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Hortense the Censor

In her books and classes on rediscovering creativity, Julia Cameron (of The Artists Way fame) asks students to envision their “inner censor.”

Our inner censor is the nasty voice in our heads that tells us, “You’re no good,” “You might start that but you’ll never finish it,” “Everybody will laugh at you,” “You’re lazy,” “You should just stick to the way things are now,” “You don’t have any talent,” “You’ll embarrass yourself,” “You should give up now because you’re going to fail, anyway.” And on and on.

Last week I started following another of Cameron’s 12-week programs, but without much enthusiasm. I was forcing myself to go through the readings and exercises, not getting anything out of them and wondering why I was bothering. Then I ran across this exercise:

Shink Your Censor

Take a few minutes to name and describe your Censor. Is it male, female, neither? How old is it? What does it look like? What are some of its favorite disparaging remarks and insulting moves? You may wish to quickly sketch your Censor, as well. My students have drawn beasts, witches, a fourth-grade teacher … Allow your Censor to take whatever form emerges. Humor is welcome here! Drawing, naming, and describing the nasty creature will automatically minimize its power in your life.

Cameron also mentioned that her own Censor is Nigel and when Nigel turns up she speaks to it, bringing it down to size: “Oh, hello, Nigel. What don’t you like this time?”

I knew instantly, without having to give it a moment’s conscious thought, that my Censor is Hortense. Despite the female name, Hortense is of indeterminate sex — somewhere between a dried up old lady and a censorious clergyman. Both definitely Victorian, though. That’s the clearest thing about Hortense. Hortense is a Victorian moralist who disapproves of anything not proper and time-tested.

Outward behavior is all that matters to Hortense; your soul could be as rotten as a three-month old egg found behind the chicken coop, but as long as your manners and mein pass muster in his/her/its eyes, Hortense will grudgingly accept you. Grudingly, though. Always grudgingly. You remain forever at risk of being damned to hell by Clergyman Hortense or snubbed from polite society by Old Lady Hortense. One wrong move on your part is all it takes.

In fact, Hortense would prefer you to be rotten inside and blandly correct outside than to be a great artist, a great saint, or a great adventurer. Because those sorts of people are so … messy, you know. So unpredictable and so very beyond the control of manners and mores.

I immediately envisioned Hortense in a certain hand-wringing pose, hunched like a waiting buzzard. With a big beak of a nose, fit for sticking into other people’s business. The female aspect of her wears a tightly hobbled skirt, the male aspect a frock coat and top hat. Both are so intent on watching and judging other people that they’re off balance.

When I went looking for examples to work from, I found this familiar figure, which wasn’t what I pictured but also seems like a natural. So I gave Hortense something like his face.

And in five minutes, I sketched out Hortense. Now to work on putting him/her/it in his/her/its place.

Do you have a Censor? If so, “who” (or what) is it? And how does he/she/it behave?


  1. He Who Fakes It Well
    He Who Fakes It Well April 17, 2017 11:59 am

    Hortense? Looks relaxed to m… Sorry. Old joke.

  2. jed
    jed April 17, 2017 5:12 pm

    Hmm. Never contemplated the notion of an inner censor. I suppose mine would look just like I do. Your sketch looks Dickensian to me, or at least what I think Dickensian looks like. But Simponian works too.

  3. Dana
    Dana April 17, 2017 6:50 pm

    I’ll plagiarize Christopher Hitchens in the speech he delivers in the first 40 seconds of this video, and rework it just a bit with Hortense in mind as his antagonist. It then becomes:

    It is our horrible experience that there is something that can own us, who supervises us, who can stop us from becoming what we were meant to be — waking and sleeping — who knows our thoughts, who can give us other thoughts that are not are own, so that we then in our horror commit thoughtcrime we ourselves abhor. As a result of what that something has made us think, who will then judge us while we sleep for things it forces upon us in our dreams. Who can make us sick, as apparently it sometimes successfully does, though we were created to be well, and then tempt us with lies and more lies that what it whispers to us is “better” than to be well, to thrive, to live eternally. To allow this, to give in to it, is to wish to live as an abject slave.

  4. StevefromMA
    StevefromMA April 17, 2017 7:34 pm

    We psychopaths don’t have a censor.

  5. larryarnold
    larryarnold April 17, 2017 11:22 pm

    Cassandra. Young, beautiful, long wavy black hair that hides her right eye, her left one is green, dark makeup. Way out of my league. She shows me what she wants me to see with a crystal ball.

  6. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty April 18, 2017 5:05 am

    My inner censor is totally different. I was taught from an early age to measure each thought, word and deed by what amounts to the non-aggression principle. I have not always done a good job of that, and I’ll be working on it the rest of my life, but it is still my major inner “censor.” I don’t much care what other people think of me or what I am/have/say/do. I don’t let the expectations of others control my life or feelings.

    The image of my censor? My beautiful mother. She taught me what I needed to know about individual liberty and right relationships to other people. She didn’t do it perfectly either, but she never stopped working toward that goal.

    I recognize the fact that not everyone had a good relationship with their parents, and that a lot of their life experiences give them the cognitive dissonance of a destructive inner “censor,” and I hope anyone who suffers from this will find peace and joy when that censor can finally be ignored or disposed of.

  7. Claire
    Claire April 18, 2017 6:23 am

    jed — Your inner censor looking like yourself makes perfect sense.

    Dana — Inner censor as Old Jehovah? Man, that’s scary! I can see that, though. And now I’m pondering whether the inner censor also makes us sick, as well as unhappy.

    Steve — Oh, you lucky psychopaths!

    larryarnold — Wow. Your censor beats the hell out of Hortense.

    MamaLiberty — What you’re describing isn’t an inner censor at all. More like a conscience.

  8. Joel
    Joel April 18, 2017 6:51 am

    Hortense looks a helluva lot like a Simpsons character. Does he/she ever tent his/her fingers and wheeze “Excellent”?

  9. Joel
    Joel April 18, 2017 6:55 am

    But seriously, yeah. My inner censor is an amalgam of my Evil Stepmother and me as a cringing little kid. Kept me from writing for decades. Almost certain was the biggest single factor in keeping me from any commercial success writing fiction. I was allowed to be a commercial writer – mostly without byline, of course, because that would tempt inevitable failure and ridicule – but trying to sell fiction was purest folly. Who did I think I was? Hemingway?

    In the privacy of my own mind I pointed out to my unnamed censor many times that Hemingway was pretty much a failure at being Hemingway, too. He/she just claimed that proved the point.

  10. Claire
    Claire April 18, 2017 7:33 am

    Hortense would never wheeze “Excellent,” but if s/he looks like Mr. Burns … note the link in the blog post.

    Damn, your inner censor is a lot like mine, Joel. I only — finally — started writing seriously due to the combination of desperation and booze. Heck, I had to earn a living at something. But for a while old Hortense — who could easily be someone’s Evil Stepmother — nearly stopped me from doing it all. She stopped me permanently from getting serious about writing fiction.

  11. Pat
    Pat April 18, 2017 8:27 am

    Libra is my censor. She rears her head to balance — my wants with my needs… my mind with my emotion… my spontaneity with my caution. And sometimes she overdoes it — either way. She’s not always the brightest!

  12. ellendra
    ellendra April 18, 2017 9:46 am

    My older brother. Even if he didn’t have a clue what I was doing, he was always there telling me how badly I was doing it, and that I might as well quit because I’d never get any better.

    Heck, he could even make me feel like a failure at quitting!

  13. Tahn
    Tahn April 18, 2017 10:05 am

    When I turned on, tuned in and dropped out, according to the good Doctors orders, my “inner censor” disappeared. I wore funny clothes, long hair and adopted a lifestyle that ALL my former “censors” disagreed with. After the adjustment of ignoring them all, it felt good.

    Now, my only inner censor is the one that asks, “are you harming others” or “is it good for Mother Earth”? Somehow, the censor that answered to other people’s opinions and tastes, disappeared. Good riddance. The one that answers to my philosophy is the one I listen to and I feel blessed.

  14. Joel
    Joel April 18, 2017 10:56 am

    [I]f s/he looks like Mr. Burns … note the link in the blog post.


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