On Creativity

I’ve been journaling pretty regularly for the last year or so. It’s been really nice. It helps me appreciate all the good things in my life and serves as a creative outlet of sorts — especially knowing that there’s only one person in the audience. Plus, there’s something really rewarding about leafing through a physical book filled with words I actually penned with my own hand.

Last time I posted here, I wrote about leaving social media, amongst other things. That’s not entirely true. I still have a penchant for mindlessly surfing reddit and Hacker News. It’s a habit I’d very much like to avail myself of. At any rate, one of the articles I’ve stumbled upon recently on Hacker News is a short blog piece titled “Consume less, create more”. The Hacker News discussion on the post resembles a lot of the thoughts I’ve had about the nature of creativity and media consumption.

One of my own personal roadblocks to being creative is this notion that I feel like the stuff I make just isn’t good enough. I’ve stopped myself from pursuing all sorts of creative endeavors before I even begin because there’s a gap between what I want to be able to make and my ability to make that thing. There’s a lovely monologue by Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life, where he talks about this very phenomenon:

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

Ira’s take on creativity is something that coalesces with the central themes in a lot of the books I’ve read this year. In the meeting place between Cal Newport’s Deep Work, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct is the idea that you need to keep doing something, even if you don’t want to in this particular moment, if you want to get good at it or make it part of your life. For me, this has been true of diet, exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep (Thanks, Matthew Walker, for writing Why We Sleep!).

Lately, I’ve been nudging myself to create more. Journaling, of course, has been a staple of my creativity, but I’ve also been goofing around with a Korg Kaossilator in my spare time. When I started with the Kaossilator, I was bad at it. Bad with a capital “B”. I’m still bad at it, but I am starting to get the hang of it. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve crested the hill at the beginning of learning how to do something where I can enter the flow state. There are times now where I will just lose myself for an hour jamming out.

And, really, hitting that flow state is really what creativity’s all about. One of my biggest beefs with social media has been that it’s turned this aspect of creativity on its head. Instead of creating for creating’s sake, the mechanisms of these sites push us into creating for the acceptance of our peers. Instead of getting into a creative flow, it feels like we’re saddled with anxiety over whether people will like the things we make.

There’s an indie game developer, Jeff Vogel, who runs a two-person game development studio, Spiderweb Software, with his wife. I’ve stumbled upon their games by way of a blog post of his, “Why All Of Our Games Look Like Crap.” The discussion around the Internet about his post has been many things. I’d characterize it as somewhat supportive, but also rather abrasive.

Avernum He’s right, though. Avernum is not a pretty game.

The interesting thing, I find, about Vogel’s post and the discussion it started is the rift between the people making stuff happen and the people who’ve internalized a sort of negativity that’s characteristic around the Internet. It brings to my mind a quote by Pablo Picasso: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” The doers, the people who haven’t been paralyzed by this ever-present negativity, have figured out how to remain artists.

Jeff Vogel has found a way to eke out a living making games he enjoys making for 25 years. That’s incredibly impressive to me and, honestly, an inspiration. After reading Vogel’s post, I tried out their game, Avernum: Escape from the Pit, and have enjoyed it immensely. All the more because I know that it’s the direct result of pushing past all the negativity and just making stuff happen.

Here’s to all the doers — the artists, the writers, the game programmers, the musicians, and everyone else who’s found their muse! As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in A Man Without a Country:

Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.