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How to Sharpen Your Critical Mind

Nine months ago, I left a corporate job as Editor-in-Chief and Director of Innovation to pursue writing full time. Though storytelling was a part of my every day, I wanted to understand better how to hone it. I wanted to understand better how to offer up vulnerability and then shape it into something personal and universal at the same time; specific to me but understood by everyone.

Since then, I’ve been immersed in the world of literary magazines. Publications like Hobart Pulp, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Literary Hub and Longreads whose pages feature deeply personal works that have been polished into a reflection of ourselves as a readers: tugging at strings of empathy, mutual joy and curiosity. It has taught me that to tell a story is to fall in love with editing it again and again, until it is something worthy of others’ attention; until it is what I mean to say and how I mean to say it.

Whether a writer or not, stories surround all of us and we each have our own to shape. In every corporate meeting there are introductions. The (sometimes grueling) ten minutes of “around the table” when each person gives their background doesn’t need to be a rote exercise in mumbling through your title and the project you’re working on. Your introduction should sparkle with the crisp knowledge that you’re saying what you mean to say, exactly how you mean to say it. In other words, apply a critical mind to shape your narrative into something undeniably you and understood by everyone.

I spoke with Michele Filgate, editor of the anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, on developing a critical mind, how to give feedback without cutting others down and how to break through “perfection paralysis”.

How does someone develop a critical mind, always searching for details and improvements?

For me, what’s been really important is to train myself by reading as much as possible. To learn how to think critically, the more we consume and the more we look at it like a writer (even if you’re not a writer), the more our minds will sharpen. How was the story told? Try to analyze it. Try to see what the common themes are that are running through it.

I think a lot of times we can be lazy consumers, whether it’s watching a movie, reading a book, looking at a piece of art in a museum. It’s a good challenge for everyone, with whatever media they’re consuming, to try to pick it apart and look at it like the artists who created it might look at it.

How do we critique ourselves and others without cutting down?

Start out by focusing on a few things that are working. People are more likely to listen when they feel like they’re being seen. I think we need to approach it from a space of positivity moving into critique. That allows people to be more flexible, to be more open minded about hearing ways in which they can change and which they might need to change.

What do folks most often leave out of their stories?

An easy trap people can fall into is getting so stuck in their own head that they forget to observe the sensory details around them, or to bring those in. One of the pieces of writing I like to share with my students is this great craft essay by Meredith Hall, called ‘Trust the Camera’.

When you are crafting a narrative, you need to remember that you are basically the director for the audience. You’re training your camera on what needs to be shown in order for the audience to understand what you’re trying to portray.

What do you feel makes a strong narrative?

I think we all have many different personas that make up who we are. And I think it’s very important to think about the persona we bring to the narrative. Who is it that’s telling this story? Which part of yourself?

How do we move through “perfection paralysis”?

One of the tools that I find the most helpful the writer Dylan Landis taught me: the Pomodoro Technique. I set an alarm on my phone for 25 minutes. And during those 25 minutes, I can’t check email, browse the internet, be on social media. I just can do the task at hand. There’s something about that concentrated burst of time that feels really doable.

The other thing is, you have to be okay with producing some really bad stuff to get to the good stuff. This is true even after you’ve had success, each new project is a new thing.

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