The Writing Process

The Censor & Creative Distance

the censor and creative distance

I’m a hoarder.  

I love writing and stowing my pages away only to forget about them and rediscover them later.

Leave a good amount of time between writing a piece and editing it,” advises Zadie Smith, stellar author of On Beauty and White Teeth.

Julia Cameron and Brenda Ueland suggest a similar period of detachment:

Wait 2 months before reading your morning pages. This waiting period is non-negotiable…no cheating!”

Bury your little treasures away for 5, even 6 months. When you return to them, you’ll probably realize how beautiful and original they are.”

I find this very true in my own writing. Writing and revising are two separate phases of creating that require two, totally distinct spheres of the brain. Writing is mad, irrational, formless: a first draft is really about putting something, anything, down on paper.

But editing is like putting the final touches on a statue: you’re refining and perfecting what’s already there.

We must bring our rational, discerning mind to editing if we are to objectively assess what’s working and what’s not; though we usually imagine the Censor as antagonist to our writing, as a ruthlessly severe and fault-finding critic, the Censor plays a vital, and equally important role, in creativity.

In case you aren’t familiar, Julia Cameron defines the Censor as:

Our own internalized perfectionist, the nasty internal and eternal critic who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. . . . Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice. By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor.

The Censor’s notorious reputation as a cruel, humorless detractor stems from the fact that we unleash his scathing powers for criticism prematurely, when a work is too new or we’re too frightened and insecure with our own talent.  We need the Censor, but only when we are strong enough to withstand his judgment. That’s why critical distance is so important for the artist. When we’re totally absorbed in a project, we become too sensitive, too emotional, which makes us more vulnerable to his censure. Rather than assess his opinions dispassionately, we let the Censor’s brutality bloody and batter our already sensitive artist ego.

But when we let enough time elapse between a work’s conception and its birth, we become more confident and can regain a healthy glimpse of our own aptitude. “Wow, this sentence sings!” we realize.  “I never knew I was so clever/perceptive/intelligent/capable of metaphors!”

Just as we realize the depths of our affection when a lover is away, so do we appreciate more accurately the scope of our own talent when we wait to read our work.

So if I leave you with anything, I leave you with this: Don’t let yourself be governed by the Censor but don’t totally ignore his nagging little voice either.  Remember: constructive criticism can wait till later.

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