Resistance & Humility Feed Creativity

My column at First Things this week is all about the efficacy of the word “no” in our lives, and how deadening to the spirit and one’s own creative juices is can be to hear only praise, and no criticism:

Nothing quite so humbles as a tumble, and humility is often the deep place where creativity resides. When a successful artist or writer becomes so insulated from criticism that he never comprehends a failure, or when he has gone a decade or two without hearing the word “no” spoken in his direction, he has no friction, thus no traction; things become too easy. You hear an abundance of “yes” and very little “no,” and before you know it, you have nothing to say and no driving need to say it, so you coast on what you’ve done before. Think about it; what was the last great Steven Spielberg film? When was the last time Billy Joel of Stevie Wonder shouted out a tune you just couldn’t get out of your head?

There is an enormous irony to this piece. I wrote it in the wee small hours of Monday morning, and somehow, when I went to proofread it, I deleted the whole thing, and could not recover a word of it. At that point it was 1200 words — that’s a lot to recover. After weeping at my desk for a little while, I realized I was — in a way — facing a huge “no” and that I’d simply have to take it, (and “offer up” my frustration, too) and work hard trying to re-write the thing. It was like God saying, “put your money where your mouth is.”

The final copy ended up being better than the first, but I muttered at God quite a lot, “you think you’re so funny, O God of Ironies…”

Anyway, you can read it all here

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Liz

    I feel the need to defend Spielberg. He has done some great work recently – things like “Munich”, “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “True Grit”. (But, yeah, there are some real stinkers in his filmography.)

    The person who came to mind after reading that excerpt was Jonathan Franzen. I’ve always thought he’d do better if he had interests – any interests – outside of writing, and if editors, critics etc., would tell him hard truths.

  • Herkybird

    I feel your pain. Back in the ancient days of single-sided, single-density, 8-inch floppy disks, when CPM ruled the operating system world, I was putting the finishing touches on my Senior Thesis late one Sunday night when – needing just a little more disk space – I disabled the safety protocols so I could delete the ‘mirror file’ from the data disk thus freeing up the needed space. Instead I deleted the second chapter of my thesis and had to go ‘Dumpster Diving’ down in the basement of my apartment building to find enough wadded-up scraps of old drafts that I could retype the whole chapter before the paper was due the following Wednesday.

  • R&J

    I understand – just last evening I managed to delete 6 weeks worth of food chemistry lectures for a course I’m teaching at a local university. It was also a “put your money where your mouth is” moment for me: My husband and I were held up at gunpoint last weekend in our beautiful neighborhood in center city Philadelphia. As we’re starting to talk about this hellish incident, we realized that the little frustrations and irritations in life really should not consume us like they sometimes do, and are opportunities to offer something to God in thanksgiving for our lives. So when I realized what I did, I remembered our conversation.almost immediately. Of course, asking God for more like I typically do, I’m secretly praying my smart and wonderful husband will be able to retrieve the lectures!
    We love your writing Achoress!

    [Egad! I can't even imagine! _admin]

  • Mutnodjmet

    You guys are inspiring me to back-up my computer files today. Thanks. :)