“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Years ago, I was on the phone with a prospective student, and he announced, “I will consider myself a failure if my book does not become a bestseller.”
Not only did this fellow not have a publishing contract, he hadn’t written a word of his novel yet.
Talk about pressure!
My heart sinks a little when I hear the relationship that some people have with their creativity. I was kind to the gentleman seeking my counsel. I said, “I can’t help you, but maybe UCLA Extension teaches classes on how to write a bestseller.” Because over the years I’ve discovered that it isn’t my job to take on every student. My job is to carry a message of curiosity and wonder . . . but only to the willing. Because craft without passion is useless, and passion without wisdom quickly leads to solipsistic drivel.
And yet, this is the artist’s dilemma. We want our work to be enjoyed and celebrated by multitudes, but the moment we put the result ahead of the process, we get stuck. In an attempt to make our work popular, we kill the magic that makes it universally relatable.
There is a necessary rebelliousness demanded of us to arrive at something special. As artists, we exist in that gray area between grief and rage, joy and despair. We are rulebreakers by definition, questioning everything, listening to our heart, even as it seems at odds with logic and reason. We are forever dancing in that liminal space between the sacred and the profane.
Imagine for a moment the psychic burden you put on yourself when you attach the possibility of “failure” to what is really just playing in the sandbox. If you can’t imagine this, then imagine you’re the parent to a toddler, and you tell them that they only have one chance to learn to walk. The way we talk to our creative selves can be wildly unhelpful.
The fact is, until we submit to the muse and allow the thrill of creation to be its own reward, we will never touch the divine. We must disavow ourselves of the notion that we are the author, and surrender to the truth that we are the channel. Being an artist is a humbling process. We are not in control, and yet, through submitting to some mysterious place inside of ourselves, some inner Narnia, we step through a portal where we have access to truths we hadn’t previously considered.
Trust Your Subconscious
At the lab, I’m teaching a process of marrying the wildness of your imagination to the rigor of story structure. Put simply, I’m teaching you to trust your subconscious. This sounds simple, maybe even obvious. But it can also be scary as we undo the conditioning that we have often attached to our basic survival. It is amazing the “cognitive distortions” we live with on a daily basis, the depth of untruth we simply accept as our waking reality. This is why it can be helpful to do this work in a group, where you are supported, and you discover that you are not alone on the rollercoaster.
I love stories more than anything. Creativity has saved my life, and it has given me a life beyond anything I could have imagined. My gratitude is deep, and my love for artists is unyielding.
Don’t waste your life chasing dreams that were never yours to begin with. It took three more years for that man to walk into my class. He never mentioned our previous phone call, but I recognized his voice. I could tell that something had shifted in him. He had been humbled, at least, somewhat, and was therefore teachable. Somewhat. But that was enough. He finished his first draft. I saw the lights come on in his eyes. He was excited. He had loosened his grip on his fantasy, in order to allow his dreams to be birthed.
What is Your Idea of Success?
Is it a big fat publishing deal? An international readership? Millions of dollars? These are worthy goals, I suppose, but they are also a terrific way of keeping you from being present with your work. We can spend our lives scaling the mountain of mediocrity. We can become superb prose stylists without taking the risk of allowing our hearts to break on the page. Or we can play it safe, laboring over our description of the lotus flower, while ignoring the true impulse to write about the text thread from our alcoholic sibling who is still trapped in their victimhood, and how it is breaking our heart.
Find the love in your story and you will find the drama. Let the doors of your heart swing wide open. Shock yourself with your grief, your joy, and your sensual abandon.
Being an artist is a lifelong journey of trusting yourself. No one has the answer for you, and if they claim to, no matter how convincing, you must walk away. The truth is, there are no gurus. I’ve noticed that the less adept the teacher is, the more they need to sound like they know what they’re talking about. Arrogance is no replacement for sincere inquiry. And love. That’s right, love. It is a teacher’s job to love their students. To hold a space for them to struggle, to hold a space for them to wrestle with their story, to push back and argue, to tell the teacher that what they’re saying isn’t making sense. And the teacher, if they’re any good, will hold this space, because the teacher’s job is to be at least as curious about the truth as their precious student.