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?

Aside

Legend of Korra: Book 2 Comes to a Close

It was a long, at times difficult journey, but here we are at the end of Book 2: Spirits.

It’s hard to believe, but we wrote the scripts for Book 2 roughly between May, 2011 and May, 2012. We didn’t mix the last episode of Book 2 until Nov. 11, the monday before the show went up on Nick.com. We don’t usually cut it that close, but it was really down to the wire on this round of episodes.

It’s a relief to finally have Book 2 complete and out in the world. (And if you haven’t seen it all, there will be spoilers below…)

Cosmic korra

What I’m most proud about in Book 2 is how much we were able to explore the Spirit World and spirituality in general. I want to tell stories that are entertaining, but also enlightening in some way.

Everyone gleans different lessons and nuggets of wisdom from the show, so I don’t mean this as the end-all for what Book 2 is about.  But looking back on this past season, there’s one big take-away for me:

Even though we identify as human beings, we have the potential to tap into something beyond our human forms.

Both Korra’s story and Wan’s story are about humans moving beyond their ordinary abilities, and becoming something extraordinary. Wan used his cunning, bravery, and wisdom to move beyond his humanness, ultimately fusing with Raava to become the first Avatar. And Korra, when she loses her connection to the past Avatars and her Avatar spirit, looks deep within herself and forms a new connection with the cosmic version of herself. When Korra is at her lowest point, Tenzin tells her: “The most powerful thing about you is not the spirit of Raava, but your own inner spirit. You have always been strong, unyielding, and fearless” and that Wan became a legend “because of who he was, not what he was.”

In Hindu philosophy, there is a concept called Atman, which is defined as the “innermost essence of each individual” or “the supreme universal self.” This is my interpretation of what Korra sees and becomes when she meditates. The giant blue Cosmic Korra is a visual representation of her inner essence.

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With this episode, I wanted to show how any one of us has the ability to tap into that cosmic, more-than-human version of ourselves and expand past the possibilities of what we think we’re capable of.

We can all be the Avatar in our own lives.

In Hindu mythology, Shiva takes many different forms. Sometimes he’s destructive, sometimes meditative, other times benevolent. I think of Korra like that. Most of her life she has been in warrior mode, but she is learning that, depending on the situation, she can take other forms.  In our own lives, we put on different forms or act differently, depending on the situation. We act differently with our best friends, than with our parents, or in a business situation.

Through the story of Wan, we come to learn that the Avatar is part human, part spirit. This is how I have come to see all humanity — we’re all part human, part spirit. Like Korra, for a long time I wasn’t aware of my spiritual half, but over the years I’ve become more in tune with it and more accepting of that side of life.

Theologue-3

Theologue by Alex Grey — The union of human and divine consciousness

Joseph Campbell has a couple great quotes related to this in “The Power of Myth”:

“…each of us is a completely unique creature and… if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.”

“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

This is why stories, when made with love and integrity, contain the possibility to affect personal and societal change. And it’s no coincidence that Book 3 is called “Change.” So get ready, change is coming…

Story Brain

Could reading a story about an experience and encountering it in real life have the same effect on our brain? There are scientists researching this question and what they’ve found is pretty amazing. The results have made me really think about why I’m attracted to certain stories over others.

I came across this article from the New York Times that was published last year and it talks about neuroscience’s research of the effects of fiction on the brain. It’s one piece in the puzzle I’m trying to put together about why stories are so important to us human beings.

Stories are the way we learn about the world, and as some of the research suggests, reading helps us “hone our real-life social skills.” It’s a safe place for us to encounter fear, love, heartbreak, betrayal, and excitement — all without the real-life social and physical dangers.

Joseph Campbell often talked about fairy tales in a similar way, saying that they are the way for children to learn about the world around them before they head out into society at large.

But that need for story doesn’t just die out after we hit first grade. We keep consuming stories throughout our whole lives and as we get older, what we need out of stories changes.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was James and the Giant Peach. I remember hating James’ two horrible aunts and being so excited when he discovered that magical peach with its insectile inhabitants and flew away in it to explore the world.

A few years after I moved to Los Angeles and started my career in animation, I read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and was inspired. I really related to the main characters who were struggling to get their art recognized by the comic world. I think, in a way, it helped me navigate the animation world I had entered and showed me two characters who were trying to find their own artistic voice while also trying to make a living and dealing with the studio system.

We are naturally drawn to certain stories, depending on our personalities, interests, and ideals. I believe we seek out stories that we hope will help us figure out the world we are a part of. Like a computer simulator, stories are a safe way to test the waters and see how we would react in certain situations. Likely, the experiences we encounter in fiction or at the movies will never literally happen to us. I love Game of Thrones but I don’t ever expect to find myself vying to conquer a kingdom.  But the emotions we feel in those stories and the lessons we learn are things we can take into our everyday life. Maybe we treat people a little nicer, maybe we are more honest with our friends, or maybe we realize that our job doesn’t define who we are.

As the author of the article so eloquently puts it: “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”