the art of creative destruction



In his book THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIVE, Todd Henry introduces this great phrase: “Die empty.”

Too many of us die with our novels unwritten, our songs unsung, our talents undeveloped, our creative work left buried inside us.

Todd Henry challenges both himself and the reader to fill ourselves up with ideas and stimuli and then bring ourselves fully to our projects.

We should empty ourselves every day:

Do the work.

Do the work.

Do the work.

And it occurred to me that many women (and men) do “die empty”, but in a very different sense: we pour ourselves into our relationships and forget to keep something for ourselves, something we can nurture as our own, something that is worth taking seriously.


Very recently my ex-husband had a huge 40th birthday bash that took place in Paris and then in Venice. Since my ex and I move within an overlap of social circles, casual mentions of the festivities came back to me from multiple sources. None of it was all that interesting– except for something that went unsaid, but seemed palpable nonetheless, rising from between the lines of dialogue: a resentment on the part of some of the wives, who are starting to see themselves replaced by younger versions of themselves as the men work and party on into middle age.

I was thinking about this and leafing through a book by Harriet Rubin when I came to a line I’d underlined several years ago:

Whether through seduction or rejection, women have been made to feel small, the prey in men’s war games. Women often conspire in their own destruction.

We do this when we stake our lives on something or someone outside of ourselves, when we look to him (or her) for the kind of meaning that we need to create for ourselves. We devalue ourselves; we accomodate too much; we ask for too little and are surprised if we get it.

But ‘destruction’ can also be ‘creative destruction’: tearing down the old structures to build something new.

That’s the kind of destruction I like.


I get a lot of compliments on my vintage ring. It’s hard to miss. “It’s my bling-bling divorce ring,” I’ll sometimes say in response.

It’s in the shape of a serpent paved with diamond chips, twisting round my finger up to my knuckle, with glinting bits of emerald for eyes. I found it in the back of a little clothing boutique on South Beverly Drive, where it had been sitting in a jewelry case for so long that the owner leaped at the chance to sell it at a discount.

And depending on how much I like you, I might add, “It’s the symbol of the divine feminine.”

Back in my blondest, trophy-wife days, a friend once told me, “I love watching the expressions on people’s faces change when they start talking to you. They see you as one thing, and then they start realizing that you’re actually very intelligent, and they’re forced to re-categorize you.”

I enjoyed this, because I understood that as a female you’re initially perceived to be one or the other: the ‘feminine’ option, or the stronger smarter alternative. You can be “the hot one” or “the smart one”. You can be stylish or you can be good at math. You can be a model (or just look like one) or you can be Hilary Clinton. You can be a wife and mother or you can be an artist.

The idea that you can do and be both, if you want to (and have the abilities) never seems to present itself as an option. On some level we seem to think that if we want power we have to give up the so-called feminine, because the two cancel each other out. To contain the feminine = to be contaminated with weakness.

But Harriet Rubin makes the point that one should fight the enemy as the enemy’s worst fear.

So if the ‘enemy’ is, in this case, the culture’s preconceived notion of ‘the feminine’, then one could fight it…very much as someone who celebrates her own sense of the ‘feminine’.

Those elements of femininity that some of us used to deride – the color pink, for example — can be reinvented with whatever meaning we decide to give it.

By refusing to fit ourselves into a neat little category, we can force the categories to rearrange themselves around us. Because by devaluing the ‘feminine’, by buying into those notions of what it is and isn’t, we can’t help but devalue ourselves. Which makes it harder to declare who we are and what we need, from our relationships and also from our art.


I’m writing this from my hotel room in Venice, Italy. Today I took in three awesome exhibits at three different art galleries.

Part of my purpose for coming here was to feed my head: to disrupt my routine and introduce new sights, elements, ideas into my general scheme of things that will become reflected in my work, whether it’s the novel I’m working on now or some project in the future.

Feeding your head is a crucial part of the creative process.

And yet we go about it so haphazardly – if at all – when we should make it a weekly or daily practice.

This involves serious reflection on your overall purpose, your project, your ‘gig’. You need to orient your mind in that direction.

Then you deliberately structure the course of stimuli that you plan to take in – the books, movies, conversations, blogs, art, people, lectures – in order to build out that purpose.

You also feed your head with stuff that seems to have nothing to do with your ‘gig’. A powerful way to be creative is to find ideas in a sphere other than yours and adapt them to your own work.

All of this, of course, requires time and space away from the demands of everyday life. It’s not enough that you carve out the space to do your creative work, you also have to carve out the space for the dreaming and wandering and studying and exploring that fuels your creativity.

You have to take your art seriously, and declare that you are entitled to the time and solitude you need in order to practice it.

You make your own meaning.

Otherwise you conspire in your own destruction.

Make it a point to die empty.

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Jul 19, 2011

23 comments · Add Yours

Yes. Yes. YES.


Love this post…”All of this, of course, requires time and space away from the demands of everyday life. It’s not enough that you carve out the space to do your creative work, you also have to carve out the space for the dreaming and wandering and studying and exploring that fuels your creativity” is a thought that comes to mind daily. I will feel my thoughts gnawing away at me as I move through the responsibilities of the day, thinking the whole time, “If I only had time to sit in a room, in quiet, in solitude with my thoughts…” very true. We cannot cultivate our creativity with the demands of others beckoning every moment. Yet, it is a way of life. A fact of life that cannot be avoided for most.


Can’t speak to the feminine stuff in this post, but from what I’ve observed about women it seems true. I’ve certainly been guilty of underestimating a woman at times, but just as often at overestimating, I think.

Re the time to refeed yourself and work work work at your art. Not my intention to be resentful, but this is a luxury many creative folks with 9-5 jobs don’t have. I do my best to stay open, and work on my drawing and writing as often as I can, but real life doesn’t allow the time I want. At least, not now. Some part of me fantasizes about winning the creative lottery and suddenly supporting myself w/ my art. It’s certainly not IMpossible, but truly my time is better spent sketching when I can grab a moment.


I’ve been trying.
Sometimes I do have to fight for time to myself. I will fight for it, because I know that not only do I deserve it, I need it.


“You make your own meaning. Otherwise you conspire in your own destruction.”

Fabulous post, Justine. Just great.


Love this idea. Creating = emptying. Wow. Does it feel like that to you, as you write these? I feel like you’re getting at thoughts I’d like to have, but they’re buried so deep I don’t know about them until I see your words. Thanks for being so fierce and supportive at the same time.


Your posts are like a weekly affirmation that I can do what I want. I know that just sounds cheesy but you inspire me and fuel my desires to become successful.


Awesome writing. Will you look down on me if I admit you’re my new girl crush?

Keep on keeping on. Yes.


@Jeff P. Jeff, I’m not such a stranger to the ‘time’ problem as you seem to think. I’m constantly making trade-offs and trying not to do it in a way that damages my relationships or even my health, and I gave up TV and movies a long time ago… Hugh MacLeod writes about making art on the edges of a dayjob; Todd Henry’s book is excellent; I also recommend a book called “The Idea Hunters”; Gary V. even addresses this (although in a slightly different context). In any case I just mean you actually need to actually *do* the stuff + not just procrastinate or talk about it (so I don’t think I’m talking to you, since you seem disciplined + prolific). None of us, I don’t think, actually have the kind of time we’d like to just Be Gloriously Creative. Maybe it’s not even supposed to work like that — a lot of the creative process happens in the back of your mind when you think you’re doing other things…and when you do get large blocks of time, you can get anxious and panic and freeze up and not accomplish anything. It could be the universe’s way of informing us that we *are* supposed to have a life, and it’s supposed to come first, or else you’re not going to have much to say that hasn’t already been said. (Stephen King once remarked something like, Art is a support system for Life, not the other way around.)


“We do this (set up our own destruction) when we stake our lives on something or someone outside of ourselves, when we look to him (or her) for the kind of meaning that we need to create for ourselves.”
I agree with this analysis. I think that many failed marriages come about when couples link their lives in order to BE loved instead of TO love. The meaning to our lives must come from inside first, before we can share it with others.
I always come back to that universal need for validation, whether it comes from inside or out. If we need validation from others, we soon discover that we can’t force it. We can’t force allegiance or loyalty or respect or love. We can though, freely give it. And when two people marry in order to GIVE rather than TAKE, it soon becomes obvious; Yes, we DO matter.


Justine: Disciplined and prolific!!?? Boy, do I have the wool pulled over YOUR eyes! But thanks for thinking of me that way. Truthfully, I haven’t written fiction in ages, and my spirit’s withering because of it.

Thanks for the book recs. I’m on a book-buying abstinence stretch, so I’ll see if my local library can get them.

As I get older, there does seem to be less and less time (not only available, but left). Add to that, when there is, I’m usually too tired to take advantage of it!


BTW, Irving, thumbs up to your comment.


Thank you for this post. As a young writer (and as a blonde, Southern female, which conjures up more than a few untrue steretotypes) headed off to college in the fall, I love the idea that I can take these associations–my color “pink,” if you will–and break them down, redefine them for my own purposes. I also love the idea that I can build my life around things that I value, that will feed my art, my “gig.” A very timely post for me indeed!


I discovered a long time ago that I don’t fit into a neat little category — so I quit trying and have never regretted it … much like I would not regret carving out more time for tending and harvesting the creative. You should know that the constant pull from life itself to carry on and do nothing is more and more outweighed by the driving persistence, fueled in large part by the concise and insightful observations you consistently share.



Creative destruction, a term I often hear but only ever in the context of economics,
originally comes from Karl Marx’s pseudo-economic theory — though since the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter burst blessedly onto the scene, the term now is almost always used to denote the near opposite of what the Marxists meant. It is, in short, an economic term closer in meaning to how you’re using it. So that when you say (and I quote): “You can be a model (or just look like one) or you can be Hilary Clinton,” you’re not giving us a very edifying alternative, that’s for sure, all the more so because Hilary Clinton, a neo-Marxisxt, is, by her own admission, emphatically not a believer in the creative destruction both you and I and Joseph Schumpeter believe in, but rather practices protectionism, interventionism and crony capitalism, all of which completely nullify the elegant and necessary process of creative destruction.


Awesome post Justine!! I believe in fueling all of my many layers. Mom, wife, corp vp, tattooed biker, writer.. and my favorite, Queen Bitch.

Some take that as derogatory, but I don’t. It defines many layers of me and because I am strong and go for what I want or speak my mind, I often get labeled as a bitch. That’s okay, label away. I wear it proudly.

Thanks for this!


I’ve followed you on Twitter for a long time, but I have to say, I’ve never liked you more than I do now. I love your focus; your all-inclusive passion; your badass persona that belies your apparently gentle demeanor.

Your intelligence is stupefying. ;)

You’re not ‘girl power,’ you’re simply powerful, as every woman should be. You like who you continue to become, and that’s eminently admirable for anyone, man and woman alike.

Continue to create well, Justine.


My mother used to love to say, “You are what you eat.” And it’s true about so many things – GIGO, for example, Garbage In, Garbage Out. If all you’re watching are soap operas and American comedies it is any wonder you’re writing drivel? I think this is the one aspect of writing that so many writers neglect. They assume that if they’re not physically engaged in the act of writing then they’re not writing. You can’t write if you have nothing to write about.


You should see my eyes getting wider & wider (with insight? recognition? amazement?) as I read this post.


Justine, I come to your site when I need spiritual fuel to keep my eyes on achieving my dreams. Your blog strikes a cord in me and is slowly encouraging me to make a career change soon. Thank you for sharing your soul with us and me.


You are really speaking to me at a time when I am struggling with these very issues. Thanks!


I am grateful to have stumbled upon your post. It’s very validating for where I am at presently having just moved from US to NZ and just finishing the novel that was put off because of all the reasons you so eloquently describe. And here I am- JUST having made the commitment to stay focused on the writing and live the life of a full time writer whether it pays the bills (or anyone likes my writing) or not. Creating feeds my soul and it is damn time my soul get some attention around here too.

I find that envious people that put off creating–including my previous self–could create if they made a goal of “doing” every time they were making excuses for why they cannot.

I have also given up television and many extraneous “pleasures” for the love of creation and today I decided reading other writers’ blogs was on the list of things a (full time) writer does regularly. Thankfully I happened upon yours early in the journey and feel totally validated.

Incidentally, I lived my (previous) life as a psychotherapist and there is an excellent couples’ book by David Schnarch called “The Passionate Marriage” that describes the individuation you comment on as the necessary core of a solid relationship. Despite the title it is a sexual preference/partnership friendly read.

I’ll be following! Nice to meet you.


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