigarette smoke trailing behind him.
I woke up feeling more upset than I normally would after even my most jarring nightmares. I certainly didn’t feel well-rested. What perturbs me isn’t what the British man said to me. It’s how I reacted to him that gives me pause.
First off, I realized toward the tail end of the dream that the man wasn’t real – he was a symbol. A representation. My subconscious self, of course. Yet I still felt weak around him. I felt powerless and incapable. I felt my dream self’s submissive body language in his presence. More than anything, I felt ashamed.
But when I looked back at the dream, I realized that the editor wasn’t my real antagonist. He didn’t just show me what was wrong with my story – he told me which parts were right. He challenged me to read my work aloud, to test my writing on the human ear.
He published my story, in spite of it all. He hated it, yet he deemed it worthy to publish.
“Do better,” he said.
He didn’t tell me to give up, but he also didn’t give me false affirmation. The real struggle is with the part of me that’s scared of getting yelled at. It’s a misguided part of myself that paralyzes my creativity unless it’s sure there’s no risk of rejection or worse, disappointment.
Again, the British editor in my mind didn’t tell me he was disappointed – just frustrated I didn’t do better. There’s a difference. Disappointment, to me, is the loss of faith in someone or something. Frustration, meanwhile, is the prickly side of believing in capability. The editor in my head knows I’m capable of producing better work, and he’s angry that I’ve rested on my laurels for so long. He’s angry that I’ve played it safe. He’s angry that I’m stagnating.
“Do better,” said the editor with a smoking habit I don’t share.
“Do better,” I’m telling myself. “Do better than hold your hands an inch away from the keyboard.”