Surrender is a word soaked with negative connotations. To surrender is to be weak. You surrender when you have no more will to fight, when you lack strength, when you lack belief. Surrendering can seem like a character flaw, especially in victory-at-any-cost America. Never surrender, never give up. Persist, resist, insist.
But surrendering isn’t necessarily about giving up, or weakness, or passivity. The act of resignation, of ceding, can be an act of opening oneself up, of receptivity. It can be as brave and bold as any victory.
It’s a paradox: a collapse that invites fullness. Sometimes you have to give up power to gain power. Sometimes you have to lose the argument to win the argument. And that in turn changes the rules of power and the nature of winning.
“The creative self,” wrote the poet Jane Hirshfield, “[asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”
In Hirshfield’s terms, surrender becomes a radical, transformative act. A redefinition of ego and will and success.
Surrender creates new spaces of being.
When we surrender ourselves to our art, we allow ourselves to soften. Surrender invites us to give ourselves up to something larger, to meld with wonder and awe. Surrender creates intimacy and expansiveness at the same time. It sparks curiosity, exploration. It’s the equivalent of going to sleep: by sinking into an unconscious state, we allow dreams to fill us. We give up trying to change and control things. The rigidities of expectations, desires, and aspirations melt away.
“I think surrender should be an active verb,” said the musician Brian Eno. He says that we generally think of surrender as being a passive state of submission, but if we think of it as being an active choice, a word of passion, then it’s transformed.
Eno says that when you surrender, “you know you’re not in control anymore and that makes you more alert.” The surfer doesn’t try to control the wave, but to balance control with surrender, he says, because it’s only with surrender that the surfer can feel the wave.
Eno believes that we have a human need for surrender so strong that it’s at the center of religion and art. It’s at the center of love, as well, for love only succeeds with mutual surrender. Surrender dissolves the ego so that you can serve something beyond yourself. Surrender creates new spaces of being.
Think what would change if you allowed yourself to surrender in a conversation. What if you committed to listening, to let another’s words and spirit rise up and take you instead of focusing on your point of view, your needs. What if you decided not to try to win the next argument you find yourself in? What if you decide not to be the star of the conversation?
The same goes for creating art. You often hear a writer comment on how the characters of their story took over at a certain point. What they’re saying is that they surrendered to the story. They followed the scents of the story through the jungle of their imagination instead of taking a machete to forge a trail they mapped out. The outline, the plan — the victory that’s been designed — succumbs to something greater, something truer.
“All of our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling,” wrote Blaise Pascal.
Or it begins again, but better. Reason too easily becomes stiff, following well-hewn pathways, seeking to be right, but reason is best when it’s flexible, not seeking to determine, but to find. Surrendering.
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, LitHub, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.