The Uses of Anger

Anger is not a sustainable business plan.

If you want to start something…sure…use anger about the powers that be to get you off your ass and figure out a better way. But don’t count on that furious passion to drive you to the unattainable 21st Century Promised Land—mass wealth matched with inner peace.

What usually happens is you’ll have plenty of fire to “show them” at the outset. But whatever you wish to prove—be it a better, more human and focused publishing company or a more customer friendly plumbing supply business—isn’t going to end well. And yes, even if you sell your app for 19 billion dollars to Google. I’ve met some extraordinarily wealthy people in my day, and not a one was content. In fact, most of them only want to talk about when they were broke and how much fun they had before the big windfall.


Using anger to “show” is ego based. It’s all about YOU. Your wish to become “someone,” a figure to be reckoned with in your chosen field.

What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what the American Dream is all about? Bootstrapping yourself to the top?

Here’s the thing. You’ll probably be successful. You’ll put that book on The New York Times bestseller list. You’ll make that deal that gives you the exclusive distribution of the next big thing in elbow joints.

And at that moment, when you think your day has come when all of those people you wanted to prove something to will gaze their eyes your way and give you an affirmative and respective nod for a job well done…

No. One. Will. Care.

That’s not a bad thing either. In fact, it’s a great thing, a gift.

No one is tracking your career or keeping a running tally of how many hits or misses you’ve had in your day but you. Everyone is too busy tracking his own trajectory to waste time thinking about how amazing or brilliant or stupid or arrogant or ridiculous you are. Just think about whose career you’re tracking other than your own. No one’s, right?

And then there you will be, with some hollow victory that no one recognizes or appreciates least of all yourself. You’ll get no congratulatory emails. You’ll get no hearty handshakes from hail-fellows well met.

So you’ll press harder to put more books on bestseller lists or to get the best concession for PVC pipe. You’ll cut corners to get your product to market faster. You’ll make deals for the short term. You’ll reach the Forbes 400 list.

And one day, you’ll wake up and realize that you’ve become just like the thing you railed against when you started. There is no reason for your company to be other than that it is. And you are a clown with nothing to show for yourself but a big bank account, a string of failed relationships and perhaps a couple of miserable offspring.

So what can you do with all that anger? (And if you say that you are an artist and you aren’t angry about anything, I suggest you’re either lying to the world or to yourself).

Great artists transform their anger into stories. The anger helps them discover what’s important to them—what they value–and then they tell a story about that value. They recognize that they have to take their ego out of the equation in order for the story to effect change. That is, they have to find out why the story needs to be told-the theme.  If they focus on the fruits of that story–recognition, money etc.–the muse will pass them by and whisper in someone else’s ear.

Here’s an example of an artist bedeviled by inner demons who converted his inner rage and torment into art.

Richard Pryor told a story one night at New York’s Improv comedy club that epitomized his ability to convert his anger into a force to effect change. It’s told by his friend, comedian David Brenner, and is featured in the book Furious Cool by David Henry and Joe Henry. The bit centers on a stoned nine-year-old on the roof of a tenement building threatening to kill himself…

So a crowd gathers. There’s a white priest and a black minister and the white cops and gang members and the people screaming for him to jump…I think he even put the mayor in there somewhere. And of course Richie played all those parts, plus the nine-year-old kid. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen or heard in my life. He was such a great actor. When he became these people, he was those people. When he became the white cop who goes up and tries to talk him out of it, he was this white cop.

You know how Richie could do those great white voices: “Well, uh, what are you doing, son? Do you really want to jump?”

And when he became that nine-year-old boy, he was a nine-year-old boy on the precipice of a roof in Harlem ready to jump. And the kid was hysterically funny. The lines he came up with for this kid…

The routine went on for fifteen minutes…twenty minutes, whatever it was. And then Richie stops talking. He stares down like he’s up on top of this roof at the edge of the stage. And he jumps.

He jumps.

It ends with the nine-year-old boy, stoned, leaping off the roof and killing himself.

He [Pryor] lands hard with both feet on the floor and then walks off down the aisle, through the audience, in dead silence.

Richie took an audience where there were people wiping their faces with tears from laughing so hard, to people actually crying, all in a millisecond. It’s still the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen a comedian do.

It’s no secret today (back then not so much) that Richard Pryor grew up exactly like his nine-year-old creation. Do you think he thought that it was fair that brilliant young children are neglected everyday and left to be preyed upon by dark forces? Did that fact make him angry?

Now, do you think anyone in that audience saw unattended children in the street the same way after seeing that performance?

Richard Pryor is not on the earth anymore, but the people who saw that show (most of them privileged white people I’d suspect) changed. I guarantee it. And then they went home and taught their children what they learned at that Improv.

And that is how to use anger.

Posted in


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"


A Man At Arms is
on sale now!

Don't miss out on exclusive bonuses available to early buyers!


  1. Mary Doyle on March 14, 2014 at 6:37 am

    This post reminded me of something Steve said in last month’s “My First Three Novels” post: “I had given up on the fantasy that there was a brass ring, or a movie deal, or a rave review that was somehow going to change my life.” That resonated with me, and so did this post. At this point in my life the person I need to prove something to is me, i.e. “I did it. I finished.” I find that if I slip on my writing time, anger steps in and starts slapping me around until I get back on track. I know I am spending enough time writing when I feel calm and centered, and I am channeling the anger through the story. Thanks for a thought-provoking post Shawn, and for reminding us all about the genius of Richard Pryor – it was great seeing those old clips of his! I would have loved to have seen the bit described in “Furious Cool.”

  2. Micky Wolf on March 14, 2014 at 6:46 am

    Great post, Shawn. Given me a lot to ponder, that’s for sure. Takes the whole idea of ‘anger as fuel’ to a whole new level of potential for creating something of real (lasting) meaning and value. Thanks so much for sharing this perspective with us.

  3. cindylou on March 14, 2014 at 7:12 am

    Great piece, thanks for (yet again) getting my brain to access another motivation of creative alternatives.

  4. Stacy on March 14, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Really needed to hear this, Shawn. Thanks.

  5. Sandra on March 14, 2014 at 8:03 am

    I was chatting with with someone who had a slew of dumb jokes. On occasion they can be funny, but mostly they are just empty. I know him to be a deeply wounded person struggling with a great loss. I also know he is creative. My friends sorrow is deep and jokes are the slim blanket to provide comfort.

    Humor can be used as ruse, a mask to hide behind. But when used well it becomes a powerful tool for revelation of the human drama.

    I know I do myself a disservice when I let a wound fester. Life is rich.

  6. Aaron C on March 14, 2014 at 10:47 am

    “Everyone is too busy tracking his own trajectory to waste time thinking about how amazing or brilliant or stupid or arrogant or ridiculous you are.” <<– I don't know, Stephen… I'm actually tracking Vic Pizzolatto's career right now. 😉

    Fantastic article, as always. Thanks….

    • Aaron C on March 14, 2014 at 10:48 am

      That should be “Nic”… *sigh*

  7. ilona on March 14, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Excellent post…it’s liberating to be reminded that no one (except ourselves) is keeping score, and that mass wealth AND inner peace is an illusion.

  8. Pamela Seley on March 14, 2014 at 11:20 am

    It’s interesting how many people I know feel threatened by both anger and humor. In my opinion, both are forces of nature that can make change. No one cares about the clowns in the world because they sold out.

  9. Jim Woods on March 14, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks for this reminder Shawn. So good. I’m going to tape this up to help keep perspective.

    “No one is tracking your career or keeping a running tally of how many hits or misses you’ve had in your day but you.”

  10. Faye on March 14, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Worse for me than being ignored in success, is the glare of hatred. I know that jealousy is about the other people, I have compassion for their fear, but man, it takes courage to affront hatred. Even more so from those who one thinks have helped them struggle.

    I’ve used righteous anger to write on important things, like terrorism, murder of children, parents hurting their kids. In one case I self-published a short collection of these writings, and my writing partner of several years, whom I was sure understood – well that person hasn’t purchased or read my book. I’ve remained loyal, but sense a distancing that I want to believe is coincidental that’s this person is busy; but my gut knows.

    Thanks Shawn for a wise post that briefly douses my fire of lonely writer-artist. We’re all in it together.

  11. Dennis on March 15, 2014 at 6:02 am

    Great post Shawn
    You can use anger to change your things, but not how people will see you. Anger will consume you from the inside. Its a great start fuel, and that’s all what it is – a start fuel. Other people don’t care about your succes or failures. Driving on anger or any other emotion is not useful. Feelings of selfworth and loving the proces of creating is what matters. And those feelings belong to the muse…

  12. James Thomas Canali on March 16, 2014 at 6:05 pm

    Shawn thank you for this! Really! I think we all appreciate your taking us into our own angers by writing about anger. This is resistance, but can’t we turn it on it’s head and use fear, anger as a creative material to make our art…? I’m thinking so…And I’m going out to do it.

Leave a Comment