Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Give your inner critic a makeover. (06/15/08)

Featured writer: Pam Sherman, a.k.a. The Suburban Outlaw

Contributors this month:
Betty Rodgers
Christine Falcone
Claudia Larson
David Johnson
Don Edgers
Jane Merryman
Jessica Hoard
Laura LeHew
Marilyn Petty
Marlene Cullen
Meg Hanna House
Susan Bono

Inner Critic Extreme Makeover

by Pam Sherman, a.k.a. The Suburban Outlaw

My inner critic's name is Winona. Winona looks at my image in the mirror and says, "You are so fat. Your cellulite could cover the state of Alaska." Winona says, "Your hair is so brittle it could start a brush fire." Winona reads my writing and says, "You have nothing to say, you are just a housewife."

Winona is not nice.

Winona silenced me years ago when I wanted to be an actor instead of going to law school. And today she stops me when I sit down to write my book, "The Suburban Outlaw." She's here right now, can't you hear her?

I may call her Winona but some days it's my mother, my father, or my past come to haunt me. Sometimes she's the me I used to be; the me with the wicked self-deprecating humor that held me back from realizing how great I can be. Some days she's very loud indeed.

Perhaps, I need Winona in order to defy her. Perhaps, she exists to remind me of where I've been. Perhaps, she spurs me on to great things. Over the years I must have done a really good job of ignoring her, drowning her out, or fighting her. Her negativity brings out the competitive spirit in me. It makes me want to crush her. "Winona, you think I've got bad hair? I'll show you and switch stylists." "I am so going to exercise today." Without Winona I'd still be a lawyer, I'd still be fat, and I'd still not have written that book. All right I haven't written that book but still… I have become an actor and now a writer. And I'm blonde!

What would happen if Winona, my inner critic, got that makeover and started to match up to how the rest of the world sees me: capable, creative, and not fat at all. Would I miss her? What demon would I fight? I might go even further towards realizing my dreams and maybe even enjoy the journey. I know that superficial fixes like great shoes and teeth whitening do not make you a great writer - - but they sure can help you feel good about yourself. And when you are feeling good about yourself the voices inside your head get lost in the fireworks of fabulous.

So I'm shipping Winona off to L.A. to be on that show, Extreme Makeover. She's going in for a nip/tuck and a boob job. I'm hoping she'll quiet down when she looks good and feels good. I know I do.

Pam Sherman, recovering lawyer and actor, writes the bi-monthly, "Suburban Outlaw ™" column for Rochester Magazine published by Gannett in Rochester New York. Read more about The Suburban Outlaw at

Give your inner critic a makeover.

  by Betty Rodgers

Have you ever known someone who has everything in the world going for them, yet seems to lack any hint of self-respect?

I used to be a bookkeeper for a suede tannery in Maine. Our maintenance man, Andy, was gifted, tall, and good looking. He could fix a piece of equipment that anyone else would say was beyond repair. A quiet man, he was insightful, a great conversationalist, a natural athlete, and would dazzle you with his shy smile. Yet he had a very low opinion of himself, and was a hopeless, self-destructive alcoholic. His inner critic was a monster.

Through the years I've known other people like him, and just shake my head wondering why they don't see themselves the way others see them. How can they not know how wonderful and lucky they are and make the most of it? The rest of us trudge along a seemingly uphill road, struggling to make high grades, falling down stairs, spilling paint on new carpet, accidentally jamming the gear shift in reverse while going 50-miles-per-hour on a freeway on-ramp.

But we generally laugh (afterwards), pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move forward, forgiving ourselves because, after all, we are "only human." I say generally, because there can be exceptions. For me that exception is the ominous critic lurking in the background when I write, and yes, I am influenced by her.

My critic has value, though. She makes me pay attention. She is the reason I search for just the right word, for the best way to say what's on my mind, for more creative and interesting expression. She makes me dig deeper for the truth. She helps me shy away from only saying what I think readers want to hear. Madam Critic forces me to understand myself better. But I must keep her at a distance on days when confidence is elusive. I must do it for Andy, and I must do it for myself.

Betty Rodgers enjoys the song of the house finch perched outside her window in Boise, Idaho. She is presently transferring her favorite music onto her new Nano iPod...forward to Z and backward to A from Mary Black and Mozart in the middle. Contact Betty here: E-Mail

Give Your Inner Critic a Make-over

  by Christine Falcone

First and foremost, my inner critic needs to go on a diet. She takes up way too much space. Once she drops a few pounds, loses a few inches and dress sizes, she'll need a new wardrobe - no more black capes and hooded cloaks. No more steel-toed boots with which to stomp my work into crumpled bits of paper. She'll need something a little lighter, more diaphanous - a silk kimono or a gown of gauzy blue chiffon. Maybe she'll even go barefoot for a while; that way, she'll step more lightly across the pages of my heart.

More than diet and wardrobe though, my inner critic will need to take some etiquette lessons. She'll need to work on training her voice, reining in the vile, contemptuous tone and transforming it into something kind, more generous and compassionate. Instead of giving scathing critiques, she'll offer only the most helpful of suggestions, said in a way that makes me think of butterfly wings fluttering against my cheek, or the tiniest tinkling of a bell.

After etiquette school, she'll need to take a driver's ed course. She needs to learn how to stop driving me crazy with insults and put-downs, that it's not okay to back up over my pages and pages of hard work, that what she needs to do instead is use her turn signals, stay within the lines and follow the rules of the road. And most of all, give the horn a break!

Christine Falcone is giving her inner critic a make-over in Novato, California where she writes surrounded by beet-colored walls. Her first novel, This Is What I Know, is currently looking for a home.

Tattoo You

  by Claudia Larson

"Oh goody," she says, eyes lighting on the Panic Red lipstick which she promptly applies liberally inside and outside her fleshy lip lines. Peering into my mirroring eyes, she assesses the damage and announces that she's ready.

"But you're naked," I say.

"So?" she contests irritably. "What do you expect when all my clothes are now too tight? I've outgrown them."

"Well at least get a tattoo or two," I encourage, eyeing the saggy nipples and dumpling thighs.

"I was just thinking about getting a tattoo!" she crows. "But I need help figuring out where to put it."

I pause, eyes squinting at her, wondering where the least saggy part of her body would look best with a tattoo.

"And what should it be?" she queries. "A kitten playing with a mouse? A skull holding a lizard skeleton in its mouth? No flowers, god forbid. And no peace signs, kids' names or in-memory-ofs."

Her scarleted lips pull to one side as she flips through her mental catalog of possibilities.

"Oh, and no butterflies. I wonder how hard it would be to do a wilted rose dropping its petals. And add a scent of damask rose, a sort of tattoo scratch and sniff. Perhaps a fading rose on my right shoulder, petals falling down my back and over my butt cheeks. That's it! That'll be good."

I sigh. For someone who's spent her life in service to the caterwauling critic gods she's certainly feisty with funky ideas. I had no idea she could be so refreshing. I was used to her punching holes in my balloons and tripping doves on the way to the nest. Maybe people can change.

Claudia Larson welcomes change of all kinds in Sonoma County, CA.

Keeping the whores in

  by David Johnson

I was making out with a new girlfriend when she found the hair of another woman on my shoulder. The hair probably came off a friend I had hugged earlier in the day. "Uh oh, looks like you're cheating on me," she said with a smile.

Thinking I was being cute, I riposted her playful thrust, "Oh, that's from one of my other whores."

I'll let you imagine the width and breadth of the argument and how many stammered apologies I relinquished. Apparently, new girlfriends don't like to be referred to as whores and certainly not as one whore among many. Where was my Inner Critic then? Where was his sanctimonious voice of reason and denigration that he bestows so magnanimously every time I write? Apparently my tongue is quicker than his blistering critiques.

Speaking extemporaneously is dangerous for me because my mind has brilliant ideas that are often brilliant and hilarious only deep in my frontal lobe and are fast-tracked to my mouth by the frat boy-like reptilian and carnal part of my brain that wants to cause as much chaos as possible. When speaking aloud there is but a coarse filter to keep only the most flagrantly, death-inducing comments from flooding out of my porous maw.

When I write, I don't have the same problem because there is a huge gorilla sitting on my chest tapping his forefinger on my collarbone and asking me what a typewriter says. When I finally scream "Ding!" he slaps me hard to return the carriage. This is to let me know that I should reconsider the note to my girlfriend that starts with, "Missed you. Couldn't find condoms while you were gone. Used sandwich baggies instead. Barry didn't mind."

In my own twisted mind, this is funny. But maybe it's not funny to a girlfriend who has just come off a long flight and would appreciate a sincere and sweet note. This is where my Inner Critic would remind me to ‘know my audience.' Because of my Inner Critic, my words are chosen more carefully and while he may be a bit overbearing, oppressive, and chest-caving, he keeps me from mostly looking like a fool on paper.

Today I know when it is appropriate to call my girlfriends or female friends 'whores' (apparently never) because it is Experience that protects me from my brain when I speak, whereas it is my Inner Critic who protects me from writing a lesbian-parrot adventure series (or at least writing a bad lesbian-parrot adventure series). Were I able to make my Inner Critic over, I would simply give him more responsibility and let him stand sentinel over my mouth so I can keep the ‘whores' in.

It is possibly not a small wonder that David Samuel Johnson doesn’t have a girlfriend in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but is glad he has his Inner Critic.


Makeover of my inner critic?

  by Don Edgers

First of all, didn't my inner critic die? I know there was a funeral for it in March of 2007.

But if it was somehow resurrected, I seriously don't think, at its age, a makeover would be appropriate. It could be likened to me getting a facelift. The cleft where my chin used to be would probably be my navel and my face would be upside-down on the back of my head, and I'd have to wear a necktie in public - you get the picture….. It's just too late for an inner critic makeover.

Don Edgers tends to the grave of his inner critic in Port Orchard, WA. His web site is

Less is More

  by Jane Merryman

My ideal inner critic makeover: Slim down and go on an endless Zen mediation retreat.

Jane Merryman plans to open an inner critic spa in Petaluma, CA.

Letter Perfect

  by Jessica Hoard

Dear Inner Critic,

I'm writing you this letter because, well, I think it's time we had a talk. We've been together a long time. We've had some good times. I'm not saying I'm ready to call it quits, but I think we need some time apart. Lately we just can't seem to get along. You've always got something negative to say about me. And then I get upset and hate you for being rude and insensitive. It's not healthy. It's clear you're not happy, and you take it out on me. Oh, I know I'm not perfect, and I know you don't mean to hurt my feelings on purpose. But I think you need to take a good long look at yourself, turn that magnifying glass around and examine why you say the things you do to me. Am I really all that bad? I know you like me, even if it's just a little. But I guess it's true, that we always hurt the ones we love.

So until you can begin to see things a bit more objectively, get a handle on that negative attitude of yours and start being a little nicer to me, I think we should stay away from each other for awhile. It's for the best. Then when we are together once again, you might have a bit more understanding for me, and I might be a bit more appreciative of your efforts to make me a better person. But right now, neither one of us is any good for the other. As we are today, your personality is far stronger than mine, and I'm suffocating.

One day soon, I will need you again. And when I do, I'll let you know. You're always so good about keeping me grounded. Too good sometimes. So until that day, try to loosen up a bit. Take a vacation, relax. You've been working overtime lately, and it's made you unbearable to be around. Try meditation. Get in touch with you inner nurturer. Go on a road trip. Take up a hobby. A hobby other than nagging me.

We both know we can never truly be separated for good. We're stuck in this life together, for better or worse. I just think that every now and then, we both could use some space. Take care of yourself.


Jessica Hoard is a writer and photographer living Memphis, TN. You can see her photography at or read her new blog at

The Time Rate of Change of Position of a Body in a Specified Direction

  by Laura LeHew

I am an innocent bystander. I wake up with a thought. It slaps me across the face. A solution. An epiphany. A poem. Whole and complete. I forget to shower. Somehow now it's midnight. It's Friday. My coffee cup is the dregs. I drink it anyhow, the microwave is too far away. My stomach is acid. Did I eat? I'm pulling my hair out—I email a friend. She emails me back. I send her my poem. It sucks. The epiphany didn't pan out. I should give up writing. I don't know why I bother submitting. I email another friend. She sends me her poem, she says her poem needs work. She can't see what's wrong. I take a look, send her a couple of suggestions. She's so close. She's so talented. I'll never be as talented as she is. I wish I was her. Her and her perfect prose. Perfect poetry. Perfect life. Why do I write? I'll never get a chapbook published. Never a book. Barely a poem. Oh, and the ones that do get accepted, they must be mistaken, those editors. Some catch. A misunderstanding. Maybe they feel sorry for me? It's one or two or three. AM. There is a whisper in my ear. An acceptance in my inbox. I'm brilliant. I'm talented. I'm tired. Luckily I'm in my pink flannel pajamas.

Laura LeHew, an award winning poet, received her MFA in writing from the California College of The Arts in 2003 and has been emerging ever since. Her poems have appeared in national and international journals and anthologies such as Alehouse Press, Big Pulp, Her Mark Calendar ‘07/’09, Outrider Press, Pank, PMS, and Untamed Ink. Email: E-Mail

Here's Looking at You, Miss Grimsley

  by Marilyn Petty

I don't give my inner critic anything. Miss Grimsley, my omnipresent, omnipotent inner critic is the giver and I the ever-wounded taker of mean-spirited nonstop criticism. That I would look her in the eye and suggest she get a new hairdo or a dress other than black, with a generous décolletage, maybe a touch of pink blush and red spike heels with open toes is beyond the pale of derring-do. She might resign and according to Miss Grimsley, I can't live without her. My fear is that she may be right.

Still, the idea of a made-over Miss Grimsley is tantalizing. Perhaps she wouldn't object to a few tentative gestures: a Chantilly lace collar of compassion, a discreet brooch set with a tiny diamond of sparkling humor, a teddy bear for tenderness, a cashmere shawl to wrap her in warmth, a pair of doeskin slippers to ease her heavy tread. Not all in a heap, of course. Not wretched excess. Just a simple, one-at-a-time gift, no strings attached.

I realize such gestures necessitate surrendering my knee-jerk defensiveness and not pouting if she doesn't say, "Thank you." She would tell me to get on with my work but, maybe this time, not in a hard way. I would detect a hint of kindness in the tone of her voice We might even smile a little at one another. It would be a start. After all, when you get right down to it, we are one and the same so we might as well act like it.

You might find Marilyn Petty in her garden in Santa Rosa pouring tea with sugar for Miss Grimsley. We can only hope.

Sit in my Chair

  by Marlene Cullen

"Darling, sit in my chair," she shakes out her cloth and drapes it in front of me. She pulls it snug around my neck so all I see in the mirror is my head. I'm just a talking head.

"Look in the mirror," she croons. "You are beautiful. You are gorgeous. You have a fantastic mind with amazing ideas and wondrous thoughts."

"Believe in yourself," she cajoles me. "Tell yourself affirmations: You can do it. I believe you. You are up to all good, wise and knowing. You can do no wrong."

My personal assistant gives me this pep talk as I sit down to write.

"Concentrate," she encourages. "Focus. You can do this thing called writing.You have clarity, wisdom and courage. I believe in you."

She removes the drape with a flourish and I see the new me. I'm sparkling, energized and encouraged. My pen leaps into my hand. My notebook practically dances. Words flow effortlessly.

But wait. Charcoal smoky words emanate from the corner of the room.

"Who are you?"

"I'm your other Inner Critic. The one who won't go away."

"Shoo. Go away."

"Darling, I'm here to help you."

"No, you're not. You're here to criticize and judge me and make me feel bad."

"But, darling, how are you going to get rid of me? I've been around you for so long. We're like bosom buddies."

"I burned my bra a long time ago. So I can just as easily send you out in a puff of smoke. Just like that."

"You'll miss me."

"No, I won't and anyway, you can come back and visit, when I invite you."


"Yeah, I promise."

And so, Ms. Inner Critic went on a journey. And she was invited back, on my terms, in my timeframe.

At that time, because she was an invited guest, she was welcomed and she behaved graciously.

She was helpful. She noticed word choices that weren't quite right. She offered her suggestions for change calmly with clarity. She offered clarification with dignity that elevated her from nagging inner critic to something more like a reviewer, like Jan Wahl or Ebert & Roeper, offering observations as a movie reviewer would.

I even came to like her, as long as she didn't barge in uninvited, peering over my shoulder, looking down her nose at me. In fact, she became my very good friend.

Inner critic? New best friend.

Marlene Cullen is a cheerleader for writers, founder of Writers Forum, and contributing editor to She has been published in More Bridges and Redwood Writers Anthology, Vintage Voices.

Giving My Inner Critic a Makeover

  by Meg Hanna House

A friend in my former writing group decided to do battle with her inner critic. A loyal Democrat, she named her inner critic "Dick Cheney" and pasted a picture of him on the inside cover of her notebook … upside down … with an "X" through it.

The idea captured our group's imagination, and we started calling everyone's critics "Dick Cheney." When someone waved her hand dismissively before reading her writing, saying, "I'm not sure what I'm doing," one of us would say, "Be careful, your Dick Cheney's showing!" Then we'd all smile and get down to the business of sharing our work.

The image was fun -- and valuable. I need to put my inner critic aside as I begin writing, or I'll never get past the first few paragraphs, or the first few words, without throwing my pen down in dismay. I need to push that critical part of my brain aside, whatever her name is (I'm thinking mine is female), in order to keep going.

But there's a role for my critic - as long as she's a constructive one. Her editor vision can help me decide whether and when to submit a piece of writing. She's good at telling me to cut out paragraphs that don't strengthen my point, at pointing out when I've used a word too many times, at helping me find a beginning and end to an essay.

So here's how I'm reframing my inner critic. When I start a new piece of writing, and she peers over my shoulder, ready to point out a potential problem, I'm going to say, "Thanks, but not right now. Can I call you later, when I need some editing advice?"

Meg Hanna House works with her resident critic in Arlington, Virginia. She is a writer and editor, and her personal essays have appeared in the Washingtonian, the Christian Science Monitor and other publications.

Dream On

  by Susan Bono

I'm at a party and Dana tells me she wants to write a novel. She hasn't written so much as a short story, but everybody's got to start somewhere.

"It's about the easiest way I can think of to make a lot of money," she explains.

"Most writers I know work pretty hard," I say. I know I sound defensive. I don't bother to comment about the money.

"Oh, I'm not talking about a literary novel," she says, as if this explains everything. In case she's not being clear enough she adds, "I wouldn't want to waste my time on anything but a bestseller."

Dana cheerfully goes on to admit she doesn't even have an hour a day to devote to this sure-fire solution to her problems. She doesn't really have an idea for a plot, either. But someone gave her a copy of the "No Plot? No Problem! Novel Writing Kit" by Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). She figures she's all set.

"You go, girl," I say, having learned from past experience that it wouldn't be a party without some version of Dana. Folks who would never tell a musician they plan to conquer the music world once they choose an instrument will go to their graves convinced that a writer's job consists of drinking coffee and typing "The End" at the bottom of page 200 just as their agent calls begging for their next blockbuster.

Now that I think of it, there are worse things in life than Dana's literary version of air guitar. When passion and curiosity falter, extreme hubris is not a bad trait in a writer. Without sufficient cockeyed optimism, only the most masochistic among us would ever pick up a pen.

In fact, I may remake my inner critic in the image of Dana. My current IC knows exactly how hard and futile writing is, and never misses an opportunity to remind me of this. She is so horrified by triteness I can't get out a single sentence without hearing, "Gee, how original. Nobody will want to read this."

What would writing be like if the voice in my head said things like, "What a great idea! You can do it! It'll be fun!" What if that voice kept talking like that, even when rejections and debt started piling up?

You can argue that writers need inner critics to provide guidance and standards of excellence. But after all these years, I don't need someone telling me how to do my job. For this phase of my writing career, I need an inner Dana, the life of her own party, who, in defiance of all logic, is convinced she can succeed. Until I learn to be more like you, Dana, your dream is safe with me.

Susan Bono is encouraging her Inner Dana in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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