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.

Apr 24, 2014

15 comments · Add Yours

Great post and so true. If you want to make anything that really matters you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. You have to confront the shadowy places that stay hidden from the world and bring them into the light. We all have those places. We hide them from the world most times. The true artist bares her soul in a way that helps others connect with her art emotionally.


Love it!! I have to agree with you, beautiful soulful and great artwork comes from a deep dark place of carnage. Only when we become selfless and vulnerable, we fail to hold back the sweetest symphonies of our life’s concerto


Love this! especially as I prepare to release another book, and the art has indeed demanded a blood sacrifice.


Thoreau said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”


Dear Justine: The first thought that sprung to my mind for surrendering myself to the creative process was a topic that might not be what you had in mind: creating a family. In my case, completely solo from from the beginning to the present of my now-five-year old daughter. My ‘beginning’ was the years before when I set up my life for that journey and it included making my body into the best incubator I could to a biological entity with no genetic relation. It was a dramatic phase change in my personna from the free-life-as-scientist I lived before. In fact I’ve surrendered so much of myself to this particular process that I’m finding that it’s an effort to recover the parts of me in all of those bits. And what is ‘me’ now, anyway? I know well that I’m radically different from the person I was before.

I have a suggestion for a future post: maybe you have some ideas for how one can collect the pieces of oneself and adjust to the ‘after-person’ they know that they are when they go through a tremendous transformation from giving themselves up to their creative process.


Terrific post! One quibble: in my experience and observation many men do indeed ask whether their artistic work is tending toward narcissism. More men and women should be focusing on that, in my view. It’s a widespread limitation.


Following a dream or visit is more difficult and complicated if one is not a lone, but married and having kids, bond to financial dependence of the comfort zone.


@Amara Graps Amara, funny, I was just having a discussion about exactly this. My sense of what a ‘self’ even is has changed a lot in recent years — maybe instead of a true self or core self, we’re made up of a bunch of multiple future selves, and we’re constantly choosing/creating our self with every action we take — maybe instead of trying to find or recover our ‘selves’, we should think instead in terms of letting go the past, and all the ways it would restrain + define us. I have a much stronger sense of who I am now, then I did three or six or even ten years ago, but that’s because I am able to make myself now in a way I could not have done back then…Something I’ll keep mulling over, and as always your thoughts are appreciated.


@James Strock Point! I modified that (the line about men/narcissism). What I’ve often wondered is that — if women struggle with the sense that they need to efface themselves in order not to seem ‘selfish’, ‘entitled’, ‘narcissistic’, etc. — men struggle with the kind of exposure + naked vulnerability that “going there” requires — if women don’t want to seem selfish, men don’t want to seem weak.


@Wael Of course it is, and that’s part of the challenge. Sylvia Plath was a single mother of 2 toddlers who got up at 5 in the morning while the kids were still sleeping to write the poems that made her name. Scott Turow wrote PRESUMED INNOCENT in 20 min stretches on the train commute to his fulltime job as a lawyer. Andre Dubus III was recently telling me how he wrote HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Oprah pick, made into a movie starring Jennifer Connelly among others) in 20 min stretches in his car in a cemetery between dropping off his kids + his job as a carpenter. Jodi Picault also writes in her car in 20 min stretches before picking up her kids at soccer practice. Dani Shapiro was telling me about a writer she knows who can *only* write in 15 min stretches because he has Turrets Syndrome — and 15 minutes is how long he can write before his syndrome starts to interfere with his ability to work. He wrote an entire novel this way ( + sold it).

My point being: you think the writers who do manage to succeed and get published haven’t struggled with issues of time, freedom + money? If we want it badly enough, we find ways to do it, in the nooks and crannies and at the edges of our daytime workaday lives. Often the “I don’t have time” thing is a disguise for the real reasons that keep us from writing — which, one way or another, tend to boil down to creative fear + anxiety.

Whether you don’t have money, or do have money — I’ve been in both positions — the act of sitting down to write remains just as difficult, the demands on your time just as pressing (especially when kids are in the picture).

My advice? THROW OUT THE TELEVISION and get off the Internet. You’d be amazed at how much time that frees up.


Our most profound change, and thus transformation, happens outside our comfort zone.


@justine musk I don’t miss the time to write a book but doing the shift, going into the dark for a novel vision serves the entire humanity and earth.
In our society where I live the bonds to family and traditional expectations are strong. I’ll find no support and even no understanding to my life mission I have deeply.
I need assistance to untei the ropes without harming or losing others next to me.


@justine musk :-) well said. Thanks.


Wonderful Justine!! Thank you for sharing this! So eloquently written and entirely relatable. It helped me explain myself to myself.


Thank you. I needed to hear this right now. I always love your posts on the creative process.


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