Why Tough-Guy Metaphors About Creativity Don’t Work

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the best writers on the web right now, using his Atlantic.com blog and other venues to discuss race, culture, history, and a myriad of other topics. He writes long, thoughtful pieces, and even his commenters can be dauntingly erudite.

He’s currently debating New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait on whether there’s a “culture of poverty” in U.S. black communities, and while the debate is definitely worth checking out for its main points, I glommed onto this statement by Coates:

  • “The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel.”

Let’s talk about that.

Tortured artist at work!

Tortured artist at work!

There is no shortage of grandiose or martial metaphors for writing and other creative work, and no shortage of assertions that suffering and isolation are the natural realms of the artist.

You’ll find these ideas in both pop culture and high art. Here’s a long list of examples.

Then there’s the “Sanguinary Trifecta”: Red Smith (to write, “sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”), Gene Fowler (“Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”) and Hemingway (“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”)

And let’s not forget William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

  • “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.”

(From all accounts, by the way, Faulkner was a loyal and devoted son.)

I’m not about to criticize whatever mindset a writer successfully uses to get words down. What I do know, however, is that, for many writers and other creators, aggression, pain, and deprivation lead not to productivity, but a block. (And they also make you a misery to be around.)

A tough guy writer at work.

A tough guy writer at work. (Raymond Chandler)

I also know many people who are awesome fighters in the public sphere, but who struggle with their writing:

I know activist-writers, for instance, who will take on any societal oppressor, the more powerful the better. But they can still stall on their writing.

I know athlete-writers who excel on the track or tennis court, but falter when confronted with the blank page.

And I even know a writer who is a burlesque dancer. She takes her clothes off on stage–something I and presumably most people reading this would find absolutely daunting. And yet, she struggles to reveal herself on paper.

Clearly, the act of writing requires a different type of toughness than that required to take on an “external” enemy or obstacle–namely, the ability to sit quietly with your thoughts and practice what for many people is a challenging level of self-acceptance, even when (especially when) the work isn’t going well.

The ability not to attack, in other words.

There are other requisite skills, of course, including the ability to manage critical inputs, and all the myriad skills that go into managing a successful career. And they’re also founded on nonaggression! You can’t bully or beat your way into productivity and success.

I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent.

No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all, and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. Nice counterexamples are:

  • Stephen King and Anthony Trollope, who both use manual labor metaphors for their writing. King: “This [is]…just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.” And Trollope: “Let [other writers’] work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving, as men have sat, or said that they have sat.” (I love the skepticism at the end of his statement, which I think is entirely justified when reading grandiose statements about writing.)
  • Jane Yolen, whose book Take Joy begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to the sanguinary quotes with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: “By God, that’s a messy way of working.”
  • My own book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, which shows you why, if maximum joyful productivity is your goal, compassion is the only way. Also check out my solutions to procrastination and perfectionism.

I am currently reading, and being hugely inspired by, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which convincingly claims that humans as a species have become less violent over time, and are continuing to become so. It’s perhaps the most inspiring message around–and I urge you to apply it to your own life and work.

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