Focus on what works

Focus on where you want to go, not on what you fear.  — Anon

A radical shift

In our culture, shifting the focus to look for what’s strong in our creative work can be a radical idea because we’re taught early to find what’s wrong and fix it.

A few years ago I trained in the Amherst Artist and Writers Method with Pat Schneider. Pat changed the trajectory of many lives with her writing workshops. No less than Julia Cameron calls her a ‘fuse-lighter’. Taking that training with her was a highpoint for me.

One of the very wise things (among  many) I learned from Pat was to focus on what’s strong and successful in a new piece of writing. I’ve come to realize it’s good advice for any creative endeavour in its baby stages.

After training with Pat, I went on and facilitated my own writing workshops. As my students heard from the others in the group about what they liked and what touched them, the writer naturally repeated what worked as they developed their piece. The “other stuff’ fell away.

I witnessed the power of this shift over and over as I worked with my writers.

However, there was one student who felt irritated and uncomfortable when I wouldn’t tell her what to ‘fix’ after the group gave her glowing feedback. She dismissed what she did well – which was actually quite a bit. She was convinced we weren’t telling her the truth about her work.

I get it.

The marketing industry makes a lot of money convincing me I need to be fixed. They taught me to focus on flaws and ignore the good stuff. Like my dissatisfied student, it seems too simplistic to simply build on what works. It can also feel hard to let the other stuff go. The stuff that holds me back and clutters up my creative landscape.

For a long time I bought into the idea that it’s easier to fix something rather than to build on strength. Until I witnessed the power of the building approach in those writing workshops. These days I try to remember to look for what I like and more importantly, to ask for help finding it.

Talking to another artist awhile back, she showed me a watercolour she’d done and lamented that while she loved the lower part of the painting, she’d “ruined” the top. I suggested she tear off the top and keep the good bit. (I think I actually saw the lightbulb go off.)

She ripped that painting almost in half, framed the bit she liked and sold it not long after.

Most of us are terrible at judging these things for ourselves. I know I am because I see where I fell short of the original vision I had and my Inner Critic uses that as ammunition.

I simply can’t be an objective observer. None of us can. Sometimes we need help to see clearly.

Find and ask

First, find someone who can be objective – which usually rules out family and friends.

Second, whatever you do, don’t ask for feedback or constructive criticism.  Not when you’re work is in its early stages. Most of us are trained to default to the negative so be very deliberate in how you word your request.

“What works? What speaks to you? What attracts you here? How does it make you feel?”

All good questions.  If the person I’m asking starts to go to The Dark Side, I try to redirect them with another question. Whether it’s my art or writing, I need to know when/where the piece catches their attention.

This is valuable information.

Try it yourself sometime. You will probably be surprised at what others see in your work. Things you totally overlooked or dismissed. Things you can do more of.

Keep learning

None of this means we shouldn’t take risks, learn from others and practice our craft. We need mistakes – lots of them – to grow and constructive criticism of mature work can help us improve.

But we must also identify our personal sparks of brilliance so we can fan them into flames. Our creative work becomes mediocre and vanilla when we ignore our own gifts.

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