Playing it safe is a ticket to mediocrity in art and in life

2.27.16_marsh_620wI was driving last Wednesday night during a sudden violent thunderstorm, first on the highway and then on city streets unable to handle the epic volumes of water flow. It was a terrifying, white-knuckle experience, especially as I had someone else’s child in my backseat. I was thankful for the traffic, so I could gauge the depths of the fast-running streams that crossed every intersection. Give me a snowstorm any day.

That intimidation feels familiar. It’s been with me all week, as I continue to work on my novel. I keep thinking I’m not up to it and finding other things to occupy my time. I’ve never been afraid of hard work—especially when I’m on a roll. This project is calling me to let go, to let the writing take me where it will. And yet I’m afraid I can’t pull this off. That all these years of work will have been for naught. It seems the more I learn about craft, the bar gets higher and the finish line farther away.

I have a lifelong habit of trying to play it safe. To keep one foot in the socially accepted, known world, while trying to explore the unknown with the other. This is not a recipe for revelation. The 50/50 stance is too static, making movement impossible. I can’t plan and talk my way to a completed novel. Writing is the only way to get there.

I have rewritten scenes so many times already, I torture myself with impossible tasks. I feel tremendous pressure to get this version right, to avoid having to rewrite it yet again, or the damn thing will never get finished. There is an element of truth to this, but from the perspective of softening into it, of letting go, rather than clinging and trying to control it. This is the lesson I am being guided to learn—to trust and let go.

Writing into that void and pouring out my heart is frightening. I don’t like being so vulnerable. I wonder, What if nobody reads it? Or likes it? My writing partner points out the insidious logic used by the ego, under the guise of self-protection. If I don’t give it my all and no one likes it, I’m safe, because I didn’t pour my heart out. Talk about a ticket to mediocrity. Playing it safe makes bad art, because people can smell inauthenticity from a mile away.

It comes back to the simple truth that the only way to climb a mountain is step by step, handhold by handhold. It is absurd to worry that writing this novel is beyond me, that I am not capable of pulling it off. Only I can pull it off! This is my writing! The only way to pull it off is by doing it. All these forms of resistance take me out of the creative flow.

Now I see that last Wednesday night was a cosmic joke! For all my worrying and whining about not being in the flow, here comes this storm with quite literal flowing water: running in the streets, sheeting across yards and parking lots, over curbs, through intersections, plowing in and rising up at storm drains like miniature tsunami. As if to say, I got your flow right here! It was but a tiny demonstration, a mere glimpse of what is always flowing and available to me, if I am willing to listen.

Real life is so wild.

And here I finally recognize how closely my main character’s journey parallels mine. At first, she relies on the squarely rational, prides herself on her diligence, looks for acceptance and belonging by following the rules, fitting in, excelling. Then, she has experiences and inklings of more—of the numinous, the Mystery—calling to her imagination. Next comes a period of denial, attempts to rationalize, to regroup and control. And more forays into the Mystery, listening to the voices of the natural world, which bring revelation, wonder, awe, and joy. Then again, fear, pulling back to negotiate the mainstream. It takes disruption, suffering, and loss finally to make the break and fall fully into the deeper, wider reality. From the outside, the culturally programmed rational mind sees this stage as hysteria and madness, depression or mania.

Once she lets go, her integration happens rapidly. She gives up trying to control and opens to the wisdom of her heart. I may be resisting writing to this point because I tell myself that I don’t yet know what that stage is like. But I do.

I am excited about this project, because this is the story, the hope for all of us. It is the hero’s and heroine’s journey back to true belonging, to our one home, the living earth. One of the conventional figures in these stories is always the wise mentor. Think Gandalf in King Arthur, Obi-Wan and Yoda in Star Wars. Somehow, that disrupting rainstorm the other day reminds me that our mentor is the living earth herself. Yes, she has her proxies, like the human mentor in my story. And also, hawk and wind and stream and storm—if only I pay attention, tune in with my senses and imagination. I can be mentored by butterfly and dragonfly. By poplar and deer and moonlight. By autumn and winter, night and sunrise. There is no limit to the mentors on offer, once you start to notice.

3 thoughts on “Playing it safe is a ticket to mediocrity in art and in life

  1. Did you write this just for me?

    I am all about that 50/50 dance, which in the end doesn’t get me where I want to go, where I need to go if I stand of chance of offering what I am meant to offer in this lifetime. Maybe my dad’s death with be the push I need to see the world anew. I am tripping over how the domestic side of life drains me, but I pray for fresh eyes and an open heart to see the world anew, to be present to the mystery, to the magic, to what is truly real and needs to be revealed.

    I honor what you are doing with all my heart. It is not for the weary!

    • So glad this resonates, Lisa. I often hesitate putting something so personal out there, but your comments are a great reminder that our journeys are not so unique as we might imagine. While fully recognizing that how we travel does have its personal aspects, writing is the best companion I have found.

  2. A beautiful lesson in finding strength for the journey through a difficult passage. Discovering mentors in Earth and human community, and maybe most especially, an inner teacher, inner mentor. The water flowing out there and also inside. What seems at first to be resistance, treacherous deep intersections, is actually invitation to let go and go with the flow.

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