Saturday, September 4, 2010

Creative Innocence versus Creative Resistance

It's September again.  Crisp school supplies, clean classrooms, launching into a fresh cycle of learning.  September for me is about being a beginner, as much as possible.

In fact, it's something I try to cultivate at this time of year.

Most of us resist not knowing.  We hate being seen as rank beginners.  We love being seen as
competent.  Maybe because we've worked so long to garner wisdom, as we age more, we push harder against innocence.  We could look foolish.  We could lose our good opinion of ourselves.

For ten years, I collected brochures for MFA programs in fiction.  I wanted badly to go back to school, even though it went against my stable lifestyle, my good job, my publishing credits.  It would require becoming a beginner again.  Almost everyone in my MFA class was half my age.  It was agonizing to know so little, to make so many mistakes.  But the learning was magnificent.  It felt like opening a fresh notebook in September, each time I ventured into one of the classes.  My creative innocence was more than inspired.

Being a beginner, so obviously, relieved me of the horrible burden so many of us carry around--the burden of having to appear like we know what we're doing.   What a relief to be wide-eyed and innocent (read: ignorant) for a change.

Trying Something New--Now!
September is a good time for creative innocence.  I try to sign up for a workshop or a class each fall.  Last year I was brave enough to join a group of total strangers at the coast to paint for a week at a marine science center by a rocky beach.  Boy, did I have plenty of foolish moments during that experience, but although I came home humbler, I knew I'd learned much.  And I still love the two paintings I did, even framed them to hang on the walls.  There remains a sense of pride that I stood taller than my own creative resistance.

What are you doing this month, to foster your creative innocence over your creative resistance?  What dreams have been festering inside, unable to surface?  Maybe it's time to try something you're nowhere near good at.  Time to fail a bit, be a beginner again.

We're having beautiful weather in New England this Labor Day weekend.  The threat of Hurricane Earl passed with only a little rain, and the heavy humidity of these past days is replaced by breezes and sun.  The garden calls--but the garden is where I feel most competent.  The sunshine this morning gave me courage to do something I am not very good at:  work on another chapter of my novel-in-progress.  I balked, I ate a huge bowl of dessert left over from a dinner party last night, I chatted with my spouse for a couple of hours.  But then it was time.

The novel grabbed me--a tough scene needed writing and because I said to myself, "I have no idea what I'm doing here," the scene actually came together pretty well.  I put in a hour or two, surfaced for air, that excited feeling in my chest that tells me I'm an adventurer again.  The best leftover dessert doesn't begin to touch this kind of creative pleasure.

It reminds me of a great article by CDBaby founder Derek Sivers.  He blogged about the benefits of believing you're below average.  At first I was repelled by the idea--the opposite of positive thinking, the opposite of self-confidence, I thought.  Then I mulled over his words and decided he was a genius.  It's really the same theory I'm espousing today:  creative innocence.  If you're not expecting the best from yourself, you lose that almighty pressure of writing beautifully every time.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Check out Derek Sivers's article on being below average. Post your thoughts here, if you like.

2.  Find an area of your writing life where you're willing to be creatively innocent this week.  Can you try something new?  Can you be a beginner again?

3.  Put in an hour of time on your writing, itself.  See if the attitude of creative innocence sets aside the Inner Critic, allows something unexpectedly good.


  1. I feel odd being the first one to post a comment here, but I was definitely struck by Sivers's article and your post.

    I think what hinders my creativity is not necessarily that I think I am superior (on the contrary, I am prone to think of myself as inferior in most cases) but I WANT to be superior.

    I want to write a good first draft (knowing that all writers voice that the first draft is crap). I want my work to be void of cliches and "tell" and instead be filled with imaginative metaphors and lots of "show" I want this to happen immediately - and when it doesn't, I want to give up, say I am not good enough, and stop. This is NOT fostering creativity, it is killing it.

    Perhaps my September goal should be #3 --- try to set aside that inner critic for just an hour a day and see what transpires.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Molly, and sending this insightful comment. That Inner Critic is so unique to each of us, sneaky and persistent in a customized way. For me, it really gets me headed in a non-creative direction much of the time, until I recognize the ways I'm stopping myself from manifesting what I really want to (and are meant to) do.

    Have you read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and her concept of shitty first drafts being a prerequisite to any decent writing?

  3. I'm reading Bird by Bird right now, and just re-read the chapters on Short Assignments and Shitty First Drafts - incredibly helpful. This is a very dog-eared public library copy, but I plan to aquire one of my own. The point is, that now I can go back to my first draft, which when I was done seemed fine to me; on reading it again a few months later, I was appalled at how pale and insipid the writing was, uninteresting (shallow?) the characters. But now, I realized it's fine for a first draft, I just need to relax and settle in for more work and play.

  4. Leslie, a good realization, and I'm so glad you posted it here--writers need to know this! Thanks for visiting!

  5. My goal this September is to continue blogging + hopefully publish it into a "guide book!"

    Great post, I'll definitely be trying the whole "under average" theory. Maybe that's where my writer's block is standing :)

  6. Sara,

    Thanks so much for visiting! Good luck with your book--