the creative process changes you
I like this quote from soul-poet David Whyte:
“All good work should have an edge of life and death to it. Absent the edge, we drown in numbness.”
One of the best pieces of creative advice I ever got was in relation to the question of why you start a project at all, especially something as time-intensive and soul-consuming as a novel. “Will writing this book change your life?” the teacher asked me. “If the answer is no, then that’s not your real baby.”
Note that he was referring to the process, not the end product. He didn’t mean change-your-life in the way of accolades and Oprah and movie rights (although that wouldn’t suck). He meant what David meant: it should have an edge of life and death.
Which sounds dramatic, but here, the death is symbolic. (One hopes.)
I once had a dream in which I was beheaded – too many episodes of THE TUDORS – and as the blade went painlessly through my neck I felt myself leap into a different state of being. It’s the only dream I can remember that had me die, and the message seemed clear: I was entering a time of transformation. I would throw off one life, one identity, and be reborn into another.
The creative process changes you. Even as you’re making the thing, the thing is making – or remaking – you, and not just because it’s turning you into the kind of artist who is capable of making that thing in the first place. The creative process hijacks your brain in the most wonderful way and takes you to flow, where you can suddenly access new parts of yourself.
You go into the dark.
What you find isn’t likely to be nice, or polite, or pretty (your flow-brain doesn’t care), or else you would never have exiled it there in the first place. But by bringing it up into consciousness, and working with it — you reclaim it. It becomes part of your daylight self. It expands you. Do this everyday, over months or years, and at the end of the process you are not who you were at the beginning. You walked the blade. You opened yourself up to it. You were willing to bleed.
Art involves a blood sacrifice.
You need to create out of what scares you, what hurts, what makes you ache with longing, what makes you cry; I don’t know why it has to be this way, but if you can’t move yourself, if you can’t shake your own soul to pieces, how can you expect to connect with the inner lives of others?
But if I write from the depth of myself, aren’t I being narcissistic? (Women tend to ask this more than men. It’s the way we’ve been trained.) Is anybody really going to care? (Depends on your craft and technique.) What will my friends/parents/kids think? (Wrong question.)
We live, for the most part, behind masks. The great paradox of human existence: we want to stay concealed and safe, but also to be seen, recognized, and truly known. We want our freedom, but also to connect. We want to be individuals, but also to lose ourselves in something bigger, greater.
The most powerful creatives speak to the life behind the mask. They illuminate and reveal. Looking or watching or listening or reading is a private and solitary activity that allows us to touch the minds of others. Our lives weave together into one; our faces are different, yet the same.
Then the masks go back on; everyday life resumes: the normal, quotidian, workaday world that we find so many little ways to numb ourselves against. But the edge is there, waiting for us to go back out on it. It forces us to be alive to the moment, see the world around us, and create from a place of vulnerability. It gives us revelations and gifts. We turn around and pass them to others.