“Karaoke–not the least bit original.”
“I’d rather listen to a cat in heat.”
“That sounds like something I might hear on a third rate cruise ship.”
and, perhaps worst of all, the dismissive–“Utterly forgettable.”
Simon Cowell is the American Idol judge Americans love to hate. Contestants listen politely to the other judges, who usually give them constructive criticism, but it’s Simon’s authoritative pronouncements that make or break each singer. He says what he thinks, straight out, leaving the sweet “I’m so sorry, honey, that just didn’t work for me” to his colleague Kara. If someone can’t sing at a professional level, they hear the truth from Simon.
How many of us have an inner Simon Cowell?
Every writing instruction book I’ve read has its own variation of the advice to turn off your inner critic and just get the words on the page–editing can come later. Anne Lamott’s mantra is “Shitty First Drafts.” Julia Cameron instructs would-be artists of any kind to churn out three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing every morning. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, advocates timed exercises in which she says “the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”
The philosophy isn’t just for writers. I begin my music practice sessions with a free-form improvised warmup, exploring the range of my instrument, trilling my fingers, awakening my tongue, playing with snatches of random tunes. I give myself some playtime before I tackle the tricky passages of Telemann that I need to master before next week’s concert. I need to find my voice as a musician, to find the connection to whatever source feeds my inner artist. Once the flow begins I’m ready to play those virtuoso passages in my own way.
So while listening to the singers struggle to please the judges on American Idol last week, I decided to write about turning off your “inner Simon Cowell.” I got a post-it note pad and prepared to record his most derogatory remarks.
What I heard surprised me. With the show down to the top twelve singers, who had made it that far out of the thousands who had auditioned, Simon’s most constant theme was “Find your own voice. Sell yourself as an artist.” He encouraged the singers to be original, although not so far out that they didn’t connect at all with the song or the audience. Above all, he was looking for contestants with confidence who not only wanted to win but knew they could. No one wants to listen to a timid performer who is just waiting for the next mistake.
A retreat is a wonderful time to turn off that inner critic. The same principle applies to life as well as to music or writing. Whatever your field, you probably have some talent at it or you wouldn’t be finding grounds for self-criticism (another principle blatantly obvious in the American Idol auditions.) Find your voice, take risks, be original, and sell yourself as an artist–first to yourself, and then to the rest of the world.