Why Your Best Creative Work Has Nothing to Do with You

On an already hot predawn morning this July, I found myself running (at a pace much faster than my usual) around the neighborhoods of Wildwood, Missouri. It was only three miles into a 31-mile run, and I knew I was headed for trouble. I often have a great deal of pride when it comes to running. As opposed to slowing or dropping out of a race, I will fantasize that someone will bump me with their car, that I will be struck by lightning or that I will roll my ankle. These fates are preferable to the ego-puncturing of admitting defeat.

The 31-mile run was not a random occurrence. I had voluntarily took on an assignment for Terrain magazine to cover Amy Marxkors, a local prolific author (The Lola Papers) and competitive runner. I was familiar with Marxkors’s work. It’s tough to be a runner in St. Louis and not know who she is. Her wisdom-filled column is published with nearly every Fleet Feet newsletter. The run was on her 31st birthday.

I had approached the assignment to write words about Marxkors with some trepidation. She’s a writer. Writing a story about a runner/writer who has written many well-chosen words about her running is, well, daunting. What would my angle be? How would I tell a unique story? That is another reason I blew the dust off my ego and found myself breathing heavily while Marxkors and a handful of her crew gracefully strode through West County.

However, this right-sizing of my pride was the unexpected story angle I needed. And inherent in it is a lesson that is valuable for any person looking to do anything worthwhile.

When I first sat down with Marxkors a couple of weeks previous to the birthday run to discuss her latest book, Powered by Hope, an autobiography of Teri Griege, she mentioned something that Griege would often say: No one looks good at mile 20.

Griege would certainly know. The hardcore athlete is living with (as opposed to defeating) stage-4 colon cancer. She competed at the Kona Ironman World Championships a couple of years ago while undergoing chemotherapy. Her autobiography, as told by Marxkors, is a vulnerable walk through some of the most humbling experiences a human can have in the Western world.

It was also during this first meeting with Marxkors that I learned an interesting twist in her journey to help Griege publish her story. The project started as a biography. Marxkors spent days and weeks with Griege. She went with her to Kona, to chemo, to the training runs in the dark, to family dinners. She got the inside look at a powerful woman, and then she painstakingly published her words – all 80,000 of them.

Then she got word back from her editor. The story was not right. It needed to be an autobiography. Marxkors would need to rewrite the entire tome in Griege’s voice. After doing all that extra rewrite work, she would need to also accept a further diminished role. An autobiography, after all, is written by the subject, not a writer. All that work – the hours, the late nights, the struggling to find the right words – would be relived for lesser personal glory.

I don’t know that I possess the humility and strength to do what Marxkors did next. I may pray for God to strike me down before I rewrite a book. What she found, however, was comfort in serving a greater purpose.

“I took five minutes to mourn the loss of what I thought was best,” says Marxkors, who cut 27,000 words for the final draft. “I cannot let pride stop me from doing something that may seem unconventional or uncomfortable. The story needed to be in Teri’s voice.”

Marxkors’ experience sheds wisdom on something that is true for any worthwhile, creative endeavor: It is amazing what can be created when serving the vision trumps personal glory.

Anyone who has run a triathlon or started a company or written a book knows well the force feeding on humility the journey can be. If you did not start humble, you will be humbled in the process. Remember, no one looks good at mile 20.


Amy Marxkors on her 31 mile birthday run.

When you find yourself right-sized, it is your choice. Do you scrap the whole project because it is too hard or because it hurts too much? Or do you humbly move forward knowing well you are serving your vision?

With an ego such as mine, humble pie is served frequently. I was on Amy’s birthday run to get some knowledge and cover a story – not to attain some degree of personal satisfaction in knowing I can run 31 miles in less than five hours (I cannot, by the way). That was Amy’s part to play. I turned back toward the car around mile three and acted as a support vehicle for the remainder of her adventure that day.

There is greatness is serving the vision over serving self. I am grateful Marxkors chose to serve the vision. I know Griege is. What will your choice be?


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