1. a way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is not learned: a natural desire or tendency that makes you want to act in a particular way; 2. something you know without learning it or thinking about it; 3. a natural ability.
There are so many voices inside of our heads sometimes – previous teachers, previous (or current) lovers, parents, siblings, etc., ad nauseum – that is it hard to hear that little, tiny important voice way down underneath it all. And that voice is instinct.
Instinct is when you hear that tiny voice that sounds scary and daring and dangerous. It’s when your heart knows more than your mind knows. When your soul is connected with creation and bypasses all of those other voices and other filters.
How do you know when you’ve tapped into your instinct? That’s a more difficult question. I know it when I see it in actors I direct. There’s an honesty and an in-the-moment essence that is impossible to achieve unless you’re listening to that inner voice talking to you.
As a writer, I learned early on when to listen to that voice. I was writing a terrible script, one of my first, and writing it with someone who had a vague idea of what she wanted to do with it. Unfortunately, that idea kept changing and was very muddy and unfocused. But as I was writing a scene in a bar where the heroine confronts the antagonist, the characters suddenly came alive on the page and started saying things I didn’t mean for them to say. But in that moment, I could see and smell the bar. I could almost tell you what was playing on the jukebox. I could see the waitress down to the small tear in her shirt as she took a wad of bills from the very drunk antagonist and debated about how much to give him back. I was in the middle of the scene and just wrote what happened right in front of me. When a friend of mine who was working in development read the script, he told me exactly what I thought – the script was pretty terrible and very unfocused. But when it came to that scene in the bar, he told me not to change a word. That scene was alive and really good. He suddenly could see the characters and the dialog was real. As a writer, I strive for that feeling now because it’s when I know my instinct has taken over and run away with my script, all for the better.
I really found my instinct when I started drawing. I was learning Impressionist and traditional drawing and painting through my job, but I ventured out on my own to figure out what I wanted to draw. I was always fascinated with Frank Miller and classic comic book artists like Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby, so I bought a book on how to draw crime noir comics. I fell in love with black and white drawings and began to create my own style, which I call “Deco Noir”. It’s a little Art Deco and a little crime noir. I was drawing with some other artists one night, working on the concept for one of my favorite paintings.
An artist I greatly admire watched me draw for a few minutes. He then said, “Why are you doing black and white? You know that’s the hardest style to draw in?” He explained that trying to make sure the shadows and light make sense is so incredibly difficult. But that’s how I draw. I find my instinct comes in when it comes to figuring out where the dark and the light go.
I don’t think about it too much, I just let my pencil and my marker follow that inner voice and go wherever my instinct tells me to go. Occasionally, it doesn’t work as well as I would like it to, but overall, I’m always happy with what I end up with.
As creatives, our instinct tends to get beat out of us by people challenging what we’re doing when it’s a little different, a little off center. God forbid we might do the unexpected. After all, we’re supposed to be wildly creative but stay within the confines of what others expect. But where our instinct leads us is into innovation and discovery and surprises that are scary and wonderful.
All that is good, Susan, but how do we get to our own instinct? Hmmmm, that’s the challenging part. I would say when you are writing or drawing or creating whatever it is that you create, when you find yourself painted into a corner and ready to do what’s expected, take a moment and stop. Listen to your characters. Listen to your painting. Tell all the other voices to be quiet for a minute while you listen. Somewhere in there, there will be a tiny voice trying to be heard through all the other noise. If it is truly your instinct, that voice will say something that will make you take the fork in the road you normally wouldn’t take. It’s that dark and scary road that maybe you thought you’d go down when you started but when you got there, the other voices screamed, “Don’t do it! No one else does it that way! Stop! Go back! Be like everyone else!” But when you shut that voice down, you should hear that instinct underneath it, saying, “So? I don’t want to be like everyone else. I want to do this because it’s what I feel.”
Oh, no! Susan, you didn’t tell me I get to feel with my instinct!
Well, sorry, but that’s when you know you’ve hit it. You feel it. You feel it’s right. You feel it’s original. You feel that it is you, to your core. You feel the authenticity of what you’re doing. And if you do it right, everyone else will feel it, too.
It’s a bit like my previous article on the leap of faith. You have to have faith in your instinct and you have to be willing to follow where it leads. Once you’ve tapped into it and understand it, you’ll never go back to your old ways again. In addition, your work will be fresh and new and it should take you to the next level of your process.