Rollo May

The Courage to Create

“We express our being by creating.”

“If I didn’t have to live,” Francis Bacon once said of his compulsive, disturbing and masterful art, “I wouldn’t let any of this out.” Bacon’s connection directly reinforces Rollo May’s philosophy of existence: “We express our being by creating.”

Rollo May (April 21, 1909 – October 22, 1994) was an American existential psychologist, which essentially means he practiced a philosophical method of therapy based on understandings of existence and our concept of being. May’s 1975 work, The Courage to Create, is a seminal study of the debilitating aspects of fear and the self-fulfilment of the creative life.

francis bacon in your blood
“Study for a Portrait” by Francis Bacon, 1952, Bacon’s distortion of an unnamed man in suit is also entitled “Businessman.” Learn more.
The beginnings of this fear, argues May in The Courage to Create, is that creativity requires an abandonment of process, habits, even society.

The greatness of a poem or a painting is not that it portrays the thing observed or experienced, but that it portrays the artist’s or the poet’s vision cued off by his encounter with the reality. Hence the poem or the painting is unique, original, never to be duplicated.1

Consequently, this separation brings conflicting results like disorientation and even alienation—what thespian Anna Deavere Smith called “an excruciating sense of aloneness.”

In this isolation, we form both art and ourselves.

The self is made up, on its growing edge, of the models, forms, metaphors, myths, and all other kinds of psychic content which give it direction in its self-creation. This is a process that goes on continuously.

“Brick Man” by Max Jacquard, 2002. According to the artist, the glass figure signifies the fragile, isolated, and constructed semblance of the artist ego. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Disorienting acts not only develop the self. May believes they function as the beginning points of the creative process, “for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.”2

Creative-writing teacher Dorothea Brande thought similarly that distraction and tension can reinforce each other to spark ideas and, like May, that understanding our plentiful fears is the first move of dismantling them.

At such times we face the danger of losing our orientation, the danger of complete isolation. Will we lose our accepted language, which makes communication possible in a shared world? Will we lose the boundaries that enable us to orient ourselves to what we call reality?

May also promotes a balance between work, rest, and play as well as noting that our emotional well-being (and emotional intelligence) influences thinking, a thought echoed by choreographer Twyla Tharp, who creates a space of nurturing warmth in which to work.

Consider Patti Smith’s small spindling of words written from the depths of melancholy:

Everything contained in this little book is true and written just like it was. The writing of it drew me from my strange torpor and I hope that in some measure it will fill the reader with vague and curious joy.

From Patti Smith’s Woolgathering

This emotional self-nourishment matters, according to May, because the courage to create comes from moving forward despite doubt. Pushing through despite the existential boundaries of our craft: that we will die, that we will not achieve our full potential, that we might never be seen, and it will all be for nought. Those who create do not abandon fear; rather, they exist within fear.3

Creativity is a yearning for immortality. We human beings know that we must die. We have, strangely enough, a word for death. We know each of us must develop the courage to confront death. Yet we also must rebel and struggle against it. Creativity comes from this struggle.

May’s wisdom on courage and fear has inspired many creatives and is critical to anyone who longs to “express their being.”4

For more on the courage to create—specifically, the totality of creative alienation—read Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his beloved brother. Additionally, John Steinbeck’s Working Days is a fiercely honest account of how shattered emotional well-being affects the creative mind. And of course, Rilke’s essential words of patience, wisdom, and warning to bolster any vulnerable creative.