I recently discovered that in the final fifteen years of his life, Leo Tolstoy was focused on collecting wisdom quotations and writing reflections on them. He wanted to surround himself with a “circle of reading” that would guide his attempt to live a good life. His A Calendar of Wisdom was banned in Russia after it was published in 1912 and was only made available in an English translation in 1997.
Learning of Tolstoy’s love of wisdom quotations and his creation of a book about them was oddly healing for me. This is because I spent a good deal of time from 2010 to 2014 working on the same kind of project, which resulted in my book The Inconceivable Surprise of Living: Sustaining Wisdom for Spiritual Beings Trying to Be Human. All the while I was writing reflections on wisdom quotations from throughout human history, I kept hearing the voice of doubt that is familiar to anyone who tries to follow the creative impulse: What are you doing? Who do you think cares about or wants this? Don’t you have something more practical to work on? Some of my doubting thoughts, like that last one, don’t even have enough deceny to clean up their act and avoid ending with a preposition! (That reminds me of a Winston Churchill quip I discovered while searching for quotes for Inconceivable Surprise: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put!”)
After learning of Tolstoy’s Calendar, I thought, Well, if Tolstoy considered such a project to be worth fifteen years of his life, I guess it’s OK that I spent four years on Inconceivable Surprise. Even while working on it, I didn’t fully trust the impulse for the project, because the voice of doubt kept making the creative signal fuzzy. I trusted the signal enough to finish the book, but it wasn’t until I learned that Tolstoy had felt the impulse to write a very similar book that I was able to fully honor my choice to write Inconceivable Surprise.
So here is what I consider the sine qua non of creativity: Trust that the creative impulse you are receiving is real! Without such trust, you cannot become the instrument that converts the signal into a gift for humanity. We must not allow the static of doubt to make us turn off the inner receiver of the signal.
Perhaps our relationship to creativity and doubt could be something like listening to a big sporting event on a radio that is barely picking up the broadcast. When the game is on the line, we put up with the static, huddling closer and closer until we’re almost pressing an ear against the radio.
The excitement of the the game of creativity makes it worth the effort to listen past the static of doubt.