Six Truths About Creativity

I've spent the vast majority of my life pondering the nature of my own creativity. What the heck makes me creative? Am I even creative, or am I just reverberating all the input I receive daily (i.e. a hack)? Why can't I just sit down anytime I want and draw or write something? When, exactly, are people going to figure out I'm a total sham and ask for their money back?

Just seeing a list of questions like that, you couldn't possibly get the entire perspective of just how agonizing the entire concept of creativity has been for me (and almost every other creative person I've ever met). It's literally the most time consuming part of my day - figuring out HOW to be creative. If I could just answer that one question, I could get out of my own way and produce much, much more than I currently do (and actually earn my pay).

I won't say that I've figured it all out, but I do believe I've found certain aspects of creativity to be true for me, and I'd like to share them with you.

Truth #1: We're not alone.
 I've spent a tremendous amount of time reading articles by and watching interviews with other creative types. I was recently sent this episode of ScreenWipe with Charlie Booker (season 5, episode 3, part 1) where he interviews television writers about the entire process of writing:

(This is actually part 1 of 4 -- and trust me, all 4 are worth watching)

It woke me up and made me realize something: We all feel like frauds, we all feel lucky, and we're all stimeyed by the blank page. We procrastinate, we ponder, and we start our projects with absoultely no direction. We hate our first drafts - no, check that, we LOATHE our first drafts. And yet, we're all still doing it. There's something comforting in that.

Truth #2: Get comfortable with your limitations. For me, the second I begin working on a new story or draft or layout or design, the first things that hit me are "I don't know how to do what I want to do," very closely followed by "Then how the hell am I going to do it?" and "I guess I won't..." This of course absoultely destroys the creative process. I've found that if I go into things knowing I don't know how to do them YET, but part of accomplishment is learning, and part of the creativity is in figuring out ways around my roadblocks, if I stick with it, it'll get finished... And often better than I first imagined, because in the process of learning how to do what it is I thought I wanted to do, I figured out there was a better way to do it.

A great personal example of this is my story Total Prosers. I started off telling the story of making a huge mistake with a friendship I had with a student teacher, and ended up telling the story of what being an 18 year old boy is all about. I had no idea that's what I was doing at the time, I was just flailing and searching for ways to get across how the situation could have possibly gotten that bad that quickly... But I ended up writing a microcosm of high school life at the time. I'm still very proud of that story, mostly because I surprised myself so much by it. Other examples can be found in the "Most Popular" tab above -- EVERY SINGLE POST in that page started off with one question: "How the HELL am I going to write this?"

Truth #3: There's no "bad" creativity.  Sure, there's definitely bad productions. There's bad writing, bad drawing, bad layouts, bad music... But your imagination is your imagination. Just because it didn't come out right doesn't mean the idea, concept and content is bad. The technical details of how you produce it may need work -- but that's actually the easy part. It just takes practice. And the beauty of it is, once it exists in whatever form -- bad or otherwise -- now it can be edited. And editing is actually where all the magic, luster and shine comes from.

And just because you feel it's not unique or strange enough doesn't mean it sucks, it's what's speaking to you right now. Bring the voice to life the best you can, and if the end result sucks, fine - put it in file 13 and do the next thing. But don't tell your inner voice to shut up just because your conscious mind is in conflict. Sometimes the whispers may sound all wrong, but end up being right even when you think they're not.

Truth #4: Comfort is paramount. Being absolutely comfortable in your environment is key to letting your conscious mind turn off and allowing the inner voices to be heard. In my own experience, everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - matters, from the placement of my monitors and keyboard and Wacom tablet, to where my packet of gum and drink coasters sit, to the "sound" of the empty room based on where the furniture is placed. If one little thing is off, I'm off.

That's not to say the same will be true for you. In fact, you may like changing environments, noise, clutter, whatever. That's you. So whatever it is that makes you feel comfortable, in the right place, in the right moment, do that. Being aware of your surroundings is not the same as being 'in tune' with them. Noticing the way light bounces off a shelf and getting inspiration for some prosaic brilliance is not the same as constantly looking at that stupid shadow and hating it and wanting to change it. Get comfy.

It's changed since this photo, with Akira cels framed and on the walls, and actual books on the  shelves, but this is a decent panorama of my studio from when I first moved in

It took a few years to convince my wife that this was the case. She's not a creative type, per se - she's very analytical, so for her, working simply means getting the figures necessary and getting to work. She'd laugh at me when I insisted that I needed a shelf in a particular spot, or that the color of the walls in my office just weren't right. But she loves me, and she understands my idiosynchricities. She knows that, even though I've spent a fortune arranging my office and redecorating and putting monitors in just the right place, some days I just have to go up to a Starbucks and sit in a strange environment to break out of a cycle. And she's okay when I pull all the books off the shelves in the library and cart certain ones up to put on the bookshelves in my office.

She gets me.

You need to be gotten. If you live alone, you need to understand yourself - and give yourself permission to be as essentric as you need to be to be creative. If you live with others, you've got to convince them of the same thing - but it's not about convincing them to let you rearrange things or paint things or put things in your environment, it's about convincing them that you're you, and you work your own way. This is paramount, because fighting battles about the color of walls may result in a one-time allowance to paint, and you'll always carry that battle with you. Everytime you look at your walls, you'll remember it - and that's needless distraction. Convincing someone to let you be you (within reason, of course... If you require rotting frog corpses to be creative, I'm thinking that's a bit much) will allow you the same freedom, but without any guilt.

And ultimately, what do they care what color you paint the walls? In that case, you need to also get a door with a lock and close it. But ultimately, so long as you're happy and producing, that's what matters.

Truth #5: ...But don't wait until you're comfortable. Comfort is important. But you can't lounge around waiting until something hits you. After all, no one is walking the streets of your neighborhood, going door to door asking people "Are you a writer? We're looking for a writer..." You've got to go after it and produce, no matter what.

I've found that, in 99% of cases, work begets work. Momentum is something you usually have to build - it's very, very rare to sprint off the creative starting block and set world records. Most days, you just have to start with a light jog and build up to your optimum speed. So if you're feeling stuck or dead, just start noodling. Write an outline - if you don't know your whole story yet, just outline the parts you see in your head. If you're drawing, doodle faces or hand gestures or leg positions or staplers or gum trees until something hits you. If laying something out, just go with the standard everyday grid and get to work - find ways to break it, or find ways to make it better. Just get moving.

Truth #6: No one else can tell you the secret to your own creativity. Advice is helpful. Guidance points us in the right direction. And I can give you advice on being creative all day long. But what works for me isn't going to necessarily work for you. I spent years reading Dave Sim and Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman and Otomo Katsurhio talk about the types of paper they draw on, the pens and brushes they use, their writing inspirations... And what I found is that I really like writing notes by hand, but prose on a keyboard. I don't like drawing on anything other than plain old bristol board, and no books about counting birds one at a time has ever helped me actually sit down and produce a story (although, if you haven't read it already, PLEASE read Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott -- it's the single greatest book on fostering and building the creative process I've ever read).

Everything about your creativity is your own. Starting by emulating the masters of your field is a great place to start when perfecting techniques and the actual craft of your art, but as far as creativity... That comes from inside you.

Recommended Reading:

Every single one of these books sits on my immediate shelf -- the shelf just to my left, where I can grab them at a moment's notice and flip through them for inspiration, guidance and understanding. Buy them all.

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Keron

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

The Cerebus Guide To Self Publishing by Dave Sim (This is out of print, so find a torrent of the .cbr)

On Writing by Stephen King