The Creativity of Desperation

Loki: How desperate are you, that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?
Nick Fury: How desperate am I? You threaten my world with war. You steal a force you can’t hope to control. You talk about peace and you kill ’cause it’s fun. You have made me very desperate. You might not be glad that you did.—Conversation from The Avengers (2012)

1ad6dc97f8f4a88a8f643e68e0036c40If you’ve seen Marvel’s Avengers movie, you’ll know just the scene in which this conversation takes place. (Click on conversation above to get more of the context if you’re wondering what they’re talking about.) Fury’s words ran through my mind today as I drove home. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While waiting for a meeting with the pastor at church, I picked up a magazine and read part of an article about a woman in Zimbabwe. With nine kids to feed and no money, this woman knew the meaning of the word desperate as she struggled to put food on the table. She developed innovative ways to grow crops and was soon able to feed not only her kids but others in a similar desperate situation. I wanted to jot down some of the quotes she used and other specifics, but my meeting began, and I had to put down the magazine. I didn’t get a chance to grab it afterward to finish reading the article. But during the half-hour drive home, I thought about how often I’ve felt the ragged edge of desperation.

Looking back, I can see a trail of desperate situations like bad breadcrumbs. Were any of these situations a matter of life or death like that of the woman in Zimbabwe? No. But desperation has many faces. Here are some of them:

My undergraduate years at Northwestern University, A.D. some year (I’m not saying which year): Having partied way too heartily, my GPA plummeted. One afternoon, the dean of my program called me into her office and demanded to know why the school should allow me to remain. Academic probation was a possibility, but that was the dean’s decision, based on how persuasive I could be at that moment and how willing I was to prove myself from then on. How desperate was I to get my act together and avoid expulsion? Very.


First apartment: My roommate and I weren’t getting along and I had just been dumped by my boyfriend, even after we talked about getting married. I came home one night around midnight to find my boyfriend with my roommate. They were just talking, I was told. But when I said, “I’m outta here” and grabbed a suitcase, neither tried to stop me. In fact my boyfriend asked if I needed help getting my stuff to the car! I spent the night at my old home—with my parents. How desperate was I to move out of that apartment though I lacked the money to do so? Very.


Grad school, Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2011: I’d been failing miserably at my essay writing (keep in mind that my master’s program is a writing program) and barely squeaked out 14 pages of fiction, though I was supposed to turn in about 30 every month. My advisor at the time wrote a letter to me stating, “You might feel that the wrath of God has hit you, and it has.” She proceeded to tell me what I needed to do to remain in the program, which included scenes to write (which would total about 60 pages—double the amount I usually needed to turn in) along with new essays to make up for the crap essays I’d handed in the last couple of months. How desperate was I to once again get my act together academically? Very.

October 2012: At the company I worked for, the bosses called a meeting. The news was bad: the whole staff would be laid off before Thanksgiving—the start of the holiday season. No severance pay. How desperate was I to find a job to meet my monthly obligations? Very.

Last year: I submitted a novel to agents for representation and faced rejection not once but 16 times. (And no those were not my only rejections. I’ve acquired many over the years.) Some agents did not offer feedback. How desperate was I to write a novel with a sound structure and a marketable concept? Very.


As the old saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” (And this saying might have derived from something Hippocrates said. See here for details.) In each case, I had to overcome my natural reticence, fear of failure, or inertia and get creative about finding a solution.

Desperation still pushes me down the path of creativity. But what about you? When was the last time you felt very desperate? What did desperation drive you to do?

I would’ve stopped this post at those questions, but a discussion in the last post about Bumble the Abominable Snowman from Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer prompted me to show a photo I took of Bumble on top of my wardrobe.

002Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston photos from Bad GPA tie from Novel rejection image from Love rejection image from

32 thoughts on “The Creativity of Desperation

  1. Hmm. Interesting questions. I once found myself in Wales being forced to leave the country instantly. (It turns out I was working there illegally–who knew? I was pretty young.) I was absolutely determined not to go home. 16 hours later I had a job at a summer camp in VT and a plane ticket back.

    When my mom died, I left school for a month to help my sister out, afraid she was going to become a homeless bag lady. But, of course, I was now homeless, as well. I came back to school, managed to persuade them to let me stay in the dorms over winter break while I taught myself Quantum Mechanics, which I had taken an incomplete in when I left school.

    There have been many other desperate times in my life (too many.) But it is interesting how much stronger, more resourceful, and yes, creative I am when desperation really sets in. I’m not sure that would have occurred to me, though. Thanks!

    • Wow, you taught yourself quantum mechanics???? And I thought I was doing good teaching myself to knit. But desperate times made you stronger. That’s exciting!

      • Desperate times, indeed. Anyway, I needed to pass the class to get to stay at school and I had nowhere else to go, so yeah. I did what I needed to do. Which happened, at that moment, to be teaching myself Quantum Mechanics.

  2. I’ve made a career out of desperation. It has become a strength. I’ve learned to hold my focus under pressure, and am rarely nervous in any professional context. It helps me talk with clients from every level.

      • Apparently I didn’t get a message that you replied. I’ll need to check my preferences. Ugh. Quite sorry.

        What’s new for you?

        Writing — the creative stuff — remains unfortunately unseen. But I have been writing aggressively. Working on a collection of short stories with an aspect of death as a theme. Literary tone. A bunch are complete. Others in motion. Some I think represents my best writing ever, so I’m excited. Although consistent with my faith, the darkness of many of the pieces might make finding a market in the Christian world a challenge. Readers of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Conner might like this stuff.

        I hope to go to at least one day’s worth of Write to Publish. Gonna be there?

        Professionally, I write speeches. A range of clients.

        Ministry-wise, co-leading (quintuple?) leading Lively Arts.

      • Nice to hear from you! Aw short fiction. I have yet to master the art. But I remember how much you enjoyed writing short fiction. I’m working on a middle grade fantasy novel.
        Writers like Flannery, C. S. Lewis, and others were mainstream. Couldn’t your work find a home in mainstream publishing?
        I’ve been to Write to Publish. I used to go with my sometime co-author. We haven’t gone in years though!

      • I’ve a collection of 31 short stories all following a theme. Closer to Flannery O’Connor meets Twilight Zone. Not all 31 will make my own cut, I’m sure, but I’m having a blast plowing through.

        Now, I’m in Atlanta. No more Lively Arts or Write to Publish. The scene is different here. Wheaton, I can see freshly, offers a unique perspective for Christian writers.

      • I tagged you in a comment on FB. May 2016. NE burbs of Atlanta.

        The F0TZ premise — a range of genre within the stories. Some are absurd ala Waiting for Godot. Others are minimalist fantasy. All are dark pointing to light.

  3. Felt that sensation of desperation far too many times. Usually it involves money or a bad job situation. It gets frustrating at times when I have to cut back on stuff like decent food. For a while, I was eating whatever TV dinners were on sale in order to cut back costs until the situation was improved. As far as the job desperation, the worst is when you work a job that you want to leave or with a boss that makes you sick. Some bosses pick up on this and take advantage of you feeling trapped, so you start doing some desperate things to get through the day. Eventually, you either go on medication to get by or quit. Thankfully, I went for the second choice, which seemed to require a lot more planning than one would think.

    I had the GPA one too, which was fixed by going above and beyond all of my assignments for a year. I also sucked up my pride and took a class I dropped during my first semester because nobody wanted to be my lab partner. Also it was a morning class and I just couldn’t stay awake. The teacher remembered me and got a laugh out of my good grades since he thought I dropped due to not understanding anything.

  4. Thanks for posting the photo of Bumble…I love it, Linda! Obviously you’re the type of person who never gives up, even when things feel desperate.
    When the company I worked for a couple years ago was closed down by corporate, I felt desperate. I had a mortgage to pay and other financial responsibilities. It was during a time when the job market was flooded with job seekers who were in the same position as myself. I needed to do something to set myself apart, so I worked for free. I sent emails to attorneys in the area and offered my paralegal services. It’s amazing the response you get to your resume when you announce you will work for free. 🙂 It worked and in the end I believe that was part of the reason I got my current job.
    Have a great weekend!

    • Wow, Jill! That’s awesome! What a great story! I didn’t know you did paralegal work. I was never a paralegal, but I’ve worked for a law firm, the American Bar Association, and a legal publishing firm over the years. That was back when I was going to go to law school.

  5. Childhood was a desperate time for me because my parents went through a brutal divorce for years. It affected my mom financially, which it forced me to do my best in school.

    First year of college was a bit of a desperate time cause I was very lonely and didn’t make some good friends. I developed panic attacks and gained about 20 lbs. But I again devoted myself to my studies so I could transfer schools. And once I did, I didn’t look back.

    These past few years have been more of a desperate time with failing the bar more times than I imagined, working part-time jobs longer than I wanted, and job hunting but to no avail. But like you, it pushed me back to creativity and made me start blogging. I was always afraid to share my writing with people but since blogging, it’s helped me come out of my shell more. Desperate times really can bring out a side of yourself you might have been afraid to show before.

    • Brittany, thanks for stopping by and sharing your struggle. I know so many people who had to take the bar numerous times. I’m hoping for the best for you in regard to that and part-time jobs (I’m with you on that score). I think we could both use a break!

      • Thanks for writing a nice post! 🙂 Yeah, I know I’m not alone as far as other lawyers who failed many times. And that’s been nice knowing, especially since they also know it doesn’t really matter how many times you take it. Thank you for your well wishes!

  6. What a powerful post! It made me think about how more mildly negative feelings (discouragement, stress, jealousy) can be pretty paralyzing, whereas desperation really can spur people on to action and even unleash creativity. And it can be really empowering to think back at all of hardest, most desperate times we’ve made our way through, as you have done so openly here. That’s something I think about at times with my middle school students–often, when they are facing something difficult, they don’t have the benefit of looking back and thinking, “Well, this is really hard, but since I got through that other really difficult time, I know I can get through this one, too.” I think that can make some of their obstacles feel especially scary.

    • Thanks, Laurie. Middle school was hard for that reason–the scary obstacles. You feel everything so deeply. It’s easy to believe that life will always be a desperate scramble. That’s what’s so awesome about writers who write for this age level. You totally get how they feel and what they struggle against.

  7. For me, life feels somewhat desperate right now. We create our own desperation sometimes, don’t we, maybe to force ourselves to follow a dream, to get our acts in gear, to make a decision – any decision – so we can move forward. I’ve always had to create desperation to force myself to act. Now that I’ve gone and done it again, I wonder why (which always happens.)


    I’ve spent the past two days reading. Just reading. I’ve put all client work on the back burner. I’ve been mostly offline. I haven’t picked up my WIP to begin fourth round revisions. I needed to see that people CAN lose themselves in stories, even predictable ones. I wanted to remember what it was like to just read for pleasure. I haven’t done that in so long…..too long. I’m always reading things out of obligation. My brain is cleaner now. I hope I can attack my WIP without so much desperation…..for it to be awesome………for it to be relatable……..for it to have all the mystery ingredients that will result in sales………..and I hope I can just craft the best story. For me.

    • Andra, that’s so cool. I totally see the need to unplug and read. I also have needed to take a break and simply read. I’m enjoying C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength right now for that reason. It’s nice not to have to analyze it but to simply enjoy it. I’ve read it before and am excited to lose myself in it as you mentioned.

  8. If it makes you feel better (why would it, unless you’re mean), I’ve got 95 rejections from agents (including three or four who never responded). Luckily I’m dumb and have a thick skull, so I keep at it. If only I had been born with business savvy.

    I’ve dealt with plenty of grueling things (working my way through college with a full-time job and a newborn son). Other things I’d rather not document in a public forum. Health issues. I never really see situations as desperate, though. I just try to plow through, for better or worse. I’m still breathing, so that’s something!

    • Wow. I hear you. I didn’t count the other years of rejections from agents and publishers for other novels. Health issues also.

      Grueling stories are the ones that are the most inspiring to me. None of us wants to live out a grueling story. But it’s nice to know that someone at least may be inspired by what we went through.

  9. i’m never quite sure what the purpose of sharing online is – maybe a vent, maybe a genuinely sensitive tentacle caressing the passing keel of mysterious ships traversing the cruel dead internet sea?
    On ye olde world map, beyond the sea monsters, is a land of desperation. A place of promise yet undiscovered – that we venture into alone. Some will never return. But those that do will wear the golden fleece of self knowledge.
    Farewell, fellow traveller.
    Good luck.

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