By Greg Ruth
A dance with barbed wire. That’s the best way to put into words, the bag of cats in my head when it comes to how I look at my own work. Others have a less combative relationship with their inner critic than I do, and I congratulate them for that. For me and most others, it is an ongoing struggle with the self. For me in particular, this was brought especially forward by last week’s visit to the incredible Illustration Master Class in Amherst that the equally awesome Rebecca Guay created. I spent a good month fretting over drawing front of others. For me art is never performance, but something private. A thing done alone in my space just like it always was when I was a kid finding myself. But that’s another matter. Today we are talking about when the crazy critic in one’s head gets out of control, and how to wrangle it back inside the fence. When its working for you, self internalized criticism can be a worthy goad, pushing you to new areas, and chasing away complacency. When it’s not it can be warping and atrophying.
It’s a syndrome that afflicts many creatives, if not all, and it’s what I think helps us be better humans, (except when it makes us worse). There’s an inherent egoism to making any kind of art. Ultimately my goal here is to point to my internal predator, call it all sorts of rude things so that you artists out there won’t feel alone in the dance you make with your own. For the sake of brevity, going forward I will name this self criticism as THE BEAST. This is not to elevate it it to some terrible height, but in fact to reduce it to a cartoonish villain, which in the end it really is. It’s just about how you see it, and use it. The Beast only holds power that you give it. it is after all you, yelling at yourself.
|Illo for “The Grinning Goat” from GUY’S READ: OTHER WORLDS|
Most often though, this dark critical analysis of my own work is the Beast, pure and simple. It is a gnawing thrashing self loathing that tears at any sprig of joy for my own work that dares to risk poking up from the hidden earth. It is a creature bent on destruction and desires nothing but to remove and degrade. It is a way of looking at my work that is warped by all practical measure, but because this is an aspect of my own self analysis, it is entirely an emotional monster, and as such doesn’t give a rat’s ass about practical measures. It’s not a uniform level of dislike, that would be too easy to tame if it were. It doesn’t loathe all the marks, or all the work, only the bits I am uncertain about. This is what makes it so insidiously successful: it exploits doubt and grows from truth no matter how small. But, mercifully it is a dog who has no plans for after it’s caught the car, and this is it’s fatal flaw. And oddly, if one can leash this wild mad dog, the whole enterprise can be made to do some good.
|From THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JACK LONDON: THE SEA WOLVES|
So as an example, current and emblematic, I just received F&G’s from my editor for my new children’s picture book, COMING HOME now due out on the shelves this coming Veteran’s Day from Macmillan/Feiwel & Friends. (F&G’s are “folded and gathered” versions of the final book, often used as review copies. They are not final, but the last stage of review before the book is at press and locked in where corrections can be made). My first response when opening a package from a publisher tends to be one of disappointment and revulsion. This is not the Beast rearing it’s head necessarily but something born of experience. In the past, much of my work printed poorly or was printed poorly despite it being perfectly printable. I’ve had entire pages inverted, or reversed, colors tweaked to neon hells… all manner of distortions in evidence. This time, though, the exact opposite. It is a stunning example of the harmony between the art, the designer and the press. Gorgeous rich colors, almost metallic gold clouds, excellent type and design. I can look at this and be complimentary in a more observational way. It is functionally successful and a result of our collaboration between editor, AD, and myself. A rare moment when the Beast is quiet. And as he should be because he has little purchase to claw and tear. These are the good moments, the rare moments when I like to take a breath, turn to the Beast and tell it to suck it. But this is not a relevant moment for this topic. This is not a fair fight to point to as any kind of victory because there is no struggle. Then I open the book, and the growling starts in earnest.
|Cover for COMING HOME by Greg Ruth|
Inside, I find all manner of places where I could have done it better, or at least that’s what the first whimperings of the Beast tell me. True or not there are areas that could benefit from improvement. But the thing is, there always are. No painting is ever finished, as the saying goes… it merely stops in interesting places. So is it fair to believe the kind of self disgust that comes from not making the perfect image every time I make an image? No- of course not. But it’s there anyway. Thing is, this is not the terrible dark side of the interaction. The Beast in these circumstances can be of help, but only if you let it run it’s limited track when changes can be made to improve the work. It has no place at this stage. The F&G represents the final tweak if any, and any kind of major change to the art, especially on a book like this that’s already crashing the presses, is impossible unless an unusual case can be made to see it done. Even then it’s likely too late. So those are the voice that simply deserve to be muzzled. They bring no aid or benefit to anything, and are entirely negative. So drop kick those little doggies into a deep river and move on. It’s for the best, even as they tell you it’s not. Don’t listen to them. The Beast lies.
|From THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JACK LONDON: THE SEA WOLVES|
Overall while I find so many aspects of the book a let down for me, not because of what anyone else has done, but because simply put, I filed to entirely achieve on paper what my imagination could expect. There is always a grounding to reality, a kind of practical acceptance that must be made. We wrangle angels from the sky and make them into short order cooks when we make any kind of art. Coming to a kind of peace with that fact helps entirely in continuing to perform it. Being able to identify when that is happening is the first and most important step. The best way to bring it to light is to take yourself through a series of steps analyzing the work for notable flaws. This is a service your editor or AD can also contribute to. They are the fisherman on the shore and can reel you in from going to far out to sea. Having the kind of intimate trust in these people is really important beyond words, learning to take heed to know when they are right and when they are wrong about something takes practice and keep the Beast on its leash. My methods for dealing with this kind of inside-on-the-outside criticism is based on a few rules that help: If the critique triggers an emotional response, usually anger or embarrassment, leave it alone and wake up the next day before responding or giving it further thought.
1). Don’t obsess, let it go and see if it comes back, like love. It tends to always return but smarter and less biting when you do this. You need to do your best and get out of the way for the next thing that’s coming. It is the curse and blessing of bookmaking: a curse in that it sometimes means you need to move on before you may feel ready, and a blessing because the same thing means you have to move on, and so can’t get lost trying to perfect what the imperfect.
2). Reverse the defense- meaning to take the editor’s note as fact and prove otherwise. make thr argument assuming the criticism, and play devil’s advocate for the other side. This often shakes out a lot of misconceptions being so close to the work can induce. There’s a great old story of a fight between Gene Wilder and Mel Books over the “Putting on the Ritz” scene from Young Frankenstein that exemplifies this perfectly. Brooks hated the vaudeville act, and wanted it out- Wilder disagreed. They fought and fought and fought over it and ultimately Brooks relented and it became one of the most iconic scenes in the film. He ultimately trusted Wilder’s passion for the scene even when he wasn’t sure about the scene or Wilder himself. “If he (Wilder)’s that crazy for it there must be something there I’m missing” he said. But Wilder wan’t just being emotional or blindingly combative. He heard what Brooks was saying, grokked his critique and at its end disagreed with it. This happens. Sometimes you win, others you lose. I have lost as many of these as I have won.
3). If you can’t come up with a cogent reason for keeping it, let it go. This is really an addendum to the previous Wilder/Brooks story, and its one I apply on a near daily basis. If your editor sees something that isn’t working, you have to take that seriously. Sometimes it’s just about clarifying, but often it means even if the concept is solid, the execution is lacking in delivering it.
4). Take the critique as a chance to rethink. SOmetimes it’s not a tit-for-tat, and sometimes there’s no fixing what’s wrong… but sometimes it’s an opportunity to invent a new way that makes everything a thousand times better. There were so many instances of this in making THE LOST BOY it’s impossible for me to single one out. In the end it made me see my own story in a different way, and made it better by light years. Changes to character, plot and overall narrative structure were changed and made stronger. The benefits of that are now totally confirmed as I draft out the story for the conclusive sequels to the trilogy- they all fit together because they all make sense within the physical laws of their own story. I have my editors, Adam Rau and David Saylor to thank for that.
|The Vale of Pim/Pellio from THE LOST BOY by Greg Ruth|
Self hatred is exponentially tied to passion. The Beast bites harder because we care. We can’t all be Henry Miller but we can all hate ourselves as easily as Miller does. The more we care about what we do, the more it matters and the more important it is the bigger the Beast gets. The hungrier and more agile it becomes. This is the darkest and most dangerous aspect of self criticism there is, and potentially the most lethal both creatively and literally. It can freeze us into abandoning our creative endeavors, like presumably a J.D.Salinger or so many ex-painters I know, or it can result in the most terrible of ends as we were made to witness in Kurt Cobain’s conclusion. Just because it’s in your head doesn’t make it any less real, but it does mean there are tools to battle it. Both are letting the best get hold of the car it’s chasing and neither is a good result. There’s nothing heroic or nobly tragic about it. It’s small and sad when it wins because ultimately the Beast is a limiting and reductive force. The self doubt it represents only makes final sense if all other aspects of the piece are ignored. There’s an old discussion between Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan Matus where Matus describes the turgid arc of human perception as falling prey to this. The universe, Matus says, is wild vast and incomprensible, and our organizational aspects of our perception keep us from harm and madness. They allow us to function, to agree on terms of objects and promote a shared experience. But over time as we grow older, the Guardian becomes a Guard. The protector becomes a jailer- and our fluidity gets hardened. This is why old people are grumpy about the world changing, because they forgot that it was always changing in the first place.
The most recent moment of exacting an image in my head to the paper is. beyond ironically, my first self portrait in at least twenty years. I love self portraits, I just don’t love making them. But I will gaze admiringly at everyone else’s. Partly because in every self portrait I make I see only the Beast looking back at me, but also I find myself far less interesting to gaze upon. When I was approached to collaborate with Allan Amato on this project, my first reaction was one of horror and dread. And frankly this was true all the way up until the photo shoot at Scott and Teresa Fisher’s house. But having Rebecca and Marc Scheff there to also distract and chat while the picture was being taken made it fun and okay. Much like the supportive and open atmosphere at the IMC made it possible for me to draw, however clumsily, in front of all those people. But I came to that photo shoot with a concept in mind. I knew what the angel looked like and I was practiced enough in my craft to image an approach that was possible. The Beast ragingly hungry, was tamed by this and the satisfaction that came from literally erasing my face from the photograph to redraw it from scratch. The end result is the first time in many years is exactly what I had in mind when I started out- it is in fact better than I imagined it would be. I missed every bullet the Beast fired, and it fired a million. I can look at it and feel nothing but satisfaction from it, and I use this to help guard against the Beast later in other work. A thing once defeated can be defeated again.
|Self Portrait for THE TEMPLE OF ART by me and Allan Amato|
The Beast if tamed can be a useful guardian. Or it can be fed and allowed to become a terrible and abusive guard in the Abu Gahrib tradition. Some of us lack the Beast’s intensity, and others like myself, are in a constant dreadful battle with it. There’s an image from a Sam Shepherd play that best described what my internal creative process is in this battle: A cat seized upon by a hawk, dragged into the air turns and begins clawing and tearing at the hawk’s chest, killing it in mid flight and thusly killing them both as they crash to the ground. Letting the cat turn, giving the Beast too much leash and credit results in no good outcome, but carrying it properly means food and life for another day (sorry cat lovers!). The self criticism can be a check on catching mistakes made in earnest or by neglect. It sharpens my craft by not allowing me to fall into complacent satisfaction. It keeps my ego, the most blinding and stupid side of any creative process, in check because its fondest weapon, and it’s most legitimate is it’s continual questioning. When I mentioned that this makes us better humans in the end I meant it. As an artist I am biased as to the importance of being an artist, but I sincerely believe this struggle we have with ourselves as creatives makes us more self aware, more open and perceptive in a way that does make us better people. Not better than other people, but better than we would have been without it. In the end the Beast is only a beast when we let it grow too large within us. When we feed it with ego and self hatred. But it’s almost as negligent a sin to ignore it and starve it. To think every one of our marks is god’s own finger on earth. Whatever lie talent brings to this idea vanishes soon over time because there is no growth that comes from it. There is no cause to move from where you are if you think you are awesome in your place. You can see this in artists whose work stalls and never changes or improves over time. Even failed attempts at new directions are a superior place than drowning in this stultifying amber. The Beast when properly corralled doesn’t let us sit overlong in any one place. Making art is a nomadic exercise, or should be. And ultimately it’s a lonely one. But you can find comfort and consolation in the persistent dance with the critic in your head and after a time come to love it. I am not entirely there yet myself, as I find little regard in looking too much at my own work, even today. There are rare times when this doesn’t happen and I treasure those moments. It’s the bit where Trinity and Neo pierce the dark cloud of the poisoned world and for a moment see that above it are blue skies and sunshine.
|Nate and Tabitha receive the Gate Key from THE LOST BY by Greg Ruth|
Overall like many and all things in life, excising our demons does not make us better humans. Learning to identify them, to even come to love them and put their enthusiasms to work can result in startling surprises. This difficult marriage can make us better artists and better people. The work is important, and should always be the point, but so is remembering that it only matters as a place to improve our craft for the next work. Otherwise it will be the last work we ever do. So don’t be afraid of dancing with the sharp parts of yourself, but learn to identify them, to exploit them and rule them and you’ll be happily surprised where they take you. The best part is, neither you nor the Beast knows where you’re going, but you can only get there together.