Some people say there’s no such thing as writer’s block. Those people are full of shit. And so are the people whose tips for overcoming writer’s block include superficial advice like, “Just sit down and write! Just do it!”
Y’all, the world is burning in more ways than one. These times are infamously unprecedented. We’re in the throes of a pandemic. Our sorry excuse for a president is a temper-tantrum-throwing toddler who locks innocent people in cages and thinks it’s totally safe to inject disinfectant into your bloodstream.
(Ahem. That’s enough about that. Got a little carried away there.)
Add in a dash of mental illness, self-doubt, and family drama for good measure, and you’ll find “just sitting down to write” ain’t gonna cut it sometimes. Not to mention all those catastrophes supply even more compelling arguments to your inner critic. You know, the voice that whispers cruel things like:
“You’re not good enough.”
“Your stories don’t matter.”
“You’re not talented enough to do this narrative justice.”
So you gotta get tough. You gotta get mean. You gotta channel your inner Karen and write a strongly worded letter to your inner critic telling them to fuck all the way off. They’re a broken record anyway. Their only “accomplishment” is tearing you down. They’ve never written a story, and they’re damn sure not helping you write yours.
But what’s the best way to go about writing a letter to the editor? Let’s talk about it.
Why a letter to the editor is useful for overcoming writer’s block
You’re here because you’ve had enough of all those articles and quotes that say writer’s block isn’t real. You want some actionable advice for overcoming writer’s block that’s compassionate, not degrading.
Well, my friend, I’ve got just the thing for you: the letter to the editor. I know it works because I’ve used it about a thousand times while writing my novel, Escape Artist.
In the interest of transparency, the letter to the editor isn’t a new concept. Julia Cameron covers it in week one of The Artist’s Way course. Cameron calls the critic the “censor” — admittedly, a more fitting moniker than “critic” or “editor”, which I’ll use interchangeably throughout this post.
However, the term “inner editor” is most relevant for me, since I work as a freelance editor by day. Switching off that part of my brain is sometimes damn near impossible when it comes to creative writing.
Your inner critic, censor, editor, whatever you want to call it, is probably similar. They police your tone, grammar, and syntax as you write. This is detrimental not only to your creative flow, but also your self-confidence.
Here’s the thing, though: your inner critic thinks they rule the roost because you trust their contemptuous, twisted logic as absolute truth.
You’re never gonna get anywhere if you believe that criticism. It’s time to fight back. So grab a sheet of paper and your favorite pen, or your laptop, and start writing your letter.
How to write a letter to the editor
While I can’t tell you exactly what to write, here’s my main suggestion: don’t hold back. Your inner critic doesn’t. So why should you?
Think up every argument your inner critic might use against you when you sit down to write. Then craft a deliciously scathing response to put them in their place.
I find that personifying my inner editor distances “her” from “me”. So rather than writing the letter in first person, I prefer second person. After all, this battle is between my inner artist and my inner critic — two completely separate entities.
Once you’ve got your letter, don’t stow it away, never to be seen again. Keep it handy. Mine is in a notebook on my desk so I can reach for it whenever my critic starts bombarding me with her bullshit.
My letter to my inner editor
“Learning to silence you has been the ultimate challenge of my writing life. You are supremely well-educated in all those behind-the-scenes elements of writing: grammar, syntax, rhythm. You force my attention to third-draft matters in the first draft.
But I am learning to let you go, to hush your advanced criticism or I will never finish the damn thing.
This project is far too important to let you edit it to death before I’ve even written it. This is one thing you cannot — WILL NOT — control. You are an incredibly talented editor but I am an equally talented writer and I do not require your services — yet. Rest assured there’s a time and place for your criticism.
Remember, the writer came before the editor. Your place in this delicate equation has been overemphasized, but that is finally changing.”
I’ve read this so many times I know it almost by heart, but I still reach for it whenever self-doubt rears its ugly head. Reading that retort in my own handwriting is such a powerful reminder that, yes, the writer did come before the editor. Her time hasn’t come yet.
I chose to acknowledge that my editor is highly educated and well-trained, partly because she needs validation and partly because it’s true. She is highly trained.
And when this book is finally finished, she’ll take charge and turn it into my life’s greatest work. I will, at some point, place complete and utter faith in her. But not right now. I don’t need her yet. She only hinders my progress.
Add your letter to the editor to a writer’s notebook
I’m a big believer in the morning pages, but I’m also a big believer in staying organized with pretty notebooks and colorful pens.
So while I initially completed the activities in The Artist’s Way in my morning pages, I also added them to my writer’s notebook, lovingly dubbed The Master Plan 2.0.
(I’m also a big believer in corny nicknames for notebooks, apparently.)
I covered the writer’s notebook in another post, but I want to include it here also. Whatever your style, a writer’s notebook is an invaluable weapon in your arsenal of writing tools. At the very least, you should keep your letter to the editor and a list of affirmations to refer back to when your inner critic pipes up.
My writer’s notebook also contains a list of artist dates, my writer’s prayer, my creativity contract, my writing tracker, and activities from Build Your Best Writing Life by Kristen Kieffer. (Not an affiliate link; I don’t do that here.) There’s also plenty of blank pages left for other activities and ideas.
A bonus tip for overcoming writer’s block: record the criticism
A couple of years ago, I sat down to do some freewriting, but my inner editor perched on my shoulder and began berating me:
“Poor word choice.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. Sick to the teeth of her derision, I decided to write down everything she said. And I discovered, to my relief, that once you capture that tirade on paper, it loses its power completely.
(In a hilariously ironic turn of events, that record evolved into a short play, Everyone’s a Critic, which was relatively well-received at the local writers’ festival.)
So if reading your letter to the editor doesn’t work, try writing down those critical thoughts instead. Who knows? They might even come in handy in another project.
And there you have it! One of my favorite, no-bullshit tools for overcoming writer’s block: the letter to the editor.
I can’t stand people who say writer’s block is a myth. That’s such an ignorant, and frankly heartless, stance. Writer’s block is real, and it’s petrifying. But it’s not unbeatable.
Writing a letter to the editor is a great way to remind yourself who’s really in control. It’s worked absolute wonders for me.
Now it’s your turn. What would you say to your inner critic/editor/censor?