I’m reading the wise Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” a treatise on creativity and creative recovery. A key reason why our inner artist needs nurturing is because it has been wounded, often by people we trust: our parents, teachers, editors, and mentors.
In the passage below, Julia talks about how blanket criticism wounds artists, instead of helping them grow.
I will say again that much true criticism liberates the artist it is aimed at. We are childlike, not childish, Ah-hah! is often the accompanying inner sound when a well-placed, accurate critical arrow makes it mark. The artist thinks, “Yes! I can see that! That’s right! I can change that!”
The criticism that damages an artist is the criticism–well-intentioned or ill–that contains no saving kernel of truth yet has a certain damning plausibility or an unassailable blanket judgment that cannot be rationally refuted.
Do you remember when someone you trusted wounded your creative confidence?
I remember my sixth grade needlework teacher, Mrs. Jain, inspecting my hand-embroidery on a wrap-around skirt. I was creating a woman in a resplendant, flowing gown with a sunhat. Instead of embroidering the outline of the hat, I had decided to fill it in, like I might have colored the hat with crayons if it was on paper. I’d embroidered rough strokes of two colors, red and green, in a patchwork style, filling the hat. When I thought it up, it had looked different in my mind, but it looked interesting and colorful. Mrs. Jain didn’t agree. She thought it was “ugly.”
Her words stayed with me as I went back to take my seat. In fact, they affected me so deeply, I started the project from scratch, measuring and cutting the cloth for the skirt, sewing it up, stenciling in the beautiful woman, and then embroidering her hat, this time with neat little chain stitches on the outline of the hat with sparkles in the center. Mrs. Jain liked it when she saw my new work. It was pretty. It was safe. I learned that safe was good and that I was probably not that creative anyway.
Yet budding artists need praise and encouragement, Julia says, not blanket judgments or harsh criticism. But, parents, teachers, and mentors can fail to provide this praise and encouragement. Julia recounts how many academics in film schools (where she also taught) seemed more interested in picking apart a student’s work than building it up.
Student work, when scrutinized, was seldom appreciated. Far from it. Whatever its genuine accomplishments, it was viewed solely in terms of its shortfalls. Time and again I saw promising work met with a volley of should-have-dones, could-have-dones, and might have dones, instead of being worked with as it was.
Luckily, not all teachers are like that. Around this time last year, I was lucky to be in a creative writing class, where my teacher, Ramesh Menon (or “Menon Sir” as we called him, out of respect, and not because we “had” to) encouraged us to write, instead of beating us down. He told us that we needed to live, and experience, and write everyday, if just a little bit. That it would probably take years to learn the craft but that was ok. That we should show up to write anyway, and that our life would be better for it.
Would I be writing today if he had told me I had no originality, my writing was trite, I didn’t have a voice, and couldn’t I write anything original instead of quoting people all the time? Probably not.
How did you overcome your creative confidence killers?
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