For most people, when they think about creativity, it conjures up images of exploration and fun and freedom. The day-to-day life of the creative, however, is far less exciting.
Case in point, I was studying (it’s how I spend most of my days, not writing frenetically on my typewriter in my upstairs writer’s loft, even though I actually do have an upstairs writer’s loft — it’s way too hot up there, and I feel guilty running the a/c). So, yeah, I was studying — at the kitchen table — when I came across this quote in the book Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity (a very unglamorous book from 1995 that reads like a scientific paper; I love it).
Here’s the quote:
Fundamental discoveries arise only from the efforts of a single individual who is able to follow any fruitful paths suggested by his or her intuition. — Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity
The way I interpreted that quote?
Creativity is a slog.
“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.” — Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Trying to establish a career as a creative? Need more proof of the insanity of your decision?
Here goes. Just a few of the less glamorous aspects of the creative life:
You have to be okay being by yourself.
This comes in a variety of flavors.
First, when it comes to most creative endeavors, you have to go it alone.
While there are benefits to collaboration, only deep work by the individual can produce true invention and discovery. For the amateur creator, this is the most inhumane form of torture. We’ll list all the excuses we can manage (and come up with some clever ones at that), all to avoid the pain of sitting in a chair and doing our work.
Sure, there are times for a sounding board, when you have to hear your ideas coming back at you in order to get out of your own head, but you know when you’re stalling and when you’re problem-solving. There’s a difference, and even those exchanges should be brief and might be better accomplished with a walk around the block (with the added benefit of exercise and getting your blood flowing).
Eventually, you just have to do the work … on your own. The real work can only begin when you shut out the world and go within.
Sometimes we balk at embarking on an enterprise because we’re afraid of being alone. We feel comfortable with the tribe around us; it makes us nervous going off into the woods on our own. — The War of Art
Second, you have to put your work on display and have it judged by the world while you stand back and watch … again, alone.
“When [someone] produces an original idea, it immediately makes him or her a minority of one.” — Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity
You’ve made something. Actually built something. From nothing. That takes guts. Then you have to share it. With an audience. An audience who will actually see it and judge it and criticize it and critique it and mock it (and, sure, maybe use it and love it and tell the whole world about it, but you’re too obsessed with the “judging it” part to think about that).
“Evolution has programmed us to feel rejection in our guts. This is how the tribe enforced obedience, by wielding the threat of expulsion. Fear of rejection isn’t just psychological; it’s biological.” — The War of Art
Read that first quote again: When [someone] produces an original idea, it immediately makes him or her a minority of one. Original. Minority. One. By definition, you are excluded from the group immediately upon creating anything new or different, and instinctively, exclusion means death.
Third, creativity (by its very nature) tends to isolate.
“An examination of almost any of the many lists of personality characteristics of highly creative individuals suggests that it may be almost inevitable that such individuals will alienate their peers: they show independence from others; they are productive of novel and unconventional solutions; they display a preference for new and difficult problems, energy and alertness, a high degree of technical knowledge and academic achievement.” — Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity
Basically, that means you’re weird. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE WEIRD. You don’t love weird. Specifically, you don’t love feeling weird and being weird as a creative, at least not all the time. Sure, it’s fun after you’ve created something and you’re proud of it. THEN you can be weird and relish in that fact, but not before, not when you’re just beginning. You can’t help it, though. It comes with the territory. Creativity = weird, and that feels weird.
But there’s more.
You have to be able to focus.
No, I mean, focus. To the point that you don’t eat for five hours and don’t notice. To the point that people start checking on you and become concerned that you’re still alive. To the point that your dog learns to moonwalk in front of you in order to get your attention so that you’ll take him outside.
But that’s the good kind of focus, when you’re in flow and can shut out the world and forget what year it is. Most days, you wish you could forget to eat. Instead, what you do is check Facebook for the fiftieth time and eventually realize that it’s 11 AM and you still haven’t written a single word.
As a creative, you have to learn how to focus, like furiously, forgetting-the-world-exists, Jocko-Willink-kind-of-disciplined, surgical-level focus. It’s painful. It’s the kind of thing Cal Newport described in his book Deep Work: it’s “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit.”
You have to be okay with tedium and be able to push through boredom.
How many times can you adjust in your chair? Or tap your fingers on your desk while you think about how to do this? Or rearrange your work space? How long can you stare at the wall? Or look up random facts on Wikipedia? Or scroll images on Instagram? Or manage to sit still? And keep yourself in this room? And concentrate? Until you finish this work?!
Albert Einstein. J.K. Rowling. Walt Disney. Leonardo Da Vinci. When you think of their creative careers, do you imagine any level of tedium or monotony at all? Do you imagine Maya Angelou, working from her hotel room (her writing ritual of choice) and being bored? (Actually, I’ve read that she brought a deck of cards with her to the hotel and played solitaire, so maybe she was bored.)
You have to be able to push through discomfort.
“Creative people forever test the limits of their abilities, the situation itself, and their reserve resources.” — Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity
With this article, for example, I’m pushing my abilities. The outline alone was nearly twelve hundred words. It was too much. I quit yesterday (after working on it for eight hours), only to second-guess it for the rest of the evening. I picked it back up this morning. It’s, at this point, a thousand words longer, and I’ve been working on it for another eight hours now.
With each piece, I try to push the limit, do things in a different way, a better way (is there a better way?).
It’s not comfortable. It’s the opposite of that. I want to quit. This piece might not make sense when I’m done with it, I keep thinking, but then again, neither does the creative process.
Almost all highly creative scientists, inventors, artists, and writers attempt tasks that are too difficult for them. Had they not attempted such tasks, it is quite unlikely that their great ideas would have been born. — Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity
He goes on to say that “attempting difficult tasks is not held in high regard. In fact, such behavior is discouraged. It is just not ‘safe.'”
Not only do we not feel safe, we’re told we’re not safe by people around us who say, “Get a real job” or “Does it make money?” We dance along the edge, as if there’s some real danger to it. Maybe there is: the danger of not creating it at all. For me, that fear is so much bigger than any discomfort I might feel during the attempt.
You have to be able to finish.
Often original thinkers fall far short of their potential achievements because they fail to follow through on their ideas and work out their full implications. — Why Fly? A Philosophy of Creativity
Certainly, creating anything requires some level of “stick-to-itiveness.” Insanity is what our friends and relatives might call it (and that’s quite possible).
There has to be some level of determination and follow-through. You have to learn to see it to the end.
I have about five half-finished books. Even looking at them feels like a chore. I should never have stopped working on them. Like this article, I’m not leaving it alone until it’s done. It may be terrible, it may take me three days, but at least I will have finished.
You have to be able to delay gratification (IF there is any).
Creativity can’t be about anything but the work. If you’re tied to the outcome, you’re setting yourself up for an even bigger schlep (and it won’t work anyway).
You do the work for today, stop at a reasonable time, and come back tomorrow. Repeat. Do that enough times, and you might make something. What happens to it after it’s made is out of your control.
You have to be okay with uncertainty and the unknown.
As artists we don’t know diddly. We’re winging it every day. — The War of Art
We have to rely on hunches and intuition over numbers and logic. We have no idea if this will work or if it won’t. And there are no time frames. We have to be patient (extremely patient).
To explain to someone else when it will be finished or if it will be successful makes it sound like we’re dodging, but the reality is, we just don’t know.
You have to be okay with stagnation and even regression.
All progress is the result of a chain of discoveries of differing degrees of importance and significance. Each of these discoveries, while based more or less directly on previous work, leads in turn to new advances. This forward march, however, is far from being regular. Its general sense is often obscured during periods of relative stagnation or even an apparent regression. — “Reason and Chance in Scientific Discovery” (Taton, 1957)
Start making progress and bank on a wall. It’s coming. Wait for it.
Then you’ll break through it (after wondering, legitimately, if you can make it through this time). Stagnation, regression, tiny progress. Stagnation, regression, tiny progress. That’s all.
You have to be okay with the “deliberately accidental” nature of creativity.
You know those “overnight” successes? You see them. They seem to come out of nowhere. Take writers, for example. All of a sudden they’re on every bestseller list, in every book store, on every podcast. But then you hear someone ask how they did it, and their answer is frustratingly vague (even for them). Know why? Because they have no idea. Seriously, they don’t. That’s why, since the advent of the printing press (we’re talking the mid-1400’s here), no publisher can say what makes a hit. Nobody knows. Sure, we can analyze it post-game, but no one knows how to recreate it with any level of reliable success.
Creativity is deliberate and accidental. You set out your rituals, you follow them, but there’s still — always — an element of chance and circumstance.
As Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us,” but we can’t predict it or anticipate it.
When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitably and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose. — The War of Art
Creation is nonlinear. It’s indirect. It’s confusing and unclear.
And there is no guarantee it will happen this time — that lightning will strike.
Want to know the really crazy part? Creatives love all of this (even when they hate it).
From “The Psychology of the Inventor” (Rossman, 1931): “The motives stated by inventors in order of importance are love of invention, desire to improve, financial gain, [and] necessity.”
We don’t do it because it’s required.
We don’t do it for the money (because for a long time, if not forever, there is none).
We do it because we love it. And because we want to make things better.
And maybe that part is just a little bit glamorous.