The Myth of Creative Bliss: How I learned to make Resistance an ally, not an enemy

This is a guest blog post I wrote for Hypable:

Tackling a creative project is exciting and full of promise, but once we begin, the challenges and self-doubt we encounter can often derail the best of intentions. But once we identify Resistance, and recognize it as part of the creative process, we become more empowered to meet our creative goals. 

rebelgeniusInto the Unknown: From Animation to Publishing

In December of 2014, the series finale of The Legend of Korra aired. After more than a decade spent breathing life into the Avatar universe, I decided to step away from my nearly twenty-year career in animation and transition onto a new creative path, one that was unfamiliar and uncertain: I planned to write my first novel.

I already had the concept: art as magic. And I had ten years’ worth of notes, ideas, and character sketches to pull from. I planned to call on my own experience as an artist to tell a story in which a group of young artists would set off on a high-stakes adventure, confronting dangerous creatures and villains along the way. With my intention clear, I couldn’t wait to get started. I envisioned myself blissfully writing for hours, lost in this new fantastical world. Each morning, I fired up my computer, sipped my coffee, and sat down to write. But those blissful moments? They were elusive and impossible to sustain.

Instead, I found my breath shortening, my heartbeat quickening, and my body tensing. Rather than joy, I was met with its opposite: anxiety (and its cousin, overwhelming self-doubt). Why did I ever leave animation? I asked myself. Who was I to think I could write a book? My writing is awful, I told myself over and over. No one is going to want to read this crap.

Shaking Hands with Resistance

I’d felt that unease before, but because I was trying something new, the anxiety stabbed more sharply and forcefully. After reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, I learned this feeling has a name: Resistance. It is the embodiment of all our anxieties and self-doubts. It’s the voice that insists we’re not good enough or smart enough or creative enough.

And that voice can be loud. At times, deafening.

But when I put a name to Resistance, I found I could lessen its power. I couldn’t make it go away entirely, and as it turned out, I didn’t want to. Resistance became an essential part of my creative process. Identifying it helped illuminate what would become the theme of my book: How through creative acts, we have the power to transform ourselves and society.

Rebel Genius as metaphor for the creative process

In the Renaissance-inspired world of Rebel Genius, we meet an aspiring artist named Giacomo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the sewers underneath the city of Virenzia. One night, after surviving a violent attack, Giacomo discovers that he has a Genius — a birdlike creature that acts as his protector and muse. At first, Giacomo is thrilled to have his own Genius, but immediately panic sets in. Because in Giacomo’s society, there is only one artist who is allowed to have a Genius — the empire’s leader, the authoritarian Supreme Creator.

Giacomo is discovered by three other children who also have Geniuses and they bring him to a secret studio where he studies with an old, blind artist. Giacomo learns how to use his Genius to tap into the energy in the universe and manifest it into powerful, glowing shapes.

He also discovers he has a unique ability to access a potent creative source called the Wellspring. In Rebel Genius, the Wellspring is the primordial ooze of creation and the source of all that we taste, smell, touch, see, and hear. When Giacomo accidentally opens it the first time, he is met with a maelstrom of foul odors, deafening booms, and freezing winds. Fearing its power, Giacomo steers clear of the Wellspring, though over the course of the book, he learns more about it and how to gain some control over it. Metaphorically, the Wellspring represents the creative process – a swirling cacophony of sound and color that an artist must learn to tame.

After realizing the scope of his talents, Giacomo has a unique insight into the location of the first of three Sacred Tools – powerful objects that have the potential to create or destroy. But when he is asked to go on this quest, Giacomo balks. He doesn’t think he’s ready. He’s inexperienced, unsure of himself, and full of anxiety.

Sound familiar?

Trust the process

Living a creative life means we will inevitably have to embrace uncertainty. When we embark on a new creative project (or a new adventure, like Giacomo), it is because we have a burning desire to know something or to discover something about ourselves and the world we live in. But when we set out, we have only a vague idea where we are headed. We may have a destination in mind, but achieving that goal can often feel daunting and overwhelming. Maybe it’s safer to sit out the journey, we tell ourselves.

And if we do muster up the courage to take those first steps on the creative path, you can be sure that Resistance will be lurking around every turn. It will try to frighten you away from your dreams. Giacomo faces vicious creatures and cunning villains on his adventure, which causes him to question himself and whether the goal he seeks is worth the cost. That’s his form of meeting Resistance.

For me, Resistance appeared with each sentence and at the start of every chapter. Some days I was able to fight past the Resistance and write pages I was satisfied with. Other times, Resistance won and I had to regroup and come back to fight it again the next day.

I realized there is no shortcut around the anxiety (believe me, I looked). Any time we forge into the unknown, it is impossible to predict what will happen, so there is bound to be fear. We have no idea if Resistance is going to trounce us, or we will subdue it. In order to continue creating, we have to trust that no matter how hard Resistance tries, it won’t prevail in the long run.

Finishing the book and seeing the first printed copy of it was a proud moment. I felt like I had weathered Resistance and won, or at least survived. But the war isn’t over. Rebel Genius is the first book in a series and a few weeks after completing it, I settled in to tackle the sequel. And sure enough, my old nemesis, Resistance, was waiting for me once again.

But this time, I’m more prepared for it. And even though my writing day is still fraught with self-doubt, I try not to let Resistance get the better of me. My intention is keep moving forwards on this new creative path. I’ll face Resistance whenever it appears and remind myself that the reason it’s there is because I’m venturing into new, creative territory.

And that is exactly where I want to be.

Aside

Legend of Korra: Book 2 Comes to a Close

It was a long, at times difficult journey, but here we are at the end of Book 2: Spirits.

It’s hard to believe, but we wrote the scripts for Book 2 roughly between May, 2011 and May, 2012. We didn’t mix the last episode of Book 2 until Nov. 11, the monday before the show went up on Nick.com. We don’t usually cut it that close, but it was really down to the wire on this round of episodes.

It’s a relief to finally have Book 2 complete and out in the world. (And if you haven’t seen it all, there will be spoilers below…)

Cosmic korra

What I’m most proud about in Book 2 is how much we were able to explore the Spirit World and spirituality in general. I want to tell stories that are entertaining, but also enlightening in some way.

Everyone gleans different lessons and nuggets of wisdom from the show, so I don’t mean this as the end-all for what Book 2 is about.  But looking back on this past season, there’s one big take-away for me:

Even though we identify as human beings, we have the potential to tap into something beyond our human forms.

Both Korra’s story and Wan’s story are about humans moving beyond their ordinary abilities, and becoming something extraordinary. Wan used his cunning, bravery, and wisdom to move beyond his humanness, ultimately fusing with Raava to become the first Avatar. And Korra, when she loses her connection to the past Avatars and her Avatar spirit, looks deep within herself and forms a new connection with the cosmic version of herself. When Korra is at her lowest point, Tenzin tells her: “The most powerful thing about you is not the spirit of Raava, but your own inner spirit. You have always been strong, unyielding, and fearless” and that Wan became a legend “because of who he was, not what he was.”

In Hindu philosophy, there is a concept called Atman, which is defined as the “innermost essence of each individual” or “the supreme universal self.” This is my interpretation of what Korra sees and becomes when she meditates. The giant blue Cosmic Korra is a visual representation of her inner essence.

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With this episode, I wanted to show how any one of us has the ability to tap into that cosmic, more-than-human version of ourselves and expand past the possibilities of what we think we’re capable of.

We can all be the Avatar in our own lives.

In Hindu mythology, Shiva takes many different forms. Sometimes he’s destructive, sometimes meditative, other times benevolent. I think of Korra like that. Most of her life she has been in warrior mode, but she is learning that, depending on the situation, she can take other forms.  In our own lives, we put on different forms or act differently, depending on the situation. We act differently with our best friends, than with our parents, or in a business situation.

Through the story of Wan, we come to learn that the Avatar is part human, part spirit. This is how I have come to see all humanity — we’re all part human, part spirit. Like Korra, for a long time I wasn’t aware of my spiritual half, but over the years I’ve become more in tune with it and more accepting of that side of life.

Theologue-3

Theologue by Alex Grey — The union of human and divine consciousness

Joseph Campbell has a couple great quotes related to this in “The Power of Myth”:

“…each of us is a completely unique creature and… if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s.”

“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

This is why stories, when made with love and integrity, contain the possibility to affect personal and societal change. And it’s no coincidence that Book 3 is called “Change.” So get ready, change is coming…

You really want to know what happened to Zuko’s mom?

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The first part of The Search was released in comic book stores today and should be in wide release in the next couple of weeks. And so begins the 3-part story that answers the question fans have had for years — “What happened to Zuko’s mom?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked that by fans of the show, because it’s a lot.

While we were working on Book 1 of Korra, Bryan and I pitched a TV movie version of the search for Zuko’s mom to Nickelodeon. They weren’t interested in doing animated TV movies, and chose to pick up Book 2 of Korra instead.  (And yes, we’re still working on it.) Around the same time, Dark Horse wanted to publish ongoing stories with Aang and Zuko, so we started working with the writer Gene Yang to develop new adventures. We decided against having The Search be the first trio of graphic novels, but knew that the graphic novels were a great place to ultimately tell the story. Last year, I spoke with Gene Yang about some of the ideas we had, and he took those ideas even further, which inspired some other story developments. It was a collaborative back and forth and Gene did a terrific job with the scripts. I’m proud of the books and I think it does Zuko and Ursa’s story justice.

Bryan always tells the fans they can blame me for making them wait for an answer, so I’ll take the heat. When we wrote the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, we had so much to wrap up, that I thought it was more intriguing to have the fate of Zuko’s mother remain unresolved. It implied that his story wasn’t over, that the lives of these characters would continue on, even though the series had ended. Plus, I thought that the story was full of possibility and that a quick wrap-up would not be satisfying.

I didn’t know if we’d ever get the chance to tell the story, but I was okay with leaving it a question in the viewer’s mind. I thought it was kind of intriguing.

But I never anticipated how much this question would burn in people’s minds, so much so that I’m still being asked about Zuko’s mom over 4 years later. But now I have an idea why.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall writes, “The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning.” Leaving Zuko’s mom as an uncertainty created some anxiety in people who were looking for certainty and closure. We have a need to find meaning in our stories, and this dangling thread was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

So, I’m sorry you couldn’t scratch that itch for the past 4 1/2 years. Now you can. The mystery will be solved. And I assure you, at the end of part 3, there is a definite answer to “what happened to Zuko’s mom?” And that’s what makes me nervous.

Can it possibly live up to the stories all you fans have imagined over the past 5 years? I doubt it.

It’s made me think of our expectations for certain stories. Some books and movies are so hyped, so anticipated, that they never live up to the expectation. Now, I’m not saying this story is as big as Harry Potter or something, but in our small realm of the Avatar universe, it’s pretty highly anticipated.

Remember Lost? How pissed off everyone was because they wanted answers to every mystery that was raised? They left a lot of little itches to be scratched. I know I’m in the minority here, but I was pretty satisfied with the way it ultimately turned out, despite the unsolved mysteries. Honestly, I don’t really care that I never learned the truth about the three toed statue. That’s not what the show was about. What mattered was explaining what that experience meant to the characters. And that’s what I remember.

All this is to say, I hope you enjoy The Search, and that it feels good to finally scratch that itch.

And I may be opening a can of spider-worms here, but if you do read it, I’d love to hear what you think.

A few of my other blogs you might find interesting:

Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

Violence and Story, Part 1 & Part 2