Brains on Fire: shushing the creative inner critic

What comes to mind when you think of the word …marketing?

Perhaps a dude in a suit hovers before your mind’s eye, or the mob of flashing web banners and Twitter headlines?

Whatever you thought of, probably you didn’t think of art.

Yet the 2010 book Brains on Fire: Igniting Powerful, Sustainable, Word of Mouth Movements by the self-titled marketing company, challenges the idea that marketing lacks artistry. I’m not talking about PowerPoints by art majors or ad taglines penned by disillusioned writers. I mean art for art’s sake.

To be fair, Brains on Fire is a marketing book – and an innovative one, at that. The authors recommend that we kill slogans and campaigns. Instead, they teach how to grow organizations in a meaningful, organic way by engaging the communities around. And they use the word “passion” a lot.

Forget your product and technicalities, the book recommends. Instead, find the passion that people share and see if your stuff can actually help them express that passion. Reframe the conversation.

“Want to know why that shiny online community you built failed?” the authors ask. “Because you forgot something. You started with the tech and not the soul. And you’re just another URL in a sea of meaningless portals.”

Brains on Fire is kind of a creative self-help book, too.

In fact, despite the vastness of creative unblocking books (i.e. The Artist’s Way), Brains on Fire changed the last 21+n years of interesting conversations in my head.

You see, I like music. I’ve taken piano lessons since the age of six (complete with a Soviet piano teacher who whacked my fingers for every mistake, with daily practice and classes three times a week). A few years after moving to the U.S., I realized that I love singing.

And that’s where the trouble started. In spite of many auditions, talented musicians and lessons  (most recently the amazing Ellen Robinson and The Jazzschool), I judged quality through the eyes of others. And no amount of training helped. As soon as strangers entered the room, my throat closed up. The vibrato fell flat; the voice sounded thin as a schoolgirl’s. I’d forgotten why I came. And if they didn’t notice this time, surely they’d be asking soon enough, “What’s with this fake singer? Who does she think she is, barging in here and hogging the mic? Go bake a pie, woman. Boooo!”

Most of us are familiar with the inner critic. Some hear his hissing in creative work. For others, this saboteur creeps in during job interviews or when meeting romantic prospects. Negative thinking taxes our brain chemistry so much that failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stress builds and we quit, perhaps trying later with – alas – the same results.

When the sheer thought of practicing consumed me with dread, I finally quit a year ago.

But Brains on Fire teaches an important lesson. Art is not about technicalities, regular practice or talent – and these are crucial, of course. It’s not about how refined your brushstrokes or how well you scat. It begins with passion – that sacred state where time disappears and all that’s left is the unadulterated creative joy. It’s about being moved by sound. It’s about your unique ability to feel it.

After finishing the book, I got up and did the forgotten scales, played back the old lessons, improvised. Then I picked up the charts and went to a local jazz jam.

As I sang my two songs, surrounded by a five-piece band and the audience, the worries about being in tune and in character, about timing, dynamics or assessments by the universe disappeared. Hopefully the technicalities worked themselves out, but that’s not the point. I’m no Ella, and that’s not what mattered anymore.

Singing that night felt lighter and truer than ever (and sounded so, too). I’ll be practicing and coming back there again. We own our voices. We own our passion. The key is remembering that nobody can take it away.

4 thoughts on “Brains on Fire: shushing the creative inner critic

  1. The inner critic is a despicable being and she has tried to shut me down more than once. Somehow, I’ve always found a way to fight back and I’m glad you have too! 🙂

  2. “Brains on Fire changed the last 21+n years of interesting conversations in my head.”

    I do believe that’s one of the biggest compliments that I’ve ever received about the book. Thank you so much for the kind words and I’m glad that it was a “whack on the head,” you know, in a good way.


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