I am my own worst critic, so the saying goes. But in my case, perhaps it’s best to say, “I am my own BEST critic.” I know all the little weaknesses, all the faint places where my writer’s mind can be insidiously attacked from inside my own head. “You’ll never finish that project. Your words will dry up and you’ll have nothing to say. Or what you do have to say will be boring and predictable.” All those nasty biting criticisms that can prevent us from even picking up the pen, opening up the computer, typing one sentence, one word. Instead the little creative writer inside us decides to take a vacation. It packs its bags and leaves town. Why hang around if those voices will only pull it down, pull apart its work, tell it what a failure it is?
In the past few weeks as I’ve been going through creative recovery, working my way through The Artist’s Way, endeavoring to be gentle and to take things in slow steps, not rushing or pushing or pressuring my creative self to produce, produce, produce, I have discovered something that surprised me. Shocked me, even. I have discovered that my critical voice is woefully over-developed. From a New York Times article on a temperament model based on ancient Greek philosophy, I discovered I am likely hyper-critical, hyper-judging – more than “average” – especially toward myself.
Strangely, this was both dismaying and liberating news. No wonder I shrink from the page as my first reaction to the thought of writing? I’m telling myself it’s already bad even before I start. I’m judging my efforts before they’re on the page, and the judgment is not complimentary. No wonder my writing efforts have long been subject to fits and starts.
In a way, I’m happy to have discovered how self-critical I am. I come from a long line of perfectionist high-achievers, ambitious and self-judging. If we were going to do something, the women in my family, we must do it to the very best possible level. No lowered standards for us!
I’m happy to have discovered it because it has helped me to be more actively self-forgiving. I am experimenting with heightened gentleness, with more self-forgiveness. With lining up things to be grateful for accomplishing, rather than things “I haven’t done yet.” For instance, this week I was asked to provide public comment at a meeting of our City Council on a neighborhood activism issue, and my first thought was, “Not me! I’m not good enough/smart enough/capable enough to do this!” But then my second thought – after calming down with tea and soothing music – was, “They asked me, so I must be smart enough and accomplished enough to make it happen.” After that, I wrote up my comments and I’ll be going to the City Council meeting tomorrow to present my opinion. And it will be fine, I’m sure.
What I’m working on now
Here is a companion piece to my earlier “Bookbinder” piece from a few weeks ago. I’m working on a new project that this may be a part of.
To begin with, the art of cabinet-making seems monumental and life-changing, something of substance and worth, the basic making of a box, a bureau, a bookcase, the fitting of a dovetail joint, the box joint, the blind mortise-and-tenon joint, the bridle joint, the object that becomes a work of art in the hands of a skilled crafter, the selection of wood with an eye to its beauty and the finesse of its grain, the reverence for the living being the wood came from, an upright breathing resin-producing bark-protected column of cambium and xylem encircling the cord of heartwood, the heartwood of stored sugar, dyes, and oils, the art of cabinet-making through which the transformation of tree to wood to functional object is made by use of adz and augur, bevel-edge chisel and block plane, c-clamp and cabinet saw – this is a practice of firm hands, finger dexterity, and shrewd measurement, and, above all, patience. Iron can be forced, yet wood yields more readily to the caress of the experienced palm, the precise placing of surface against groove, the pliant placing of joint pieces together. Iron can be burnt, cast, molded; wood must be cared for, kept in shape, protected from extremes of heat and cold. Wood has been a living thing, iron has come from inside the earth, and before that, the inside of stars. While iron was being invented in the long-ago fusion furnace of stellar clouds, wood has arisen only recently, in planet terms, from the death of living beings that came before it. Wood has a heart, iron has a soul.
Anaea knew this. She had come to woodworking school to be the person she’d always wanted to be. She would remake herself just as she would remake wood, the stout gift of the earth, into beautiful objects of art. Graceful. Lithe. Through woodworking she would become everything she felt she was not. She would transcend a life of clumsiness, she would transform into a person of grace – patient, perceptive, calm. Her intensity, which had dogged her all her life, which had cost her jobs and relationships and sleep at night, her intensity would be smoothed down and channeled into quieter streams of productive emotion. Through the artisan work of cabinet making. She was sure of it.
If only it were that easy. If only.