How the “Duende” Can Spark Your Creativity

Sometimes hard work pays off. Sometimes it makes things harder. If you’ve ever struggled to fall back asleep after waking up at 3 o’clock in the morning, you know what I’m talking about. You stare at the ceiling. You try to count sheep. You swear you won’t get on your phone, but of course, you do, and now it’s 4 o’clock in the morning and you are wide awake.

The point is, it’s easier to fall back asleep when you stop trying so hard.

Writing can feel that way sometimes. I brainstorm, I outline, I edit, and I end up with a blah draft. So I brainstorm and outline and edit more, and the second draft is a little less blah, but it still needs work. I continue this process until I have a draft that’s pretty good — or at least not completely terrible. Of course, sometimes it is completely terrible, so I have to scrap the whole thing and start from the very beginning. This is the writing process, and I accept it.

But then are those moments when the writing flows effortlessly — process be damned. These moments always happen when I’m in the car or on a walk or in the shower. I’m minding my own business, or no business at all, and — bam! — inspiration strikes. I stop what I’m doing and grab a notebook, and the words ooze onto the page like syrup on pancakes. That kind of writing is so much less effort. More than a process, it feels like a dance, and those creative moments make me question the way I approach my writing.

Earlier this year, I took a poetry class to get back in touch with my creativity. Our instructor gave us a reading assignment: Federico García Lorca’s essay, Theory and Play of The Duende. The duende is a mischievous, impish spirit that’s often associated with Spanish folklore, though it’s referenced in other cultures, too. From an artistic perspective, duende is synonymous with mysterious passion, the energy that allows a flamenco dancer to sound like this. “The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form,” Lorca writes, “brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.” The duende feels otherworldly, wild, and willful. It is fluid rather than fixed. Feeling rather than thinking. It exists whether you have a label for it or not. Lorca continues, “the duende loves the edge, the wound, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.” This explains its relationship with writing. Our wounds, our edges, our subconscious thoughts — they make for rich writing material. But it’s hard to access those places intellectually. Intellectualizing your grief (“I felt immense sadness”) is never as effective as expressing it emotionally (“every morning I woke up and reached for her, and every morning, my heart dropped when she wasn’t there.”)

You cannot reason with the duende. You cannot explain to it that you have a deadline, or that you want to write a poem, or that there’s anything else you want to accomplish, really. This is precisely why duende is as frustrating as it is alluring. You spend so much time and effort on practice, skill, and discipline, then the duende comes along and says, “Nah, I got this,” making everything seem easy. It’s not a kind muse here to cure your writer’s block. It’s an unpredictable demon that plays with your mind.

You can’t sit around waiting for this demon to show up. As author Anne Lamott has written, “For me and most other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Thanks to Lamott’s advice, shitty first drafts have become the crucial first step of my writing process. But sometimes having a process, in itself, feels antithetical to the duende. And, perhaps counter to Lamott’s point, for me and lots of writers I know, writing does feel at least occasionally rapturous — it’s just that deadlines, edits, and style guides don’t offer much room for that. So you learn to let it go and systemize your writing instead. If you sat around waiting for creativity to find you, you’d never get anything done.

I wonder if there’s a way to have both. We need process, but what if tapping into the duende more often could be part of that process? When we think about how to solve a problem, we usually consider what to add to the process, like a new routine or another writing class. We rarely consider what we can remove to make things easier. I wonder if summoning the duende is a matter of doing less, not more. We live in a decidedly anti-duende world, after all, where we are always busy producing or consuming. Maybe finding the duende means removing its barriers to entry — all the things saving you from boredom. Refreshing your feed. Reorganizing your to-do list for the tenth time. Counting your calories, followers, investments. And yes, scrolling your phone.

When I asked the poets in my class what they do to summon this feeling, they shared a great piece of advice: Find an activity that allows your mind to wander freely. For one woman, it was running. For another, doing the dishes.

But one poet suggested something I found to be most true about the duende: You might be able to find it, you might not. Just be ready when it finds you.

This piece was originally published on Medium.