I’ve lost a lot of writing contests lately.
Well, I didn’t lose them, exactly, but I definitely didn’t win anything. I’ve gotten a lot of plain old standard-issue rejection letters, too.
It’s been a great opportunity to reflect on how my ego slithers into my creative work.
Ultimately, the ego causes all my creative blocks, and probably yours too. It’s what tells me I’m a worthless human if people don’t like my writing, which is the thought underlying every other thought that stops me, thoughts like, But I can’t write until I’ve checked my email.
It’s what tells me to write what’ll make me look good instead of what’s true. It’s what stops me from sharing what I’ve written.
It pulls my attention to the reception of my work, and away from my real reasons for creating: to touch people, to make them laugh, to show them they’re not alone, to take them for awhile off their mental hamster wheels (we’ve all got them), and to give what I can.
Still, I’ve made stuff and shared it. Luckily, we don’t have to lose our egos to be successful creatives; we just have to dodge them long enough to get some work done. Below are a few ways to get over ourselves for a bit.
The role of necessity in the creative process might account for the myth of the “tortured artist”: since creativity is like a release valve for negative emotions, people who experience more of them are sometimes more motivated to make things.
The best way to cultivate need is to find yourself a romantic partner who’ll shove a metaphorical sword into your intestines and stir, but I don’t recommend it. Personally, I’d prefer not to be tortured. I’d rather cultivate desire.
When I was travelling through Albania, a lot of things piqued my interest: stuffed animals and plastic dolls hung outside people’s houses as protection against the evil eye; an abundance of bomb shelters; piles of abandoned clothes and shoes scattered everywhere; the bloody histories of ruined castles.
I desperately wanted to read a story about that stuff, something neither depressingly literary nor cheesy and shallow, something that would glue me to my chair and make me forget to eat, something that would evoke some of the beauty I’d witnessed. I really wanted to read that book, but as far as I could tell, no one had written it yet.
So I started writing it.*
Here are some ways I’ve found to cultivate creative desire:
Nothing saps desire like exhaustion.
Also, I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired, I’m inclined to be hard on myself, which means I’m less likely to accept unconditionally whatever weird ideas are trying to form into something interesting.
Travel stokes creative desire because it pulls us into the moment. Surrounded by the unfamiliar, we notice things: inadvertently humorous signage; red beetles that could be two-headed or mating (we’re not sure); the smell of fresh cheese and bread.
Flooded with sensory inputs, we find ourselves moved to do something with them.
Of course, not all of us can pick up and fly to Albania (or India, or wherever) on a moment’s notice.
That’s alright. We don’t have to wander far. We can explore a new neighbourhood, take a weekend trip, eat at a new restaurant, or cook a new recipe.
We can try something, anything, new.
Other people’s art shows us what’s possible, reminds us how creativity enriches the world, and sparks ideas of our own.
Resting, wandering, and witnessing art help cultivate presence, which the ego can’t abide.
But you know what the ego hates even more? Love.
I’m pretty sure some kind of transcendent love is behind the world’s greatest works of art, but I’m still just feeling my way around that idea, because, as we’ve already discussed, I’m not, you know, there yet.
But I think compassion is where it starts: compassion for our subjects, compassion for our audiences, and compassion for ourselves.
I’m working on it.
I’m thinking devotion might have something to do with it too, that feeling of wanting to give something of ourselves.
For the next month, my partner and I are stationed in Auroville, a town on the Southeastern coast of India where people believe all work – whether it be putting on a play or milking a cow – should be undertaken as an offering.
I’ve found it helpful to adopt their attitude when I write. It makes it easier to release any expectations I might’ve had about the outcome.
Featured Image: “Peacock with colorful feathers fanned out to side”, © Vivid Pixels, Adobe Stock
What about you Reader? How have you circumvented your ego to make art? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.
PS: I’m writing a book about the creative process. Subscribe to my blog for free, and when it’s done, I’ll send send you the first chapter.
*On track for completion in spring 2018.