Anyone who writes — or creates anything that goes out to the public — knows that oftentimes the product is akin to putting your heart out on a piece of paper (or laptop, or canvas and so on). Vulnerable, scary and vomit-inducing.
So even if you get 100 compliments and kind words, one negative remark roars above the rest. It sticks out and stays with you. Not only does it have you questioning your work but, worse, your worth.
Or even just the idea of being evaluated gets under your skin. Instead of telling the truth or letting your creativity flow freely, limitless and liberated, you’re paralyzed because you’re thinking about what everyone else will be thinking.
So one of the biggest barriers to creativity is, as you’ve probably guessed by now: concern over the critics — be they blog readers, your boss, friends, family or strangers at a networking event, art gallery, pottery class, dance recital, conference or concert.
“Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner,” according to the Tao Te Ching, as Patti Digh quotes in her book Creative Is a Verb: If You’re Alive, You’re Creative. (Tell me about it!)
The key, Digh writes, is to adjust your perspective and refocus on the work. She writes:
The only real way to be creative is to create. Without attachment to outcome. Without attachment to sales figures or blog hits. Without caring about the ways in which your work is dissected, criticized or loved. But with a keen, overwhelming, burning, passionate focus on what it is you long to say more than anything in the world. That’s the thing. That’s the only thing.
Digh tells the funny story of how she found out that her mom was reading her blog. In a nutshell: Digh was shocked. She stopped writing posts for several weeks, paralyzed by the thought that her mother was privy to her stories and secrets. Later, she learned that Mom was actually proud of her. But that didn’t matter.
“Whether she hated or liked it, my writing changed. I was aware of an audience that had a face, and a history, and a heart. It changed what I was creating.”
She tells another story of a young actor who was performing a one-man play in New York City. During the preview, he “wasn’t getting what he expected from the audience,” so he began “adjusting his performance to meet them, to cajole them into responding, rather than following the spine of his own story, his own art.” In a few words: He sucked. But it was a big learning opportunity. For the next performance, he ended up sticking to his process without paying attention to the audience and received rave reviews.
Digh’s book features a “creative challenge” that can help us stop paying attention to the audience, too. That includes both the negative and the positive (even though, let’s face it: the positive feels really good!).
The activity may seem sort of odd at first (and a bit uncomfortable). She talks about how several years ago Annie Dillard’s bare bones workspace was featured in Oprah’s O magazine. “When asked about her creative space, Dillard replied that there were no pictures of her family and friends in the building because when she writes, she needs to be an orphan…Our challenge is to be a wildly curious orphan, disconnected from those who read or view our art, our creative expression.”
Yes, that’s right: “Write like an orphan.” Digh suggests taking 10 minutes to “express a part of yourself that stays hidden because you worry about what your friends or partner or mother would say.” She says to answer this question: “What is my hidden secret?”
Why? Because according to Digh, “The most human expression of ours — the one that includes our fears and secrets — is often the most potent source of the creative spirit, but we keep it hidden for fear of what others will think.”
Another idea Digh recommends is creating a collage that actually symbolizes your audience (it can be family, too) and writing “Write like an orphan” on it. If you want to do more, for 37 days—here’s the reason for the 37 days—use “What is my hidden secret” as a starting point to create art or write for five minutes.
And try to remember one more thing, as Digh writes:
Painters paint, writers write, actors act…By the time their art appears in the world, they are moving on to the next thing that they feel compelled to say, that next painting to illustrate how they see the world, for no one else but them.