The myth of the prophylactic attack dog

As long as I can remember I have been taking myself out. Viciously criticizing myself. I can remember, as a child of nine or so, going through my room and clearing out old stories and drawings that I’d done. My mother practically begged me not to throw them out.

‘They’re terrible,’ I said. I couldn’t stand to see them around, in their clumsiness and naivete and failure.

‘Someday you’ll wish you had them,’ she told me. And I do.

I have the same conversations with my own kids. I sneak my daughter’s artwork away and hide it before she can destroy it. One of my sons will rip his stuff up and scribble over it if you compliment it. And here I have been trying so hard not to model any self-deprecating or self-destructive tendencies.

Maybe I’ve been unsuccessful. Maybe it’s innate.

I don’t attack my own work anymore. Not even in private. I will tell you why I spent the first 40 years of my life doing it, though.

I thought I was helping myself. I thought that if I were my own harshest critic, then I would make myself stronger. If I imagined every possible way that I could be criticized and got there first, then I would somehow have the magical power to stop criticism from hurting me.

I would save myself looking like a fool.

It’s like Inspector Clouseau and Kato. I thought I was creating an internal attack dog that would ambush me and keep me on my guard. Somehow by keeping this dog chained up in my house it would act as a prophylactic against future harm.

The problem with the dog is that if you train it for long enough, it can beat the hell out of you. I mean, think of Clouseau and Kato. Clouseau wins mostly by luck, sometimes by dirty tricks. Kato has nothing to do all day but think of ways to hurt Clouseau. (You also have to reckon he despises Clouseau and is only doing this job because he’s been exploited by the colonial hierarchy—after all, he’s a man, not a dog—but that’s another story). If Kato gets tired of this charade, you just know that the bumbling Inspector is going down.

When you keep a prophylactic attack dog, you risk the same thing. You will come staggering in one night with your broken umbrella, drenched to the skin, just wanting a bit of shelter and rest. And the thing will get you by the throat and tear you to pieces. You’ll find it’s not your house anymore. The dog will lock you in the cupboard under the sink with the plunger and the bleach, eat your food and sleep in your bed—because that’s what you’ve trained it for.

It’s a long road back making friends with that anthropomorphic cigar-smooking tyrant pooch, I can tell you. Convincing it to let you have a few scraps and sleep on the rug is the best you can hope for at first.

Everyone needs an internal critic at some level. I’m not saying that I reckon all of my writing farts rainbows and every sentence I produce should be enshrined in all eternity. But the internal critic needs to be a friendly, loyal dog who will be on your side to guard you against that shit outside. Not an attacker from within. Be very, very careful how you feed your dog and how you treat it, and how you let it treat you.

For many of us, sooner or later there comes a point where work gets hard and there’s no support at all from the outside world. That’s when you feel besieged. The fear of getting it wrong stops you. That whipped feeling stops you. The resounding silence from readers stops you. And if all you have at home is a dog that you’ve trained to attack you, then that’s not the kind of dog you want.