Many of my students fret about not having enough will power, enough will to bring their creative work into being.  Others worry about the idleness that creative writing seems to require.  They find that “unproductive” mental wandering hard to justify, when they ought, rather, to be accomplishing something.

Here are some thoughts on the will and creativity from Lewis Hyde, author of the fascinating book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  Hyde’s perspectives should help writers who question their right to the free-floating suspension that seems necessary to their creative work.  They may also invite writers to hold at bay traditional American notions about, and emphasis on, willpower and productivity.  The will is so powerful and domineering, Hyde proposes, that it actually endangers creativity.  We all know how dictatorial is the call to task-completion, while the call to create has a gentle voice.

Hyde writes:

There are at least two phases in the completion of a work of art, one in which the will is suspended and another in which it is active.  The suspension is primary.  It is when the will is slack that we feel moved or we are struck by an event, intuition, or image.  The materia must begin to flow before it can be worked, and not only is the will powerless to initiate that flow, but it actually seems to interfere, for artists have traditionally used devices—drugs, fasting, trances, sleep deprivation, dancing—to suspend the will so that something “other” may come forward.  When the material finally appears, it is usually in a jumble, personally moving, perhaps, but not much use to someone else—not, at any rate, a work of art.  There are exceptions, but the initial formulation of a work is rarely satisfactory—satisfactory, I mean, to the imagination itself, for, like a person who must struggle to say what he means, the imagination stutters toward the clear articulation of its feeling.  The will has the power to carry the material back to the imagination and contain it while it is re-formed.  The will does not create the “germinating image” of the work, nor does it give the work its form, but it does provide the energy and the directed attention called for by a dialogue with the imagination.   

In this next passage, Hyde refers to virtu.  This he calls as an organizing force in art “corresponding to that which has given swansdown its beauty.”

There are times when the will should be suspended, Hyde says:

 …For when the will dominates, there is no gap through which grace may enter, no break in the ordered stride for error to escape, no way by which a barren prince may receive the virtu of his people, and for an artist, no moment of receptiveness which the engendering images may come forward.

Any artist who develops the will risks its hegemony.  If he is at all wary of that sympathy by which we become receptive to things beyond the self, he may not encourage the will to abandon its position when its powers are exhausted.  Willpower has a tendency to usurp the functions of imagination, particularly in a man in a patriarchy…when the will works in isolation, it turns of necessity to dictionary studies, syntactical tricks, intellectual formulae, memory, history, and convention—any course of material, that is, which can imitate the fruits of the imagination without actually allowing them to emerge…The will knows about survival and endurance; it can direct attention and energy; it can finish things.  But we cannot remember a tune or a dream on willpower.  We cannot stay awake on willpower.   Will may direct virtu but it cannot bring it into the world. The will by itself cannot heal the soul.  It cannot create.