How does creation happen?

Okay, folks; hang on tight: I’m going to go metaphysical on you today. I think I’ve located a fallacy within how writers think about creation, and I want to unpack it with you. This fallacy is relevant to all artists and everyone committed to transformation, of self or society, so even if you’re not a writer, come along for the ride.

When writers work, we imagine ourselves as the source of an idea or at least as the channel for inspiration. We identify closely with our idea; we generate text; we revise; we as authors are the dynamic moving the project forward. At the other end of our project, we imagine a publisher acting as a gatekeeper to an audience, who will read our work and be entertained or educated or transformed by it. We picture this timeline like this:



This understanding of the creative process leans heavily on chronology. Because this is the order in which a project unfolds and the direction a project moves (from writer to reader), it’s only logical we’d think this way.

The problem with using this framework to understand how exactly creation happens is that it places writer and reader in a dualistic dynamic. When we’re actually writing, our inspiration and motivation feel like an affirming force pushing against the denying force of the monolithic publishing industry or the vast, anonymous reading public. Rather than a beautiful unfolding, writing often feels like a battle:


Writer & Project                      vs                    Publisher & Reader

The battle metaphor may be an exaggeration, but every writer knows the constraints and push-back sensation of writing for an audience. Those writers who complete their projects often hit a wall; how can their creative endeavor reach fruition when it’s so hard to get published?

Years ago I heard Jane Yolen say that writers are responsible to three things, in this order of priority: First we’re responsible to the story, second we’re responsible to ourselves, and only lastly are we responsible to our audience. That little formula unlocked my creative life. It rearranged me, and I’m still being shaped by it. Yolen challenged me to shift how I think about these basic creative forces in a writer’s life. I imagine it like this:









Self                                                                       Audience

The equilateral triangle isn’t quite right; it really should be a spiral. But here’s the point: The story itself—the emergent life inside the inspiration—is a dynamic participant in the creative process. As writers, we need to honor our own interests, we need to tend our readers, but for something genuinely new to come into being, self and audience must serve something beyond themselves—the story. The new arising from this dynamic is a transformative, transforming creative project. Not necessarily published. Not necessarily successful in the eyes of the literary community or our market economy. But something alive.

What exactly is the story? Mystery, a willful presence wanting to be born, the generative spark, a pressing need. The story is born of the Muse or Spirit or our collective unconscious; it is of us and beyond us, and when we serve the story we enter a creative dynamic much bigger than any one person or project. What do we have to lose from changing the orientation of our creative energy? Ego gratification. What do we have to gain? Genuine creation.

In my book, it’s worth it.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Deep gratitude toward Cynthia Bourgeault for her teachings on the trinity and Gurdjieff’s Law of Three.


Coming up this fall:

The Revision Revival:
A Celebration of Transformation & Writing

What’s the most dynamic, surprising, and spiritually expansive part of writing?  Revision!  Come hear testimonials about this oft-maligned stage of writing and how deeply writers’ lives can be changed by it.  We’ll gain insight into revision techniques and celebrate revision’s potential to open every writer’s heart, no matter the level of experience. Susan Power, P.S. Duffy, Kyoko Katayama, Vanessa Ramos, and others will share stories and readings, and we’ll celebrate the publication of Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice with Skinner House Books.  Refreshments will be served.

November 17, 7:00-8:30 at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.  The event is free, but please register here.

Revision Opportunities for Writers
New and Experienced

For those skeptical about the joys of revision, I am posting weekly revision exercises on my Facebook page starting through the fall.  Give them a try!  I also reflect on revision and writing in general as a spiritual practice at the beginning of each month on my blog.

Want to explore revision’s possibilities? I’m offering a day-long introductory workshop at the Loft Literary Center, “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice,” on October 27 from 10-4.

For committed writers willing to open their hearts and drafts to new possibilities, “Alone Together:  Living Revision” is a week-long immersion up at the Madeline Island School of the Arts from October 2-6, 2017. Can’t make it this year? Next year’s dates are September 24-28, 2018.

Spiritual Memoir offerings

September 30, 9 a.m.-12:  Writing the Sacred Journey: An Introductory workshop at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

  • Spiritual memoir is the practice of listening deeply to our life experiences through the creation of artful, true stories.  We come more alive when we accept how our experiences have formed us and when we form something of what we’ve experienced.  By writing memories with intention, we can find holiness in the details, patterns that unify our sense of self, and deep personal healing.  By crafting our stories to engage the inner life of readers, we can participate in transforming our world.

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

  • September 8: Courage and Truth-telling.  “Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth,” Audre Lorde wrote, “and that is not speaking.”  Memoir writing is essentially truth-telling.  We’ll learn techniques to facilitate courageous honesty on the page—and in life.
  • October 13: Mysticism.  Mystical experiences confound us.  We’ll explore literary tricks that help us receive, integrate, recreate, and see the broader context of these encounters with the Ultimate Other.
  • November 10: Holy Sexuality.  We’ll venture into the realm of sexuality—desire, identity, energy, relationship, pain, pleasure—as a holy, life-giving source.  What do sexual experiences teach us about divine movement?  How can we write these with gentleness, honesty, and reverence?
  • December 8: The World Boiled Down to a Drop.  Zora Neale Hurston wrote of one character,“She was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”  We’ll explore the holographic nature of memoir:  Our small stories contain big truths. How can we reconstitute memories on the page so they hold both the vast universe and our beloved particulars?

September 25, 2017:  Talk on memoir at LEAFS, the Life Enrichment Adult Forum, Christ Lutheran Church, Blaine, MN.

October 25, 2017, 6:30:  An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.

2 thoughts on “How does creation happen?”

  1. Thank you so much for this perspective Elizabeth! I replaced the word “Activist” with Writer in your post and it has given me a very rich and deep way to understand the Creation that happens in the realm of social change, and how I can best prioritize the use of my energy in this ongoing process.

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