Tag Archives: artists

Nope, Writing Is Still NOT About Creativity

“We are about contribution. That’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”


What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

Conventional wisdom holds that all true artists abhor convention and delivering what’s expected. They’re just too creative for that.


Unfortunately, that notion is dead wrong. No one is interested in such “pure creativity.” Readers aren’t interested in books that are completely out of the box—what would be the point? No, we all want what’s conventional and unoriginal. Yes we do. Most of any paragraph, scene, or chapter should be expected. Anticipated. 


Put another way, most of a story must follow the reader’s expectation.

When I was an acquisitions editor, I learned this was one of the important hidden keys to book proposals that sold. If the writer delivered what readers of that type of book expect, we’d be much more likely to be able to sell that book. That means a writer has to know the best books in their genre and how they met expectations.

DSC_0019Of course, there are uniquenesses to every successful book, and true, they break conventions and delight readers with creative surprises. But the total amount of those differences is less than 5 percent. The actual number may be higher, or even less, but most of the enjoyable parts of any successful book–fiction or nonfiction–are not new. Think about it.

In fact, if you want to know what made a particular book so successful, consider how that tiny amount of new, unpredictable material was actually a liability until it proved just enough to add to or improve on what was already available.

Higher purpose writers need to know good stories are built by following the conventions of good storytelling–a person we can identify with, a quest and settings we’ve experienced countless times, and plot developments that arise naturally from what the protagonist wants, and how they’re obstructed from it. You must see how your favorite author built their story with the existing material of their genre, the very same materials everyone uses, the traditional building blocks in the right sequence and with the proper attention—characterizations, plot points, descriptions, dialogue, strong verbs—then you too can use the elements to succeed–

Any artist brings particularities of expression. But more importantly, they satisfy expectations.

What’s too often missed is that a professional writer often allows readers to very nearly predict every single word because they’ve mastered the conventions so completely. Subtle nuances, and unique stylistic things notwithstanding, the surprises are secondary to everything first being perfectly placed.

And the proof is that a book can completely conform to your expectations to a remarkable degree, and somehow still convince you that writer is worthy of your attention.

In fact, the similarities between a new book and its established category may be what convinces you most.

DSC_0023What’s great about this is that it’s in the simple, expected ordinary elements of a story that we can give rise to the greater possibilities in any story. It’s just some colors blended from the primary three. Just eight basic notes in the scale. Just one alphabet, 3 acts, the same journey toward freedom. But when your readers are all desperate to get home again, they don’t want to be confounded at every turn. They want, first and foremost, to be comforted by what’s reassuring, and this is what makes an artist great: he has our best in mind.

Or as Pascal the restauranteur says in the film, Big Night, “Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want.”

Any writer can write something completely new. New ideas are literally a dime a dozen. Only a writer with a higher purpose cares what readers want and delivers it. What’s different about a book is far less important than what’s the same.

With every professional artist’s work we talk about what’s special but only because it was built on the conventional foundation of perfection—that is, mastery—of every single element in that discipline.

All art is this way. Practiced conventionality is the work. It’s always been true and it will remain true forever: “creative” work is far more predictable than creative.

Or maybe the truth is that’s what creativity is. Learn what’s expected and how to deliver it. You won’t write other writers’ stories. But there are only a handful of archetypes and storylines. You’re offering an interpretation, much more than you even realize.

What you write matters. What you emphasize about the human condition and experience is a vitally important, needed perspective. But being different is inevitable. And when you get back to the work today, aim to be disciplined by the conventional and tradition.

Because that’s where you’ll prove you’re a writer: in the discipline that leads to freedom.


“The writer is only free when he can tell the reader to go jump in the lake. You want, of course, to get what you have to show across to him, but whether he likes it or not is no concern of the writer.”

Flannery O’Connor

Can that also be true? Maybe we just all have to try and find out.

For the tried and true higher purpose,


Writing to Heal the Hole-Hearted

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” – e.e. cummings

So many authors wonder how they’ll finally become ready for the “big time.”

I get it. I’ve wanted to know that for a long time too–to know my writing was good enough to be chosen. That would be such a rush of confidence and confirmation of my gifts.

And while I’ve always wanted to believe, a vast majority of the time, I haven’t believed it.

In fact, I never did until I started to want to understand others more than I wanted to be understood….

Tahoe pine

The main reason for this was all the pain and fear that was in the way. And like Holden Caufield, I needed more awareness of the larger world and the conversation I would be contributing to.

But I hadn’t yet grasped that larger context.

Unfortunately, today no one has to know about the existing heritage to contribute their ideas. We don’t even have to know what that involves. But it’s still true that to contribute something lasting to the growing cadre of human thought and experience, you must understand the larger conversation.

Because as T.S. Eliot proved: Every new book stands on the shoulders of the heritage that went before it.

I’ve known this, even wanted to utilize it. But for a long time, I didn’t push myself to become educated. I didn’t believe I could contribute in that way.

Maybe some of you know what I’m talking about. For one reason or another, you feel sabotaged by the hole in your heart.

And it isn’t our fault. As I’ve learned, the “hole-hearted” don’t hear (as the whole-hearted do) the inherent worth of their thoughts and feelings. They don’t yet believe they can have influence in their area. Instead, they still hear other things–maybe dismissal, defensiveness, disgust or disrespect that’s crowding that out. Their personal heritage taught them some useless tools, and so even as they try to live, to create, or to write, they struggle not to alternately disregard and overstate their gifts and their voices.

It’s a profound thought that’s taken me years to come to, but I believe the difference between the hole-hearted and whole-hearted is wanting to understand more than you want to be understood.

And how many sad people, and sad books, can be explained by this all-too-common limitation?

Of course, once you experience freedom–maybe in a book, like I did–it changes you. You start to believe. You may still live/create/write to be acknowledged and find more healing, but the work begins revising you. Slowly, a new heritage becomes established and you begin to get glimpses of your power.

I know this first hand. A new heritage has been calling me out of hole-heartedness, preparing me for my time to face the world and make my true contribution.

Many excellent books have added to my knowledge and helped me identify hidden shame and inadequacy. And beyond fear of embarrassment, I’ve found even the least confident writers can escape their safe cave. With practice and study, they can find what they need to pass on to their readers.

It’s been taking shape all this time, this new heritage. Maybe it’s never finished, but I’m convinced I can’t simply write to be heard, known or successful. I need to be an advocate for people just like me. And that doesn’t come through marketing tricks or good networking. It only comes through real care for readers.

I’ve learned so much from How We Love, Changes That Heal, Boundaries, and Get Out of Your Own Way. These are books based on the authors’ life work. I love Brené Brown’s work. And I love Maria Popova’s BrainPickings.org (from which I pilfered this week’s excellent quotes). All this gives me hope that though we struggle to heal and trust our voices, we can get beyond our sabotage.

Through vulnerability (in life and on the page) we learn to believe in ourselves and add our voices to speak for many. I say it all the time: everyone has a story. And it’s true. But you’ve got to seek it and refine it, and you’ve got to believe investing in yourself in that is ultimately about something bigger than just you.

So how do you find the strength to believe that when it gets hard?


My simple answer? God. I believe God is how you find it. I’ve found it’s true: He is all wisdom and all love and all power. And connecting with him, his presence inside, this is how I realize I have all I will ever need to accomplish far more than I can dream or imagine. Let religious folks say that’s humanism, but the faith to believe you have all you need, it’s a gift, and I believe all you have to do is sincerely, humbly and vulnerably ask for it.

Do you believe that? And do you want to do it?

I keep asking myself these questions: Are you open to what your book has to teach you? Can you stay and dedicate to it in the conviction that you’re the only one who can share what you know in your way? And will you follow the markers along the path of your own new heritage to trade it for whatever deficiencies you faced?

If you’ll do that, I believe you’ll find many more people who are desperate for it. We can change the conversation for so many because we’ve been training for this, and through God’s patient grace, he’s gifted us to contribute our lines, if we’ll only decide to persist when the fear comes.


That’s the battle every great story goes through—and that’s always what they’re really about–believing!

I believe that’s ultimately also how they finally get written down–

By believing.

This belief lives in the soul of humanity, put there by God, and you are already a part of it.

Believe that now, and just make today’s investment of words today, and tomorrow’s tomorrow….

You can do this. Because you were made for this, to fill the hole in your heart and to find the confidence to be the healer you were made to be.

Not because you are better than anyone else, but because you were destined to be.


“Whether you succeed or not, that is irrelevant — there is no such thing. Making your unknown known, that is the important thing.” – Georgia O’Keeffe, in a letter to Sherwood Anderson (emphasis mine)

How to Progress In Your Process

“Are we there yet?”

Remember how fun it is to travel with small kids? The longer the trip, the more this favorite question gets repeated, like a bad commercial.

I think that could be how God feels when we keep unfocusing on the real goal of art and start obsessing about the finish line.


Two quick examples. Several weeks ago, I got frustrated at a situation at church when a kid had a meltdown and the parent left me to handle it alone. It blinded me for several hours and eventually I felt ashamed of how I handled it.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, at my cousin’s wedding this weekend, I wanted to forget myself and simply enjoy others. I wanted to encourage the bride and groom and tell them how inspired and happy their love made me, how it lit them from within. The beauty was overwhelming and I felt lost in it, forgetting myself and so relaxed and happy.

Writers are a strange bunch, but we do share some things in common with human beings. One of them is that at our very core, we want others to see what we’re seeing. And writing is sort of a way to ask, “Are you seeing this?”

In both situations, I just wanted to get where I was going. “Look how amazing/terrifying/ridiculous/pitiful/horrible/whatever this is!” Not a bad thing, but I forgot my process.


At church, I thought sharing what I saw would help some people, help a relationship and maybe a kid’s development. At the wedding, I thought sharing my viewpoint could help fuel love and help spread it to others. I thought about Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Good goal. Yet whether or not I got to share what I saw, I needed to remember what all artists will eventually learn, that life is an exercise in doing all you can to improve things in the midst of never quite getting to the finish line.

Downshift and consider this: the true artists’ questions are always the same: How did I do today? What progress can I celebrate? And what did I learn about my process?

Forget whether I shared what I saw or whether I created something that changed someone’s life forever. Cultivating awareness of my process to produce and express words, art, beauty, meaning, it can feel like a fruitful exercise, even dangerous. It feels like looking too closely at the how can unbalance the machinery.

But it’s also a necessity, an unavoidable business to encourage my development. Gaining insight and evaluating the machinery isn’t the same as messing with the works (which also is sometimes necessary). Getting a better look in there won’t automatically jinx the final product.

In fact, if I’d let go of my barricading attempts to control and predict the final product, I might see that greater awareness of my process is the best result–and the only real way forward.

Making art is not a choice for an artist, just like life is not a choice for the alive. Art, like life, is a process.


Which means, of course, it isn’t about a goal, a finish line. It’s about the middle. In the middle, it’s safe to say you can completely forget about the goal and focus on the rewards that are inherent in the journey.

(Are you hearing a favorite theme repeated in here?)

Of course, I easily forget this like everyone does, and I need reminders and encouragement to refocus and enjoy the process. But if I know it’s not about a personal victory at the finish line far out there on the horizon somewhere, maybe I won’t need quite so many reminders.

Also, while community is often essential to continuing on the journey, we can’t allow ourselves to get too focused on feedback. Like Bayles and Orland write in Art and Fear, others can’t tell whether you’re making progress or if you’re doing what you should merely by looking at a finished product. They frequently don’t know or care what went into your work because they only see the tip of the iceberg. Our focus on process must respect that we’re in a relationship with our process. And our true work is protecting, preserving and promoting that over all else.


In the beginning and in the middle of the journey, we must be more focused on process over product. We must make room to let go of our obsession with the end goal to see the little details at our feet. Finished pieces will not define our work. The goal is not producing anything; the goal is awakening, being more aware with every day and becoming more alive. Living with this focus more of the time will produce a continually improving string of works.

With greater awareness of the mechanics of your process, seeing what others too easily miss will become easier. It will be your advantage over the more common crafters. Practicing this presence of mind will increase your insight into what others miss, revealing undetected inaccuracies, omissions, faults in logic, form and structure that a less-focused artist miss by relying on what he thinks he already knows about creating.

To gain a relationship with your process is to gain your true reward.

Pay attention to it. And count it as the true goal to be celebrated. Because that will never be more vital, nor will anything you ever produce be more rewarding.

Practicing this will grow in habitual awareness, and inevitably to ever greater progress.

Acknowledge the oppositions of distraction and frustration, and make progress anyway. Everyone struggles. Everyone faces derailments specific to them. But those who face them and learn how to not quit succeed.

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them you need only to see your work clearly—without judgment, without need of fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs—not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.” – David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Be always on the way and you’re already there.

Never arrive.

For the Higher Purpose,


A special thanks to my amazing friend Tina Howard for the gift of Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland