A thing worse than envy
The costs of ignoring the creative urge
I was having dinner with a friend recently and talking about writing. She had done a great deal of it when younger, much more than me, but over the years writing had become traumatic for her.
Although I know that people don't necessarily describe their problems because they want a solution, I still can't quite help trying to find one. I kept making suggestions: prompts that worked for me, writing books I keep turning to, morning pages, that sort of thing.
"Why is it so important to you that other people write?" my friend asked me.
Her question made me pause. Now this I hadn't thought about.
Over the last couple of years I have become a little bit obsessed with creativity. In particular, I've become obsessed with the creative potential of people who for some reason or other have become blocked. Sometimes they've never thought of themselves as creative. Maybe they grew up in a family that considered the arts to be a waste of time. Maybe they (like me) believed the stupid stories so often told about genius, believed that unless they showed early signs of brilliance there was no point in even trying to make art.
Other frustrated artists have a wound instead of an absence. I have met these people too in my writing courses. They believed, once, in their own creative powers. But something happened along the way that made art too painful for them. Sometimes what hurt them was formal education, the casual cruelty of an MFA workshop or of "well meaning" mentors.
Then there is another category: people who knew they had some sort of potential but their circumstances meant that doing creative work in an honest way would be dangerous or impossible. When I was growing up in Toronto, nearly all the adults I knew in the Romanian diaspora were engineers. None of those engineers had wanted to become an engineer. Their true passions lay with history or literature or theatre. But Romania under Socialism wanted a lot of engineers, and it monitored art and art criticism carefully. In that context, practicing art, even as a hobby, was a difficult proposition. Some did it anyway. But I think the decision to refrain was a wise one for many people.
There are reasons both reasonable and unreasonable for not doing one’s chosen art. Either way, the effects are not good. You see, I think if people have an urge to be creative and they do not pursue it they will pay a price.
Now, I should mention that I understand creativity as broadly as possible here. Yes, I am most interested in writing, but the creative work might also be a business or a lab experiment or a new form of living. Engineering is creative too (obviously!), to those who are so inclined.
But ignore your creative urges and one of two things happens: you turn against yourself, or you turn against others.
What does this look like?
Let’s start with the first option: turning against yourself. I’ve known a few people in my life who were brilliantly, stunningly, effervescently creative, and who made too little space in their lives for that force. Maybe they had a hobby or two that could soak up some of the energy. Maybe they entered a job so demanding that they didn’t even have room for the hobbies anymore. Maybe they were scared of rejection. Either way, there was a mismatch between their need to make, express, and imagine and the way they were spending most of their daily hours.
These people did not blame others for this dissatisfaction, at least not outwardly. Instead, they criticized themselves — for not being something else altogether. They kept trying to be what their parents demanded from them. They kept measuring themselves by standards society had set up for someone else. It was like someone failing at a geometry question and trying to solve it with statistics. There was no way to win, because the math was wrong from the start.
People in this situation do a lot of avoiding. A lot of skirting around questions, a lot of self-distraction. News, internet, alcohol. There’s great pain in it, mostly for them. Those who love them suffer, but not nearly as much as they do.
Then there’s the second type: the people who make someone else pay for the creative life they’re not leading. Here, too, there are different potential causes. Maybe they don’t have the courage to do their art, or maybe they don’t have the stamina and resolution to do it as seriously as it deserves.
This is where it gets ugly.
We could talk about this as envy, but envy — resonant, ancient word that it is — is not quite right. What if we thought about it as the frustrated artist distributing their ache onto those near and far, trying to drag the world down to their level of pain, beginning with their closest friends and relatives? Put that way, it sounds a bit more like despair. A viral sort of despair.
How do creative people make others suffer for their own frustrations? Well, the first and most obvious thing people do is try to get others to stop doing their work. This can look like care, but it’s poison. It often comes in the form of practical-seeming advice: “nobody makes a living from acting,” or “that journal rejects everyone, it’s not worth trying.”
Sometimes they complain that they are being abandoned by the person doing their work, as though committing time to a creative pursuit were an unforgivable selfishness.
Very often, they nitpick. They like to share how unimpressed they are with the brilliant person everyone else admires. Or, if the art is flawless, they criticize irrelevant qualities, like how the artist looks or dresses. Or, they take the artist to court for some personal quirk or idealogical sin, and decide that the foible negates all of their good work. (This is the difference between legitimate criticism and mean-spirited carping — how much heart one has to acknowledge what is good.)
In the worst cases, frustrated artists try to destroy the people who are doing the work they wish they were doing. Lies, character assassination, targeted harassment are all part of their arsenal. They can indeed do damage to other people, but no amount of destruction will make them feel better about themselves. Because they have still not done their own work, and done it well.
Finally, there are blocked creative people who simply resort to making trouble. All ‘round destruction, generalized chaos. It won’t solve the problem, but it will distract everyone, most of all themselves. There’s a great section in Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art on this point: “We get ourselves in trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame.”
Pressfield’s book is about the power of subconscious resistance to keep us from doing our most meaningful work, and much of its value comes from its fine-grained descriptions of the ways “Resistance” works. It’s a book I reread regularly, because, although it is quite short, I always find something new to chew on.
“Cruelty to others is a form of Resistance,” he writes, “as is the willing endurance of cruelty from others.” Here’s the rub — accepting the trouble others make is also a way of stifling the creative impulse.
And so this is why it is important to me that people write — if, that is, that is something they want to do, deep down. It’s not about the writing. It’s that I know that a person whose creative urges are unmet will destroy something. They will crush themselves, other people, the world around them, if that it was it takes to ignore the empty, hungry hole inside for one more day.
The reason I would rather not use the word “envy” for these destructive urges is that envy can be an inspiring, productive, yes, even creative emotion. Envy, read rightly, can tell us precisely what is important to us, what kind of life we want to live. It can spur us to new efforts. Envy can be a good teacher, if we are willing to learn from it.
I’ve made some of my best decisions by paying attention to what and whom I truly envied. And I’ve also found that doing the work I love magically dissipates a great deal of my envy. Not all of it — I’m no angel — but the worst kind of envy has no place to bite when I’m busy making something. I’m too much of a moving target.
As always, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. What do you do with your blocks and your envy? And if you don’t have them, I want to know your secrets!
Thank you for reading this far,
In my April column for the TLS, I wrote about why it’s so difficult to write clearly and simply. And in my latest column, for May, I described some of the lessons improvisation holds for life in crisis.
If you want more on writing, keep your eyes open for a longer review of several books on writing (especially memoir), coming out next week at the Times Literary Supplement.
More TLS: a brief review of Susan Orlean’s book of essays on animals, and another of Sergio del Molino’s darkly playful exploration of psoriasis and the human condition.
As part of my fellowship at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto, I had the honour of delivering the yearly CBC JHI annual lecture. An edited version of the talk will air this Friday across Canada on CBC Ideas, and then appear on the website.