Flow versus “Taste”: How to silence your inner critic
T The first resource that 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 are designed to teach the mind, gradually, that expression is safe; not all thoughts or ideas are meant to be criticized. 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 cultivated a similar practice in a figure drawing class I took. For the first month at least, we did not look at our easels during the drawing process. We kept our eyes on our subject at all times, training our hands to trust our eyes, and banishing our inner critics 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, but encouraging critique by our teacher. There was never any negative criticism given in the class, which I found remarkable and effective; the amazing thing was that we got better.
But what does that mean, to “get better”? What is “good” art or creative practice? And what constitutes “improvement”?
Many artists feel improvement 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 (let’s call it) energy 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. This steadily growing collection of work is an expression of what flows from the artist.
One of the most mysterious attributes of a rapidly growing body of work is that its defining features are impermanent. Just like numerous spiritual teachers have posited, everything in every 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 perhaps impatient, for it to move to the next phase. Your work, and your relationship to it, is guaranteed to change.[bctt tweet=”Your work, and your relationship to it, is guaranteed to change.”]
There’s something that plays a part in our inner critics’ chatter, which comes out in our conversations about other people, as well as in our self-talk: this notion of taste. I’m not talking about taste in the internal sense (i.e., a subjective flavor of things we know ourselves to enjoy), but taste as a judgment of things we consume. Our world is built around binary understandings of either good or bad. It is a deeply ingrained way in which we conceptualize, evaluate and talk about the kinds of art people consume/curate for themselves, whether it is fashion, design (cars, home décor, etc.), food, or music. It is our way of congratulating or, too often, shaming each other and ourselves into or out of displaying our habits of our artistic production and consumption.
The manifestation of this concept is counterproductive to artistic flow. Cultivating flow means that our creative work blossoms when we feel the freedom to make whatever the hell we want to make – the pressure to make something that is in “good taste” is not part of the vocabulary of flow. We can and should celebrate the experiments that end up as misfit appendages of our core opus as we expand our perspective and skills…and in the meantime gain more courage to escape any boxes we find ourselves in.[bctt tweet=”We can and should celebrate the experiments that end up as misfit appendages of our core opus.”]
A few years ago, prolific stage director Tom Diamond said to me, “Walk up to the line of good taste, and step over it.” You can imagine what kind of a shock that must have given me as an opera singer, since our training places so much emphasis on what is and is not “in the style” or “tasteful”!
Trepidation immediately announced itself in my body, but do you know what happened to me when I stepped over that line anyway? A few giggles, some applause…basically, nothing. And I can attest to the fact that, for my audience as for me, the dreaded line was much farther over the footlights than I thought it would be!
Thanks to Tom Diamond, I realized that one of the artist’s most important tasks is to step over the line of good taste, boldly and intentionally. It’s our responsibility to figure out what we are most afraid to say, and to say it, whether that fear comes from ourselves or from society. If we allow ideas of good or bad taste to dictate the parameters in which we work, we will only ever reproduce without questioning pre-existing, comfortable, and, frankly, often reactionary thoughts and beliefs.
As 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, and the spaces we inhabit, will ideally cause society itself to expand. This boundary-crossing is uncomfortable for everyone and especially terrifying for us, but with some discomfort comes growth if we can embrace it.
Here are 5 things you can do right now to help silence your inner critic and get a sense of flow in your creative work:
- Practice positive attention and appreciation with regards to other people’s creative work. Practice kindness and gratitude for other people’s work, no matter how far it is from the artwork you have on your walls or in your ear buds; by extension, this can help you show appreciation for your own work.
- Shift your focus for a while from quality of work to quantity of work. Let all of your ideas and energy come out through your medium. Transform the making of artwork into a physical action, and leave your intellectual discernment for another time.
- Meditate. Spending 5 or 10 minutes practicing meditation before you start making things can really help pause your inner chatter and cultivate flow. The most helpful thing I’ve learned from meditation is that I am not my thoughts—I’m the person that has thoughts.
- Create work that is meant to be destroyed or kept to yourself (not meant to sell or publicize). See what comes out when you’re not making something to be seen by others.
- Bring one thing into your life (piece of art, song, clothing) according to two criteria: 1) you enjoy it, and 2) you perceive it to be “in poor taste.” For example, I definitely thought that I would be judged harshly by my peers for enjoying Taylor Swift’s “1989” album (cue inner critic, “This is mainstream pop music, and you’re a classical musician! Surely your tastes are more refined than this…”). It was liberating to allow myself to experience simple enjoyment, without binding my pleasure to ideas of how what I enjoy defines who I am, or what others would say if they knew.
I hope with all my heart that you are able to use some of these suggestions to experience more flow in your work, and silence your inner critic. As Taylor says:
“Cause the players gonna play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off…”