Owning Your Creative Desires: If It Lights You Up, That's Reason Enough to Do It
Recently, I made a pretty major life decision: I decided to go back to school. In December, I’ll begin working toward my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
At first glance, that might not seem like a big deal. After all, people go to grad school every day, and it's reasonable that a writer would pursue a degree in creative writing.
But for me, this decision represented so much more than “going to grad school.” It validated my lifelong desire to devote myself to the art and craft of creative writing. And that has not been an easy feat.
Like any creative, I grapple with a variety of creative “demons.”
I often refer to these demons as the Inner Critic, but you might have another name for them.
No matter what you call it, you’re probably familiar with the Inner Critic. It’s the nasty voice inside your head that says your writing isn’t good enough, that your stories don’t matter, that there are better ways to spend your time than writing. It’ll be sure to remind you that you might never get published, that your writing might not make any difference to the world — and then it’ll ask you again: What’s the point?
Some people are less affected by these voices than others, and they manage to charge full steam ahead with their creativity in spite of whatever their Inner Critic has to say.
I am not one of those people.
For most of my life, I have grappled with perfectionism and with the idea that it’s my sole responsibility to save the world (whatever that means!).
These traits have made me extremely susceptible to the Inner Critic.
All it’s had to do is tell me that my writing isn’t as good as the standard of perfection in my head, or declare that my writing isn’t making as much of a difference as, say, volunteering at a local nonprofit or devoting my time to a political campaign, and I’d promptly drop the creative writing project in question like a proverbial hot potato. (Of course, that's not to say that volunteering isn't a valid use of one's time!)
My love for creative writing is strong enough that the Inner Critic never got me to drop it entirely. I’ve maintained a creative writing blog for nearly a decade, have worked for and been published in a variety of literary journals, have started writers’ groups in nearly every place that I’ve lived, and so on.
And I found ways to appease my Inner Critic: I write and edit all day every day for work, but because it’s paid, that seems to have satisified the need for my writing to be “valid” in some way. It’s also meant that I spent much of the last decade prioritizing other people’s writing projects over my own.
As an adult, I don’t think I’ve ever devoted myself wholly and completely to my art (until now), because I was so afraid of the cacophony of judgements that would crowd into my head the moment I declared my commitment to my own creative writing and made it a daily priority.
Which is why committing to my creative writing (by going to grad school) is such a big deal.
Making this decision has meant that I found the strength within me to accept the anticipated onslaught of internal judgements — and to pursue my passions anyway.
In the process, it’s required me to validate just how massive and aching and real those passions are in the first place.
I think the biggest thing that perfectionism, a savior complex, and the Inner Critic took away from me is the idea that simply wanting something makes it a valid force in your life.
Because I have been so susceptible to self-judgement, I’ve spent most of my life denying myself the things that I want the most. I put anything I wanted through a harsh screening process — and if it seemed self-serving or wasn’t “practical” or didn’t overtly make the world a better place, I’d nix it from my list of priorities.
In retrospect, this was probably a defensive mechanism: By not allowing myself to go after the things that I deeply wanted, I inoculated myself from the anticipated pain of not being successful in those pursuits.
What it has taken me a long time to realize is that I also inoculated myself from the pleasure of pursuing something that I love.
I have had a hard time validating pleasure for pleasure’s sake,in part, because for a long time I feared that letting myself feel the joy of realizing my deepest passions might make me selfish — might turn me away from caring for the world. And I feared the loss that is an inevitable component of loving anything.
What I am coming to realize is that denying myself these pleasures hasn’t made me a more effective agent of social change, nor has it made me feel more emotionally secure.
It’s just made me feel kind of hollow and sad and depleted of energy.
For decades, this has been one of my favorite quotes:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” - Howard Thurman
I’ve preached it to other people and I’ve meant every bit of that preaching. But I haven’t always lived up to it myself, because for a while, at a subconscious level, I think I believed that I was the only person in the world for whom this idea didn’t apply.
But the changes I’ve experienced since enrolling in the MFA program are making me reevaluate this stance.
When I got the offer of acceptance from my chosen school, I started crying, and then my hands started shaking. It was a purely involuntary response, and to me it represented the fact that something inside of me was shaking loose from its constraints — something inside of me finally felt free.
That something was my desire to write creatively, unfettered by the strict parameters and judgements of the Inner Critic.
In realizing the intensity of this desire, I’ve also developed more respect for it. I see and feel how important it is to me, and I am choosing to validate that importance.
As predicted, the Inner Critic has also had something to say.
Since I enrolled, the Inner Critic has made its displeasure known.
I’ve had a massive flare-up of internal judgements. I’ve dealt with the usual range of doubts around whether this is a “reasonable” thing to spend money on, whether other people are going to judge me or think I’m silly for getting an MFA, whether I'm a hack or a fraud, and whether my writing and my desire to write actually matter.
But I’m also able to recognize these doubts for what they are — the fearful ramblings of the Inner Critic, who is a bit anxious and overwhelmed by how much I’m rocking the boat.
That’s it. That’s all these doubts are: a predictable response of the human mind.
They’re not the authority on my personal experience. They’re not “the Truth” with-a-capital-T. They’re not something that I have to act on.
Where my responsibility actually lies is with the thing that lights me up. Because the world needs more people who are lit up, and because my life (and my capacity to contribute to the world) is better when I am.
So consider this my public declaration:
I am devoted to nurturing my own creative writing now and for the rest of my life, no matter what my Inner Critic has to say about it.
I turned this declaration into a blog post because…
I know I’m not the only writer or creative who struggles with these kinds of doubts and internal criticisms.
What I hope for anyone reading this is that you take a few minutes, right now, to validate your own creative desires — whatever they may be.
No matter whether you desire to journal every day or to write the next New York Times bestseller, I hope you don’t let your Inner Critic stand in your way.
I hope you affirm the value of your creativity and your creative desires, because doing so will provide you with the power you need to feed those desires (even when your schedule is crammed or the Innner Critic is judging its head off).
When the Inner Critic inevitably rears its head, consider contextualizing those judgements for what they are: The predictable ramblings of the human mind, and/or a well-intentioned effort to keep you safe by keeping you in a box.
Then remind yourself that your creativity is worthwhile, that your stories matter, and that the fear that comes along with creative devotion is second to the joy.
Even if the only thing your writing does is light you up, that’s reason enough to do it.
In the process, I’m confident that you will make the world a brighter place.
Do you feel like you own your creative desires? If not, what’s getting in the way?