The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Right Way to Write

salem witchAs the year wraps up, I’ve been collecting articles that encourage writers to trust ourselves: To find our own practices for creativity, or shun the idea of practices altogether. To choose between quick first drafts or taking more time, based on what works in the moment. To define success case-by-case rather than comparing our work to someone else’s. These articles ask, “Is there a right way to write?” And the answer, of course, is no.

It’s almost strange that such reminders are necessary–that creatives are so prone to Impostor Syndrome. But despite our aptitude for invention and world-building, despite frequent, wild leaps into formless voids, we’re easily convinced that the “real world” is the one we’re not allowed to explore or map–the one in which we have no right to name or define, or to even call ourselves “writers” or “artists.”

I don’t think this is strictly a battle of Insecurity vs. Confidence, or of Habitual “Modesty” vs. Taking Pride in Accomplishments. It’s also a battle of Creativity Advice vs. Creators’ Instincts, in an industry that often teaches us not to trust ourselves.

For example, messages from Creativity Gurus often imply that we don’t know who we are or whether a given label describes us. And the mountains of advice about “creative practices” suggest we can’t figure a practice out our own–we need verification that we’re doing it the “right” way. Any legitimizing standard is apparently better than our own perceptions of efficacy.

This is NOT to say we never need advice or help! In fact, my last post was about how important it is to to reach out to others, and to reject the Lone Genius Myth. It’s true that we’re often stunted by the limits of our own habits and experiences. It’s also true that the combination of our individual talents with other artists’ advice can lead to great innovations. And even apart from “productivity,” creating involves a level of risk, vulnerability, and sacrifice that requires support and affirmation. So the “Creativity-Guru” phenomenon is answering a real need; it owes its success to the hordes of people clamoring for much-needed insight.

But what troubles me is that more advice begets more clamoring. Creating in itself is already a frightening undertaking. The crushing amount of available advice often just adds to the sense of risk by convincing writers and artists that we’re missing crucial information. Its very existence suggests we’re not okay on our own; that we’re flailing and in need of rescue. The entire industry asks, repeatedly:

What if the thing you just made would have been better if you’d read more articles? What if you could be a success by signing up for this seminar, course, newsletter, workshop? What if your true potential can’t be unveiled unless you read this book or that blog, and follow [whatever/whomever] on Twitter? What if the routine/practice you’ve been employing as a writer is holding you back? What if you should be collaborating? What if you should stop collaborating? What if you could have published that one thing if you’d just had a larger network? What if success requires that you change your profile, website, photo, reel, posture, outfit, gait?

If “creativity takes courage,” as Henri Matisse famously said, these days it’s at least in part because creators have to trust themselves to make something “worthwhile” in spite of all the voices claiming that we can’t, and in spite of all the voices insisting “worthwhile-ness” isn’t ours to know or define. We’re wrestling with the inescapable sense that someone else knows us better than we know ourselves, and we must find her. And pay her. Immediately.

In such a world, we need reminders that creativity happens in creative ways, which means it can’t always be systematized, codified, workshopped, taught, or even advised. But there are also times when advice or instruction is just what we need. If that’s the case, think of advice as a boat that gets you across the river of your current problem. You don’t need the boat once you reach the other side.