The Voice.

monkeyWhy are you here? Here, on my blog, why are you here?

Are you here for the reason that I’m here? Which is, I think, because I have a vague itching inside that says ‘make something.’ But the thing I feel I ought to be doing when that impulse arises, namely drawing something, is somehow not appealing right now.  Maybe that’s because it’s after midnight, I’m sitting in the darkened cabin of an airplane flying to Tokyo, and the only thing I could draw at this moment is the dimly lit, freckled, meaty arm of the guy sleeping in the next seat. So I’m doing something else instead. Writing this.

But maybe a more honest reason why I’m typing instead of drawing is that I am afraid. I’m often a wee bit afraid when I start to make a drawing — yes, even now after zillions of drawings over a decade and a half. I’m afraid of the Voice. Not the TV show (though that can be scary too) but that teeny, nagging voice saying that the drawing will possibly (or probably) suck. The Voice isn’t always there when I uncap my pen, but it often pipes up once the first line starts to go down. “Oh, well, you blew that one. It’s all gonna be repair-work from here on.” Or “Better start cross hatching now, it looks flat and weak.” Or “Come on, let’s finish this one up and watch TV.” Or just “Puhleez … you cannot draw for beans, you worthless, posturing fraud.”

Whose voice is that?

I used to suppose it was my art/shop teacher from 6th grade. Or maybe it was my second stepfather. Or my father. Or my mother. Or a kid I knew in high school who was way cooler than almost all of us. Or a guy who thumbed through one of my books in a Barnes & Noble in Dayton and shrugged it back not the shelf. Or maybe it was your voice — maybe that was the real reason you came here today, to tell me how much this drawing will suck.

But I know now it’s not any of those voices. It’s one I know much better. It’s the voice that’s editing this blogpost as I write it. It’s critiquing my typing skills. It’s correcting my posture. It’s the voice of fear.

The voice that says,”Why bother? Why take a risk? Why put yourself out there? You suck, it will suck, and nothing good will come of it.”

It’s not Linda Blair’s possessed voice in the Exorcist. It’s not the sneering, sing-song voice of the bully that cracked open my head with a rock when I was eleven. It’s a voice that sounds just exactly like mine, though it whispers, hisses even, back there in my skillet darkness of my skull.

That voice doesn’t just concern itself with drawing. No, it has opinions about most things. Whether I should wear this shirt, whether I floss enough, whether I should have desert, what my client meant by that remark, whether I should write another book, teach another class, look for a new place to live, have another cookie. It’s a busy little voice and it can think of a good reason to be afraid of most decisions, of any impending event, big or small. It can give me umpteen reasons to do something tomorrow instead of now, to ask more and more people’s opinions before I make a move, can tell me what that stranger at the cocktail party will reply if I say hi. Despite its apparent rock-solid convictions about things, the voice is always willing to switch sides with alacrity if it will serve to unsettle me. It can say I’m not good enough — or too good. It can say I should settle for the easy way out — or tell me I always refuse to go the extra mile.

I imagine that voice coming from a smallish, hunched-over ape with bright eyes and twitching fingers crouching right behind the backside of my eyeballs. Sort of like Gollum, but meatier, furred. It’s the voice that tells me the water is too cold and too deep, the girl’s too pretty, the assignment’s too hard, the competition’s too stiff, the road’s too long.

This voice has the keys to the file room and knows the combination of the vault. It can use everything I know against me, push very button, pull every lever, and it is unrelenting. It is smarter than me and it has plenty of time on its hand.

Think about this — would the voice put so much effort into fighting me if it didn’t matter?  Do dragons guard empty caves? Maybe it’s so hard to do this because it matters so much?

But don’t worry about that now. It’s time to silence the voice.

Because it can be hushed. It can be beaten.

The secret is so easy, so simple, it took me ages to figure it out. I tried fighting back, debating, fresh approaches, corroborating opinions. But the answer, plain is simple, is to out-dumb it. To not look but just leap. To make not a plan but a move. To get the lead, or the ink, out. Now.

I pick up a pen and mindlessly start to draw. I don’t try to figure out what I’m drawing. I don’t consider the anatomy of the eyeball or the laws of light reflection or where the vanishing point should be. I don’t think about whether my proportions are off, or whether the subject is interesting, or whether my butt is falling asleep, or if the ink is soaking through the paper.

I am the whistling mule, head down, shoulder to the plow, just here to draw, ma’am, pushing the pen on and on. If the voice clambers out of its grotto and starts to harangue me, I switch to humming and I keep pushing that pen. And when the drawing is done, I don’t stop to look at it, I don’t evaluate it or make a few changes. I turn the page and I start the next one. I am not here to have drawn, I am here to be drawing.

And after a couple of pages, the voice has fallen silent. Given up because it is a bully and it can’t face defeat.  Poor little ape. See you tomorrow.

This blogpost is a demonstration of this secret weapon. I started writing with no real idea of what I wanted to say exactly but just an urge to say something.  And somehow I managed to get all these words typed and, when I get around to rereading them, I think they’ll stand up (I was about to start making some self-deprecating, parenthetic aside apologizing for how second-rate what I ended up doing is in fact, but screw it, I stand by these words and that monkey better get back in its box).

So, if you’re here because you’re killing time, time to get back to work. And if you’re looking for inspiration, you got it. Now, put on your expensive, high-performance drawing shoes and just do it.

It may well suck, but so what? A bad drawing beats no drawing every time. And good drawings are just bad drawings’ grandchildren.

What do you think? Do you ever hear the Voice? What do you say to it? Share with us.

45 thoughts on “The Voice.”

    1. Oh, yes! The Voice kept me miserable for many years. And then I began to define what I really wanted. Artists really inspire me and I found it’s OK to say “yes, I am an artist”. It’s an unfinished project of course; and I don’t mind those at all.


  1. Brilliant. You are. Not despite The Voice but because of The Voice. Because if no voice were talking to you, you wouldn’t be doing all of this. Writing. Drawing. Thinking about apartments, bullies, shirts and flossing. Flying to Tokyo, despite Voice saying “this plane could crash, you know? Planes have crashed before. Airports are dangerous. And Tokyo? It’s still waiting for the Big One.” But you shut up the voice and go anyway.

    You’re right about the demons & monkeys & apes not guarding empty caves. They only guard the Meiji shrine to the empirical gardens, the jungle entry to the ruins where the jewels are, the door behind which the plot solution lie. They like to screech and hop and bite and divert your attention. And the only way to shut them up is to ignore them and walk – run – draw – write right past them. Cuz monkeys hear The Voice too. And if you walk by them, write past them, ignore their stupid ways, Monkey’s own voice says “Didn’t work now, did it? Loser.”

    My own Nasty Voice says “you haven’t got what it takes. You’ll never finish the novel. Because you waste so much time ha ha.” My Voice says “you’re a Möchtegern, a Hasbeen, a WIll-Never-Be, a sad little poser.”

    The thing I haven’t figured out yet is which voice in my head feeds me sudden & brilliant ideas, wonderful lines, witticisms in the elevator. Is it the same voice? Is it The Voice’s enlightened, kind, zen brother? Or the raving mad creator’s?

    All I know is I am really happy for the voices in my head. They scatter my brain in all kinds of wonderful directions. They take me places. To your blog post this morning. At work.

    “I started writing with no real idea of what I wanted to say exactly but just an urge to say something.”

    And with my loudest voice, the one that carries all the way to Tokyo, I say “Thank you, Danny!”


    (oh and little voice wants to know: what were you writing with or on, on the plane: iPad? With keyboard? Safari pen? I’m flying to Madison, Wisconsin on Sunday and want to write on the plane too. In notebooks, probably. With pen. To screw the monkeys.)


  2. Congrats!, Danny,
    your describtion of “The Voice” sounds like “The Voice” I know even!
    But MY ugly, sucking ape, always is showing his bloody, nasty, long tongue, … and he has devil horns too! Aaaaaaaaaaaargh… but also he is very cowardly…

    Like you, I’ve learnt to stop his sucking mouth, immediately, when I start to draw, without thinking about what I’m doing…

    Here is my “new” trick:
    I startet to use a small sketchbook with THIN paper. It’s NOT the valuable paper for “watercolors” I normally use – and this “cheap” paper feels like “trash” for me and I’m feeling VERY FREE to draw spontanous with ink (china ink) on this “trash paper”, WITHOUT using any eraser (rubber) –
    and – for my surprise and pleasure – I figure out:
    my “highspeed drawings” are “easy going” and I’m feeling more relaxed…

    (in the same time, this ugly ape, called “THE VOICE”, is sitting in the darkest corner of the coal cellar and weeping, but I’ don’t bother :-pppppppp)

    Best wishes!


  3. This very subject would be a great book of yours, Danny, please! I read this because I have become a monkey myself- so full of doubt- so scared- and I read it because I need to get back on track- the track you helped me find with your other books!! And- if I had those words- nicely illustrated – on my art-shelf- it would be the one I´d pick up daily. Cause this monkey sure is a powerful- scary SOB… BUT- today you made me stronger with your kind blogpost- that you wrote in the dark. You are the best!!! And I hope you get a great stay in Tokyo!!!

    Love from Stockholm


  4. Ah… the voice (it gets no capital ‘v’ from me). I think you’re right to call it fear. Fear of anything and everything that could go wrong or be wrong. What do I say to it? As little as possible. When it’s persistent though, I do have one trick — instead of protesting or arguing or trying to ignore it, I say something like: “well, yes, this may be the worst thing I’ve ever drawn. You make a valid point. But I have nothing to lose by doing it anyway. It’s only paper. So let’s just keep going and see what happens.” It works like a charm. Every time.

    Oh and do have another cookie, Danny. You deserve it : )


  5. Yes Danny, The Voice is what’s taken me until I”m 66 to get back to drawing. And now that I”m finally doing it again, it is trying valiantly to stop me. It can find more reasons to keep me from my notebook than one would think possible…Dentist appt. (take the notebook), dinner party (take the notebook), trip to NYC (take the notebook)…I lead a fun, busy life, but I’m learning to ignore The Voice and take the notebook!


  6. I couldn’t have put it better. I’m a long-time procrastinator and eventually I also realised that I was putting off being creative and doing the things I love because of fear. I can’t say I’ve got it totally mastered yet but, as you describe, the only way to shut it up is to just do something. Even if my drawings or my photos are rubbish I keep making them because it’s the only way to learn and to enjoy doing it. And the only way to stop myself from listening to that voice.


  7. I love it! I had to write a talk on a deadline and could think of nothing, nothing at all…In the end, I wrote about writer’s block. Not only did the work get done, but I had several people tell me they could relate. Thank you for reminding us to just keep on keeping on…


  8. Interesting that many of us hear our own version of The Voice. I wonder if there’s anyone so confident that doesn’t hear it? And for those of us who have not achieved much recognition in any field, it is a bit comforting to know that even professional artists may still hear the voice of doubt! um yes, bad drawings happen before good ones do…so I just keep practicing. and now I am putting on my drawing shoes!


  9. I swear this was written from inside my own head – but way better than I would have been able to phrase it! Thank you for calling attention to the little monster and kicking us all in the butt. When I teach my workshops I refer to the left and right sides of the brain (thank you Betty Edwards) and the need to silence that judgmental left side. But thinking of it as a “the Voice” that nagging monster that says you are a fraud and everything you’ve done up till now has been a fluke – you hit the nail on the head. It is all about fear isn’t it? Thank you so much. You continue to inspire me. I will take what you said to heart! Off to the studio…..!


  10. Oh wow..This is so right on and timely. I’ve had this blocked feeling lately and I know its fear that I’m not going to measure up to what people expect of me from past work. I have so many ideas of things I want to paint and draw and nada is getting done. Its nice to know that you too experience this fear even after several books. Thanks for the kickstart! 🙂


  11. Thank you for the post, it has touched a core in many of us. I love the fact you have given the little monster a face. You have shed light on feelings I struggle with (tho my monster has a different face). It’s helpful to know we are not alone and each of us must face our own monster. The trick is don’t give in to feelings…they can be a lousy indicator of reality. Take back the power and silence the beast.


  12. Wonderful post, Danny! The beast you describe has been called “Top Dog” or “Gremlin,” and we are all blessed with some version of him. I love how you put him in his place by drawing him! The hairy fellow on the right looks like a Yeti! My “Top Dog” is a Tasmanian Devil, who clamps his toothy jaws around my wrist and tells me I’m worthless. I’m going to put him in his place by making a plush version of him, all warm and fuzzy and harmless. Thanks for the inspiration!


  13. Yes, yes…. I have the voice as well. I would say, who hasn’t? It sometimes gives me a couple of down hours, and indeed, it shuts up by just doing what i want to do….. And when de flow follows during drawing, writing etc. it is silenced……

    Beautiful post, thanks!!!!


  14. I think everyone that is creative has this voice…it’s part of the wonderful gift of being creative. I don’t know where it comes from or why…is it something from our preschool past? I don’t know. But I know we all have it. Vincent had it….he said that if you hear a voice in your head that says you can’t paint, then paint, and the voice will be silenced.

    When I’m out in nature it’s easy to silence the voice–the beauty of the day, the chirping of the birds, the fighting of the squirrels….all amazing each and every time. Just to be able to breath in the fresh air and relax. Sometimes though, I do get anxious on what to paint/draw, so I just take my time and something cries out to me. It always does. I have also told myself that if the picture is good or bad, I don’t judge it until I’m done, and then if it is bad, so what. Not the end of the world. I was able to spend time outside and do what I love the most…paint/draw. That’s the gift.

    Inside is worse for me…the voice hollars… aren’t any good, you will never make any money at this, you have dishes to do, wash, geez, how much dust IS on that tv????? I silence that voice by making a habit of spending time in my art room..and the hell with everything else. If the voice is really bad, I put on my favorite music and let ‘er RIP!!! I start singing and the voice is certainly drowned out. No cleaning is done…but I’ve spent my day painting away!!

    So glad you shared your Voice with us…maybe I will try and draw my voice. Thanks Danny, as always you inspire!!!


  15. Wow. So completely appropriate at this exact moment – I must admit I ALMOST cried. Yes, I am here now to procrastinate a drawing project waiting in the next room. The voice keeps telling me it can’t possibly turn out well, though it’s going fine so far. Thank you for following the urge to write today and for the words that spilled out. (And for all your inspiring posts.) Thank you, thank you, thank you! Back to drawing!


  16. VERY POWERFUL!! This is my main reason for drawing – to shut the voice up. One of my only ever ‘awakened’ experiences was in a drawing class – drawing the negative space of a bicycle carcass. It was pure bliss. Thanks! Mary



  17. I read Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right side of the brain and she talked about the left hemisphere being the voice, and it was like a frying pan hitting me slap bang across my head. All those years of listening to the fear. Then a couple of weeks later I stumbled across your Creative License book and wierdly you talked about reading Betty’s book too. You are an inspiration Danny and I often tell my voice to “shut the F**K up” because of you and Betty. Thanks Mr! XX


  18. I am kind of hooked on your blog, Danny. I use it as a source of inspiration when the quitter voice inside my head gets a little too loud and bossy. The good news is that I started a blog of my own, mostly as a way of sharing my drawings with my mom, sister and one or two friends. Oddly technology is such that I can see I have had page views from all over the world – Israel, Russia, Korea, Venezuela, China the US and UK, Canada….So I sent out a drawing and a question on my blog. “Who are you? Will you leave a comment?” Unlike you, I had no responses. I think people must be too busy doing their own drawings so they do have not time to send me a note. Magical thinking on my part 🙂

    But here is the weird thing. Now I am kind of hooked on checking the stats on my own blog. Any page views from a new country? Any comments today? Ever? I must say, It makes me want to keep posting, so I keep drawing. That part is good. But it is a distraction and a time sink too. It is an excuse to look for outside validation. It is another stalling tactic. Back to your message – just keep drawing and forget the inner critic. But I think I have to forget the outer strokes too. As I have seen from your interviews with other illustrated journal keepers, drawing is a great way to be mindful about experiencing the world and telling a story. It is a great way to connect with people. And you have to do it in your own voice. At the heart of the matter is eyes looking, pen, paper, oh and beautiful watercolour.

    Thanks for your work and words. And I am still hooked on your blog.


  19. Oh my……and here I thought I was I was the only one that thought like that!! My little voice stops me from practicing to get better at drawing…..whilst I look with longing at all the wonderful artists that seem to have enough confidence to keep drawing and not worry about what other people think, or the horrible little mischievous ape that sits on their shoulder whispering nasty comments… silly am I?. Now, after reading your eloquent post Danny, and the wonderful comments of all the other artists, I need to pick up my ink pen and just damn well practice!


  20. Spot on Danny! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, fears, and solutions. I’ve just finished your wonderful “Creative License” book and am struggling daily to keep drawing. So helpful to hear from you and others and to know we all just need to take action and quit spinning. Excellent post–I’m off to create today’s drawing!


  21. That voice is always there but it shuts up once I get very engaged with the process of making something. Make more and the odds are: more will be to your liking…Great post. Every creative person wrestle with this issue.


  22. So many noisy monkeys out there! We should pack them off to their own zoo!
    I often tell my students to chase the critical monkey off their shoulders – they need to read this. Thank you for saying the right thing at the right time.


  23. *shiver* This is chilling, Danny. So true for so many of us artists. Suddenly, I have the lyrics of “Killing Me Softly” in my head! 🙂 You’re singing my life with your words. In a way, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone, but sad at the same time. Sad because it stops so many potential artists from going further with what could be a beautiful, life-enriching thing. The “voice” can be beneficial sometimes, but very damaging, too. May the “voice” be a faithful servant instead of a cruel master for you and everyone in the field of art.


  24. This was a fabulous post – probably because you just started writing with nothing to distract you but the voice (you notice the small v – gives it less authority I think!) We all have the same visitor – sometimes it paralyzes me for a bit – but I have learned to get over myself. You are right – a “bad” drawing, painting, story, piece of music is better than none at all. And the “bad” often brings us to “good” new places (at least it does for me). Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing.


  25. Wow! Thank you…..I’ve been avoiding the whole sketching urge for years…this is me, getting up and going to get the moleskine now…thank you thank you thank you!!!! But first…how’d you get inside my head?!


  26. I call it “monkey mind.” Reassuring to hear you have fear and doubts too. When I’m stuck one of the things I do is come to your blog. The live interviews from your books are so inspiring. I also have to make sure I am not overthinking the painting or drawing…and work more from an intuitive level….I like to “space out” and draw. No real hard thinking allowed or then the monkey mind starts.


  27. “I am the whistling mule, head down, shoulder to the plow, just here to draw, ma’am, ”
    I love this line! I have a feeling the whistling mule image is going to stay and help me bust my you-can’t-draw gremlins. Thank you!


  28. Great post, guess many creativ people know that feeling. *crooked smile* When the expectations gets higher and higher, my own or the others, its, it’s blocking all joy and passion. Thank you very much for voicing that!


  29. Loved reading this. Nice to know that even Super Danny (you in your superhero drawing outfit) has the same hurdles as the rest of us. Yep, sometimes you just have to say, “pardon me, scuse me, drawing here, you can have those brain cells back when I’m done”. The thing is, the “voice” is like a bad parent who compares one child to a more successful one–it compares “you” to “previous you”. When I draw, I often create something I had no idea I could create. Sometimes I even think it’s great, being so amazed that ink can flow from a pen connected to me and come up with something that looks halfway decent. I think that is because drawing relies on a part of us we don’t know really well. An image comes in through our eyes, and something magic happens before pen hits paper. Of course, being so in love with that image causes me to wonder if I can ever possibly come up with something equally fantastic. The voice says “Oh you can’t do that, don’t even try, it won’t be nearly as perfect as what “previous you” created”. But every time I vanquish the voice, more magic happens. It’s not easy, but its worthwhile. – Jane W


  30. This post was so real and brutally honest. I appreciate your transparency so much. Funny how when you shine the light on that creature it ends up running! I’m a new fan! Can’t wait to hear more:)


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