Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Before You Create, Pacify Your Inner Critic

Feel now, think later, for more flowing creativity

critics
Creating can be an emotional process. But there's good emotional—even when you're sad or the work epitomizes sorrow—and there's bad emotional. That's when your inner critic attacks you, calls you mean names, and causes you not to feel like creating anymore.

One of the ways you may slip out of flow when you're creating something is if you don't feel that what you're producing—your internal feedback—matches what you had in mind originally, that is, your internal ideal. Of course, apprehension due to such non-matching is helpful when it warns you to go back and revise the substandard work. In fact, that's an essential part of the flow process. It's only dysfunctional when it makes you feel too bad to continue working, then or later. 

According to Anne Paris, a clinical psychologist and author of Standing at Water's Edge: Moving Past Fears, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion, when the artist steps back from full immersion in the creative process, as she calls it, to a state of disengagement, it can be a time of reflection and consolidation. "But the artist can also feel insecure, vulnerable and full of self-doubt." She adds, "The artist's openness and exposure during immersion can leave him feeling naked and at risk of humiliation."

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A writer once told me he tries to befriend his inner critic, that voice that keeps yelling at him, insisting he writes badly and is altogether worthless. But the war between your creative self and your judgmental self isn't always going to be resolved by friendly diplomacy. I recommend teaching your inner critic to mind its own business by using the following practical strategies.

INNER-CRITIC ANESTHETIZING TIPS

  • Let it flow. Remind yourself regularly that, while you're immersed in the creative process, there's absolutely no sense in feeling embarrassed. Even if what comes out at first is crude, stiff, inappropriate, or simple-minded, tell your internal critic to take a hike, that he/she/it is simply getting in your way.
  • Write without thinking. According to New Yorker-published poet Stephen Perry, "If you just put down words, whatever pops into your head, meandering here and there, free-associating, allowing whatever sputters out to sputter out, amazingly, after a short interval, something takes hold, some comet wraps its tail around you like a kinetic Cheshire Cat, and you're off." Don't worry about punctuation, spelling, point-of-view, character, plot, any of the technical aspects of your particular art or craft. They can always be cleaned up later.
  • Write from your emotions. If you get emotionally involved enough with your subject, if you really feel it as you're writing or creating something about it, you'll forget to be self-conscious. If you're not in an emotional mood, try putting yourself into one. Many artists say they listen to a particular piece of music that's emotionally stirring as they begin creating. Experiment.

LET IT COOL

Once you're done creating for the moment, getting away from the emotion can be a challenge. The trick is to create from deep emotion but then to shut off the emotion in response to what you've done, what you see on the page, for example. Yes, react emotionally, from the true emotion that the piece evokes, but don't mix that up with judgment. It's the judging—and the particular negative emotion that follows—that gets us into trouble.

Psychologist Paris suggests that, if you do feel that negative judgment crowding in on you, it's a time to seek support from others. One way to do that, she writes, is through your connections with those whose responses energize you. Choose someone empathetic, not your inner critic made flesh (see my previous post on audience). It seems that Paris and I agree wholeheartedly that an artist is also wise to learn resilience and as much as possible about the process of immersion (i.e., creating in flow).

So let your work get cold—or at least cool—in order to better separate your self from it. "And, for some reason, the froth-mouthed monster, your internal critic, will not be as emphatic or robust," said Perry the poet (incidentally my spouse). "I'm not sure why the critic is more benign and sleepy and forgiving after a period of time passes, but that's been the case for me."

By the way, it's not good practice to revise when you're especially depressed or feeling irritable at others. Your negative emotions will get in the way. Oddly, writing while depressed, if you can manage it, may bring forth abundant spurts of worthwhile material.

Finally, keep in mind that showing your work to someone (even yourself at a later date) doesn't mean you're submitting it for publication or to strangers or the general public yet. Learn to separate spilling your guts from the imagined shame of exposure.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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