Here Come Da Judge

I’ve joined a weekly Artist’s Way group. We’re going through the chapters in the book one by one. Even after the first meeting, I could see changes happening in my approach to creativity — good changes.

But you can’t always take the book’s statements at face value. This assertion, from “Rules of the Road” (on p. 55) set off alarm bells for me:

“Remember that it is my job to do the work, not judge the work.”

Excuse me? As an artist, I am constantly, unceasingly judging my work. It would be literally impossible to do any work at all without judging. Even if you’re fingerpainting, there will come a moment when you’ll have to decide whether to grab the yellow paint or the red paint. That moment requires, very specifically, an act of judgment. To create a work of any value at all requires thousands of acts of judgment.

What I think Julia Cameron was getting at in that sentence (in a grossly ham-handed way) was that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we notice that what we’re doing sucks. Because it will suck. It will suck often. Sometimes it will suck because we need to make a few minor changes, as I did yesterday to the last page of a short story before sending it out. Sometimes it will suck so badly that we may as well throw it out and start over.

That’s just part of the artistic process. Noticing that what you’ve been doing sucks is inevitable. The mistake comes when we internalize that judgment and feel discouraged or shamed by it.

A healthy response to noticing that what you’ve been doing sucks would be along these lines: “Oh, it’s not working at all. Ugh! I wonder what I can do to improve it.”

The act of judgment, if trusted, will always open up new possibilities. It only becomes damaging when it’s internalized, when it’s turned into a judgment of the self, or of the artistic process.

Some people may prefer “evaluating” to “judging.” That’s okay with me, but I think it’s waffling. The two words mean pretty much the same thing.

Another thing that can get in the way is if you think you need to produce perfect work before you can show it to anybody. If you judge a painting you’ve finished by hiding it (or destroying it) … well, there are no hard and fast rules here. Brahms was only one of a number of famous composers who destroyed a pile of unpublished manuscripts before he died. He felt the work wasn’t good enough, and who are we to disagree?

If you never show anything to anybody, though … again, maybe you’re right. Maybe your work isn’t ready to be shown. But it’s also possible that you’re being way too negative. Almost anything I’ve ever written could be improved. None of it is perfect, and some is very flawed indeed. But at a certain point you have to let go of your judgment, just put it out there, and let people experience it.

A case could be made that refusing to let anyone see your work is a shame-based strategy. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not good enough.” Well, guess what — none of us is good enough. Get over it. Get on with it. My experience has been that I’m often my own harshest critic. Not infrequently, people fail to notice or care about what I feel are serious flaws in my work.

Or maybe they see flaws where I see strengths. That’s a whole different subject. The point is, judge your work, yes — and then let go of the judgment. Use your critical faculties, but don’t let them stifle your imagination, and then at the end of the day set them aside and have a nice cup of herb tea before bed.

In another billion years or two, the sun will blow up or shrink or something, and none of this will matter. It’s all dust. In the meantime, may as well have fun making mud pies.

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