On Tuesday, after our mojo session, Gail Henderson wrote, “I’ve been searching for information on the mind-workings of artists and trying to determine the kinds of self-talk artists might use — consciously or subconsciously. It seems to me such thinking processes are significant in problem-solving. (Self-talk in thinking and practice is an important component in education where we guide students in how to think.) Do you have suggestions on artist self-talk? Knowing more about art thinking processes would be a real breakthrough in my work.”
Thanks for that, Gail. It seems that self-talk is in part a replaying of the talk of father, mother, siblings, or other early influences. Your cumulative knowledge, family lore and life attitudes are like a snowball that proceeds through the generations. Further material and processes are learned through education, observation and life experiences. This material is variously valued and trashed throughout a lifetime. Also, there’s a dialectic that we need to look at: Just as a two-year-old child may react negatively — maybe even causing a tantrum, and proceed to do the opposite of what he or she is told — so, too, do grown people operate in a way contrary to what their self-talk might indicate. This can result in the ‘shoot yourself in the foot’ syndrome. Lots of us do it. Being aware of when you are doing it is a way to manage the tendency.
Having said that, the repetition of affirmative words and phrases of our own choosing is useful in helping to propel us to what we wish to become. Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking, has gone through reincarnations including those specific for artists such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. As writer and educator Ingrid Bengis stated, “Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.” It’s in an understanding of the nature of creative intelligence where it gets interesting. I often think the policing of negative words is more important than chanting the positive. Frequently, the real trick for the visual artist is to go “wordless” and let the art process take over. I’ve always been particularly curious about the workings (and sometimes the intransigence) of the creative brain. This perhaps because I’ve known such a one, and so close to home.
PS: “No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” (Henry Brooks Adams)
Esoterica: We all know how advance blabbing can kill a project. Too much verbal specificity can also act to hamstring the natural development of a work. Many effective teachers report that their talking profession neutralizes their need to do. Other teachers report that talking in class is a sort of foreplay that makes them want to get at it more than ever. But throughout history, visual artists have been intuitively suspicious of words and have seen fit to treat them with caution. “If you could say it in words, there’d be no reason to paint.” (Edward Hopper)
Find your own truth
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Perhaps your writer should stop talking and start listening to his inner thoughts and feelings. That is where the “real stuff” is. Translating those thoughts or feelings into a metaphorical representation expressed in a new and ‘creative’ way requires a bit of self examination and thought. It’s a have no fear place, go for it and just remember what the Greeks knew three thousand years ago, the human condition doesn’t change, so he or she isn’t going to shock anyone with how weird their creative expression is. Otherwise, he should just paint flowers and enjoy it. This is the one area of art that I don’t think you can teach someone. They can be guided, but they have to do the work and find their own truth.
Silence and tranquility
When I paint I tend to have an internal dialogue of color and form and feeling, not words. Having a too verbally active mind has been a reason for not so successful sessions and a lot of frustration in my experience. A particular type of a silence and tranquility is highly desirable to me. Lately I have been able to induce this in myself by just starting the act of preparing for painting. The preparation sets the mood and creates a sort of an altered state of consciousness that allows for a productive and fulfilling session of painting. I have conditioned myself to have a very positive reaction to the anticipation of painting. There is a sense of excitement and pleasure connected with this whole experience. I feel like a kid in a candy store. The world is my oyster. I can taste the paint with my eyes. And it is delicious.
by Jo Scott-B, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Betty Edwards believes the inner voices are the greatest inhibitor of the creative,abstract, problem solving self. All too often they are our destructive critics. Julia Cameron‘s stream of consciousness writing serves to access the verbal stream, whereas the rest of us do best when we shut off the words completely. In a recent series of workshops with high school students, I tried to get them to be aware of the voices in their heads and stop paying attention. It was interesting to watch the group become silently absorbed in what they were doing — and the level of exploration and freedom of design rose dramatically. How to do it? We each find our own way, but non-verbal music is the most common aid and making kids aware it is happening is huge. Please don’t give them anything else to talk about in there.
Words into emotions into motions
by JP Bex, NYC, NY, USA
I’ve found that in general the only times words have been of any impetus toward creation are when I’m in discussion with other thinkers/creators/artists. Those words act like atoms in an atomic reaction bouncing off one another creating an explosion of ideas and end up creating a bevy of emotions in need of some literal translation. I can only imagine what it must have been like to hang out with the Group of Seven or the Fauves. One of the most interesting discoveries I have come across about the creative process came when I was having one of those atomic reaction conversations with a good friend, Raine Maida of the rock band Our Lady Peace. We ended up noticing that when we were in the throws of painting/writing a song that we would salivate, almost as if we were digging into a nice big steak. There is something most visceral in the creative process that happens once all the words get translated into emotions and the emotions into motions.
Talking to yourself
by Deborah Harowitz, Imlay City, MI, USA
My daughter, a writer, has always talked to herself; out loud, in a normal conversational tone, just like she was talking to a person standing next to her. And answering. Not the usual mutterings to one’s self that most people do. I have often caught myself doing the same thing (worse when I was younger) and used to try to break the habit. I’ve almost broken it completely over the years and now, regret that. When my daughter was younger I was wondering if I should be concerned about this habit and did a little research. What I learned was that some of our greatest minds — Einstein and Edison were mentioned — talked to themselves incessantly. Apparently it helped them think things through and work out problems more efficiently. Needless to say, I stopped worrying.
Divorced from fear of parents’ criticism
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA
Approximately fifteen years ago I had a serious problem… I could not/would not complete any work of art. I say ‘would not’ because I came to realize later through working with Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way that I was not putting my final touches and signature on anything which would then open me up to the “constructive criticism” that I had to inevitably endure after each and every piece I showed my parents as a young person under their roof. I had to divorce myself from the fear of this intangible criticism, now that I am an adult, and realize that my Work is how I perceive my Art and how I create. Till this day my parents will see a piece of mine and say, “Gail, that line is a little off” and my response is always… that is my concept of the subject.
Art and fear
by Toni Lewis
In response to “Self-Talk,” I was given a book called Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking: by David Bayles & Ted Orland. The book instantly watered down years of anxiety and pressure that had come with every painting I had completed. Like a breath of fresh air, I found freedom and movement in my abilities which allowed me to paint more and experiment, without the worry of being judged or ‘falling behind’ in my progress. For anyone in any creative work, like my friend, a computer programmer, this book opens a new alley of thought process. I recommend it to all!
Back to the “fun house”
by Thomas Nash
I agree that guarding against the negative is probably the most important factor in artists’ self talk. For an artist with deadlines or any type of pressure to complete a project, the number one mental pitfall I believe is any tendency to say to one’s self, “well, back to the salt mines” or words to that effect, when heading for the studio. We may in fact feel like going for a walk instead, but know we have work to do. It doesn’t help, however to tell yourself that you are not enthused about what you are about to do. On the positive side, I have always found I am more successful drawing a straight line or doing anything exacting, if I tell myself that I can do it and really expect to do it, just as I begin. The inverse, to worry every inch of the way, is almost guaranteed to result in a shaky, uncertain result.
by Susan Harris, Pacific Palisades, CA, USA
What we say to ourselves can destroy our peace and creativity. I’ve been reading a book called Diamond Mind, by Rob Nairn. Reading it, I realize that I never really understood about meditation until now. In his book, Rob says that most Westerners don’t meditate correctly and therefore never get enlightened. Most people give up before they learn how to meditate correctly. I think it’s the same for many of us artists. I don’t believe that artists need to be full of angst to produce exceptional art. What I notice is, when I’m flowing with my painting, I’m not doing any self-talk. There are hardly any thoughts, and if there are, they are so subtle that I’m not even aware of them. I recommend this book to all artists.
by Patricia Neil Lawton, Coldstream, BC, Canada
When I am deep into my painting and everything is just flowing smoothly, I listen to my inner self and find that it’s totally quiet and wordless. But how to reach that ‘right brain, artistic mode’? I find it with drawing beforehand. I’ll sit in my quiet studio and draw very deliberately and slowly at first. I’ll draw anything that happens to be in front of me–even just my hand holding a brush or scissors, anything. I feel the quietness come over me with a small ‘shunt’ and then I keep drawing for a while, getting lost in the tonal values, etc. I then quietly pull the painting over to me, pick up the brush and continue with my painting in the same quiet, meditative mood that the drawing produced. My best watercolours come out of these quiet times.
“Self-talk” and “self-taught”
by Bill Cannon, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Isn’t the issue actually about ‘self-taught’ artists, not self-talk? Self-talk has no meaning that I can see, but self-taught are those without formal education. Most self-taught artists have missing ingredients to their work. Some artists are mentored by other artists. Was Van Gogh self-taught or mentored by Gauguin, who in turn had studied at an academy? Or was all that self-talk when he cut off his ear?
Effect of negativity on molecules
by Cristina Acosta, Bend, OR, USA
I recently saw the movie, What the Bleep Do We Know?. The movie has an excellent visual of the effect of negative self talk on the self. The Japanese scientist, Dr. Masaru Emoto (author of The Message of Water) demonstrates with pictures of water molecules the effects the negative and positive thought has on those molecules. The human body is over 90% water. The concept that we shape our self and our experience of life with our thoughts is irrefutable. With the images from that movie in mind, I am conscious of the reality I can create from my mind. As artists we are manifesting thought into reality every time we create. Applying those same skills to the self is a natural transition.
(RG note) Cristina Acosta is the author of Paint Happy!
by Debra Lawson
Here is a “Self-talk” List from my motivational coach. It’s something that could be taped to a studio door and referred to on a regular basis.
The Top 10 Ways to Experience Your Life as a Work of Art
- Treat life as a grand experiment.
- Make your life colorful.
- Stay curious.
- Find humor everywhere.
- Take risks — big ones, small ones, whatever you can manage, just take them.
- Live in evolutionary environments.
- Be open and spontaneous.
- Consider everything as potential art material.
- Live in the present.
- Express yourself passionately.
Got rid of boyfriend
I’m a closet artist and mostly-musician who teaches/composes and refuses to share unfinished work with people. It muddies up the metaphysical creative process. People make platitudinal comments, or just hang their un-said energy in the air like a bad smell. People need to be educated about the sensitivities of the creative temperament. The nervous system will not tolerate constant idle chit-chat. Monkey-mind is creative suicide (so are bad relationships). Nana Very’s book Change We Must also says that it’s better to not tell too much to people about what you do, or create, because it opens you to their negative projections or transference. Talk is cheap indeed. The Hawaiians felt words were gold and were to be treated as such. Use them wisely and carefully, don’t waste the breath on needless words.
I had a boyfriend a few years ago who would start the day saying “What are you doing today?” (a common question). I’d respond in zen-like fashion, “I’m doing.” When pressed, I explained, “If I say I’ll paint I might play music instead, or vice versa… there’s no point in explanation… I’m just ‘doing.’ ”
The day unfolds for me, rather than me trying to control the day… Most people respect this and learn to not expect a detailed answer about my daily plans. Since I flatly refused to expound any further (thus refusing to deplete my creative energies with needless explanations), I was referred to as “abrupt.” I responded, “That’s Mizz Abrupt to you. There’s the door. Don’t let it hit you on the way out.”
No more boyfriend but I’m not derailed with crazymakers anymore that cause creative suicide. I’d rather be alone than with someone who doesn’t understand the creative spirit. Thanks for a great letter. It reminded me of how much better off I am, where I am. Just “doing” (or “not”).
Power over self-sabotage
by Pat Kammer
I’m currently in the process of writing a book called Anything is P.O.S.S.-able. POSS means power over self-sabotage it speaks of how the mind and four parts of the brain work. A lot of it is about how we talk to ourselves. You are so right on when you say it’s the cumulative of what we have been taught since birth. I have been doing hypnosis for weight loss and personal problems since 1996 and this process of changing the inner talk is life altering. I learned recently why that happens. It seems that there are four parts to the brain. The left, the logical that takes our words and makes sense to it all, and the right which is the creative as we well know, but did you also know that the right side holds the patterns and habits from our birth up? Then the mid-brain is where the emotions are, with their memories. The emotions are what drives all the rest into harmony or disharmony as the case may be. Lastly is the brain stem and this is the automatic drive putting it all into action. The emotions are then the link to change and the place where you get your inspiration. By using all the five senses and memories of emotional situations it is possible to get the right brain to cooperate. Unless we can get all four parts in harmony starting with the left, which is our self talk, it doesn’t happen the way we want things to go. The emotions are the focus point for change. Just thought you’d like to contemplate this as a possibility for greater control on the artist’s intent and outcome.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Patty Grau who wrote, “Sometimes I just shout out “I’m great!” The very fact that it’s embarrassing as all heck makes me giggle with shame and tingle all over and I end up feeling great! Its very silliness is that it works. (It works even better if you fling your arms open at the same time.)”
And also David Schlosberg who wrote, “My mantra is: ‘Tis a gift to be simple. That Shaker hymn has gotten me through a great many blocks, when my mind whirrs with too many (and conflicting) ideas, reservations and worries.”