The Real Reason I Destroy My Writing

Last week, I published a blog post entitled, “A Message To Artists”.  In it, I suggested to the artists in my audience that they should consider taking their work of art and burn it, destroy it, throw it in the trash, whatever.

I was surprised by the reaction to the post.  I thought that some people might be inspired and others might just shrug and move on.

Instead, the piece was met with a very large, very passionate, and collective, “Um… no.”

There were some very valid arguments against it, including the idea that the Rebbe would never want us to destroy something we created, that we could very well just put our work aside without destroying it, that there are other ways to avoid the ego that comes with creating art.

Even my former editor at Chabad.org criticized the piece, calling it, “an idea that is essentially true and important that is corrupted and taken to a destructive extreme.”

I guess the whole reaction, especially because it came from so many people I respected, forced me to do a bit of soul searching.  Was I wrong?  Had I suggested something damaging?

And you know what?  Even after all that soul-searching, I don’t regret writing the piece.  I still think that I was right to advocate destroying writing and to destroy some of my own writing (something I do regularly).

Why?

Well, I guess that maybe I need to give myself as an example.

About a year ago, I made a conscious decision to start writing more “honestly” with my writing.  To write more from the heart and trying less to fit in to the world that religious Jews expected me to fit into.

Suddenly, I stopped writing about combining movies and Hasidus.  I stopped writing with the words “we” in every article and started using the words “I” and “you”.

One of the first articles I did this with was called, “On Respecting Chaya”.  It was in defense of a controversial article Chaya Kurtz had written that had gone insanely viral.  I was angry, and I wanted the world to know.  It was my first popular article on this blog.

I haven’t written about it much since, but I’ll never forget how I reacted to the popularity of this post, the first post in which I had honestly expressed myself in ages.

I just about collapsed.

I looked at the angry comments from the “off the derech” folks, and I almost cried.  I wondered to myself if I was wrong to publish it.  I was scared, I was disturbed, and I was in pain.

But something, something inside of me told me that I was right, and that I needed to keep going, to keep blogging.

Soon, I wrote another piece for the Huffington Post that became popular, criticizing Matisyahu’s choice to remove his kippah.  Again, there was a strong reaction.  Again, for days I was stressed and scared.  Feeling alone.  Feeling like I had made a mistake.

Every bit of writing I did for months afterwards sent me into similar fits.  Between each piece of writing, I had to talk to myself, calm myself, speak to my wife, speak to my friend Matthue, speak to my rabbi, and to my therapist.

In the past year, after consciously deciding to keep going, to keep writing despite the reaction, despite my fear, despite being sure that each piece I was writing was wrong, wrong, wrong, my blog became more and more popular.  For the first time, people were telling me how much my writing affected them, how much it encouraged them, and how I should keep going.

Through it all, I feel like I learned one very important lesson: a writer, an artist, a creator, needs to do whatever it takes to tap into their creativity, and to produce regularly.

And so through this past year, as I realized how my writing was not just getting deeper, but that I was writing more often, I did everything in my power to make sure that the production continued.

And that included destroying some of my writing.

The answer for why I did this could be found in a very esoteric way in my previous post.  But the truth is there is a much more practical, much more specific, reason that I destroyed some of my writing over time.

I needed separate myself from my writing.  I had to internalize the idea that each piece of writing did not define me or my success.  That if I made a mistake in my writing, or I didn’t write something as well as I had hoped, that it was okay… that my writing and my soul aren’t determined by one piece I had created.  Rather, it was all a process, part of a larger whole.

By getting rid of individual pieces of writing, I was able to tap into the idea that no one piece defined me or my success.  That my writing is a process, and not a product.  And it’s a big part of why I am able to write regularly and also hold a full time job and have a family.

Which is why I ultimately won’t regret my last post, or the fact that I destroy some of my writing: because I see the results.  Because I know without it, I wouldn’t be writing in the way I am now.

And, of course, none of that means others should feel like destroying a piece of writing or art will make them a better artist.

But here’s the thing: there are a lot of people like me.  People that have something inside of their souls they want, they need, to express.

But, like me, they are afraid, they are sensitive, they are bodies without skin.

These people exist in spades in the religious Jewish community.  But they are hiding.  Because being an artist, both in the secular world, and especially in a religious community, is a very hard thing.

It means not fitting in.  It means saying things that get you in trouble.  It means dealing with a lot of traumatic rejection (in the form of comments, emails, criticism from those close to us), it means being personal in a world that isn’t interested in us being personal.

And, all too often, those voices choose to become silent.  To not say a word.  Or to say a word, but to sanitize it, to brush it clean, to remove all the rawness, all the realness.  Better to not get any input than to get negative input, the person without the skin thinks to themselves.

I know these people are out there because I am one of these people.  And because they come to open mics I organize, send me emails, and some of them are my friends.

There is a reason religious art is so painfully boring.  There is a reason religious writing is so empty, such a duplicate of every other piece of writing out there.

It’s because the people who could produce something different don’t feel like they have a voice.  It’s because they aren’t tapping into themselves and saying whatever comes to their heads and causing a ruckus and making mistakes and connecting with each other.

It’s because we encourage those people to be quiet.  It’s because every time someone says something we don’t like, they are attacked.  It’s because the world isn’t safe for an artist, and it’s particularly not safe for a religious artist.

And that’s why they need to do something dramatic to remind themselves that they can make mistakes, that they can say things that don’t make sense to the world, that they can be sensitive and open and personal without sacrificing their dignity.

In other words, it’s better to destroy one piece of writing than to destroy a lifetime of expression.

Nobody has to destroy their own work, of course.  That worked for me, and I suppose it won’t work for everyone.

But they need to do something.

No, forget the word, “they”.

You.  You who can identify with my fear, who know you aren’t accessing the part of yourself you want the world to listen to.

You.

We want to hear from you.  We need you.  Even the people that may reject you at first.  All of us.  Your voice is necessary.  All the crud art out there, it’s because the only people saying anything are either as shallow as they appear, or because they haven’t tapped into something deeper.

That’s why you’re needed.  Because you are deeper.  Because you have something to say that no one else can say.

And that’s why you need to do whatever it takes: destroying a piece of your writing, dancing naked in your home, publishing things you would never have published before, and taking risks; in order to let go of your inhibitions, and tell the world what you’re really thinking.

And that was the real message of my post last week: don’t hold back, don’t be afraid, and go out of your way to internalize the idea that you are needed, that the process of your creation is more important than the individual pieces themselves, and that no matter how many mistakes you make, the world is waiting to hear your voice.

  • great article.

  • Okay, that last paragraph is prime. The process of creation is “it” sometimes. You reminded me of a memory, about when I first started performing again, after I had been frum for some years.

    My Rav had instructed me (commanded, perhaps?) to continue with my clarinet playing. I did, here and there, but I had a lot of negative associations with how ego-driven my pre-frum performances had been. I loved the applause, the praise, too much, and it had gone to my head. So I was leery of re-entering the performance world.

    But it’s part of my tafkid. And I see that now, and I take pains to remember that it’s not just me and talent, but Hashem giving me an ability to play music, and that I can use that it a holy way, not just as a way to feed my ego (though I still do appreciate applause).

    I think you just gave me a post. Thanks for that!

    • Beautiful! Please send me the link when it’s up.

  • Rebecca Klempner

    Here’s the thing:

    Writing something totally edgy, perhaps controversial, very personal or extreme that needs to get out–I totally, totally agree with. If the only way you can do this is do it and then destroy it, I guess that works for you (and maybe some other people).

    A lot of us do this by journalling or writing a personal draft of piece and then just not publishing the material. I don’t publish every piece. Not everyone needs to know the ups and downs of a writer’s marriage, parenting challenges (that might upset one of the writer’s children) and the like. I have several friends with drawers full of pieces about edgy issues that their children/parents/spouse asked them not to publish. I have one child who I never write about without his permission–he’s just embarrassed about too many things. But we still wrote them, which was a transformative experience. Sometimes the material gets “borrowed” for fiction later on.

    • This isn’t about work that’s necessarily controversial. I’m not trying to say everyone should write incredibly revealing, personal posts that are controversial. My point is that the very nature of an artist is to say things that don’t totally “fit” with society, or to say them in a way that doesn’t quite jive with the way the world works. I didn’t mean personal in the sense that we are being revealing, but personal in the sense that we need to be in touch with ourselves.

  • BirdieWaters

    “And that was the real message of my post last week: don’t hold back,
    don’t be afraid, and go out of your way to internalize the idea that you
    are needed, that the process of your creation is more important than
    the individual pieces themselves, and that no matter how many mistakes
    you make, the world is waiting to hear your voice.”

    Beautiful! This message, I get. “People without skin”…that was strikingly visual and powerful. Claiming that G-d wanted, indeed expected us to destroy our creative expressions on occasion wasn’t something I could get on board with, but you know, it was still a valid opinion and really, who cares if I get on board with it or not? It was from the heart and thought provoking and worthy of sharing whether anyone else agreed or not.

    What keeps me coming back to your blog is your bluntly honest, heart felt, thought provoking, occasionally paradoxical writing, whether I agree with it or not. I appreciate the talent you’ve been blessed with and thank you for following your heart.

  • With all due respect, I object to this laissez-faire attitude to expression. Who says that every boich sevara–every idea that comes up in one’s heart and mind is correct and true? The chances are, in fact, that it’s not true, for, as explained in Tanya ch. 29, one’s natural thoughts and feelings and self-identity come from the Nefesh Habehamis, which may well judge in a biased, subjective, and false manner (see here). Only after much care and research in Torah sources, and effort in prayer, can one transcend self-interest and reach true objectivity (see here).

    And if this kind of caution hampers artistic expression, so what? Art is not holy. Plenty of extremely talented artists are unbelievers. The Torah teaches that nothing in the world has inherent value. “Kol ma’asecha yihyu leshem Shomayim” (see here)–the purpose of everything in the world is to be used as a tool to serve Hashem. Likewise, for a frum Yid, art should not be viewed as having inherent value. If it can be used in a kosher way for a kosher purpose, then do so, by all means–the Rebbe firmly supported frum artists. If not, then it’s just another enticement of the evil inclination–only a more sophisticated one, and therefore a more insidious one.

    • So the question is, what’s the value of the individual and his feelings/reasonings? What are the “limits” to his self expression?

      • As explained in Tanya ch. 41, just as an ox must have a yoke, and then much grain can be produced from it, so must the Nefesh Habehamis submit to the yoke of Heaven, so it can be productive, through G-dliness resting on it, and enabling the person to reveal G-dliness in the world around him. What is being advocated in this article seems to be that expressing the Nefesh Habehamis has some kind of inherent worth. I’m afraid that Chassidus says the opposite: that restraining one’s Nefesh Habehamis–iskafya (see Tanya ch. 27, and here)–has inherent worth, and that expression of the Nefesh Habehamis is only good when it’s harnessed as a means to an end, i.e., it is viewed as having no inherent worth.

        Moreover, Chassidus teaches that if one lacks the yoke of submission to Hashem, one’s Nefesh Habehamis expression will be not just neutral, but destructive, just as an ox without a yoke will run amok and inflict damage.

  • Great message, as usual. So true.

    I guess that by you NOT deleting/”burning” your previous article you where in fact doing the “burning exercise , i.e. doing art for the sake of expression and not for the sake of “acceptance”.

    Did I get it right? 🙂

    • Haha, you have no idea how close I was to taking it down for a while there. Does that answer your question?

  • “do whatever it takes … dancing naked in your home, publishing things you would never have published before, and taking risks; in order to let go of your inhibitions, and tell the world what you’re really thinking.”

    Please explain to me how this exhortation conforms with the Torah principle of tznius, which Torah states is one of the defining qualities of the Jewish people (“mah tovu etc.”).

    • None of this implies that a person shouldn’t be tznius. This is about a person giving themselves the ability to be strong when wanting to express themselves. I write with the assumption that my readers want to express holiness and not the opposite, G-d forbid. Often, expressing holiness in a unique way can be very intimidating, since others may not see that expression as holiness since it doesn’t fit into an established norm.

      • I’m glad that you assume that your readers “want to express holiness and not the opposite”. My point is that it seems to me that “expressing holiness” requires considerable caution, which is the opposite of what you advocate.

        As I expressed above, based on Chassidus, I think that a person should be very cautious in assuming that his or her every thought and feeling is holy, or even correct. Maybe he’s fooling himself. Maybe everything he’s thinking and feeling is coming from a very inappropriate place inside, because he’s still a very unrefined person. In that case, everyone would be better off if the person would keep his inappropriate thoughts and feelings to himself or herself.

        Moreover, it’s highly likely that an outside person, who lacks the bias that a person naturally has in favour of his or her own thoughts and feelings, is quite right in disapproving of a given expression of another’s thoughts and feelings, and suggesting that it be censored.

        With all due respect, your campaign to encourage lack of caution in self expression, and to simply outright ignore the disapproval of other G-d-fearing Jews, seems very spiritually dangerous.

        To obviate this concern, practically speaking, this might mean discussing one’s artistic plans or product with a mashpia before going ahead with publicizing it if one has reason to believe that one’s artistic expression might be somehow questionable in the eyes of Hashem.

        That said, I agree that once one has reason and outside confirmation to be confident that his message is appropriate, he should not be “ashamed of the scoffers.”

  • Michoel

    To my knowledge, chasidus adopts a perspective that NOTHING in this world is really ours. This world is G-d’s home, and all that is in it belongs to Him (“la’Hashem ha’aretz u’melo’ah” – Tehilim). Whatever possession we have has been put into our safe keeping, but that does not make it “ours.” That includes even our artistic talent or expression – it is a gift from above, but it cannot be called “ours,” just as our money, or our health, our success or failure, cannot be truly called “ours.” It is only that we are partners with G-d in bringing these things into being, through our hishtadlus (effort). But even then, it is His. Viewed from that perspective, who are we to destroy the artistic expression that we helped bring into existence? It isn’t ours to destroy, no matter what to motivation. I think the premise of the argument (MY artistic expression) needs to be re-examined. I believe there are other ways to unlock one’s expression and to not define oneself through success or failure – I would venture chasidus has a solution for that, too.

    • I agree 100% that nothing belongs to us. But your comment constantly mentions the things we create. However, it’s missing one key element: ourselves.

      The most important thing that we don’t own is ourselves. The most important thing to not let go to waste is our minds, our hearts, our souls.

      That’s what this post is about. Learning to let go of ourselves and embrace our strengths. Not for us. For our higher calling. For Hashem. Because that’s what he wants from us. He wants us to tap into ourselves and use our strengths. And whatever it takes to do that is part of our mission. That’s my entire point.

      You think the point of this post is to make us focus on ourselves. The truth is it’s the exact opposite.

  • chaya wilmowsky

    Thank you, Elad. This is a crucial message for us all. Lechaim to real art and expression in the religious community.

  • anonymous

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you SO much for this piece. Just what I needed to hear. I struggle very much to write with my own voice. I crave the ability to be raw and honest in my writing, but instead my messages end up conforming to an ideological box, because that’s what I expect from myself and that’s what others expect from me. I portray my personal experience through the lens of Chassidus…but when my perspective can’t be substantiated by Chassidus, or when I think my community would respond disapprovingly, I stay silent. I guess it’s time that I start speaking- really speaking.