Akin to wonder, there’s something special about finding things in the world to be delighted about. Even for those of us who explore the dark side in our work, there’s still room to collect elements of the delightful we find around us. The gloomiest day has something charming to find.
This isn’t to say we need to try to exclude feelings or perceptions, nor feelings outside it. Just that it helps spark creation. Adds meaning. Inspires the wonder.
I try to look for them like jewels in the dark, moments of pleasure, in Kate Bush’s words.
When sense fails, that is, when the normal reality isn’t getting you anywhere, you can always turn to nonsense.
We get stuck. Making things isn’t always easy. Rather, making things is only easy sometimes. For moments when you’re really stuck, some weird disconnected idea or solution will present itself. I don’t mean anything magical, it’s just the flitting, mercurial nature of our brains. We’re good at stifling those thoughts, however. That’s why we so often turn to children as sources of unbounded creativity. They don’t have skills yet, but they also don’t understand writer’s block.
It’s a habit to tamp down, repress, dismiss the nonsense that giddily bubbles up when we’re really stuck on a creative problem. Next time, don’t. Put down the weird, crazy thing. The thing that makes no sense. What have you got to lose? You’re already stuck, and you can always wipe it out and do it over when a better, sensical idea comes along.
Or, if you’re truly lucky, the nonsense fits, and you might have done something new, connected elements that never have been joined before.
I used to play a lot of Minecraft. Or, rather, I played it for extended periods when I fired it up. I played vanilla (for the uninitiated, “vanilla” means the unmodified, straight-out-of-the-download-folder version), with texture packs, mod packs, and custom DIY mods I threw together. One of the first things I did when I got an iPad was download the mobile version and play a half-hour of it.
And really that’s all I needed.
The first day and night cycle in Minecraft is compelling in the same way as a blank canvas or page. Everything is new, you have a whole world to explore and build. If you want. Or not. You can do absolutely nothing, just wander around, watch the sun arc over you, splash in the water, head south.
As you walk, break things, add bits here and there, the world is changed, new possibilities and vistas are created as you move to the edges of what you’ve seen and what you’ve made.
Even if I never go very far beyond that first day. the hidden and limitless possibilities ingrained in a fresh world—a fresh game—are intoxicating. The cool thing is that it’s always there, waiting.
You can always start again.
Still so often seen as a sign of weakness, niceness and kindness can be helpful to your artistic work. The idea that you have to be ruthless in some ways, or visibly tough, or relentlessly claw your way to the top is becoming outdated, too. Being generous of spirit isn’t just for other people, either, it’s potentially helpful for you, too.
Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.
— Annie Dillard, The Abundance: Narrative Essays, Old and New
In that vein, I’ve been thinking about my feelings for and of Ready Player One in anticipation of the upcoming film. There’s plenty of hate out there for it, as well as slavering affection, and it’d be easy to take a haughty or dismissive position for the things I found . . . less than ideal. Chris Isaac, writing for Tor offers a thoughtful perspective.
Why So Much Backlash? Ready Player One is Basically Twilight for Nerds
Lindsey Ellis does the same for the Twilight series, and you could do so much worse than viewing all her videos.
So give it away, no hoarding. Not “don’t get paid,” but “share the secrets.” Austin Kleon advocates pretty much this thing on his site and in his books.
Reconsider how much we should trash works that we don’t resonate with, rather than considering why they work—or don’t—for us.
The zeitgeist is telling me the world has been moving in a meaner direction (by which I think I mean the structures of power) for some time, and it seems right to be part of the wave pushing back against it.
More on the Yoda metaphor front: reality isn’t always what it seems. We see mostly the surface of everything, membranes of stuff our senses feed on. So it follows that we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about what’s beneath.
The opposite is true of our creative work. We make everything from the inside out, that is, starting with the idea and moving outward until the surface is whole and complete.
So, on the one hand, you need the structure of a piece to be solid, strong, interlocking, hidden. On the other, the skin is where life is most present: moving, shifting, full of color and texture.
You need balance, as in most of existence. Can’t focus only on one side of reality.
I did writing practice a lot just out of high school. Writing practice, if you’re not familiar, is a concept I got from Nathalie Goldberg and her book, Writing Down the Bones. The idea is that you should have a timed session every day, maybe 15–30 minutes, where you write without stopping the whole period. No matter what, your hand—she wrote longhand, so feel free to make that plural—never stops putting words down on paper.
Many were the mornings I started with, “I don’t know what to write, this sucks, why am I even doing this?” But as anyone who’s done a regular practice of any kind can tell you, it doesn’t last, the blank befuddlement. Ideas come to you like they do all day long, visions and phrases and memories. If you stay disciplined and keep doing the thing, your mind is soon distracted by its own wild meanderings, and you’re there to describe them.
The point of practice isn’t to produce beautiful, finished work. It’s to get used to how it feels to do the thing it’s referencing. Practice is the stand-in for the real thing. It hones your instincts, builds muscle memory, encourages your mind to flow freely and build up a store of concepts and understanding.
Maybe it works with anything. Basketball? Practice ticks at least the first two boxes, and there’s a tangible benefit to having a kind of library of moves at the ready when you play the game.
Habit is to build a body of work over time in steady, small increments. But implement a practice routine, and you can be ever more ready to work on your novel or painting or team sport.
Information wants to be free. I’m a sucker for contemporary takes on free-exchange-of-ideas or gift economy idealism or similar openness, despite my suspicion and wariness of hippies and Boomer free love types. I apologize if such stereotypes offend you. My biases should be open, too.
The ability of anyone and everyone to start and maintain an online creative presence is simultaneously its triumph and its downfall. When I was making a comic book in the mid-90s, I used to say (with a smirk I’d like to slap off my own face, looking back at it), “the best thing about comics is that anyone can do it. The worst thing about comics is that ANYone can do it.” But there was then, as now, always room for good work, stuff that was crafted with care and heart, work that was dedicated and sincere.
It’d be nice to be able to make at least a partial living on our creation. Hey, I’m working on that side of things, too. But, as Cory Doctorow is fond of saying, the biggest impediment to creators isn’t piracy—nor the huddled masses yearning to download for free—it’s obscurity. And there’s a big picture reason to get your work out there into the mix.
We thrive on stories, songs, and spectacle. Creations need to be shared. We all benefit from a large pool of human-made soup, sweet sour or salty as it may be. Ideas come from other ideas, all of it laid on the bricks of the past, from time immemorial, when the first beat was drummed, the first song sung, the first dance grooved, the first story told, the first drawings scratched onto rock. Sharing is imperative. And it’s utterly human.
Keeping work to yourself is spinning your wheels, so sooner is better than later. Habit is good, but if it all stays at home, we lose out on your part of the recipe.
Ooh, clickbaity. You know the answer, right? Here’s where I say, “There isn’t one. Only hard work and determination can move your art forward and to fruition,” and then I smugly sign off.
But no. That’d be some kind of cheesy cop-out. It’s not that there’s any single, simple secret to whatever anyway, there are heaps, piles, loads.
I was well involved in the New Age movement of the 80s & early 90s. Most of it I later tossed aside, but one thing quickly became abundantly (see what I did there?) clear: we are really good at coming up with prescriptives, keys, aphorisms, solutions, directives, proverbs, and maxims that sound like and feel like they’re true.
And they may be.
But they aren’t some holy or benevolent revealed wisdom, they’re from the same place any intuitive process comes from—inside us. And any one of us can make them into personal affirmations or principles.
Go ahead, make up a universal truth about creativity, and apply it to your practice. Irony abounds, because maybe this is the one true secret to unlocking your inner genius.
Or probably not. But it will keep you thinking about your work, and how you best accomplish it.
Balloon payments on a credit card can make your payoff quicker and less expensive. Same goes for creative habits.
Put in the minimum payment here and there and it’s fine, making the investment (kinda) is what’s important, skipping out results in penalties.
But if you do a little—or a lot—extra, it pays off in more than one way. You finish quicker. You feel a sense of progress. You may even be less stressed, who knows?
Your Friendly Neighborhood Metaphor-Man
Joe Versus the Volcano has a plethora of iconic, quotable moments. That may be its primary value, although it still hangs together pretty well, despite a wacky third act that feels like the first two went as far as they thought they could and dared it to out-goofball them.
Early on, there’s one of those where Joe’s boss is in the middle of a phone call seemingly on an infinite loop, thus:
All that smacks us in the face with the soul-draining nature of Joe’s terrible job. The argument sticks, though. At least, it stuck with me, because I’m never sure about the answer myself. Can I do the thing? Further, can I keep doing the thing? I can start making the piece. Can I actually do it? It’s fear again, doubt, the shadow, old faithful.
What’s the remedy? Pull out all the tropes!
- The answer is: don’t think about it.
- Judge later, or not at all.
- Start small and keep going.
Because if it’s possible for us to get in our own way, we will, and habit and taking just one more step can push that aside indefinitely.