Your inner creative vs. your inner critic

How do we balance our creative minds with our critical minds?

“If you take life absolutely seriously, you must realize there’s the counter-play to it, that the world of law is simply an optional world. When you do something you create a pattern that excludes other possibilities, and there comes a time for opening up to all possibility and the creative act.

“Actually, everybody who has ever done creative work of any kind knows this moment. You make your plans in terms of what the mind can think of, and if you hold to those plans you’re going to have a dry, dead piece of work. What you have to do is open out underneath into chaos, and then a new thing comes, and if you bring your critical faculty down too early you’re going to kill it.” – Joseph Campbell

When I think of creativity these are the words that come to mind: flow, exploration, inspiration, curiosity, no rules, freedom. The word critical makes me think: reasoned, intellect, decision-making, organized, categorized, clarity, communication.

In the act of making art, writing, music, etc., we use our creativity as well as our critical minds. Is one more important than the other? When should we put aside our “creative” minds and put on our thinking caps? There’s no simple or firm answer. For me, I often flip back and forth between the two.

Last week, I spoke to some local high school students about what my job entails. I only had eight minutes with each group of students, so I had to figure out a way to succinctly sum up what I do. My official job title is “co-creator and executive producer”, which is always cumbersome to say, with the added problem being it doesn’t clearly express all the things I do on the show. But in preparing for the students, I realized that these roles encompass the creative aspects of my job and the critical aspects.

On a daily basis, I switch between “co-creating”, which involves everything from the initial ideas for the series to developing and writing episodes, and “executive producing”, which means reviewing and critiquing storyboards and animatics, as well as overseeing different aspects of the production. I enjoy the creating aspect of my job more, but both are necessary to making the show. I think this can apply to our own personal projects as well. You don’t need to oversee a crew of people to be an executive producer of your own work.

So when is it time to put aside our creative sides, step back, and look at what we’ve made with a more critical eye? It’s a personal choice, but like Joseph Campbell warns in the above quote, it’s important not to let your inner critic show up too early in the creative process, or you might risk losing the spark of energy fueling your ideas.

The creative mind says to the critic: “I hate rules! Just let me be free to roam and explore and make beautiful things.” The critical mind says to the creative: “You have some interesting and inspiring ideas here, but I don’t understand some of the choices you made. It’s not clear what you’re trying to say.”

Creative: “You just don’t get it, man! This is the pure expression of who I am.”

Critic: “But don’t you want your art to communicate with others?”

Creative: “I want chaos!”

Critic: “You’re impossible.”

Creative: “Leave me alone!” (Storms out of room.)

The creative mind is a bit of the rebellious teenager, while the critical mind is the more mature adult, trying to make responsible decisions.

So why can’t we just live in the blissful world of the creative mind? It sounds fun. But if we did, I don’t think we’d ever finish a project, and even if we did finish, it wouldn’t effectively communicate with others. Of course, we don’t want the critic running the show either, for exactly the same reason. That self-critical voice that assuredly exclaims “my work sucks” isn’t really helpful when it comes to completing a project and sharing it with others. The inner critic also has a tendency to work on something until it drains all the life from it.

Balancing the creative and the critical came up a lot in the Korra writer’s room. At the start of each season, we carve out a couple weeks where Bryan, the writers, and I just focus on idea generating. We throw out any and all ideas, trying not to criticize them yet. This is where we talk about big picture concepts — what the season’s about, what we’d like to see the characters do and how we’d like them to grow, who’s the villain, etc. But we also pitch on smaller ideas too —  cool action set pieces, funny character moments (like Bolin becoming a movie star), or ideas for new locations.

At a certain point, we then take a more analytical look at all the ideas and figure out what works and doesn’t depending on what we’ve decided are the story and themes for that season. Usually, it’s pretty clear what will stay and what won’t. Those idea generating sessions were a great way to let our imaginations wander freely as we explored new possibilities for Korra and her world.

I’ll leave you with something to consider: In your life and work (whatever you consider your work to be), do you tend to be more creative or critical? Is there a way to bring more of one or the other into your process?

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17 thoughts on “Your inner creative vs. your inner critic

  1. This was a brilliant read. You really got me pondering about the process in which I write (as that is my love, work, passion). I would have to say that I lean more towards the creative side while I am writing, occasionally dabbling in the critical. However, when I edit…I lean more so towards the critical side. Then when I re edit (this usually happens three or four times)…..I am leaning so far to the critical that I almost tip over :)….almost

  2. In my film classes, we spend the first few weeks of class generating ideas for our scripts and go through several drafts where the class will give suggestions in a creatively open environment. It’s only later that I really start thinking about practicality, self critique of details, etc.

    I’m curious, do you enjoy watching Avatar and Korra? I’ve found when I watch my films, I feel a certain level of pride but at the same time see all the faults and things I wish I could’ve done better.

    1. Hi Alex,
      Generally I don’t watch episodes once we’ve finished them, unless we do a screening with other people. I’ve seen it so many times at that point, I’m pretty tired of watching it. And we always notice little things to fix — sometimes years later!

  3. It depends on the type of work is being performed. For example, currently, I am working as a teacher, so the tendency in this area is to be more critical. But to hook the students’ attention, it is also important to be creative. On the other hand, when I am drawing or composing a song, if I try to follow a “logic” or think too much about what is getting done, it’s easy to get lost. But normally, when I finish a “work of art”, then comes the “constructive self-criticism” and my family and friends opinions are also welcome.

  4. Creativity as the stubborn teenager was pretty funny, but I don’t really see much of a conflict. Looking at how I go about writing things or even doodling, it is actually very difficult to distinguish between when I am being “creative” vs. “critical.” There are a few points where it’s obvious. Spontaneous flashes of insight clearly aren’t driven by any type of logical process, for instance. But, for the most part, I work to come up with an idea of something that I want to do, then I watch how it progresses & fill in the details. So if I’m drawing something, I alter lines, curves, angles, & so forth in a very specific way until I get the image that I want. If I’m writing, I look for holes & blocks in my plans & try to think of ways to bridge them. Certainly, there are times where half of my brain is excited to share an idea & the other half says, “Okay, settle down, that’s a bad idea because of X, Y, & Z,” but there are also times where the other half gets bored & wants to move on to something else. But, other than those small disagreements, they are usually in consensus, & things proceed more smoothly when they are. So I suppose you could say that I’m more critical, but I don’t think they’re really that easy to separate.

  5. Hence why brainstorming is a critical part of writing, but all too often gets skipped. Whenever I’m trying to help people develop stories they want to tell, I keep trying to emphasize the phase where they just write down random ideas for plot points and scenes, because it’s on the best of those that the actual story is going to rest. Few seem to go for it, though.

  6. I feel like, for me, the two are kind of merged. My inner critic is so ingrained that it acts as an automatic filter for my inner creative. Sometimes, that can be helpful — I often have a strong feeling of where things should go firmly in place early on, and I’ve rarely had to go back and rewrite significant chunks because I realized that the idea behind them wouldn’t work later on — and other times, it can make it difficult to get anything down on the page at all because planning everything sucked all the fun out of actually writing it.

  7. “The creative mind is a bit of the rebellious teenager, while the critical mind is the more mature adult, trying to make responsible decisions.”

    I find this analogy rather troubling and limited because it seems to imply that all the creative mind wants to do is go against the established order because it doesn’t like or agree with it. Certainly such an attitude isn’t entirely bad and can instigate some radical changes, but as the main artistic drive? It’s a bit too reactionary and potentially self-destructive, wouldn’t you say?

    I’d much prefer to think of the creative mind as a child. A child knows very little boundaries, and will thus create what it does through intuition and invention. Not to mention the joy of discovery and creation for its own sake is almost always present in whatever a child does, even in what an adult would consider less than noteworthy. But then perhaps an adult who is sensitive to the child’s drive and ambitions can help foster something that can be shared with the world?

    That’s precisely what happened with The Beatles. While the children (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and, to a lesser but crucial extent Ringo Starr) were creating the music and pushing the boundaries of pop music, the adults (producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick) were there to produce, arrange, and record that music with the highest expertise so as to retain the essence of their vision while making it presentable to the general public. (Going back to the teenager analogy, there’s no denying that each Beatle was a notorious smartass when it came to the press and even their fans, which just goes to show that there’s a time and place for everything.)

    Going back to your original question: whether I am creative or critical largely depends on the current situation, and sometimes they intertwine. Since what I just said essentially amounts to a non-answer, I’ll give an example.

    I recently added an introduction to a guitar instrumental I’d been working on for a while. The process went something like this:

    Creative: “Hey! I found this ominous chord that would be the perfect introduction to this tune!”
    Critical: “That’s a nice chord, but how is it going to connect with the happy optimism of the overall tune? You’ll need another chord.”
    Creative: “Well…oh! This other chord is ambiguous and neutral enough to bridge the scary and the happy. It’s perfect!”
    Critical: “Dare I ask why this scary intro is needed in the first place? The tune seemed fine the way it was.”
    Creative: “Hmm…maybe the song is about falling in love. At first you’re scared, but you take a chance on it anyway, and find yourself in this happy situation. It’s like dualities!”
    Critical: “But the original tune already has a lot of sad, minor chords in it. Don’t those express enough dualities?”
    Creative: “No way! Those are the ups and downs of being in love. The falling in love is the scariest part.”
    Critical: “Hmm…you just might be onto something.”

    (The only way this example would be more effective is if I had also posted the tune in question, which unfortunately won’t be recorded until next week.)

    So the process for me is a bit of a negotiation between the two sides: the creative side operates on feeling and doing the unexpected, while the critical side makes sure those new elements actually work within the context of the piece (or any piece, for that matter). The most important thing is that they both have a vision for the project. I forget which filmmaker said this, but to paraphrase: always start with a strong vision, so if a better one comes along, you know immediately to go with that one.

    1. I definitely agree that the creative mind is like a child’s mind as well. I think that “inner voice” is so unique to each of us. Thanks for sharing your music writing process!

  8. The “rebellious teenager” and the “mature adult” referred me back to a comic essay written and drawn by Stephen McCranie.

    http://doodlealley.com/2013/10/21/you-vs-you/

    McCranie states that it’s important to properly treat oneself properly before/during the pursuit of creative projects. And he portrayed the treatment of the self as a relationship to a parent comforting a child. The comic itself focuses more on making tasks more manageable to complete and having fun as a prime motivating factor, but the creative process can be exhausting at times and these can be helpful ways to get stuff done. So I usually remind myself of the words and intents of McCranie’s comic to keep me going and to not be overtly critical of myself.

    Not only could this idea be applied to only the self, but it could apply to people of this society we live amongst in.

    I say this because in “The Lego Movie”, there are themes about people of society tending to be either sorted into groups such as being strictly logical minded and strictly creative minded. In fact the movie itself heavily satirized these groups of people. But in the end, it instead emphasized that if can learn to work together and cooperate we can help the world along, in making it a better place.

    I’ll finish off with a quote by Robert Henri.

    “The artist must have the emotional side first. The primal cause of him being an artist, but he must also have an excellent min, Which he must command and use as a tool for the expression of his emotions.”

  9. That last question really struck me. I understand the struggle of balancing the critic and the creative in my personal exploits. I appreciate this post for reminding me to allow both sides their proper time. We can all use that reminder during a project.

    As someone with a non-creative job, however, I began to wonder how I could infuse it with creativity – whether that means visualizing more ways to complete a project, or just drawing a smiley face on the corner of a drafted report.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking words.

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