On Writing: Creativity and the Will

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.

Global Nomads and TCKS- 18: Beauty as solace


Czeslaw Milosz on coping with departure and the curative powers of landscape:

 The classic result of all sudden ruptures and reversals is the rumination on one’s own worthlessness and the desire to punish oneself, known as delectatio morosa. I would never have been cured of it had it not been for the beauty of the earth. The clear autumn mornings in an Alsatian village surrounded by vineyards, the paths on an Alpine slope over the Isere River, rustling with dry leaves from the chestnut trees, or the sharp light of early spring on the Lake of Four Cantons near Schiller’s rock, or a small river near Perigueux on whose surface kingfishers traced colored shadows of flight in the July heat—all this reconciled me with the universe and with myself.

 Native Realm

Writing is a Humilation Banquet



Please find here my piece recently published on She Writes, a wonderful website  for women writers.

NOTE: If you go to the post on that site you’ll find wonderful, funny, entertaining comments from readers in response to this humor piece.  Also, my dear friend, the brilliant writer, Catherine Mayo, wrote a response giving her own wise and funny and helpful perspectives on the humiliations that come with publication.  Here is her website, Madam Mayo, which is packed with goodies for writers: http://madammayo.blogspot.mx/2013/05/so-hows-book-doing-and-how-many-books.html

Here is the piece itself:

Writing is a humiliation banquet.  It is time that everyone who reads books or counts a writer a friend be acquainted with the menu of this exclusive club:


Plat du Jour


Rot-Gut Wine

The pitying looks, false cheer, and stumbling superlatives, handed to you by fellow students at writers workshops, and your own friends or family, upon the first tentative sharing of your work, who let you know, though they wear little smiles on their faces, that they consider your writing very poor indeed.  Welcome to this oh-so-shi-shi club.


Clams on Toast

 The platitudes offered you by agents who turn down your work with responses such as “Memoirs by women aren’t selling this year.”

Wilted Celery Sticks          

 The rejection notices from publishers who write that your book, while impressive, is “not quite right for us.”


 Thin Gruel   

 The fact that, though, by some miracle, your book is now published, it receives no reviews.


Chopped Liver        

The time you are presenting your work on a panel of four writers, and the good-looking young man who just told stories, and read not a word of his writing, is rewarded with long lines of buyers, while you have none—and just to add a bit of sauce, you have to buy your own book in order to trade books with the other panelists at the end of the event.



The kindly looks of writer friends who have looked up your sales on Amazon—something you studiously avoid—and let you know, in so many words, that their sales have surpassed yours.

Poached Tongue                

The kindly looks of writer friends who let drop the number of new twitter followers they get every seven seconds.

Stewed Prunes

The confit you must swallow when you show up at a bookstore for a reading and there is no audience, or there is one psychotic man pulling flies from the air and a ten year-old, and you have to decide whether to put your chin up, smile, and read, or find a hole to vomit into.


The sweet, ingratiating smiles from well-meaning people, at whom you must smile graciously when they tell you they are so eager to read the book you worked on for ten years at less than slave wages, and will get it from the library.

Bitter Cabbage                   

The other well-meaning people who, thinking they are helping you and not knowing, perhaps, that you have to buy your own book, tell you they want to give your book to someone who will love it, and could just you send them one to give to the friend for a gift?


Killer Sundae                      

The kindly meant but misguided question put to you by your very best friends, and everyone else, after your book comes out: “How is the book doing?”  The friends have no idea how this scrapes the writer’s oozing, ever-raw wounds.  “How is the book doing?”  Now what does that “doing” mean?  People mean well, they are not really thinking, but I’m pretty sure that sentence means, if I am not mistaken (and writers eating this daily humiliation fare can most certainly be deranged), “How much money are you making?”  Or: “Just how worthwhile an author are you?”  The same goes for “What was the print run?”   This is the question, the cherry on top that some people who really badly want to know how much you have made, push on to ask.  Who else do we greet by asking how much money they are making?

Here is the truth, the secret answer to that eager question, “How is the book doing?”  Let me herewith dispense with the common illusion held by those outside the club: that writers make money.  These are the facts: Advances for books are minuscule for most writers: from $0 to $25,000.  Bottom line: not enough to live on even for one year.  Seven out of ten books do not make even these tiny advances back, so seven out of ten writers receive no royalties at all.  As for royalties, a writer typically receives ten percent  of the cover price for the first 250,000 copies sold.  This means, for a book listed for $25, the writer will receive, if the advance has been earned back, $2.50 per book.

And as for sales ambitions, everyone assumes—in this America where we believe we can achieve anything we put our minds to and where anyone not a millionaire just isn’t working hard enough or is a self-promotion wimp—that every author any good would be making sales in the six figures.  Publisher’s Weekly reported in January, 2012 that the average U.S. nonfiction book now sells fewer than 250 copies per year, and fewer than 3000 over its lifetime.  And moreover, as the wonderful, best-selling author Anne Lamott has said—to paraphrase her—no matter how much praise you receive or how high your royalties are, it is never enough to feel worthy in this measure-people-by-money land we live in.  Whenever you look up your sales, it is humiliating because, as she would probably put it: if you’re any good, you should make as much as God would if she’d written a book.  Keep in mind that Virginia Woolf hoped fervently that one of her books might sell 500 copies.  I won’t go into why the books that do sell, sell, but it is not always their literary quality.


Stiff Brandy             

The last, fast gulp of the dawn-to-dusk humiliation, of spending your time in an activity that everyone in America views as self-indulgent unless you are making the income of Stephen King.  Let me tell you, writers are afflicted beings—afflicted with the need to make arrangements of words.  They have to do it, like others have to eat donuts, but they sacrifice financial security and suffer daily, second-by-second humiliation to put forth their scribbling to the world.

“Writing is like prostitution,” a wise friend and wonderful writer commented to me recently.  As a writer, you strip down, put out your best wares for all to see, and stand there at the corner, being brave, sucking in your belly, hoping to get a sale.  And each moment of each day on that corner, even when you know you’re looking your best and you’ve produced something of real quality, you are subject to mortifying humiliation.

So when you see your writer friend next time, know she is dining on celery sticks, gruel and stewed prunes.  Buy her a real meal.



Life Notes: Flannery O’Connor, Intellectual Virginity, and Turtles


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Florida_Box_Turtle_Digon3When I was a girl I always wondered what a turtle’s body was like inside its shell.  I imagined a very tender, rag doll of a being, slightly sticky, utterly vulnerable, a sort of worm with arms and legs. It was innocent as a pre-mature baby, a filmy membrane just barely containing a lumpy, pulsing heart and lungs.  To see that being—to cut it out of its shell–would be intolerable, and, before I even knew the word: obscene.

Which brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” a  story I recently read.  In that macabre and complex tale—some would call it obscene—a great tragedy has occurred.  The daughter in the story’s family had her leg blasted off by a gun at age ten, and her mother and she have been left to cope with this misfortune.  Both have dealt with this great, essential sadness—the girl now wears a wooden leg—by developing tough carapaces of thought.  The mother has determined only to see the good in life—her name is Mrs. Hopewell.  And the daughter—she was named Joy by her mother but has re-named herself Hulga, the ugliest name she could find–has determined, in reaction, only to see the bad.  Mrs. Hopewell’s motto is “A smile never hurt anyone,” while Hulga’s position is “We are all damned…but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see there’s nothing to see.”  Their outlooks are opposites, but, as with all opposites, two sides of the same shell. Here: the shell of encased, hardened up, self-protective thought.

The story turns when a bible salesman seduces the daughter, now 32 and a nihilist philosopher, and steals her false leg in a horrifying version of a rape scene set in the loft of a barn.  There are myriad ways to think of this prismatic story, but one way is to see it as an intellectual hymen-rupturing.  Joy-Hulga’s cherry of certain knowledge is ripped open and stolen from her forever.  The bible salesman, whom the young woman had assumed to be an innocent “good country person” and whom she planned to seduce, and, through shame, teach a deeper understanding of life, turned turtle on her, and forced on her the lesson instead.  Perhaps, this makes occur to me, there is a kind of intellectual virginity.  Until you have your shield of ideas penetrated or violated or stolen away forever—hopefully in not  quite so violent a way as in the story—you remain an intellectual virgin.  Indeed, perhaps until that moment, you do reside in a safe Garden of Eden—but haven’t even a sip of certain complex but worthwhile, not-to-be-missed pleasures.  Until your armor is shattered, only after your shell is penetrated, in fact—do you truly enter the world of adulthood.

Before this shattering of set ideas, I suggest, you are essentially autistic—autistic in the sense of the word I was taught in the late 1970s in social work graduate school.  Back then I learned that an autistic child was one who resided inside a shell, a shell impervious to the world.  The metaphor widely used by psychological thinkers then was that of the egg—I  envisioned a little da Vinci baby inside a pure white shell—and this child living inside her egg was produced by a “refrigerator mother.”  This whole theory—widely accepted at the time—was another notion, another shell, that needed cracking…

Which returns me to Mrs. Hopewell and Joy-Hulga.  Each, as I envision her, was an intellectual autistic, as in this obsolete theory, living within her pure, virginal shell…

It is important to have compassion for us human beings.  In order to cope with life’s pains, we need tough, protective shells sometimes, or think we do.  And we keep them, polished and shiny, until they are blasted off us or stolen from us and we are left flailing and forced to manage in a new way.  Or, sometimes, we maintain our shells and think we need them…until, we don’t…and, one day, take it upon ourselves to toss off our armor and walk out naked into the world.  The inclination to disrupt our routine habits of thought can just start pulsing from within at certain life junctures.  It takes enormous courage to acknowledge this internal call to burst our own thought-carapaces, to lose our intellectual virginity, and even more, to take action upon it.  This is an adventure for the hardy, maybe the foolhardy and the slightly masochistic, but nonetheless the brave.

Since I was a girl, I’ve learned that turtles’ shells are not detachable.  You can’t remove the shell without killing the turtle.  There is no independent rag doll within. Turtles’ shells are formed from the rib cage and spine, and attached to the reptile’s internal bones.  Their shells just grow as they grow, and as part of them, the shells sluffing off the armored plates, the scutes, as needed, to make way for larger ones.  The turtle’s shell is part of it—not removable.  Some of us are like turtles.  We have shells so thick and so much a part of our structure that they could never be broken and/or we would die without them.

It would be ideal to have a portable shell and be able to shrug it on and off, and to know when you’d need it, so you could slip it over your head at just the right, and not other, times.  Don it just for the tragedy and not ever afterward.  I don’t know many who have this down.

But, in the end—and this is what O’Connor’s story suggests to me—until we lose our shells, or have those tender parts within pierced, in a sense, we don’t really have a leg to stand on.  Hard shells are brittle ones.  Maybe Joy-Hulga will be better off without her false leg. Maybe one leg is as good as it gets.  The world is, after all, a complicated, confusing place with, perhaps, more questions than answers…Hulga will almost certainly have less protection after her tussle in the barn, but perhaps she will gain access to something immeasurably richer, and—eventually, reborn—don, with pleasure, her given name.

One day recently, right around the time I read the O’Connor story, I saw something I hadn’t seen in years: a turtle shell.  A friend had come upon it in the woods.  It was a striking gold and onyx case, an haute couture armored jerkin with holes for the arms and legs.  It was an elegant thing.  Probably much more alluring—all polished and shellacked—than all that pulsing tenderness it had housed.  There is sheen and then there is joy.

You must lose in order to win…love, truth, the world.

Global Nomads and TCKS- 17: The grief of departure

In this passage from my book Of Many Lands, I recall the grief brought on by my departure from The Netherlands:

 Holland was my land of soggy farm fields, of Van Gogh, of wind­mills thrumping in the wind and frigid winter walks by the sea. It is the place I attended a Victorian house of a school, where I fell off a fat pony three times in an hour, where I read seven Enid Blytons in a week. It is the place I tasted pure freedom, zooming around Wassenaar on my bike, and the place I learned I could play soccer as well as a boy. Holland is the place my mother wore her long, baggy raincoat and translated Dutch at a rug-covered table, and where my father rode to work on his bike. It is where I made a twelve foot gum wrapper chain, and where I ran for student council and lost because I was a girl. It is the place I first tasted the elixir of belonging to a crowd, and it is the site of my first kiss.

When I left Holland at age thirteen I wept all the way in the car to Le Havre. When the grief was finally spent, something in me was broken. It was the kind of fracture that hurts with the sharpest pain the first time around. Holland was my first broken heart.

Did your heart ever break when you left a place? Think of that place and the things you loved doing there. Then remember the feeling of leaving there. Describe both.

Global Nomads and TCKS- 16: The sacredness of another language


Alice Kaplan writes about why, despite her long struggle with the language, she loves to speak French:

I go back and forth in my thinking about my second lan­guage. Sometimes I think, it’s only the wealthy students who get French; it’s only an expression of their class privilege. My privilege that I went away to Europe when I was fifteen and the shape of my mouth and the sounds going in and out of my ears weren’t frozen into place yet. An accident of class. Or, I think, why have I confined myself to teach in this second language, this language which will never be as easy as the first one? Why have I chosen to live in not-quite-my-own-language, in exile from myself, for so many years— why have I gone through school with a gag on, do I like not really being able to express myself?

Then something will happen, in the classroom, and I’ll see this French language as essential in its imperfection: the fact that we don’t have as many words is forcing us to say more. The simplicity of our communication moves us, we’re out­side of cliche, free of easy eloquence, some deeper ideas and feelings make it through the mistakes and shine all the more through them.

In French class I feel close, open, willing to risk a language that isn’t the language of everyday life. A sacred language.

 French Lessons: A Memoir

Global Nomads and TCKS- 15: The discomfort of re-entry back “home”

In an excerpt from Of Many Lands, I describe my difficulty in finding a place for myself in my passport country:

The first year I am in Washington—I am 14 now—I spend each weekend earn­ing money for a planned summer trip back to Holland. I am determined to go back, even though most of my friends have left. The second year in Washing­ton I spend thinking about Borneo, the place my father has been assigned and for which he leaves half-way into my school year, the place we will move at the end of the year. It is as though I never quite put my feet down in Washing­ton. Washington is a place my family lives in between the REAL places. Finally, when I am in my late twenties, as I discover landscapes I love, dig into a field of work, and forge fast friendships, the U.S. begins to feel less like a movie set.

What is your relationship to your home country? Is it your REAL country? What have you done, or can you do, to make some place your real country? Reflect on this.

Global Nomads and TCKS- 14: Americans and Europeans


Czeslaw Milosz on Americans and Europeans (pre 9/11):

I walked the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles as if I were an anthropologist privileged to visit the civilizations of Incas or Aztecs. Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.

…And woe to those who think that in the twentieth century they can save themselves without taking part in the tragedy, without purifying themselves through historical suffering.

Native Realm

LIFE NOTES New Garb for Bad Luck: A Pair of Wellies


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The other day I was half-listening to Woman’s Hour on the BBC when I heard a caller say, “In your late forties your luck runs out.”  The words rang out clear and cool as a spring breeze.  Whoever said them, uttered them as though they were the simple truth.  And, instantly, I found myself washed through with relief.  Immediately, I had a sense of being forgiven, of being handed a free pass.  All the difficulties, all the unforeseen storms that had blown my way as I neared fifty were, perhaps, not my fault, not preventable: just how life is.  Part of life’s weather.

I remember a therapist saying to me one time, “Around fifty people start to come up against stuff.  They get sick.  Things happen.” I was in my mid-forties then and this didn’t ring any bells.  I thought she was being needlessly negative.  But then things did start to happen as I closed on fifty, and things continued to happen after the half-century mark too.  Not all the time or anything, but big, noticeable things I couldn’t sweep under the rug: My father was struck with a galloping version of Parkinsons, my mother’s heart problems stepped up, my family of origin seemed to come up with new forms of psychological torment every month, and, at fifty, almost right on the dot, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was tossed a bit of luck in that it was found early, but it wasn’t nothing. It’s like, at around fifty, some sort of sell-by date has been hit.

Much as it might sound like it, I actually don’t feel grim about this. Certainly, these things that happened to me, and that happen to many around this time, aren’t happy things, but it is a relief to think of “things happening” as normal, developmental, just how it is—rather than “things happening” as being a moral failure.  In America, in this country where we are supposed to prevent all hardships through eternal optimism, where we “create our luck,” where being unflappable in the face of any disaster is the mark of a person worth feeding, it is a relief to think that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t responsible for the rough weather that comes our way.  We don’t have to deny the trouble that shows up, pretend it didn’t occur, just to prove how strong we are.  Rather, my BBC friend makes me think, there’s another, better way: We can say, “Yep, around the half-century mark, tough stuff does happen along.  It’s no one’s fault.”  Our job is to face into whatever variety of wind it is—dust devil, tornado, or gale, wail and rail as we need to, bear it as bravely as we have in us, but mainly just contend with the lousy weather and muddle through as best we can.  Rather than being humiliated or shamed or condemned for bad luck (“Surely you did something to cause this,” carps that nasty, so-robust inner critic) perhaps we can be straight-forward about it and also treat ourselves to a little compassion.  Just announce to ourselves, “Okay boys and girls! Time to put on the Sou’wester and Wellies and go down to the wreck.”

Global Nomads and TCKS- 13: The American zest for work


Here is Henry James describing Americans’ energy and love of work via his hero Christopher Newman, in the novel, The American:

Exertion and action were as natural to him as respiration; a more completely healthy mor­tal had never trod the elastic soil of the West. His experience, moreover, was as wide as his capacity; when he was fourteen years old, necessity had taken him by his slim young shoulders and pushed him into the street, to earn that night’s supper. He had not earned it; but he had earned the next night’s, and afterwards, whenever he had had none, it was because he had gone without it to use the money for something else, a keener pleasure or a finer profit. He had turned his hand, with his brain in it, to many things; he had been enterprising, in an eminent sense of the term; he had been adventurous and even reckless, and he had known bitter failure as well as brilliant success; but he was a born experimentalist, and he had always found something to enjoy in the pressure of necessity, even when it was as irritating as the haircloth shirt of the mediaeval monk.