The Creative Gambler

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I want to say up front that I don’t advocate gambling in the conventional sense. The house always wins, and there are no exceptions to this rule.

However, I’ve been thinking this week about Kenny Rogers‘ 1978 song The Gambler (written by Don Schlitz in 1976). Specifically, the well-known chorus:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em

Know when to walk away, and know when to run…

The context of creative vision is my real interest. I’m completing a new novel, and have worked with a professional editor during part of the process. The editor gave me a long list (really, a very long list) of suggestions. Some of these were obvious errors on my part. For example, I used “council” when I meant “counsel.” Some of the feedback contained insight that helped me improve the story. For example, in some scenes I needed more specific expression of character motives.

Photo of 4 playing cards: King of clubs, queen of diamonds, king of hearts, and queen of spades
Don’t be a joker – be the king or queen of your own creative vision

Some of the feedback, while well-intentioned, would take me away from the story I’m trying to tell. These weren’t bad suggestions, they were just not in line with my objectives. Sorting through all this feedback is what got me thinking about those lines from The Gambler.

This sentiment is also summarized in some dialogue from Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 movie The LimeyTerence Stamp stars as a man trying to find the people responsible for his daughter’s death, and what to do with those people once he finds them. At one point in the film, Stamp’s character, the Limey of the title, says:

“You got to make a choice: When to do something, and when to let it go. When it matters, and when it don’t. … Bide your time and everything becomes clear, and you can act accordingly.”

You can apply this to any creative undertaking. Whether you’re creating a painting, starting a business, or designing a board game, your creative vision should always be your guide. That means you must first have a creative vision. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Define your vision: What is the fundamental purpose of your work? If you had to summarize your project in one baseline goal, what would it be?

Define your flexibility: This is something you’ll have to figure out as you go along. At every step during your project, what changes align with your goal, and what changes do not? These might be your own revisions, or changes suggested by others. To succeed, you must get out of the way. Don’t resist changes to your work out of vanity or insecurity. Stay connected with your vision. This is how you’ll “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”

Re-define your vision: Time and experience may alter your vision. That’s all right, just be aware of it and keep your work consistent with that vision.

Decide when the work is complete: Also not an easy thing to do.

Photo of typed pages with revisions in blue ink
Revising is not fun but a necessary step in fulfilling your vision

Whatever your creative work, you may need to spend a lot of time contemplating your vision before it’s fully formed. As the Limey says, “Bide your time and everything becomes clear…” There may even be projects you should discard because they don’t fulfill your overall goals or because better opportunities await. That’s a topic for another day, but, just as the Gambler told us, you have to “know when to walk away, and know when to run.”

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