Let’s look at the problem with the ultimate measure of them all: whether or not you’ve “arrived” as an “official” writer, painter, filmmaker or whatever you’re aspiring to be.
This is part of an unfortunate tendency to focus on the nouns, rather than the verbs of creative work. For example, “sculptor,” “dancer,” and “singer” – all of those titles are nouns. The corresponding verbs are the actual activities of sculpting, dancing and singing.
Focusing on being a creative noun rather than doing a creative verb can be extremely counterproductive. Let’s say your passion is painting. If you’re focused on being a painter, you might end up waiting for someone to bestow that title upon you before you start painting in earnest – the very activity that would warrant the title in the first place!
But the problems don’t end there. Let’s say you get your title, and now you think of yourself as a painter. Well, what about writing or sculpting? Those aren’t things a painter would do. So, if you only conceive of yourself as being a painter, you might avoid writing or sculping. As a result, you’ll restrict your creativity.
And here’s the ultimate rub: even if every critic and colleague on Earth hails you as an official, bona fide Painter with a capital-P (or whatever title you’re craving), you’re never going to really “arrive” as a creative person. That’s because the journey of a creative life doesn’t follow a linear path, beginning with a point A and ending with a point B. It’s more of never-ending circle.
For instance, let’s say you’re a writer. Every day you sit down to write, you’re confronted with the same basic task over and over again: filling the blank page in front of you with words. And as soon as you finish one piece of work, you’re always confronted by the same question: What’s next?
That’s as true for the most famous writers in the world as it is for the guy scribbling away in obscurity in his basement. And it’s a truth that will never change. No matter how experienced or successful you become, there will always be another blank page to fill; the question is whether you’ll show up to fill it.
Alright, so you need to focus more on the verbs and less on the nouns of your creative work. But how do you actually do that?
Well, if you want to take a master class on the subject, just watch some young children doing art. They’re natural-born experts at valuing verbs over nouns. Not only could they hardly care less about being an official artist, but they often don’t even care about the final product of their work!
Why the indifference? Well, for young children, art is a form of play. And play is something we do for its own sake, rather than the sake of something else, like results, money or praise. When we’re playing, these external considerations become beside the point.
By tuning them out, we’re able to focus solely on the activity at hand. And when we’re doing creative work, that means we’re able to explore our ideas freely, without concern for what anyone else might think or how “good” the results might be.
That’s why a child-like sense of playfulness is one of the keys to creativity. To foster this sense of playfulness, try creating a piece of work – and then immediately destroying it! Is it digital? Delete it. Musical? Don’t record it. Physical? Throw it away – or even burn it, if you’re feeling especially dramatic!
The point is to detach yourself from the results. You can take this one step further and purposefully make a piece of work as bad as you possibly can. Draw the most hideous drawing. Sing the most annoying song. Write the most banal poem.
Finally, if you really want to reconnect with your inner-child, try playing with some actual children. Don’t have any? Become one! For example, like the writer Lawrence Weschler, you could pick up a set of building blocks to play with whenever you need a creative escape. What better way to work through a mental block than some actual, physical blocks?
Imagine if you could magically make your life ten times cooler than it currently is. Your neighborhood, your home, your workplace, your friends – every element of your day-to-day reality has been instantly upgraded.
If you could live that life, do you think it would take your creativity to the next level? Do you think the ordinariness of your current reality is the main thing holding you back? Many people fall into this trap. They think that if only their circumstances were more extraordinary, their creative work would be more extraordinary too – as if the one depended on the other.
But there are plenty of great artists whose boring lives provide living proof that you can do remarkable work in even the most unremarkable circumstances. Not only that, but you can mine those very circumstances for your creative material – finding the magical elements hidden inside the mundane aspects of everyday life.
The comic book writer Harvey Pekar provides a case in point. He spent most of his adulthood working as a file clerk at a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. But not only was he able to write incredible comic books despite his lackluster job; he used that job as his source material for his books, collecting stories about his workplace experiences.
Wherever you find yourself, there’s magic if you look for it – but, by the same token, you have to actually look for it in order to find it. And that means paying close attention to the world around you. That’s how you can notice the special little details that people would normally overlook.
Unfortunately, modern life encourages us to spend most of our time rushing around, practically oblivious to our surroundings. To get into the habit of slowing down and paying attention to them, here’s a simple exercise you can do.
Just get a pencil and a sketchpad, sit down and draw something at an art museum or in your immediate environment. Take your time and study your subject closely. The art critic Peter Clothier advocates spending an entire hour just looking at your subject, before spending another hour drawing it. You don’t have to go quite that far, but the point is to really slow down.
And don’t worry if you’re not any “good” at drawing. This exercise is for anyone. After all, the objective isn’t to create a beautiful picture; it’s simply to practice your observation skills.
When you notice you’re doing something that’s making you or the people around you miserable, what should you do? In your personal life, the answer is obvious: reevaluate your behavior and try to change it for the better.
That’s just as true of creative work, despite an unfortunately popular myth to the contrary. Call it the myth of the tortured artist. According to this myth, if you produce great art, it somehow compensates, excuses or even necessitates unhappiness. You can fall into addiction or be a total jerk to your family – it doesn’t matter as long as your work is amazing. Indeed, the darkness in your life can even be a good thing for your creativity; it gives you some demons to wrestle with.
But besides just being a dubious way of thinking about morality, this is also a totally wrongheaded way of looking at our creative work. Ultimately, the point of that work is to make our lives better. After all, if it’s not increasing the total of happiness in our lives, what’s the point of doing it?
To put the point another way, our creative work is something that’s supposed to serve our lives – not the other way around. If you’re sacrificing other people’s happiness or your own well-being on the altar of creativity, you’re getting the whole purpose of it backward. And in that case, it’s time to do some serious reevaluation.
Remember: you don’t have to do creative work. From volunteering at a soup kitchen to tutoring kids in math, there are many other worthwhile things you could do with your life. If it’s become a source of misery, maybe you should step away from your work and try out one of these alternatives, at least for a spell. The central message of this notwithstanding, you shouldn’t “keep going” if where you’re going is down a hole – especially if you’re dragging other people down with you.
Now, if you’re just struggling through a rough patch and your creative work is usually a source of joy, then, yes, by all means, please keep going. Hopefully, the tips you’ve learned in the post will help you out. Just remember: the world needs another good friend, parent, mentor, citizen and overall human being a whole lot more than it needs yet another tortured artist.
Take care of yourself and the people around you, and keep going toward the light, wherever it might be.
Our creativity will always ebb and flow, but there are many things we can do to revive, protect and promote it. Establishing a routine, disconnecting from distractions and making lists can help us focus on our work, make sure we show up for it and give us some direction with it. Tidying up our workspace, taking a nap and stopping to pay attention to our surroundings can help us find inspiration. And gifting our work, avoiding fixations on money and popularity, and reconnecting with a sense of playfulness can help us remember the ultimate purpose of creativity, which is to make our lives better.
So try this out when you hit a “wall”, take a walk. When you’re stuck on something or just feeling down about your work, your life or the world at large, there are few things that can help you clear your head, gain some perspective and reinvigorate your spirits better than a good walk.
By removing yourself from the screens and busyness that dominate modern life, and by getting yourself outside and moving at a leisurely pace, you’re giving yourself a solid block of time to think through your problems, reconnect to your senses and observe all the good things that are still happening in this world. Even if your mind is troubled and the headlines are terrible, the birds are still singing and the clouds are still rolling overhead. While enjoying their company, you’ll be following the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wallace Stevens Charles Dickens, Ludvig van Beethoven, Bob Dylan and many other creative thinkers and artists who have known and praised the value of a nice walk.
Check out my related post: How to get out of a creative rut?