3 insane lessons Birdman teaches writers

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Michael Kane as Riggin Thompson and Birdman

There are so many reasons I love Birdman but probably my favourite aspect of the movie was the way the filmmakers explored self-doubt and the role criticism plays in both motivating and demoralising artists.

Note: There are Birdman spoilers below so if you haven’t seen the movie read on at your own risk. Also, what are you waiting for?

Firstly, a quick Birdman recap

Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, centres around a theatre adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Michael Keaton plays the protagonist, Riggan Thomson—a washed up Hollywood actor who writes, stars in and directs the play. He is haunted by his inner critic who takes the form of Birdman, the superhero he played in his glory days.

The lessons Birdman can teach writers

As mentioned, the film focuses on the impacts self doubt and criticism have on artists, teaching writers three vital lessons.

Lesson 1: What to do with that mean voice inside your head

“Maybe that’s what you are — a joke.”
—Riggan Thomson (Birdman), to himself

So I don’t know about you but I have my own pretty awful Birdman, or rather Birdwoman inside my head. When I sit down to write it starts:

  • You’re dreaming—you’ll never get published!
  • What’s the point of any of this?
  • No-one’s ever going to read any of the rubbish you produce.
  • You’re the worst writer that ever existed.
  • Are you joking? You can’t do this.
  • FAILURE!

In the film, Birdman is the physical manifestation of Riggin Thompson’s self-doubt—his inner critic who constructs invisible blocks to hold him back. Birdman is basically the personification of all his insecurities.

Doubt in itself is not bad—in fact it’s necessary. It encourages us to keep thinking, to make informed decisions and not take everything at face value. Doubt plays a huge role in self-improvement. But negative self-doubt—the crushing kind that Birdman lays on Riggin, isn’t helpful. Throughout the film we see a man struggling to reconcile the success of his past with the uncertainty of his future. We see him decline and as he does, Birdman becomes stronger, feeding off his insecurity.

No matter what stage you’re at in your writing journey, self-doubt is going to come knocking. Sometimes you’ll be able to use it to your advantage. Having a healthy dose of doubt means you’ll be the kind of writer who constantly improves, who listens to feedback and actually takes it on. But when our inner critic becomes too, well Birdman-like, we run the risk of it affecting our confidence to the point that we quit creating all together.

Some practical methods I’ve used to help silence my Birdwoman are:

Lesson 2: Everyone’s a critic

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Maybe my favourite part of the movie was where Mike Shiner and Riggin confront influential critic Tabitha Dickinson. She tells Riggin she’s not going to see his play but is going to ‘kill’ it—for the pure fact she hates celebrities ‘pretending’ to be actors.

In an adapted Gustave Flaubert quote Mike Shiner says:

“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.”

As he points out to her, criticism costs nothing. You’re not bearing your soul as a critic and yet it seems everyone is quick to find fault with anyone who actually does find the courage to create. As humans we love to label and criticism is a way we can achieve this.

As a writer you’re going to come up against criticism—whether it’s in the Times, on Twitter, in the comments section of a video you produce or on Goodreads. Not everyone is going to like what you create. It’s also helpful to remember that critics are consuming your art through the lens of their own personal experience—it’s subjective and all relative.

Critics consume your art through the lens of their own personal experience Click To Tweet

The way you deal with criticism and how you stop it from crippling you is important and a very individual thing. Are you going to take it on Giselle Bundchen/Under Armour style? Or is it worth having someone else filter comments and reviews so you don’t give your inner critic more ammunition? The trick, in the end, is not to let negative comments get you down—even if it’s a whole lot easier said than done.

Lesson 3: Write for you

This last lesson is the most important. You need to write your truth because you want to. If you feel your work is only valid when it’s well received by everyone—then the reality is criticism will ultimately kill your art. Yes we need a little self-doubt to help motivate us to achieve our best, but eventually, we all need to close the bathroom door on our Birdman before it gets too intense and we shoot our nose off to spite our face—ah literally.

Did Birdman teach you any lessons about how to deal with your inner critic? Are there any movies which have impacted your work or your views about being a writer? What techniques have you used to silence your self-doubt? Let me know in the comments below.

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