I Hear Voices (So Do You)

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons by David61 Comments

Some thoughts on the voices we listen to. My disclaimer: I’m still on meds that make writing a little tough. I feel foggy. I probably write more from my gut right now, which is good unless you want this stuff to make actual sense. So this one might be a little more rambling than others…

As artists and creators we listen to a lot of voices, some of them helpful and others less so. I’ve written elsewhere that to grow in our art or craft it’s important to seek critics and not merely fans. While some fans can also be helpful critics, it’s rare. The two voices perform different and beautiful roles, but they aren’t to be confused. Nor, for that matter, should they be listened to exclusively. There is, among all the other competing voices, a third voice, a more important voice, but I’ll get to that.

The Fan encourages us, gives us the strength to push on when we’re not sure the struggle is worth the effort. The Fan reminds us that the worst of our work doesn’t define us. The Fan is the cheerleader – often found in friends and family – that gives us hope. But while the Fan’s voice is always positive it’s not always helpful and can in fact be ruinous if we listen to it alone. The Fan, for all her enthusiasm, isn’t usually qualified to do much more than cheer-lead. It may feel good to be told your work is the best work ever, but if that Fan doesn’t know so much as one other photographer or the history of the art, that voice isn’t qualified. And in that case the voice of the fan is misleading. A voice enthusiastically cheering you on, while you merrily run in the wrong direction isn’t a helpful voice, no matter how well-meaning.

The Critic helps us see our blind spots and asks a lot of questions. The critic is honest and – assuming you’ve chosen your critics well – wants only to make your work better through a more objective view of it. The Critic pushes us, sometimes harder than we want to be pushed. The Critic, when he knows his stuff and – importantly – knows us – can help us ask questions of ourselves, make us aware when we’re repeating our own work, and call us forward. The Critic, properly chosen is not a negative voice, though there are many of those. I’m not referring to those voices. Critical voices can be good, criticizing ones just squelch our creative souls. The Critical voice can be the most helpful one as we push our art past our comfortable places and into the unknown places. That push can give us courage to do better.

I’ve been talking through these issues with a friend of mine and have come down to more questions than answers. How do you know when to listen to which voices? What do you do when the voices of the Fans just seems like empty praise and the voice of the Critic seems to be killing your soul? How do we know how much weight to give these opinions of others in the pursuit of something so personal? Does actively seeking feedback impact creativity and originality? All good questions, and probably ones we need to keep asking.

I think above it all we need to remember the third voice. Or rather, the voice that should be – must be – our own. That voice is our Gut. No mentor, critic, fan or otherwise will ever, ever, know what sits in our souls hoping to get out in some form of expression. Art is solitary and the decisions to make honest art are ours and ours alone. Yes, we need teachers to push us in our craft, and we need people to lay eyes on our work, but the first and last voice is our own. We need to trust our instincts, trust our gut. But we need to be open to the fact that, in the world of art, some people just have lousy instincts. The world of Art beckons. It’s alluring, a siren. Or maybe it’s just an unquenchable longing from within to express. But remember, you can express yourself in a million ways, just like every human on this planet of, what, 7 billion? And you may never become the celebrated artist you wish you could be. But if that’s the case, your longing is not expression: it’s fame. And if that’s the case you’re chasing the wrong thing and you don’t stand a chance of creating something others will respond to until you deal with that toxicity that’s strangling your creativity. Creativity is a fragile thing, easily killed if we chase money, fame, praise, or anything other than the act of creating something true instead. The reason I even bring it up is that none of this is easy and even our own instinct will betray us at times.

And on top of these voices, it’s to be remembered that different voices will be heard differently at different times in our lives as artists. At the beginning, as a photographer of one-year’s practice, the voices I need to listen to will differ from the ones I need now as a photographer who has been wrestling with his craft for 25 years. So I still weigh those voices against what my instinct is telling me. My gut might take me in some unusual directions, and it’s likely those will lead me to neither fame nor commercial success, but most important is that my instinct take me in a direction that is true.

Listen to the voices, at least the legitimate ones. Hear them out. Weigh them against your instinct and the reality that we all have blind spots, we all need a push in one area of our craft or another. Arrogance and a teachable spirit are mutually exclusive, but then listening to every voice but your own is the fastest way I can imagine to creating work that is uninspired, homogeneous, and lacks the most important element of art – yourself.


  1. David,

    Anychance you could share a link to the article you mentioned? Thx!

  2. Author

    Maggie – Sorry you feel that way. I don’t generally go the he/she nonsense, nor for just defaulting to “He”. I write as I feel and to me the more nurturing voice of the Fan is female and the more critical/logical voice is male. It’s not a stereotype and it’s not prescriptive, just the way I feel about those voices, at least symbolically if not practically. There are other blogs out there that are written more clearly and with greater care to political correctness. I just try to write honestly and with respect. Forgive me if you inferred any disrespect here, none was intended.

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  4. David you are a great photographer, teacher and human being. When I need inspiration I browse through your blog-read and see all.
    I will never stop learning from you.
    Thanks man…

  5. Whilst the opening points you make are engaging, I think I would continue reading if the indiscriminating ‘fan’ was male…and the knowledeable ‘critic’ was female….or even if you had presented them with parity…You did say critics are useful…cheers maggie

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  8. “listening to every voice but your own is the fastest way I can imagine to creating work that is uninspired, homogeneous, and lacks the most important element of art – yourself.”
    I am not an artist, neither do I try to become one, but this is so true also for my work. I am a teacher at one of our university colleges in my country – and I always hear my students tell me that I am one of the best teachers they ever had. Part of my inner voice agrees with them, but another is not so sure. Some days I listen to one part, some days I listen to the other part – and I know my work influences by this. I became this person that I am – constantly struggeling against one of the Critics from when I was young – this Critic almost made it impossible to study or get a job, I got all numb by the Critical voice of one of my teachers at high-school.
    I find it interesting to read your thoughts about the voices in life.
    I hope your inner voice tells you to get out of bed and walk again 🙂

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  10. “Critical voices can be good, criticizing ones just squelch our creative souls. ”

    How true – I have worked with two individuals as mentors of a sort, only to find this statement to be the case – good critics are like gold – tough to find, but once found, their value only increases!

  11. Heal well David. Maybe during your healing process you could revive your Within the Frame Podcasts, perhaps with a twist to better explore these ideas.

  12. @comment number 15 by: David
    I fully understand, and realize that perhaps I was too quick to jump the gun on the implication, that you implied, only an artist could appreciate great art. I am absolute aware that this was not your intent. I also agree that while the skilled critic not only has a fuller vocabulary to guide us on our quest towards creating art, this is not his or her only proficiency.

    My point was simply that while the less skillful may not have the vocabulary, we can definitely learn from their opinion by further inquiry. If people say: “Wow – those images are sharp” I tend to think it’s because my images aren’t really all that interesting. But if they simply say: “I really like that”, I would ask: “Why?” or “What exactly is it you like about that?”, or even “Anything you don’t like about that image?”

    I FULLY agree with what you say, and my preference is also to learn from those friends, whose opinion and skills I have come to appreciate and admire. That said – I also have a keen interest in understanding why people (and I use the term “people” in the most generic sense) like my images, and even if someone don’t.

    @comment number 33 by: Duncan
    Much of the above applies to your thoughts as well, and I agree with you both as well as everyone else responding to David’s (yet again) excellent post!

    But can we at least agree, that it’s not just about listening to the ‘trained critic’, but that we need to be ‘trained listeners’ when it comes to hearing the comments from the wow-crowd, and actually can benefit from trying to extract a little more information, than that, which boosts our ego’s? 😉

    With loads of respect…

    Henrik Delfer

  13. Thanks for sharing the visuals of your xrays, the knowledge that you are healing, and as always your inspiring thinking on life vision.

  14. Hi David! Guess I don’t read your blog too often, because I just found out about your accident… Glad to see that you survived and from the sound of it, is on the mend. Hope you make a full recovery and manage to escape the pain soon!

    For a guy on drugs, you sure write well enough! Get well, David!

    Tormod in Stockholm

  15. Stop with the apologies!! We believe the ‘in vino veritas’ saying – I’m happy to extend it to ‘in meds veritas’ as well!!

    Having a constructive critic is really helpful. And while people can say,”I know what I like”; having someone tell you WHY something works or doesn’t is important to improving.

    I would love to find a mentor who would work with me on some of my issues with photography. But I can also see that listening to my own voice, even in this relationship, has to be important.

  16. What I miss most about photography class is not the teaching or the prompts that pushed me, it is critiques. I learned more from other student’s constructive criticism of my work, and in learning to see in such a way that I could give educated constructive criticism to others, than from any lesson, video or field trip. I would happily take the classes again just for critique days.

  17. I spend time teaching my granddaughter about warm and cool colors, line weight and other things I think she needs to know. She impatiently listens to me, takes my IPAD, finds a drawing app and creates the most beautiful moving bird I have seen…..she is in her bird drawing phase. I would never make a bird like that.
    In us is this third voice if we want to call it that, that is an intuitive combination of all we are, not just the art portions, that guides our work.

    Race car drivers allow this voice to instinctively guide them around the track. The racer has practiced going round and round, braking, accelerating—-being guided by his race team, mechanics, pit crew—-all these elements merge to become the third voice that performs better than charts, computer analysis, science.
    Mathematicians, physicists, artists get answers to problems they have been working on from this third voice—–and then must translate the answer to a provable beautiful hypothesis or moving work of art.

  18. My take on the fame vs. expression is we may be trying to meet someone else’s expectations or cater to the current trend rather than listening to ourselves. We find ourselves acting on an external stimulus – fame rather than an internal stimulus – satisfying our own vision. The goal is to satisfy ourselves by meeting our expectations and the image is what we wanted to achieve or express. If someone else enjoys it or finds it strikes a chord for them, then fine. But we should be satisfied as it is the fulfillment of our goal and vision.

  19. This is a great topic and post! Although I’ve been creating all my life, I am a new comer to photography. It often seems we walk a fine line, balancing constructive criticism and following our own vision. I feel the best bet is to consider comments coming from knowledgable sources, enjoy praise (but maybe not take it too seriously), study the masters of our craft – contemporary (which may be subjective to some degree) and past masters, but, above all follow our own vision and heart.

  20. David……Great post, full of truth and direction.
    I have lived those words for many years. I always dreamed of being a professional furniture maker. For years I chafed during the day while working for Others and then raced home after work to pursue my hobby late into the night. I never had the courage to quit my job to pursue my dream.
    Then, as it often happens, life intervened. Suddenly I found myself close to 40, marriage just dissolving, no money, no job and $50K in debt. My inside voice told me it’s now or never. Long story short is that I went on to become a successful national furniture maker.
    During those years I sought out constructive criticism trying to improve my craft. I found that it was necessary to filter all such comments to discern their motivation. You need to leave behind those comments that came out of jealousy, ignorance, or other such motives. What I sought after were those comments that were offered in an attempt to pull you up, not tear you down. The final filter was always that voice from within……the Gut.
    Sorry for the length of this reply and hope it is sensible……right now I am on oxycodone for some disability injuries.
    Tony Buzak

  21. Well you know CJ and I were such a great team in kathmandu so like him I chime in and say that the best words I’ve read from you are also this post. They were as follows : “I feel foggy”.
    I was not able to give words to that feeling 🙂

  22. Well said David. Each voice has its own role in our craft. It is a matter of balancing these voices without sacrificing art in the process.

    I just find it curious that in your musings, the ‘fan’ voice is a she and the ‘critic’ voice is a he.

    Be well.

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  24. I love the toughness about your posts – that’s what helps me reach deep within and do an independent search and find my voice! Thank you, David!

  25. perfectly said, david. i used to be a gp just down the road from the civic hospital until i packed my bags and left, to live the dream in italy. i’m delighted to see that you are recovering so well there, with such a lucid brain. my Fan is my husband, my Critics are my workshop teachers and fellow participants, my Gut is the reason that i shoot what i thrive on. i am looking forward to the day when you can also be a much valued Critic. until then, please continue to make a speedy and full recovery, and thank you for all the inspiration that you so clearly give to so many.

  26. Henrik, following on from what David said above, I don’t think it’s that everyone can’t enjoy art. However not everyone can explain why they like or don’t like something on more than a very basic level and often the elements that make a piece of art engaging and compelling are often subconscious and subliminal. The ‘trained critic’ knows these and can help us understand what works or doesn’t far beyond hit, miss or maybe. So it’s not about snobbery – and certainly we should listen to all that people are prepared to invest time to say about our work – but where your key learning will come from.

    David, really like this post. One point I wanted to ask you about was the Critic. The distinction being critical and criticising is a good one – I feel some people use the guise of Critic to assault people’s work rather than provide any objective thought provoking insights.

    You talk of finding a good Critic – and in your books a Mentor – but can you (or others) suggest where these are to be found? One would hope that the Internet provides some form of answer, but often (eg flickr) the comments are vapid or superficial and of ‘the Fan’ nature. Regardless I don’t feel this is likely to be a source of a deeper and more meaningful relationship. Do I need to work harder mining it or should I be looking elsewhere? I would genuinely appreciate the opportunity to work with a strong Critic or Mentor (and would happily reciprocate for the same or others) I just need to find one! 🙂

  27. Excellent thoughts, David. You are absolutely right that the biggest problem is to know whom to listen to and how to weigh the opinions (praise or critic) you hear.

  28. Ok. David, unless you want to, you don’t have to respond to my question 🙂 I figured out what I need to do! I swear I’ve read this blog like 5 times today LOL!

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  31. I forgot to add that the above is being backed up with advice and encouragement from a couple of people who have been in the industry long term and who I trust implicitly.

  32. I’ve finally started listening to and acting upon something that my instinct was telling me about 3 years ago.

    It’s unbelievably liberating.

  33. How is it that your blog posts seem to resonate so closely with what I’m thinking? Weird.

    I’m a regular photo blogger and enjoy my community of fellow bloggers. It’s a very friendly, supportive community, but it’s not a critiquing community. Not that I don’t enjoy receiving kind words(!), but I’ve often wondered about the value of just kind words. It’s friendly, but it’s not helping me lift my game.

    On the other side, I have a family member who recently told me he doesn’t like the photos on my blog and has in fact, not visited the blog in weeks because of it. No critique, just doesn’t like them. It’s not surprising, our tastes in photography are very different. What’s more important though, when it comes to that sort of reaction, I told him that was okay, no worries at all, because I’ve learned that I blog for me and not for my audience. I am not actually seeking the love and admiration of my handful of followers. I’m simply on my own personal photographic journey; one that I’ve chosen to share on a blog.

    So, bring on the nice people, they’re always nice to have around. The haters are welcome too, I know tastes aren’t universal (and they’re certainly not universally like mine!). And a special welcome carpet is always out for all well-intentioned critics who have critiques and suggestions.

    Keep getting better!

  34. Your words are sincerely appreciated and an incredible reminder to me. As a 30+ year photographer, who is also a 1 year novice with DSLR shooting, I really needed this post. Thank you! Oh, and that was mighty lucid for a man on meds! Well done.

  35. David – this is very clear. Those meds don’t seem to be messing with your ability to express yourself clearly at all.
    We all need to hear these words of advice. Learning to listen to one’s gut while hearing and weighing the words of both the critic and the fan is a big challenge – and, I think, made more difficult by the fact that our culture doesn’t teach us how to do that very well. As children, we’re taught to listen to our parents and teachers, obey rules and not cause trouble. If we were taught, as little ones, that we needed to always listen to our gut feelings and pay attention to the ideas that “appear” in our minds, as well as take in the information of our elders it might not be so difficult. As adults seeking to express ourselves visually, verbally, or in any other way, in order to be true to ourselves, we have to reconnect with that inner voice that we don’t necessarily trust. We have to learn how to give it weight and allow it to speak up without fearing that it might get us into trouble somehow… I think that’s a big challenge. But… with enough grappa, anything is possible. And, unfortunately, you missed that chapter in Croatia. Now you’ll have to wait for the mind expanding grappa experience. Rats! We certainly missed you. I’m glad to read that you are on the mend. Take good care…

  36. “No mentor, critic, fan or otherwise will ever, ever, know what sits in our souls hoping to get out in some form of expression.” Spoken as a true artist. Now the challenge becomes actually maintaining that thought and letting our soul blossom forth in our work. Letting yourself go with it purely for expression sake, being vulnerable enough to show it to the rest of the world in the work we create. Art in its truest form is an expression of emotions and leads those who appreciate art on the path to their own spirit.

    Godspeed David.

  37. David:
    I’m a newcomer to your site, and I like your writing style. Maybe it’s the meds, like you say. Or maybe, which I’m inclined to believe, it’s being forced onto a new road by your medical adventure.
    I spent a week in hospital last summer, and that week – because of the seriousness of the situation – opened a new door for me. Could be similar for you.
    You write, “Listen to the voices, at least the legitimate ones. Hear them out. Weigh them against your instinct and the reality that we all have blind spots….”

    Well said. Powerful words.

    My week on my back helped erase inhibitions, which allowed my inner muse to step forward. That could be what’s happening to you. Let yourself shine. As a mostly-retired journalist for 30-plus years, I can say your writing style is better than mine. I wish I had your gift. Not only are you a gifted shooter, you can write with the best of them. You’re on a roll. You are writing from your heart. Open the gates. Let the words flow.

  38. These Canadian meds seem really good…
    I do hope you get to set them aside sooner rather than later and get back to work! Best wishes and speedy recovery!

  39. Heather commented, “You know that’s right…but how do we deal with that? Everyone deals with this issue on some level!”

    And most of us need help recognizing that it’s in play.

  40. Thanks David, that is a lot of clarity for someone on medication.
    Ken brings up the concern of time. In reality is this an issue? I think if you can be purposeful and strive to be your best creative self everyday then no time is wasted. As far as the past is concerned to quote a friend ‘the universe unfolds as it should’.

  41. Well said, even when on meds! To be honest, my gut is the voice I second guess more often than the other voices… so how does one overcome that? Cause that can strangle your creativity too…
    thanks for another post that makes me look harder at myself!

  42. Thanks for the encouraging words! Seems like these came exactly at the right moment for me. Good luck in your recovery as well.

  43. Henrik, thanks for the feedback but I think if you re-read my words more careful you’ll see I never once asserted that only artists can appreciate art. I’ve never said anything of the sort. I did say we need to be picky and that the voices we listen to need to be well-chosen. Art can be appreciated by all, but if you’re going to listen to teaching voices then make sure you’re choosing good teachers.

  44. What voices are speaking to the person who waited 30 years before taking up the craft more seriously? The Fan and Critic are there there is another and I’m sure its my Gut. This voice asks if there is enough time, are things digital too complicated? For the 50 something’s, this voice can be the most challenging one to reason with.

    I listen to my Gut, that voice tends to be more rational and reminds me I have a plan and goals that are important, perhaps more important than they were when I was much much younger.

    David, I so pleased that you are on the mend and strong enough to write again. Continued strength and success.

  45. I’m from Alabama so you’ll have to excuse the football reference. I tend to remember the words of Bear Bryant and apply them photographically:

    “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride and never quit you’ll be a winner.”

    I appreciate the critical voice but first and foremost I’m following my heart, the still small voice I hear and allow the critic to give that some added

    I tend to listen most to the still small voice within, and I’ve chosen to allow the critic to give that shape. I’m from Alabama so forgive the football analogy but from the words of Bear Bryant, “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride and never quit you’ll be a winner.”


  46. Thank God for voices, especially our own, especially when we surprise ourselves. Once someone asked me which pictures I took “mindfully,” implying that I just took the others. I said I couldn’t answer the question because it wasn’t a category I used to frame my picture-taking. Of course I work harder on some than on others and of course some I snap and run with, for the fun of it. And I’m still thinking about what might make a picture “mindful.”

    Hope your recovery is proceeding well. Thanks be for modern pharmaceuticals.

  47. Great post, David, despite the meds 🙂 . We all need to get reminded to listen to the most important voice, our own, and not to let it get drowned out by all the others.

  48. Well said. I see the meds are working well. 😉

    In college we would do a critique at the end of a drawing session or on a project. It’s important for us to get constructive criticism by others who have a trained eye. I welcome honest critiques.

    As you said, it’s all a moot point if we don’t follow our gut as well. The point of art is to express ourselves as individuals NOT crowd source.

  49. Thank you David. That’s a good way of putting this. I’d love to hear more, in the future, about how to choose critics. I feel like, with social media, it’s easy(ish) to choose fans, but finding knowledgeable critics can be a little harder.

  50. While, to a large extend, I agree with the thoughts you share here, I also have to respectfully take exception to the sentiment (though not said specifically, then at least implied), that only an artist can appreciate great art.

    Can’t you appreciate great wine without being a wine expert? Do you truly have to be a connoisseur to appreciate the delicate tastes of great food? Certainly the artist, wine expert or connoisseur will have a larger vocabulary to describe that which is appreciated in a work of art, a bottle of wine or a fantastic meal, or even those things which do not stand up to scrutiny.

    What i DO agree with is the thought, that we should not only listen to those who praise us. We – more often than not – need a serious kick in the butt to become more than what we are. But who is to say that this cannot come from someone that generally like what we do? I guess it’s always a matter of honesty. Meeting people one-on-one will give the opportunity to ask the hard questions. If someone praises my work, I often ask “really?” or “why?”, and more often than not, I get a qualified response that I can use to better myself.

    If we want to speak to the heart of the people that view our work, we have to listen to what they say about it. Certainly not the only cheerleaders, but even cheerleaders know when their team sucks, it just takes a more involved inquiry to get their true opinion, and not just the hyped pad on the back.

    Respectfully… from one that admires what you are doing.

    Henrik Delfer

  51. I’d like to take the third from last paragraph and pass it on to so many people (as well as paste it on my bulletin board where I can be reminded on a regular basis). Thanks David.

  52. “listening to every voice but your own is the fastest way I can imagine to creating work that is uninspired, homogeneous, and lacks the most important element of art – yourself” – I think this is the wisest thing I read from you.

  53. David, I hope you will soon write another post answering Heather’s question above and giving us additional measures to ensure we are on the right track. Thank you for your thoughts and guidance.

  54. Wise words as always David and my thanks for them, regards, and best wishes for your continued recovery to you.

    What you speak of is something i’ve often thought about myself and the conclusion I keep coming back to and which I offer here, is that I think there’s also another voice that is worth listening to. The voice we can’t hear.

    I’m a firm believer in the idea that everything has value and that the struggle can also sometimes be to find that value. As a result, the voice that is “a deafening silence” can sometimes give you as much feedback as a whoop of joy or a paragraph of praise.

  55. Considering you are drugged up, I actually thought this post was quite coherent. 🙂 A topic that puts some things into perspective – something I never really though of before…

  56. “your longing is not expression: it’s fame. And if that’s the case you’re chasing the wrong thing and you don’t stand a chance of creating something others will respond to until you deal with that toxicity that’s strangling your creativity.”

    You know that’s right…but how do we deal with that? Everyone deals with this issue on some level!

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