In his wonderfully insightful book Free Play, about the mysterious and practical sides of improvisation, Stephen Nachmanovitch addresses the issue of self-criticism as an inhibitor of creativity. He does not urge the reader to ignore the whisperings of this judging spectre completely, but instead to listen closely and learn to discern between what can be seen as constructive criticism as opposed to that which is merely obstructive. Most people recognize the value of constructive criticism, but it is not always easy to tell the difference when it is coming from within. The inner dialogue can be a snake’s nest of entangled shortcomings and expectations, or past successes and failures. It is all too easy to have things blow out of proportion and find oneself in a internal match of shadow-boxing.
Nachmanovitch distinguishes between the constructive and the obstructive by the relationship to the Muse. Ideally the critic should run in tandem with her in a continuous dialogue of creation, adjusting the course and reacting to what occurs in the moment. The constructive critic can be seen as the voice of an editor, a valuable contributor to the creative endeavour. If the inner critic waxes out of control however, he will instead precede and interrupt the Muse, turning into something more akin to a fanatic iconoclast. This type of criticism runs perpendicular instead of parallell to the motion of the creative path. The resulting arrest is familiar: one is stopped in the dance and pulled away from the rhythm of action and reaction, into a sudden sense of self-awareness and doubt, perhaps even shame. Suddenly there is a gap between what is and what is not, a painful esxperience focused on an idea of an end result that suddenly seems unattainable. If one is not able to link this desired result back to what is and how to proceed, the way can be lost.
Taming the judging spectre is no doubt easier said than done, but I find it helpful to remind oneself that the inner critic most people carry within can be seen a valuable resource, a helpful editor or dancing partner, rather than treating it as an enemy which needs to be vanquished. The judgmental ravings will probably never cease regardless of the perspective taken, and instead of condemning oneself to a lifelong battle, it is possible to learn to listen and distinguish between what aids the forward motion, and what hinders it. That way, it might be easier to keep on dancing, and even enjoy how it unfolds.