Michael Dante DiMartino explores the trials and triumphs of changing art forms and creating his new novel, Rebel Genius.
DiMartino is known across the geek world for co-creating the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Legend of Korra. His new middle-grade novel, Rebel Genius, follows a boy named Giacomo in a Renaissance-inspired world where the creation of art is literally magic — but that magic is ruthlessly banned.
Blending rich world building with cheeky humor and indelibly memorable characters, Rebel Genius is a compelling quest that explores power, grief, love, and the creative spirit that makes us human.
Hypable will be hosting a live Q&A with Michael Dante DiMartino on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 1:00 p.m. EST/10:00 a.m. PST. You can participate by writing in questions during the live event, leaving a comment on this post, or using the hashtag #RebelGeniusQA on Twitter!
The Myth of Creative Bliss: How I learned to make Resistance an ally, not an enemy
By Michael Dante DiMartino
Tackling a creative project is exciting and full of promise, but once we begin, the challenges and self-doubt we encounter can often derail the best of intentions. But once we identify Resistance, and recognize it as part of the creative process, we become more empowered to meet our creative goals.
Into the unknown: From animation to publishing
In December of 2014, the series finale of The Legend of Korra aired. After more than a decade spent breathing life into the Avatar universe, I decided to step away from my nearly twenty-year career in animation and transition onto a new creative path, one that was unfamiliar and uncertain: I planned to write my first novel.
I already had the concept: art as magic. And I had ten years’ worth of notes, ideas, and character sketches to pull from. I planned to call on my own experience as an artist to tell a story in which a group of young artists would set off on a high-stakes adventure, confronting dangerous creatures and villains along the way.
With my intention clear, I couldn’t wait to get started. I envisioned myself blissfully writing for hours, lost in this new fantastical world. Each morning, I fired up my computer, sipped my coffee, and sat down to write. But those blissful moments? They were elusive and impossible to sustain.
Instead, I found my breath shortening, my heartbeat quickening, and my body tensing. Rather than joy, I was met with its opposite: anxiety (and its cousin, overwhelming self-doubt). Why did I ever leave animation? I asked myself. Who was I to think I could write a book? My writing is awful, I told myself over and over. No one is going to want to read this crap.
Shaking hands with Resistance
I’d felt that unease before, but because I was trying something new, the anxiety stabbed more sharply and forcefully. After reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, I learned this feeling has a name: Resistance. It is the embodiment of all our anxieties and self-doubts. It’s the voice that insists we’re not good enough or smart enough or creative enough.
And that voice can be loud. At times, deafening.
But when I put a name to Resistance, I found I could lessen its power. I couldn’t make it go away entirely, and as it turned out, I didn’t want to. Resistance became an essential part of my creative process. Identifying it helped illuminate what would become the theme of my book: How through creative acts, we have the power to transform ourselves and society.
‘Rebel Genius’ as metaphor for the creative process
In the Renaissance-inspired world of Rebel Genius, we meet an aspiring artist named Giacomo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the sewers underneath the city of Virenzia. One night, after surviving a violent attack, Giacomo discovers that he has a Genius — a birdlike creature that acts as his protector and muse. At first, Giacomo is thrilled to have his own Genius, but immediately panic sets in. Because in Giacomo’s society, there is only one artist who is allowed to have a Genius — the empire’s leader, the authoritarian Supreme Creator.
Giacomo is discovered by three other children who also have Geniuses and they bring him to a secret studio where he studies with an old, blind artist. Giacomo learns how to use his Genius to tap into the energy in the universe and manifest it into powerful, glowing shapes.
He also discovers he has a unique ability to access a potent creative source called the Wellspring. In Rebel Genius, the Wellspring is the primordial ooze of creation and the source of all that we taste, smell, touch, see, and hear. When Giacomo accidentally opens it the first time, he is met with a maelstrom of foul odors, deafening booms, and freezing winds.
Fearing its power, Giacomo steers clear of the Wellspring, though over the course of the book, he learns more about it and how to gain some control over it. Metaphorically, the Wellspring represents the creative process – a swirling cacophony of sound and color that an artist must learn to tame.
After realizing the scope of his talents, Giacomo has a unique insight into the location of the first of three Sacred Tools – powerful objects that have the potential to create or destroy. But when he is asked to go on this quest, Giacomo balks. He doesn’t think he’s ready. He’s inexperienced, unsure of himself, and full of anxiety.
Trust the process
Living a creative life means we will inevitably have to embrace uncertainty. When we embark on a new creative project (or a new adventure, like Giacomo), it is because we have a burning desire to know something or to discover something about ourselves and the world we live in. But when we set out, we have only a vague idea where we are headed. We may have a destination in mind, but achieving that goal can often feel daunting and overwhelming. Maybe it’s safer to sit out the journey, we tell ourselves.
And if we do muster up the courage to take those first steps on the creative path, you can be sure that Resistance will be lurking around every turn. It will try to frighten you away from your dreams. Giacomo faces vicious creatures and cunning villains on his adventure, which causes him to question himself and whether the goal he seeks is worth the cost. That’s his form of meeting Resistance.
For me, Resistance appeared with each sentence and at the start of every chapter. Some days I was able to fight past the Resistance and write pages I was satisfied with. Other times, Resistance won and I had to regroup and come back to fight it again the next day.
I realized there is no shortcut around the anxiety (believe me, I looked). Any time we forge into the unknown, it is impossible to predict what will happen, so there is bound to be fear. We have no idea if Resistance is going to trounce us, or we will subdue it. In order to continue creating, we have to trust that no matter how hard Resistance tries, it won’t prevail in the long run.
Finishing the book and seeing the first printed copy of it was a proud moment. I felt like I had weathered Resistance and won, or at least survived. But the war isn’t over. Rebel Genius is the first book in a series and a few weeks after completing it, I settled in to tackle the sequel. And sure enough, my old nemesis, Resistance, was waiting for me once again.
But this time, I’m more prepared for it. And even though my writing day is still fraught with self-doubt, I try not to let Resistance get the better of me. My intention is keep moving forwards on this new creative path. I’ll face Resistance whenever it appears and remind myself that the reason it’s there is because I’m venturing into new, creative territory.
And that is exactly where I want to be.