Brain Pickings

The Perils of Plans: Why Creativity Requires Leaping into the Unknown

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“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.”

“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I offered in one of my 7 lessons from 7 years of Brain Pickings. Indeed, nothing stunts growth more powerfully than our attachment to the familiar, our blind adherence to predetermined plans, and our inability to, as Rilke famously put it, “live the questions.” Keats termed the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity “negative capability” and argued that it’s essential to the creative process; Anaïs Nin believed that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, and even psychologists confirm that embracing uncertainty is essential to creativity. And yet we cling so vigorously to our comfort zones, our plans, our knowns — why?

That’s the pattern Dani Shapiro seeks to decondition in Still Writing (public library) — her magnificent memoir, which previously gave us her wisdom on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. She writes:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

Shapiro offers both evidence and assurance in reflecting on her own career as a writer:

It might seem to you that all this has been the result of a methodically carried-out plan. Or any plan at all. But I planned none of it. Almost everything that has happened in my writing life has been the result of keeping my head down and doing the work. … I often tell my students — especially the ones who are impatient — that good work will find its way. When the work is ready, everything else will fall into place.

She cautions against the trendy preoccupation with “platforms,” particularly pathological in the age of social media and voracious self-promotion:

I’ll bet you that just about any contemporary writer you admire has never spent a single moment thinking about what their platform or hook might be.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that somewhat boring yet infinitely important notion that grit, not talent, is the secret of genius. Echoing Debbie Millman — who advised in her fantastic illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address on failure, courage, and the creative life, “Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.” — Shapiro concludes with some wisdom at the intersection of the poetic and the pragmatic:

If you work hard — with focus, diligence, integrity, honesty, optimism, and courage — on your own tiny corner of the tapestry, you just might produce something good. And if you produce something good, other writers will help you. They’ll call their agents, their editors. They’ll write letters on your behalf. Your teacher will lift you up on her shoulders. She will hold you aloft so that you can catch hold, so you can have the same chance she’s had. Believe me. Nothing will make her happier.

If you haven’t yet read and relished Still Writing, do — your soul will be gladdened. Pair it with this perpetually updated omnibus of the collected wisdom of 50+ famous writers.

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