The first resource I used to help me in my creative life was “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. The program’s keystone is to write ‘morning pages’ – 3 single-spaced pages of stream-of-consciousness outpouring. There are no limits of topic or form, and there is no editing allowed. You write what comes to mind, and that’s all. The morning pages gradually taught my mind that expression is safe – not all thoughts or idea need to be subjected to criticism. One of the reasons the exercise was so successful for me was that I didn’t show the writing to anyone; I didn’t even read the pages myself. I put them in an envelope and forgot about them.
We played a similar game in a figure drawing class I took. For at least the first month, we did not look at our drawings during the drawing process. We had to keep our eyes on the subject at all times, training our hand to trust our eye, and banishing the inner critic from the picture. This must have been very intense for the models! At the end of each 3-hour class, our drawings were subjected to rigorous, specific, and poetically expressed praise by our teacher. There was never any criticism given in the class, which I found remarkable. And the amazing thing? WE GOT BETTER.
But what does that mean, to ‘get better’? What is ‘good’? What is ‘improvement’?
I think many artists feel like they are getting better when they experience more flow in their work, when they can feel as though they are transcending the craft and technique of their medium and expressing something from an internal impulse. It is from this place of flowing energy (as opposed to a block), that the most authentic expression can happen, and a greater volume of work can be created.
Under these circumstances, it doesn’t matter if an individual work is ‘good’ or not, because a living, dynamic body of work is being produced that is slightly altered each time another work is added to it. It is an expression of what flows from the artist.
Another attribute of work that is being produced from this ‘flow’ place is that its defining features are impermanent. Just like Pema Chodron, Eckhardt Tolle, and numerous meditation teachers before them have taught, everything in each moment is mutable. Your work today might look nothing like it did yesterday, and you might love that or hate it; your work might not seem to change for a long time, and you might be glad, or impatient for it to move to the next phase. Your work, and your relationship to it, is guaranteed to change.
There’s a little thing that plays a part in our inner critics’ chatter, which comes out in our conversations about other people (a. k. a. gossip) – it’s called “Taste”. I’m not talking about taste in the internal sense (ie, the group of things we know ourselves to enjoy), but taste as we use it in relation to other people.
Inherent in this word is a binary implication of either good or bad. It is a way in which we evaluate and talk about the kinds of art people consume/curate for themselves, whether it is fashion, design (cars, home décor, etc.), food, and music. It is our way of shaming or congratulating each other into or out of displaying our habits of consumption.
This concept, no matter which way you slice it, is an enemy to the artist’s flow. The progression of our creative work is dependent on our perceived freedom to make whatever the hell we want – the pressure to make something that is in ‘good taste’ or ‘tasteful’ is not part of the vocabulary of flow. We have to celebrate the experiments that end up as appendages for our core opus as we expand our perspective and skills, and gain more courage to escape any boxes we find ourselves in.
A few years ago, Tom Diamond, an amazing theatre director, said to me “Walk up to the line of good taste, and step over it.” For an opera singer, you can imagine what kind of a shock that must have given me, as our training places so much emphasis on what is and is not ‘in the style’ or ‘tasteful’!
Do you know what announced itself in my body? Fear. Do you know what happened to me when I did it anyway? A few giggles, some applause…. Basically, nothing. And I’ll tell you that the dreaded line was much farther over the footlights than I thought it would be!
Thanks to Tom Diamond, I realized that an artist’s most important task is to step over the line of good taste on purpose. It’s our responsibility to figure out what we are most afraid to say, whether that fear comes from ourselves or from society/our audience, and to say it. If we allow external ideas of taste to define the walls we work between, we will only ever reproduce the status quo, pre-existing comfortable thoughts and beliefs.
As queer or marginalized people making art, it is even more essential that we be willing to step over the line of good taste. When we inhabit the edges of society, the expansion of our hearts, sense of self, space we inhabit, will inevitably cause society itself to expand. This is uncomfortable for everyone and terrifying for us, and this is the way that humanity grows. It is a huge service to the collective consciousness if we are able to muster this kind of expansion through our art.
Here are 5 things you can do right now to help silence your inner critic and get a sense of flow in your creative production:
Cut out negative comments with regards to other people’s creative work. Practising lovingkindness and appreciation for other people’s work, no matter how far it is from the art work you have on your walls or in your earbuds, can help you practise showing appreciation for your own work.
Focus on quantity of production.
Create work that is meant to be destroyed or kept to yourself (not meant to sell or publicize)
Bring one thing into your life (piece of art, song, clothing) that you feel sensitive about being judged about your taste and share it with a friend without apology.