Creative dismay

I would also have accepted ‘depression’ and ‘despair’, but dismay with its roots in the Latin exmagare “divest of power or ability” seems so much more fitting.

It’s a melancholic thing, I’m sure; and it goes in cycles: first the inspiration, striving to obtain the ideal. This effort is rewarded with success, and success is very pleasing but the ideal is still not obtained. Time passes and we feel the need to achieve success again in some small measure, but this time the effort is not inspired. All we can do is attempt to repeat the previous work as though following a formula, thinking “I’ve done it before, I can do it again”.

But it doesn’t work. You can’t repeat your success because you weren’t aiming for success in the first place, you were aiming for the ideal. Success for its own sake is no ideal. So there you are: both past success and inspiration fading away, increasingly desperate to resurrect some measure of that lost energy, and all you can do is create half-a-dozen scribbled ideas, attempts at writing that might seem plausible in theory but in practice only fill you with a sense of dismay – divested of power, inspiration, success, and the ideal.

The problem lies in trying to seize for ourselves the source of our creativity when in reality it cannot be controlled or held. Our work might be ‘creative’, but our role in the creative process is ultimately a receptive one. As the Yi Jing states:

There is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles [Creative and Receptive]. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand as an equal side by side with the Creative, does it become evil. The result then is opposition to and struggle against the Creative, which is productive of evil to both.

You can receive inspiration and follow ideals; you cannot create inspiration or lead an ideal. This creative dismay is a symptom of trying to lead the creative, to push and manipulate inspiration, typically in aid of some transient external goal. These transient external goals such as the desire to succeed, the fear of losing momentum in one’s work, the enjoyment of having one’s work published and read by an audience – they are ultimately vain and empty if there is nothing deeper to sustain them. To pursue success without ‘inner truth’ is a hopeless cause, as Confucius in his commentary on the Yi Jing notes:

The superior man abides in his room. If his words are well spoken, he meets with assent at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! If the superior man abides in his room and his words are not well spoken, he meets with contradiction at a distance of more than a thousand miles. How much more then from near by! Words go forth from one’s own person and exert their influence on men. Deeds are born close at hand and become visible far away. Words and deeds are the hinge and bowspring of the superior man. As hinge and bowspring move, they bring honor or disgrace. Through words and deeds the superior man moves heaven and earth. Must one not, then, be cautious?

Dismay may signal the loss of creativity, but it also shows the path of return. By accepting the experience of dismay as a source of inspiration, we return to the role of the receptive principle, devoting ourselves once again to the role of the follower, devoted to the movements of creativity however it may lead.

Yet it is worth remembering how this whole lesson came about: through the superficial and ultimately vain desire to once again succeed at writing, coupled with the fear of losing momentum, becoming unproductive, and falling behind. These fears and desires have never before instigated success in my writing. Desperation has had little bearing on inspiration. It is important therefore to remain objective about writing: both the process and the prospects. To go two or three weeks without an article will not be the end of the world; at the same time a hurried and desperate composition might even detract from my existing body of work. At the same time, I should not ignore the deeper suspicion that the writing I am currently doing may not be the final direction of my work.

On this the opinion of the Yi could not be clearer:

The cock is dependable. It crows at dawn. But it cannot itself fly to heaven. It just crows. A man may count on mere words to awaken faith. This may succeed now and then, but if persisted in, it will have bad consequences.

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