The Writing Process

Why Artists Need the Censor


In her groundbreaking guide to writing and creativity, Dorothea Brande argues that the logical left-brain is just as crucial to creation as the irrational right:

So, for a period, while it’s useful to you, think of yourself as two-persons-in-one.  There will be a prosaic, everyday, practical person to bear the brunt of the day’s encounters.  It will have plenty of virtues to offset its solidity; it must learn to be intelligently critical, detached, tolerant, while at the same time remembering that its first function is to provide suitable conditions for the artist-self.  The other half of your dual nature may be as sensitive, enthusiastic, and partisan as you like; only it will not drag those traits out into the workday world.  It distinctly will not be allowed, by the cherishing elderly side, to run the risk of being made miserable by trying to cope emotionally with situations which call only for reason, or of looking ludicrous to the unindulgent observer.”  

Different artists have different names for it.  The Critic.  The Censor.  I myself prefer Dorothea Brande’s “prosaic self” as-unlike Cameron’s vision of the censor which portrays the critical faculty as unduly harsh and fault-finding-Brande’s term rightly depicts the logical mind as a crucial and equally vital part of the writing process.  Words like “critic” and “censor” imagine the rational left-brain as a road block to creativity.  Like the censor of a totalitarian regime who identifies and suppresses material considered too avant garde or obscene, Cameron’s censor stifles our art.  But despite popular belief, the censor is not the enemy of expression.  It would be more accurate to say that his powers for discernment have a proper place in our art, only in revision-not the initial stages of creation.

The problem for most writers is that we unleash the censor too soon.  Rather than simply write a first draft, many of us compulsively re-read and edit our papers.  Instead of write, we compose. But writing and composing are two separate spheres of the process.  To return to Brande’s brilliant idea of the split self, the artist contains two personalities: his everyday self and his artist self.  The artist self is playful and imaginative; he requires total freedom to explore his hunches.  The prosaic self, on the other hand, is judicious and shrewd: give him a sentence and he’ll meticulously revise it for grammar and clarity of voice.  His powers are actually quite astounding.  He possesses a refined taste: he can rearrange a sentence’s syllables to achieve just the right cadence and emphasis; he can tell the subtle difference between “an” and “the.”

What’s so unfair about most teachers’ portrayal of the censor is their complete dismissal of his abilities.  Without the censor, we’d have no execution, only conception; no final, polished pieces, only beautiful scraps of ideas with no form.  The artist self needs the censor to tame the wilderness of his ideas.

Take a short story as an example.  The artist self-in all his exuberant energy-might have an idea for a premise.  He might spend hours writing “first thoughts” in a stream-of-consciousness style.  The result?  Perhaps a pretty idea but certainly not a finished piece.  It is the censor or everyday self that will then apply his know-how and reasoning ability to mold the artist self’s ideas into final form.  Without him, there’d only be a vague notion of a story- no neat construction of narrative structure, no polished work.

What’s fascinating about Brande’s conception of the creative personality is that she imagines this prosaic self, not as a hinderance, but as a defender of artistic work.  The “cherishing,” “elderly” side she calls it.  So how can we reframe our attitude toward the Censor and recognize his importance to our work?

1. respect that creation and revision are two separate, but equally important, aspects of the process

When you’re writing a first draft, write a first draft.  Don’t reread.  Don’t edit. Don’t self-censor. No matter how much an awkward, clunky phrase bothers you, move on.  Only after you write in the most liberated way possible can you bring out the critical faculty’s powers for revision.  This is when you can go back and fix that clunky phrase.  This is when you can choose a more potent verb to replace those bland forms of “to be.”  A first draft is not the time to being doing these things.

2. make the goal writing something, anything down on paper

A lot of the self-consciousness that comes with writing stems from the irrational insistence that our first draft has to be good.  It doesn’t.  As Anne Lamott says, the key to getting anything done is writing “really shitty first drafts.”

Instead of demand the impossible from yourself and potentially confuse the creative and critical aspects of the creative process, lower the stakes.  Don’t aim to write something provocative or brilliant.  Don’t set out to be published in the New York Times.  These unrealistic standards will inhibit your imagination and make you freeze up.  Just make it your goal to write, preferably a certain number of pages.  It can be 1.  It can be 15.  It doesn’t matter so long as you pay attention to quantity- not quality.  Measure your success by your ability to reach your page count and nothing else.  Only then will you have material for the censor to refine later.

2 thoughts on “Why Artists Need the Censor

  1. Pingback: Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life – asia lenae

  2. Pingback: Dorothea Brande’s 15 Minute Rule – asia lenae

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