Creativity as an Act of Defiance

We are making birds, not bird cages.

One of the most difficult things in life is to declare yourself as . . . yourself.

Among the first questions people ask when they meet each other is, “What do you do for a living?” or “Where are you from?” Humans have a deep-seated need to swiftly put people into a neat category and place them safely in a box. To be from Peoria puts you in a different category than if you’re from New York City. To be a lawyer puts you in a different category than if you’re a waiter.

We act out these categories to some extent as well, even though we’re so much more than those check boxes of identity: teacher, student, plumber, doctor, mother, son. We adopt a persona for the role we have and wear different masks as the situation demands. Our roles can certainly feel comfortable and true enough, especially the more we become habituated to them, but they aren’t necessarily the definition of who we are.

There’s always another side, or sides, of a self, many of which are hidden. For example, there aren’t many opportunities to tell the world — and yourself — that you’re a writer, that you spend hours in your non-persona time conjuring weird and scary tales, putting decent human beings in situations fraught with peril, painting pages with descriptions of other worlds, and penning dialogue that snarls with subtext.

In order to feel the full strength of our creativity, I believe at some point we have to be defiant — defiantly ourselves, you might say. We have to declare, “I am a writer” — say it proudly and loudly, say it with grandiosity and verve, I AM A WRITER — and accept the circumstances of living in whatever Outsiderdom befalls us.

Then we have to go even one step further. Being a writer carries with it its own assortment of masks: What genre do you write in? Who are your favorite authors? Do you have an MFA? We have to ask ourselves who we are as writers — what rules do we want to follow, and what rules do we want to break? “Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others,” Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own.

We don’t want to be the writers others make us out to be. An artist is by definition a menace to conformity. The underlying purpose of deciding to write is to bring forth this mysterious and sacred gift within ourselves, to touch, revere, and express the truth of the way we see this crazy world. If you put your story in a cage of others’ rules, your imagination will always reside behind bars.

Prescriptions are a creative trap, so shed the tribalism of your stated genre and just be a storyteller. Put up your dukes and jeopardize any habituated expectations and assumptions. The imagination is always subversive. It’s always seeking to know reality, take it further, transform it. Steel yourself to be resilient, defiant, and cunning. “We are making birds, not birdcages,” said the poet Dean Young.

There’s nothing sacred about any narrative rule. Our art — the very way we tell stories — needs to challenge format, style, subject matter, and more. A creator needs to push against boundaries to take risks and innovate. There is an insurgency, an insurrection, within us all, so dare to ask impertinent questions. In fact, I think rebelling against the rules is actually an act of love and reverence for your voice. Pushing up against the supposed gatekeepers of taste can strengthen resolve.

When you do so, you risk inviting the naysayers in, of course. “The world in general disapproves of creativity,” said Isaac Asimov, and that’s because creativity disrupts the norms of the status quo. Defiance isn’t an easy thing; it’s a lonely pursuit. So many people love saying, “That’s not the way we do things,” or “We’ve always done it this way,” and if you listen to them, you’ve decided to live by their rules, whether it’s the rules of storytelling or of life. Is that why you’ve decided to write a novel — to follow another’s rules?

The world gives little approbation to those who choose to be artists. You’re questioned, scrutinized, and sometimes even looked at with disdain. This feeling can make a writer want to go into hiding when just the opposite is necessary. Let your candle burn, and even pour gasoline over it if necessary. A writer needs to create with an outlaw sheen to boldly escape the snares of others’ expectations.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead was known to keep all her hate mail in a drawer. When she needed a boost, she would read the letters to spark her dissenting energy. Simply because so many are going to tell you no, you have to find a way to turn that no into a yes — to fight against it, make it into a motivator, a source of inspiration and resilience. Nourishing your inner spitfire will help you develop a strong sense of self, to be less concerned about what others think and more focused on what you think.

This means that sometimes you’ll have to rebel against your artistic mentors, your teachers, even your favorite authors. If you work within the prisms they hand you, you’ll be tweaking and refining and tinkering within a confined space, marching in lockstep with everyone else, feeling their cadence, not your own. The most original contributions have rarely, if ever, come from the desire to please the crowd.

So put on your black leather jacket, whether literally or figuratively.

Get on that motorcycle in your mind and rev up the engine. Do a wheelie, burn some rubber, and write your story. That chip on your shoulder is worth nourishing because you’ll need it.

Try This: Rebel
Reflect on those moments where people have dismissed or disrespected your writing pursuits. Did you shrink? Did you defer? Did you become silent? Think about ways to rebel — to defy the expectations they’re setting for you. Commit the crime of being yourself.

Grant Faulkner is executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of 100 Word Story. He’s the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.

For more, go to grantfaulkner.com, or follow him on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.

Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of 100 Word Story, writer, tap dancer, alchemist, contortionist, numbskull, preacher.

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