By Mary Hendrie


A couple weeks ago, I decided to try writing fiction, something I have told myself for a very long time that I simply couldn’t do. I started by putting on my headphones and opening a blank text file and typing away. Then I did it again. And again. Until a character started to emerge, and I started to learn about her life. It started out boring and difficult. It was very slow going, but it was also rewarding work. Like all writers (and perhaps all human beings), I live with some people I call my inner critics. They are noisy, rude, condescending, and generally counter-productive. But when the work is exciting enough, it’s possible to shut them up long enough to get something done.

So, for the past couple weeks, I managed to keep my inner critics hushed up long enough to write a first draft of a short story. As soon as the draft was complete, I handed it off to a couple trusted readers, and immediately the critics began chomping at the bit to get out and make some noise. Tempting as it is to stuff the critics further down into my already crowded psyche or to submit to feeling tortured and insane while they engage in a psychological prison riot, I believe that even my inner critics are part of myself, so today, I let them out to breathe.

The scene was like this.

It was the first warm day in a very long time, and the third graders at the local Catholic elementary school were going absolutely stir crazy to get outside. The first couple hours of the day felt interminable. They dragged their feet through every work sheet, math problem, and sentence diagram. Lunch gave them a glimmer of hope despite the bland so-called “spaghetti.” They ate in a hurry, guzzled down their milk, then dashed outside for recess. That’s when the screaming started, along with the face-making, booger flicking, and creative name calling. Some of them spun in circles while counting to thirty, then attempted to run full bore across the school yard. Some of them puked. But that’s all rather predictable for kids who have been cooped up too long.

But then something truly strange happened. Once the kids worked out all their unruly energy, they came back to me, formed a circle around me, and then proceeded to hold some kind of intervention. It was awful. It was like the “the cheese stands alone” verse of “The Farmer and the Dale.” And the worst part was that they all appeared to have an absurd, kind, over-protective concern for me. They said stuff like, “Sweetheart, this fiction thing you’re trying … we understand that you want to branch out and expand your creative abilities, but … maybe you should stick to poetry and nonfiction.”

“Yeah,” another piped up. “Poetry doesn’t even require a plot. You don’t even really have to make things up. You can just play with pretty words. It’s easy.”

A grumpy one off to the side said, “Well, poetry’s not exactly easy, but at least you’re good at it … sortof. I mean, you’ve done it before. So, technically you know how to do it. You’re not that good, but …”

“Well, what about nonfiction? The story and the characters are already there, so all you have to do is write them down …”

“Yeah, but it’s hard to get that stuff right. Real, believable people on the page? I think you’re asking too much of her.”

“All we’re saying is maybe you’ve set your sights too high.”

“Maybe work more on what you know already.”

“Maybe take a break from writing for a while.”

At this, the crowd lost focus and began to murmur among themselves. First in whispers, and then in shouts. They gave contradictory advice of all kinds but they did agree on one thing: I should probably give up because I’m not really as good as I’d hoped. Finally, I spoke up.

“Um. Guys? ” They continued to talk over me. “Guys!” Finally, silence. “The draft is written. It’s out of my hands now. I’ve given it to some people who will read it, and I hope they will do so kindly. They will probably give me some suggestions. And then I can decide to go on with the piece or not.”

“You GAVE someone your DRAFT?” Someone shouted.

“Oh sweet Jesus. We’re really in for it now. I mean, I saw that draft with my own eyes, and it was not pretty.”

“The typos!”

“The awkward dialogue!”

“The plot holes!”

“They’re going to think you’re an idiot! Seriously. Who would write something like that and call it a story?”

“Of course, WE know you’re not an idiot. We know it’s just a first draft. We know it’s a work in progress. But why would you go showing anyone something in that state?”

I cringed but held my ground. The piece was out there in the world now, incomplete and flawed as it may be. It’s out there. So be it. Luckily the recess bell rang just as the kiddos were looking too exasperated to go on. They got up from where they had been seated on the grass. Some of them had little twigs stuck to the backs of their chubby thighs. Their cow licks were going wild. They smelled of people who were too young to use deodorant but old enough to start needing it. They were sticky around their mouths and fingers. Some of them gave me mournful looks and kicked the dirt as they shuffled past me and back toward their classrooms.

It’s an odd sort of victory, but it seems I won, simply by outlasting them.

Of course, a victory of this kind is also temporary. Every day, every time I sit down to write, and every time I send off a story, poem or essay, they begin to chime in. I do my best to lull them to sleep with music or lure them away with candy or otherwise shut them up long enough to write a few thousand words. Luckily, having seen them for who they really are, I find them much more bearable. They’re not the grumpy old men who used to hang out at the coffee shop where I worked, because deep down, I never cared what those assholes thought. They’re not my junior high school English teacher who shamed me to no end when she found a note I’d written containing lots of foul words regarding the boys in my class. They’re not my boss because I don’t even care if he understands my creative endeavors, and that ain’t what he pays me for anyway. They’re not even my husband because luckily, he loves me even if my first draft sucks, and even if my second, third and fourth drafts don’t get any better. They are just kids. Sticky, smelly, ignorant yet opinionated children who need a chance to scream and shout and act immature yet condescending before they have to go back to class, sit in their desk and learn something.

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

40 responses to “Recess”

  1. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Sticky, smelly, ignorant — what a frightening, claustrophobic scene. How nicely — umh, frighteningly, rendered.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Hah. Thank you. I think the ring leader of my inner critics looks like the little brother of my best friend from junior high. He was a real terror at about 6 years old. And yes, he was always sticky (what the hell do kids have on them all the time, anyway?), and he always had an unwelcome opinion.

  2. Matt says:

    Ahhh….inner critics. I thought mine would go away after I started getting things published here and there. But no, like all the “best” schoolyard bullies they just changed their taunt to fit the new setting: “Oh, you’ve published! Now they’re gonna expecting something from you! You’ve raised the bar! Really think you can live up to it?”

    And of course, every now and then, they’re actually right. Jerks.

    The key for me was just learning how big a part of the process revision is. Things often look like crap at the outset, but can take on a whole new light the morning after. And once you start cutting away the dross, and moving things around….it can take on whole new (better) shape.

    • Mary Richert says:

      Thanks, Matt. These guys are just a bunch of punks, eh? Well, I find the thing that keeps me going is to always remember why I started writing. If I still have that love of the creative work in tact, then I will be ok.

      • You need to find some Inner Cheerleaders to go along with your Inner Bullies. I think every writer needs to, from time to time, be staggeringly confident. Just for a little while… Don’t get too carried away… But just enough to stand up to those bullying bastards and make you do something crazy like share your writing with the world.

        • Mary says:

          Thanks, David. Actually, I do get staggeringly confident when I’m in my zone — I put on my headphones and tune out the world and just write, and it feels amazing. I let myself get weird, you know? And that’s when it’s fun. The trouble I run into is that when you do open up like that on the page, there is a lot of personal muck just laying out there for examination and criticism when the editing process does come around.

          Hm… I do need to get in touch with my inner cheerleader.

        • I understand… It’s those moments of reflective criticism that drive us to polish our work; which is what separates the salable from the unsalable.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    Mary, this is funnier than Annie Lamont’s chapter about radio KFKD, and just as insightful.

    Great job.

  4. Irene Zion says:


    You have some scathingly scary inner critics. You probably need to meditate or something to silence them.
    Check around in your brain for some critics who are at least tactful.

    • Mary says:

      That’s the problem with third graders. They don’t know what tact means by a long shot. They are also obnoxious and smell bad. On the other hand, it’s easy not to take them too seriously when you recall that they are indeed third graders.

  5. Ducky Wilson says:

    It took me most of my 20’s to learn how to shut these voices up, but the more you write, the more you will learn to manipulate them (I would say control, but it’s more like wrangling, really.)

    I read somewhere (maybe Mamet, maybe King), that if you edit while you write you will never write anything good.

    It’s true.

    Now, when I write, there is no editor present. I lock her in a dark place – far away from my muses (they tend to tangle when round each other.) I write without regard to typos or structure. I just write as fast and as much as I can. It’s better if I don’t think too much, too. If I’m writing with pencil, I write in the margins (yes, I’m so old I know how to write by hand). I do not open that pandora’s box to unleash the editor with her evil red pencil until after the entire thing is written.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks, Ducky. (I love that name, by the way.)

      Your comments always have so much thought in them. First, yep, I’ve heard/read the same thing about editing while you write. It’s true for sure. I find that if I let my editors talk while I write, I will be far too cautious and never say anything of value.

      Also, I used to write by hand because it was a good way to look busy while sitting in a boring class. I really loved writing by hand, actually. I do it less now because I am a child of the internet age after all, but I still find it massively important to keep a handwritten journal for times when I am traveling sans technology or just stuck waiting for something, or especially if I’m writing “just for me.” That physical connection to the page is still important to me.

      • Ducky Wilson says:

        In 20 years kids won’t even know how to write. Everything will be typed. Maybe then I’ll get hired someplace. A museum perhaps.

        I love writing by hand. And I have a thing for pencil.

        Thanks for liking my name. Though my mother didn’t name me this, I confess.

    • Matt says:

      I tend to write a lot of my first drafts by hand–including a couple of my TNB posts. I work with pencil a lot, too, partially because it’s far more legible then when I write with a pen, and partially because I make a lot of mistakes. There’s also something about the scratchscratchscratch of the pencil tip moving across the paper.

  6. Ducky Wilson says:

    Me, too. (see above.)

    I especially love sharp pencils and I keep a battery powered sharpener with me.

    I’m not fond of pen. It’s too light. Too permanent.

    Pencils are freedom. You can change your mind whenever you want.

    I like freedom.

    • Mary says:

      Oh, I am passionate about pens! I can’t stand to use pencils or those erasable pens. Do they still make those? The ink smelled awful and smudged too easily. As for pencils, they look too flimsy on the page for me, and if you write something in pencil and leave it in your pocket when your pants go through the wash, there’s no telling what will be left of your potentially brilliant draft when it comes out. Plus, I love the physical flow of ink with a pen. and I like how it gets on your hands sometimes. Very sensual. Very muddy. Oh, and pencils always remind me of math class, which I never liked.

  7. Richard Cox says:

    I love how you render your inner critics as some of the most evil and heartless people on earth…schoolyard kids. I think the absolute nadir of compassion for your fellow man occurs in the seventh grade, no? Just as the hormones begin to rage, but while you still don’t comprehend how your action and words can affect the world?

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, Richard. You know, it was in the 3rd grade that my class started learning multiplication, and for some reason I really struggled to learn that. Two of the boys in my class made me cry about it because we were playing a “math game” and they didn’t want me on their team. That is why I will forever picture 3rd grade boys as the meanest people on earth. After that year, I practiced the art of looking aloof and superior while nursing a secret inferiority complex.

      • Richard Cox says:

        Yeah, I suppose for everyone it’s a different experience that defines it. Mine was in 7th grade, when my family had just moved to Midland, TX (at the time, it boasted the highest per capita income in the United States). I was telling some kid I lived on a certain street, which was in a nice neighborhood my parents could barely afford. Since we could barely afford it, I was wearing Sears brand “Toughskin” “jeans” and a similarly inexpensive shirt. The guy looks at me and says, “You don’t live in that neighborhood. Not with those rags you’re wearing.”

        But it wasn’t just the rich jerks. I remember when some friends and me went into this empty house (someone had moved away but couldn’t sell their house) and we committed various acts of vandalism inside. At the time I thought it was cool, but in fact it’s the meanest thing I’ve ever done.

  8. Alexandre says:

    my inner critics are kind of cruel, hope you can beat up those “kiddos”

    • Mary says:

      i find that with all creatures that have too much energy, beating them into submission just makes the problem worse one way or another. It’s always a matter of outlasting them, as they will likely crash eventually after all that sugar.

  9. I gonna beat my inner critics’ asses right now.

  10. Quenby Moone says:

    I’ll say this for your inner critics: they may be little bastards, but they’re very articulate ones! Mine can’t even fumble much beyond, ” You suck, you big dummy. Why do you bother!”

    I like yours more than mine because they’re cheeky. I admire a little cheek. (Not the derriere cheek. Just to clarify.)

    I handed a story of mine off to a couple of my friends recently, which was a remarkable level of bravery for me, and all I got back was a rousing good cheer–your critics are probably much more cruel and petty than your friends will be.

    • Mary says:

      There are few things I hate more than very young children with expansive vocabularies. My critics know this, of course, and they needle me with their big words all the time… Words I don’t even know, oddly enough.

  11. jmblaine says:

    Can I just say how much I love your bio?


    is a great book title.

    That would stop me in Borders.

  12. The inner critics are some of the biggest assholes I know. I sometimes wonder if successful types have re-trained them to say ‘Hey, buddy, you can do it! Zing the day on on!’ or just helpful advice; along the lines of ‘That milk’s gone bad. C’mon, amigo. You’re better than that.’

    • Mary says:

      They really are. But I also believe they are part of us, you know? And that they are just our personal fears and insecurities (which is why all of mine are mean 3rd grade catholic school boys… that was a difficult year…) When I feel serene and generally ok about the world, I can look at my work and an inner voice somewhere says, “you can do better,” in the nicest, most encouraging voice … i think she is my high school english teacher, an amazing woman who never gave 100% grades on any paper or test because she believed we could always always always do better. I think she is the person who taught me what it meant to strive.

    • kristen says:

      Re-trained them: yes! Maybe.

      Hmm. Perhaps those successful types have even picked themselves up a copy of the illustrious Psycho-Cybernetics, eh, Simon?

      Mary–lovely and funny post. Damn nitwit kiddos!

  13. The problem with inner critics–or at least mine–is that they seem to know me so well, and they’re as smart–and as dumb–as I am. Which tends to make them truly formidable.

    Or it used to, anyway. I drowned them all with vodka, at which point they actually began to praise me, but now they’re drunk most of the time, so I can’t really trust them there, either.

    What? I don’t have a drinking problem; my inner critics do.

    • Mary says:

      LOL my inner critics tend to shut up when drunk, but the moment they settle down, I instantly relax and want to just fall asleep. I do better with a cup of coffee and some headphones so even if they’re still chattering (and I promise you, they are), I can drown them out for a while.

  14. D.R. Haney says:

    I’m glad you’ve taken a stab at fiction, Mary, and I hope (and trust) it’s not the last time. I’ve mentioned before that I like the way you write. There’s a precision about it, and, to use a word I used before, a crispness.

    As for the inner critics, I remember a bit in Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares in which a young actor turns his own inner critic into an improvised character in class, to great applause from the teacher. That was my introduction to the notion of an inner critic, though I had (and have) many of my own, without calling them such. Actors are very prone to psychic brow-beatings, since it’s not just their work but their physical features that are being scrutinized. Internet message boards buzz with horrific comments about how this actor is fugly and that one is hideous, and so on.

    • Mary says:

      You are so kind, Duke. I’ve always felt for actors, models, and performers of all kinds because their bodies are the vehicles of their carreers, and they get treated as though a body is all they are. It’s especially odd (yet fascinating) to watch how people like Madonna, who is pretty crazy but probably the most well-adjusted, successful, business-minded celebrity out there, treat their bodies as business assets, to be maintained via surgery, exercise, wild diets, and all kinds of financial investments. Some people invest in their education while others invest in their appearance, and it all makes sense according to your industry.

      Hm. I think I’ve gotten off track. It’s still early … I should go for coffee now. Anyway, thank you.

  15. Angela Tung says:

    i love the way you characterize your inner critic – scary third-graders! i think mine is a meaner, smarter version of myself who stands there shaking her head: “what were you thinking?”

    i used to write a lot of fiction but have fallen out of the habit. i hope to start again like you – a little bit at a time, willing a character/story to emerge that isn’t completely based on my own life, with names changed.

    as for hand writing, i love to start off pieces that way, and i also love the sound of pen scratching paper on paper. i tell myself it’s a quill on parchment.

  16. Every time I read “Oh sweet Jesus” in your blurb I start busting up.

  17. Ellie Di says:

    I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the characterization of my inner voices. I tend to think of them as one person, the Evil Auctioneer outlined by Dianne Sylvan in “The Body Sacred”. Whenever a negative thought slips in, the Auctioneer comes to the podium and reads of a litany of everything “bad” about me at breakneck speed. It doesn’t matter what the content or source is, he just reads it all out for me to remember and agonize over it. The trick is learning to shut him up.

    But maybe I should sit down and think about the different pieces of the Auctioneer. Maybe his informants could be dealt with more easily than trying to put a mute on his microphone.

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