One of the worst demons of creativity

Len WilsonCreativity, Writing4 Comments

S  o, I’m writing a book about creativity. It’s official – here’s a shot of the contract, above.

It’s due February 15, but I don’t think I’m going to last that long. The topic is burning hot right now. I’ve been writing like crazy. Most of my recent posts on this blog were scheduled in June, so I could lock myself in a closet and focus on this new thing.

It’s mostly been going well. I have about 20,000 words constructed and another 6,000 words sitting in bins waiting to be compiled. The interesting thing is that I am living what I am writing.


This morning I blew Should back to hell. (And, being a demon of creativity, that’s where it belongs.) At least I hope I did, though it may come back at an opportune time.

Should is a vicious one. I have been so bound by Should for so long that to continually, with every new chapter, separate what I think I am supposed to say versus what I want to say is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Here’s what I am learning:


Creativity never happens when Should is nearby.

Here’s how nasty Should is: As soon as I name it, it shapeshifts into a false righteousness that tries to convince me that to dismiss its arguments is narcissistic, selfish and even somehow unchristian. It tries to tell me that it knows best.

It happened this morning as I put my attention on one of the more vague chapters of my book.

A bit of backstory: I am writing to an outline. While the thoughts in the book are three years in gestation, the outline for their construction mostly follows a chapter outline I submitted as a proposal (which led to the contract above). When my thoughts begin to cross pollinate into various chapters and create a jungle, as they often do, the way I cut through is to return to my chapter map.

The chapter map is my first flyover, an aerial view of the dense undergrowth that I plan on tackling. As I land and enter the forest, I create a second, more detailed map. In this map, which I do in Evernote, I put in every note I’ve acquired on the topic, whether through late night flash and scribble, marking from a book I’ve read, song lyric, or what have you.

Sometimes this acquisition process sorts itself out: in the process of compilation, I see the path I need to take. But today’s chapter was a chest high tangle of vine. Precious little of it made any sense.

At first I was stumped, then frustrated. I walked away from my computer for about 30 minutes, then came back. Elmore Leonard’s editing wisdom came to mind: Cut out the boring parts. I felt conflicted; most of it was boring, but yet I kept fighting the idea that I needed to include it.

That’s when I realized what was happening. It was Should working on me again. I closed my the entire chapter’s worth of notes and created a new page.

Rather than starting with someone else’s thoughts, or even my thoughts from a previous day, I began with what mattered right now, in chapter 8 of the book, having just finished chapters 0 – 7, and knowing what needed to happen next. I wrote out a single sentence, looked at it, then decided I liked it as the premise of the chapter. Here is the premise, just as I wrote it:

Point of chapter: The power of a creative mind isn’t in seeking more precise solutions. It is in asking better questions, like Galileo. (J4, 216)

The reference is to my fourth journal, page 216. I must have written something there that pertains, so I’ll look that up later.

When I created that sentence, what to do next became clear: I should start with a specific anecdote about our tendency to immediately evaluate, and how this kills creativity. When I nailed that thought down then I knew I was ready to write the chapter – the whole thing needs to be built on the encouragement to be comfortable withholding evaluation and with the mystery of multiple possibilities.

We’ll see what happens. Tomorrow I may decide this all stinks, but today, at least, it’s clear enough to turn into a blog post. Perhaps it will be helpful to you. One thing, though, is certain: The thing I will continue to have to fight with every new idea, chapter and work is the demon of Should. It’s the demon that tries to tell me to answer some phantom critic with my writing. The older I get, the more I hate this demon’s guts.

To separate what I think I am supposed to say versus what I want to say is one of the hardest things I have ever done.
With each new chapter, I need to shoo him away, and look for the essence as I see it: not what someone else said, or even what I said some time ago, but what matters right now.

Lists on creativity technique don’t do much for me anymore. I used to tweet them a lot, but I quit. It isn’t about using the correct journal or drinking enough water or finding the right coffeehouse, or even about doing it every day, or any of those things people talk about. Such tactics are all well and good, I suppose, but creativity, as I am discovering, is about ruthlessly killing the demons, one of the worst of which is Should.


About the Author

Len Wilson

4 Comments on “One of the worst demons of creativity”

  1. Great word. “Should” is even ineffective when used as a device for goading us to combate procrastination. “Should” we even use it at all? Should bites. Obligation is never as much fun as genuine interest anyway.

  2. When I hear “should” I translate that as “theory” and say that is the theory. Remember, even a book is nothing more than theory fleshed out with argument and evidence, but still theory.

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