Creative Killing Fields

Be ruthless in the protection of your dreams, even the most gentle critic wields a sharp knife.

Writers must protect their dreams and ideas from even the most gentle critic
Photo by Stanze via Flickr

Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. ― Suzy Kassem

What bodies lie at your feet? If I had to guess, I’d say you’re a stone-cold killer, sometimes shoving the blade in yourself yet also complicit in murderous conspiracies. It’s okay – I have blood on my hands as well. Somewhere, there’s a graveyard where the bones fearfully whisper my name, remembering massacres and weeping over witnessed brutalities.

So what’s your body count? Mine must number in the thousands. Itinerant daydreamer, unrepentant fabulist…lover of imagined possibilities and fanciful tales told by the campfire – a million inspirations have died by my hand. Most of them were mine, but I’ve no doubt my destruction leaked out to those around me. It was never intentional, but it was always lethal.

That’s the thing about assuming the mantle of practicality and reason. When you abandon the rose-colored glasses and face the world unobstructed by optimism, hope, and wonder, it’s hard to resist pulling the trigger and clearing the field of all the zombie projects, wild fantasies and barely gestated creative fancies.

We are all murderers, and though we might not be able to control our destructive impulses, we shouldn’t voluntarily step in front of the firing squad.

In other words, we should protect our nascent creative ideas from the vagaries and cruelties of the real world.

“You know how they say you only hurt the ones you love? Well, it works both ways.” 
― Chuck PalahniukFight Club

The other day I had to explain to a friend why people are often eager to share their troubles in a relationship. Everyone can commiserate when it comes to love gone wrong. It feels safe to share because you know you’ll be understood and comforted,

But love gone right? Well, that’s personal and idiosyncratic. What makes Cupid sing for me might leave you cold.

The quickest way to douse the fire of romance is mockery and derision.

We intuitively know to shield those insubstantial moments that whir and buzz in our heart, but we are often cavalier with our creative infatuations. Many of my book and film and poem ideas shrivel on the vine. Sometimes it’s because of my own ruthlessness or inattention, but plenty never got the chance to take root – pruned without ceremony by the (sometimes) well-meaning concerns voiced by an ill-chosen confidant.

“You want to do what?” they ask skeptically. “Hmm…sounds (strange) (weird) (dumb)”

You get the point…

Then the winds stop cold in your sails. You flounder in a sea of doubt. You begin to wonder – maybe your idea wasn’t so great after all.

All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
 – Simon & Garfunkel

I understand how a jolt of inspiration can propel you into incautious ebullience. I’ve overshared many times. I always regret it, but I can’t say I’ve quite learned the lesson.

Recently I watched a fantastic documentary about Simon and Garfunkel’s historic concert in Central Park. Seeing the crowd sing along to “The Boxer,” I glimpsed a young man with a full leg cast. Leaning on his crutch, eyes closed, face lost in ecstasy (and surely feeling the contact high), he epitomized the exuberant wonder incongruously overtaking those typically sarcastic, suspicious New Yorkers. Immediately a short story fell about my shoulders. I pondered this pre 9-11 metropolis and mulled over what it meant to be there in that park that night, surrounded by neighbors and strangers,  linked together in this one – dare I say it? – transcendent moment.

A few days later, when I told a friend about this short story idea, she dismissed it out of hand.

“I don’t see how that would be compelling at all,” she quickly shot back.

Boom. Pow. Bang. Those delicate imaginings were dispensed with all the cold precision of an assassin taking out a mark.


“In quiet moments you overflow with excitement at the golden possibilities that stretch endlessly before you,” writes Sarah Ban Breathnach about that moment of magical creative conjuring. “Because happiness is the most difficult emotion to bear alone, you confide your dream to your partner, best friend, lover, sister, mother, children. Their lack of enthusiasm hits you at point-blank range.”

Please be careful about confiding your sacred dreams,” pleads Ban Breathnach, “especially in the first trimester after creative conception – the period that Sören Kierkegaard called ‘dreaming consciousness prior to creating.’”

“Undermining your authenticity by succumbing to someone else’s second thoughts is a sinister, subtle, and seductive form of self-abuse,” she rightly concludes.

Stop the self-abuse and the emotional cutting. I know you think it will be different this time. I assure you, the murders will continue as long as you continue to present lambs to the slaughter.

The gods do not need sacrifices, so what might one do to please them? Acquire wisdom, it seems to me and do all the good in one’s power to those humans who deserve it.
― Apollonius of Tyana

When you feel the urge to share your delicate castles in the clouds, think very carefully about whom you use as a sounding board. Ultimately, our friends and family want us to succeed. Their criticisms come from a place of concern and a desire to protect us from the harsh realities of the world; maybe even from ourselves. But the same walls that give us shelter can quickly morph into a prison.

You want your ideas to run wild, to grow and adapt and evolve into something great and otherworldly. They needed to be nurtured and looked after. If you’re lucky enough to have an enthusiastic supporter of your creative efforts – the kind of person that would willingly tape your crayon drawings to their fridge – I envy you. Those special folks are rare.

I try to be an untethered and enthusiastic cheerleader myself, always alert for those moments when I might inadvertently shit on someone’s parade. I’m not perfect, but I’m trying my best to provide some counteraction to the dream killers and skeptics who’d love nothing more than throw the equivalent of a nuclear bomb into the center of any creative thought.

Currently, I’ve found myself cast in the role of an aggressive, laser-eyed hawk keeping watch over my incubating, barely embryonic projects and personal developments. I’ve been shocked at the amount of defense I’ve had to play these days. It’s left me wondering how I might change the narrative to avoid future roadblocks.

I’m meticulous about the personalities that surround me. I take their advice seriously because I know there’s no malice behind their words. But I’m beginning to see their insight isn’t necessarily reliable or helpful. Sometimes even the wisest among us are wrong.Sometimes the best advice comes at the wrong time or the wrong place.

Sometimes we have to trust our gut and hold our ground and proceed despite the warnings.

Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools and the rest of us are in great danger of contagion.
― Thornton Wilderad 

What I’ve concluded is that “best” is subjective. Ultimately, I need to feel confident in identifying what works for me, whether that’s a short story idea, an impromptu trip overseas or a new love interest. Whether my endeavors soar or plummet depends primarily on the energy and commitment I bring to the table.

As always, we are the captains of our creativity. When the wind dies on the sails, we pull out the oars. When the oarsmen revolt, we fashion an outboard motor. When we run out of gas, we harness a dolphin or just jump off and start swimming towards shore.

Because here’s the real truth…once we steel ourselves and step into the fray, the universe arrives with an army of defenders to push us forward. Take one step, they say, and divine providence will take the next 1000.

William Hutchinson Murray, who led the Sottish Himalayan Expedition team to the peak of Mount Everest in 1951 spoke about taking the leap of faith. “Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth,” he concluded, “the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.”

“All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

Or, as Cervantes writes in Don Quixote, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

Cover photo by Hebe Aguilera on Flickr


One thought on “Creative Killing Fields

  1. Beautifully composed, wow. The first paragraph “…whisper my name…weeping over witnessed brutalities…” Goodness, your word choice is inspiring & the content was deep. Thank you for giving me this to think about today 🙂

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