Vincent & the Monkey

Long after his death, Vincent van Gogh has been diagnosed with everything from schizophrenia to syphilis. He may have been bipolar or epileptic, eaten too much paint or drunk too much absinthe. Did van Gogh hear the voice of the inner critic, that toxic monkey endlessly jabbering in his head? Certainly. He had plenty of problems and one or more of them led to the events of 27th of July, 1890, when he shot himself, in the chest, in a wheat field. He hung around for another day and a half, said, “The sadness will last forever” and died.

Van Gogh was 37 and he had been painting for just ten years. In that time he accomplished so much, producing hundreds of beautiful works of art that have influenced artists ever since. His life, short though it was, left ripples.

But what if he hadn’t cut his life so short? What if he had lived to 86 like Monet? Or 84 like Matisse? Or 91 like Picasso? What might he have accomplished if he’d lived a full and complete life? What paintings might now hang in museums? What directions might he have taken the art world? How might we all see differently than we do? Try to imagine all he never had the chance to imagine.

So much beautiful art has been made through the course of human history. But there is so much beautiful art that never was made, never sketched or painted or framed or hung. The monkey voice does the job of that pistol in Auvers-sur-Oise every day, cutting creative careers short, stifling ideas, throwing up roadblocks to new horizons. Every time the monkey forces a creative person to give up, the world is robbed of ideas that could lead to more ideas that could lead to answers and inspiration and gasps of delight.

The fact is, you can’t know what impact your work could have on the world. Don’t let the monkey decide for you.

The limit’s the sky.

It’s tempting to blame limitations for limiting us.
To wish we had more resources, more time, more help, more talent.
But there’s never enough — and you don’t need it.

Limitations free your efforts and creativity, help you avoid being overwhelmed by infinite possibilities.
If you have no rules, you have no game.
If you have no gravity, no seasons, no wind and rain, you cannot grow.
All creativity work with limits.
Pushing against them moves us to new places.
Limits build up pressure that pops us into new dimensions

Hemingway used just 26 letters.
Miles had but three valves on his horn.
Painters limit themselves with canvas size, with the colors on their palettes, with the history of the artists that precede them.
Binary code limits engineers to just 111s and 000s. That limitation produced the computer you’re reading this on.
Shakespeare didn’t use iambic pentameter just to produce plays with iambic pentameter.
He used it to force himself to use new words which expressed new ideas.

How can you limit yourself?

How to fight a critic.


It’s tempting to fight back against criticism. But where does it get you?

Take Manet, the father of Impressionism. Outraged by a critic’s attack, he challenged him to a duel. They met in a forest, hacked ineffectually at each other with swords until they bent them, shook hands, and limped away. Neither man was badly injured and they both went back to work.

Take Whistler, a bad-tempered and thin-skinned genius whose memoir is called “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.” When John Ruskin wrote an especially vicious review of one of his paintings, Whistler took him to court, strenuously defended his modernist aesthetic — and was awarded a farthing for his troubles.

In the long run, both men beat the critics with a different weapon — the brush.

Manet is known for launching impressionism, for making it acceptable to paint everyday life, for Olympia, Le Dejeuner, and the critic, well, his name was Edmond Duranty—ever heard of him? Whistler’s legacy is bit more ironic, due not to his critics but to fans of his most famous work, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.”  After spending his life fighting against art based on moral lessons and maudlin emotion, he is known for a painting of his mommy. But it is a great painting and, even after the trial, he continued making many more.

Critics, internal and external, can raise any artist’s hackles. They can provoke you into violent defense of your work, into self-doubt, even into halting your creativity all together. One man’s opinion, published in a newspaper, or muttered in a gallery, or imagined in a moment of weakness, can suck up your energy and threaten your creative life.  Few critic’s opinions endure and that’s something to remind yourself of. Because opinions are products of the moment, influenced by current trends, by ignorance, by poor digestion. They are not eternal, objective, blanket truth.

Any condemnation of a work of art, whether it comes from a professional, from a neighbor, from a monkey’s voice in your head, should only be responded to with more work. Prove them wrong — if you have to acknowledge them at all — but never let them get you down.

Forget lawyers and swords. Make your case with a brush, a pen, a blog post.

Monkey goes to the publisher.

Signing the book contract for "Shut Your Monkey"

“Okay, but once you sign the contract, you have to write the book.”

“I know, I want to write the book. People need to know how to shut you up once for all.”

“And you think you can write a book about that?”


“A whole book?”


“Sez who? You’re not a shrink or a counselor or an expert of any kind. Who cares what you have to say?”

“I’ve lived with your voice in my head for decades, haven’t I? I’m pretty much as expert as you can get.”

“And you think you can shut me up?”

“Watch me. Hand me that pen.”

Book contract for "Shut Your Monkey" signed. 
Book out next fall.
Let the fun begin!