Creativity is clearing space to welcome the unknown


There’s an axiom that all successful people know, from artists to entrepreneurs to winning coaches: never let yourself be daunted by the scale of your ambition or the audaciousness of a goal. Instead, do what you can do today, as well as you can do it. And do the same tomorrow, and the next day. Think as little as possible—or never—about the actual goal. Championships aren’t won by obsessing over the championship game. They are won by focusing on being the best individual on the best team in every moment of every game.

I need to remind myself of this today, heading into the fourth-plus year of working on my novel. Looking over what I’ve got, what has already been thrown away, and how far I still have to go (which actually seems farther than when I started, if that makes any sense), it’s too easy to become intimidated by the undertaking. I’m finally understanding a little of what Don Quixote must have felt, and why that story has such universal appeal. Fortunately, I have Rilke with me this morning, whispering in my ear.

“Just as the Winged Energy of Delight” has long been one of my close companions. Whenever it calls to me, it awakens another insight. Today, I see that the winged energy of delight carried me across the chasm of the first and second (and third) drafts of my novel. And now it’s time to be daring, to build a solid, even astonishing, foundation beneath it. It’s not about defeating danger in some heroic act, but courting miracles through dedicated, daily work. Clear achievement has to be earned.

I cannot always rely on being carried along. This is the time when patterns have become denser and denser, hard to discern, clogged, heavy with overwork, neglect, or mistaken assumptions.

And so I must take my well-disciplined strengths and stretch them between two opposing poles. Here, Rilke is speaking to the whole idea of discipline, how it can harden, demand, and suck the life out of a creative process, which is by nature delicate, elusive, fresh, original.

How freeing it is to release certainty and court possibility, because is quiets all the voices of knowing experts that drown out everything else. Maybe it’s possible to get used to being in the uncertainty. It’s almost a relief when the default becomes I don’t know. Having to be certain all the time is incredibly exhausting. And it leads directly to doubting myself because the certainty is built on such a flimsy scaffold—on air, as Rilke’s first lines have it, not on the stone of arches that must come after the first blush of excitement and certainty wears off. As it inevitably does in any worthwhile project.

The unknowing goes really deep. When I’m comfortable being in the unknowing, I’m used to trusting intuition. I can practice that. I don’t know clears a huge space for something to enter from a very deep place. As soon as it enters, I recognize it as something valuable and viable with a lot of potential. I can trust it.

I tend to want to know and order and control. To follow the rules, keep things neat and tidy, by the book. A lot of that was probably conditioned into me by my education, my parents and peers. Some of it is a coping mechanism to manage the anxiety of uncertainty. But uncertainty only produces anxiety under a story that says it’s to be avoided, that it’s up to no good. I choose the story that Rilke tells me, to make my heart a place where God can learn, where something new and original can be born. This feels like parting a curtain, moving an old, conditioned way of being—strong and disciplined—out of the center, to make space for the unknown, to invite the Mystery.

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