A Little Fuel

N. D. Wilson had an instructive beginning to his life as a writer. Like many writers, the spark was lit when he was a child. Unlike most writers, that spark came in the form of a challenge from his father. The young Wilson had a habit of complaining about the books he read. So his father laid down this gauntlet: if you don’t like this or that story, write a better one yourself. Thus began Mr. Wilson’s writing journey. I like this story because Wilson’s father, either wittingly or unwittingly, came up with the best solution to a common experience—displeasure with someone else’s work. The author, the poet, the playwright, the composer—they didn’t get it right. He or she should have gotten to the end quicker, should have brought more tension to the middle, made the protagonist more sympathetic . . .

Well, maybe. Whoever it was did what they did because he or she thought it was the right thing to write or compose or paint at that time. Your displeasure, however, is quite real and deserves your full attention. But that full attention is not simply to complain to your neighbor or husband. No, Wilson’s father had the right idea. Go do better yourself.

Because when we read something we don’t like, what we are really saying is, “I’m not seeing what I want.” This is one of the first impulses of the creative drive. Sometimes an idea is born in contemplation, and sometimes it is born in response to competing creative expression. Yours and mine and everyone’s desire to complain about a book with a predictable ending is actually our own desire to see our vision of an unpredictable ending realized.

So the next time you’re reading something you don’t like and feel that impulse to complain to your friend, ask yourself this instead: How would I have handled it? In this way, the moment becomes instructive and creative. Use any minor frustration as fuel toward the ceaseless goal of your own creativity.

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