Confessions of a creative fool
It must be the truth, because so many people are saying it, right?
Well, not really…
Several years ago I was a bit irritated when I read a prominent author say, “Everyone says ‘show, don’t tell’ when asked to give advice to aspiring authors, and I think that’s nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything, really. It’s a phrase that creative writing teachers and editors use when they know your work is boring, but they have no idea how to teach you how to fix it. Because no one can teach you how to fix it. You have to teach yourself.”
The reason why I was irritated was because, while he had a point about how that particular piece of advice has become a cliché, and simply repeating it can be a glib way to avoid the more difficult engagement necessary to actually fix the person’s problem, he was also wrong in two important ways. First, it isn’t nonsense. It might be oversimplified truth, but it is a truth, nonetheless. Second, while no one else can learn for you, if you are willing to put in the work, and learn from the other person’s critiques of your attempts, then someone can indeed teach you how to make your writing not-boring.
That’s why I was irritated then. Now, I’m irritated at myself for not quite understanding how profoundly right he was (while still being quite wrong). And I didn’t realize that until I observed a discussion earlier this week between two friends who also happen to be artists I admire.
One was noting how artists that he admires always say that they did something because they felt an overwhelming passion, but since he has never felt such a thing, perhaps he isn’t really cut out to be an artist. The other was saying that she’s never felt such an overwhelming passion, either.
And that’s when I understood: the phrases “an overwhelming passion to tell this story” and “the passion to create” are just like “show, don’t tell.” The phrases are, at best, an oversimplification. And it is an oversimplification of such magnitude that it has become a deterrent, rather than a potentially useful piece of advice. Telling someone they must have an “overwhelming passion” discourages people, rather than pointing them in a useful direction.
The problem, I think, is a misunderstanding of the word “passion.” It conjures images of wild-eyeed enthusiasm. It implies you must feel an overwhelming eagerness and hunger to get the next thing done. It evokes echoes of ecstasy, frenzy, sexual desire, romantic love, and most importantly the feeling of fulfillment or jubilation those things can provide.
When, as an artist, writer, musician, dancer, or actor you are struggling in the trenches, working on this next piece and you’re not happy with how it’s turning out, you’re feeling the exact opposite of jubilation. You’re feeling depressed, disappointed, and angry. And having friends or even strangers tell you how much they like what you just made doesn’t help. Their words fill you with despair because they can’t be true—it’s not as good as you want it to be.
None of this feels like passion—because that’s supposed to be euphoria and delight, not frustration.
Here’s the thing: you wouldn’t feel frustrated if you didn’t have a strong, emotional need to make it better.
Go look up passion in a dictionary. You know what the very first definition is in the Shorter Oxford? “The suffering of pain.” You don’t get to “a strong, barely controlled feeling” until definition 5.
The dictionary prioritizes the various senses of a word by the frequency which the word is used in written language, and for most of the history of written English, passion has been used far more often to talk of suffering, whether it be the religious suffering of a martyr or an affliction due to a mental or physical disease.
The fact that you’re feeling conflicted and unhappy about your art to the point of asking these questions about your lack of passion is evidence of a lot of passion.
And I, personally, have observed a lot of the fervent enthusiasm that is more commonly associated with the word “passion” from both of my artist friends (while talking about something they’re working on) who claim they don’t feel this passion.
Desire doesn’t always feel good. The frustration of not being completely happy with a particular piece of artwork or storytelling can be overwhelming, because you want it to be better. That can be extremely painful. It’s easy to focus on the disappointment. It’s hard to say, “That’s as far as I can take that one,” and let it out into the world.
It’s a lot easier to bang my head on the keyboard, muttering to myself over and over, “This is garbage. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Okay, maybe that little bit here, maybe it isn’t completely awful, but the rest of it sucks. Who am I kidding? I don’t know how to write! I’m an utter fool!”
And they say fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
But you know what else they say about angels: angels are utterly incapable of creating anything. That’s one of their defining characteristics that separates them from mortals in the legends of not one, but three major world religions.
So, recognize that overwhelming disappointment and frustration for what it is: passion.
Pick yourself up off the metaphorical ground. Put your hands back on the keyboard, or pick up that stylus, or pick up those paints and brush, or whatever other tools that you need to do this thing that your inner realist keeps telling you that you can’t do.
Shove a sock in the mouth of that realist, and rush in.
Note: Today’s graphic is a parody of this poster by Joshua Wells, which you can purchase at the link. I didn’t make the parody. I’m grateful to Kehf for the link to the original artist.