Calling Out the Inner Doomsayer

In writing about how to sneak up on the first draft, I dropped in a mention of my inner doomsayer. (The context was that the inner doomsayer pays less attention to casual lists than to Official Drafts.)

I was struck by the term even as I wrote it—not inner critic or inner editor, but Doomsayer! What strikes me as especially apt about this name is that by her very nature, the inner doomsayer is never appeased. Her fears will not be allayed! This says a lot about the gear-grinding and exhaustion that happen when I write and edit.

Any time I puzzle over how to phrase a passage or make a concept clear, the inner doomsayer can find something wrong with every possible option. If I phrase it this way, the doomsayer predicts that the editor will hate it. Phrase it this other way, and the source I interviewed will be annoyed. Phrase it a third way, and readers will be confused. The fourth option doesn’t meet Strunk & White’s standards.

The inner doomsayer sees the flaws in every possibility—not only sees them, but works her darnedest to make sure no flawed alternative (i.e., no alternative at all) gets through. Immobilizing. No wonder I can’t get momentum.

So I’m working on reinterpreting my task, nowadays, when I get stuck. My task is not to find a solution that will please the doomsayer. That route, searching for the solution she’ll be okay with, is what gets me tangled up in an hour’s worth of agonizing over one paragraph. Instead, I need to recognize when it’s her talking, and let her words go by.

This approach seems related to the split-screen technique—a facet of it—but there’s something about acknowledging the doomsayer and her inability to ever be reassured that carries special power.

As encouraging as this insight is, what I’ve been finding as I try to apply it is that identifying her as the doomsayer is really hard! I’m so used to her voice that it still sounds like reality to me. I’m used to struggling and struggling in search of flawless phrasing and structure—it’s an old, old habit.

I’m committed to continuing in the practice of this simple, terribly difficult, potentally liberating task:

Notice when it’s the inner doomsayer talking. Don’t try to allay her fears. Let her words fly by.


  1. Oh, I know the voice of the inner doomsayer (mine is called a troll). My sneaky work-around is to walk away from the writing after a session. As I leave, convinced that what I’ve done is no good at all, I give myself the option of working on it more at a later point in time. A day, or better, a weekend passes, and when I return to reread the work, I am almost always pleasantly surprised that I like what I wrote! It’s way better than what the troll was telling me about it.

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Sharon – This also sounds like a good argument for short work sessions. Throw something out there, leave it, come back later.

  3. Janet, I think that’s a really powerful insight. If you *know* that the Doomsayer will never be happy, you can stop wasting your energy by not even *trying* to please her.

    It’s so often the simple patterns that are the hard ones to shift, aren’t they?

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Michelle – So true!

  5. I love the phrase inner doomsayer. There is something ridiculous about it, which makes it easier to laugh at… at least from a distance. I wouldn’t try to stop the doomsayers in Times Square from doing their thing, so why try to soothe the one in my head? Short writing sessions are working for me right now for a (scary for me) first draft of a long work. 3 pages every day, without putting down the pen– doodling in the margin if I am stuck– Hoping to graduate to 4 pages at the end of the month. Maybe the inner doomsayer will get hoarse!

  6. Janet Bailey says:

    @Kate – Congratulations on the 3 to 4 pages a day. I’ll have to try doodling—might distract the doomsayer…

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