Don’t Try?

by tjbeitelman

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A while back, a former student of mine sent me this photo. He noted the irony — seeing as I’m such a big proponent of the opposite life strategy and all.

I’m not a huge fan of Bukowski, but I am a huge fan of my former student. He’s wise beyond his years, and he’s often given me food for thought, whether it’s through reading his stories and poems or having an extended conversation with him. So, given the source of the photo (if not the photo itself), I had the feeling there was a very important truth embedded in the “Don’t Try” message, even if it felt contradictory to other very important truths. I filed it away.

Fast forward. I recently watched an interview of a talented, successful young writer. The conversation turned to rejection and perseverance. The writer reported, with pride, that he’s collected over 20,000 rejection slips. He said he dutifully recorded each rejection in his notebook. Clearly this has worked for him. He’s well-published, making a name for himself. And it’s quantifiable proof of his relentless effort.

Do you want to know my first thought when I heard the number, though? Jesus. That’s a lot of counting. 

I surprised myself. It wasn’t the rejection that put me off. It was the counting.

While I’ve done more than my share of counting in my life, I think it’s the last thing my creative process needs right now.

Lately I’ve been feeling the need to counterbalance such relentlessness. That is, I’ve been feeling the need to surrender. I don’t mean the white-flag kind of surrender. I mean the kind of surrender that requires me to breathe and be still and trust. The kind of surrender that requires me to do one thing at a time, even (or especially) if that one thing has nothing to do with a quantitatively verifiable “creative project.” The kind of surrender that precludes counting or any other such calculations. The kind of surrender that requires me to think less and feel more. The kind of surrender that requires me to sometimes do nothing.

Honestly, that’s a scary place for me to be. (What if I don’t have anything to show for all this nothing, all this still and qualitative breathing and being and feeling?) But it’s liberating too. (You mean I don’t have to have anything to show for it?)

My hunch is there’s truth to be found in the space between these two seemingly separate modes.

My hunch is there’s truth to be found in closing the space between these two seemingly separate modes.

As my own definition of Try evolves and expands — beyond the process of making and into the process of simply being — my hunch is that, when it comes to having a whole, healthy, creative life, relentless effort and graceful surrender aren’t really separate modes at all. They’re symbiotic. I’ll need them both in equal measure.

Easy for me to say. Harder for me to do. Even harder for me to feel and trust. But it’s possible. Right?