The Art of Holding Things Lightly
Your creativity shouldn’t be a yoke. It should be more like a feather that you hold in your hand.
I have a paradoxical proposal for you: Take your creativity seriously, but hold it lightly.
It’s a Zen koan of sorts, a riddle. So much creativity advice is about digging in, fortifying your commitment, developing routines and systems of accountability. All of that is important. The novel you’re working on is important. The poem you wrote yesterday is important. The idea for a story that you’re going to imagine tomorrow morning is important.
At the same time, it’s all ephemeral. It’s easy to clutch your talons into a project, but the tighter you hold it, the less space you might give it. Sometimes you clutch it so tightly that you’re unable to leave it behind, even though all signs point to moving on. It isn’t helpful to push, grab, or pull at things, and yet it is somehow easy to allow creativity to become such a melee.
I had a novel like this. I worked on it for 10 years. The longer I worked on it, the tighter I held onto it, even though I felt that there was something missing, something wrong. Still, I listened to all of the voices telling me to be determined, that my persistence would burnish whatever was missing, and with just one more draft, I would find the answers.
One more draft came and went with another draft and then another draft. I found less and less meaning in my writing and only clung to it because I’d been working on it for so long — because it was my big work that I aimed to publish.
I finally moved on to other writing projects, but that novel still cries out to me from time to time. Not because I have a burning need to work on it, but because of all the time I invested in it — the heaviness I put into it.
Without lightness, the soil of your story is too hard-packed, and the ground isn’t loose enough for the seed to sprout.
What does it mean to hold things lightly? It’s an attitude that takes work (hard work, ironically). It’s easy to get so serious about our creative work that it can feel like a life or death matter. We pin our self-worth on our ability to carry it out. But, in the end, it’s not a life or death matter.
Creativity is necessary, yes. It’s a life enhancing force, yes. We want to maximize it, not minimize it, yes. And persistence and determination are certainly necessary to perfect an idea.
But I believe each individual project has a lightness that needs to be observed as well. Otherwise, the light can’t get in to help the seeds sprout. Without lightness, the soil of your story is too hard-packed, and the ground isn’t loose enough for the seed to sprout.
If one of your projects weighs so heavily in your mind that you feel it smothering your creativity, then don’t feel bad if you let it go for a while. Your creativity shouldn’t burden you. It shouldn’t be a yoke. It should be more like a feather that you hold in your hand.
Try This: Release Your Writing
If you’ve been doggedly working on something for weeks or months or years, take a break from it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Pretend that your computer crashed and you lost everything you wrote. Now start something new. Anything. Your creativity is still intact, right? Let other stories call to you for a while. Then return to that big project with fresh eyes.
Grant Faulkner is 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.