What if the creative person we want to be is at odds with the creative person we are?
Dreams are incredibly powerful things. As creative people, most of us grow up with a vision of who we should be and the kind of impact we can make in the world. Often these personal roadmaps look remarkably like the those of the heroes who inspire us as children. Consciously or unconsciously, as adults we continue to measure our success against theirs.
If you’re like me, you know how devastating this can be. Especially as your 32nd birthday nears and you realize how “far” you have to go to reach your ideal.
Dreams vs Aptitudes
We’re told everywhere to follow our passions. We’re told to chase in our dreams against all odds. But what happens when we begin to suspect our childhood dreams are sync with our natural style? What if the creative person we want to be is at odds with the creative person we really are?
I’ve faced this dilemma recently in my own creative life. Whenever another birthday rolls around, I always take stock of my artistic trajectory. This is a good chance to celebrate the wins of the past year. It’s also a time to face the less-rosy facts.
Take this year as an example.
For nearly a decade now, I’ve struggled with a peculiar artistic challenge. As a writer, I believe with my whole heart in the importance of revision and craftsmanship. I’ve labored hours at the revision table, taken more courses and read more books on writing than I can count. Yet when I implement what I’ve learned, my product follows the opposite trajectory of everything I’ve been told.
The more spontaneously I create, the better my audience likes my work. The more I re-craft, re-sculpt, and revise a project, the less impact it seems to have and the more I personally loathe the result.
In short, playing by the rules never gets me anywhere.
This phenomenon has baffled my writing mentors for years.I came out the creative gate with a ridiculously single-minded determination to write stories for mass public consumption. My early work showed tremendous promise. Encouraged, I learned the rules. I implemented them. I learned how to break them. And I implemented that, too. Over and over and over again.
Yet still the whim of a single moment often delights and impacts my audience far more than long nights of toil. Put simply, traditional techniques of crafting and revising fiction always dampen the emotional impact of my work rather than improving it.
A series of recent revelations have helped me begin to make sense of this all this.
Experience vs Product
My first revelation was that motivationally, I do not create for the product but for the experience. The “drug” of writing for me is not putting work out, but being immersed in the place and the time, with the characters, as the acton unfolds through my fingers.
Many of my writing (and now drawing) decisions are made entirely in-the-moment. I can’t seem to recreate or improve upon that magic later no matter how hard I try.
So I began to wonder: should I stop writing for public consumption at all? Should I just write the novels and stories I want to write for myself and shove them in a drawer somewhere? While I believe in the therapeutic nature of writing, to me that doesn’t quite seem right either.
As part of my creative coaching with the amazing Victoria Prozan, I’ve been wrestling with my real goals for writing and trying to reconcile my long-cherished dream of writing the next Game of Thrones with my complete inability to deliver a revised story that preserves the emotion of the original draft.
Spontaneity vs Planning
My second revelation came not surprisingly, at the place I so often get them these days, CreativeMornings. (This breakfast lecture series takes place in 160+ cities around the world! Find your closest gathering here.) At this month’s gathering, multi-hyphenate artist Heidi Parkes, now a professional quilter, shared how her production style builds heavily on found materials and improvisation. If lines of stitches go “off the grid,” she works the waves into her pattern. If she runs out of a material, she changes the design.
The breathtaking results of her work speak for the power of this approach.
“The way [my work] happens is the way it was meant to be,” she said, after referencing the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi. “I believe in a denial of failure. The way I do it is my way. It’s what I have to give to the world.”
She termed her work “improvisational.” In that moment, I realized she was speaking to my own way of writing. The very thing I’ve been trying to deny all these years.
“In the moment.”
“Your writing feels so immediate, so present and atmospheric.”
“Your first drafts are always amazing, gripping. Everything after that is … well …”
Like Heidi’s quilts, my best work takes scattered found pieces and stitches them together into something interesting. Lots of stitches go “off grid” along the way, but I work those things in. I run out of one material and incorporate more. It’s the joy of the making—the process—that keeps me coming back to writing and allows me to share my creations successfully.
Yet for years I’ve been trying to write for a mass audience, following the “assembly line rules” of what “good” fiction has to be so my work will be accepted by large numbers of people.
That’s one way of writing. All my childhood writing heroes excelled at this way.
But there is another way.
Understanding vs Demanding
What if I could embrace, rather than fight against, my love for the moment? What if I allowed myself to live in the story as I was writing it, and trusted, accepted even, that that was the story I needed to tell? What if I indulged my passion for one-of-a-kind, totally hand-made, create-as-you-go stories instead of fighting against it to fulfill a dream I had when I was six?
I don’t know what the answers to these questions are. I do know asking them feels both scary and breathtaking. Rather like standing at the edge of a cliff with a pair of homemade wings strapped to your back.
After all, the visual, musical and performing arts all embrace improvisation as a legitimate way to create meaningful art. Not everyone is a fan of this sort of work, but robust communities have grown up around it. Value (including financial value) is ascribed to works created with a very present, in-the-moment, work-with-your-“mistakes” approach.
Yet the writing community typically does the opposite. From day one, writers are drilled with the notion that your first draft is “crap” and only fit to be seen if it’s been heavily revised. Writers are warned against putting out less-than-finished work. As scribes, many of us lie awake at night desperately hoping what we sent off to agents or editors isn’t filled with “mistakes.”
The writing community has told us how to play by assembly-line rules: rules that are crucial for achieving a particular kind of success. What they haven’t told us is that this conventional advice represents only one way to write. The industrialist’s way.
If you want to write for the masses, you must learn to be an industrialist. Though you may begin with a very instantaneous, “gut” product, you must shape and refine it to fit a very specific set of assembly-line expectations in order to sell to the maximum number of people.
This is ONE way to be a writer. It is a fine way to write. But it is not the only way.
You can be an improvisationalist instead: cottage artisan, if you will, working a very specific kind of art in the moment, trusting that how it unfolds is how it was meant to be. This is a choice, a path with very different outcomes than the industrialist’s. Outcomes that might be less likely to be valued by our culture of mass appeal and more likely, by their very nature, to be personal and individual.
As an improvisationalist, you may never get your J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman or Suzanne Collins day in the sun. But if improvisation is your way, as I am beginning to believe it is mine, then it is your most powerful option. What you might not achieve in breadth of impact, you can most certainly achieve in depth.
Mass appeal does not define the intrinsic value of your work. Authenticity and honesty does.
Future vs Past
So as I enter my 32nd year, I still believe dreams are powerful. I run after passion, trusting it can change the world. But I’m coming to understand that without a healthy practice of self-awareness, we risk running our dreams and passions right past the impact they were meant to have.
Are you a creative improviser or an industrialist?
Know yourself, and be.