Essays & Articles
I admire people who can consistently create and publish. Agatha Christie wrote at breakneck pace, and published more stories than years she had been alive. In an era when drawing a flying bird first took days of observation, stalking, shooting, and then mounting the damn thing, the American naturalist John Audubon painted hundreds of new-world species in florid catalogues. Bach composed so prolifically — chorales, cantatas, and concertos galore — that it is said, perhaps apocryphally, that shoppers at the fish market would callously wrap their herring in his manuscripts before heading home.
What pushed them — what pushes us — to create? Well, we’re human. And creating seems an obvious consequence of our inborn intellect. We create to entertain, realize some fantasy of ours, bring the world closer to how we think it should be, or hell, just to pass the time. If we’re so creative, though, I wonder why so few of us actually produce anything consistently.
To be fair: not all of us want to create. Most of us are content enjoying what others have made. That’s respectable — after all, without an audience, a creator has no purpose. Even inveterate creators must, from time to time, sit back and enjoy the harvest of humankind. Bach must’ve sometimes tickled out a Händel score, if only on bad days, and I’d bet Asimov relaxed on at least one Saturday afternoon by cracking open someone else’s science fiction.
But out of those of us who want to create, most of us simply do not. We opt instead to read what others have written; to take what has been given. I suffer from this, too, particularly in the age of the Internet. But I’ve had the same problem even when I had to check-out physical books to read. Of course, I don’t blame other people’s creativity for my own lack of it — it’s not like they’ve pointed a gun to my head and screamed, “Drop your pen! Read my book instead!” Rather, when I consume instead of creating, it’s a symptom of the root cause: creating anything is hard, and scary.
To argue my case, I’ll focus on writing, but it can be extended to other fields.
The idea of creation is attractive, but actually getting anything done is a slog. In fact, the easiest part of the whole creative process is getting a brilliant idea. Attractive ideas tend to pop-up in your head while walking around or dreaming. You get them for free. But it takes a lot of time to take an idea and flesh it out into a coherent article. You have to plan, structure, write — often for parts you later throw out entirely — refine, and distribute your work. You spend an inordinate amount of time in the process. For example, I spend at least fifteen minutes writing a single paragraph, which can be read in seconds. All told, a writer like me spends a hundred times longer writing something than it takes to read it.
Writing involves a lot of work, but what sometimes makes it unbearable is that there’s no yardstick for telling if you’re heading in the right direction. You could keep track of how many words you’ve written or how many hours you’ve spent writing, but measurements like that aren’t good proxies for the ultimate, immeasurable goal of creativity: how beautiful, entertaining, informative, or powerful the work is.
There isn’t a progress meter that says: You’re 43% of the way to writing a new book that’s sure to receive critical acclaim! You won’t know until you’ve put it out there, and still, you might have to wait a few years, or die first, for your work to earn an audience. You may be thinking: Isn’t that’s what editors are for? Can’t they see in advance if your work will be good? Sadly, it’s not uncommon for a hundred different editors to reject a manuscript before a writer lands a single book deal. In many of those cases, the book later turns out to be a great success. If a hundred professional editors can’t tell in advance if your work will be good, how could you possibly measure its quality as you go along?
One part hard and one part immeasurable, let’s add a generous pinch of constant distraction to the recipe for not being creative. These days, mustering effort is much worse than in the days where good ol’-fashioned procrastination was dissuasion enough. You can fire up your word processor with the best of intentions, consult an online thesaurus, and through a random cascade of distracted clicks end up frittering away the day on YouTube.
The Internet makes it easy to be unproductive because one thing literally leads to the next. You have to be careful to avoid the siren song: “Click me!” The worst sorts of distraction actually lead you to rationalize them as time well-spent. Have you ever read about bony fish on Wikipedia, or got mired in Twitter backlash about what Trump said yesterday? And then, justified this waste of time to yourself because it was educational or made you more world-wise? I have. We are often willing victims of instantly-accessible entertainment.
I know plenty of people who can power through distractions and have a horse’s work-ethic, and yet still never produce anything novel. I think that’s because being creative is scary. It’s scary to even decide what to create. You think of the opportunity cost of not working on something else, or you get paralyzed by the infinite options of what you can work on, and so you do nothing.
Following a plan, in contrast, is much less scary. The cognitive load of picking something is gone; now you just need to execute on what someone else told you to do. It’s why you can be successful at work, and yet totally barren when it comes to private, creative endeavors. At work, you’re usually just following orders, no matter how high-level and abstract your task.
It’s scary to decide what to work on. If you fail at a task someone gives you, you can, at worst, be accused of incompetence. Maybe you’re just not good at your job: go home, learn more. But if you fail at a task you came up with yourself, then you can be accused of something more terrifying: having poor judgment. And that can bruise the ego so badly, that it’s safer to never make that decision at all.
Even if you manage to choose what to work on, your self-worth will be forever bound to what you’ve made. Public scrutiny shines its bright line on whatever you publish, and if it’s trash, then maybe you are, too. It’s such a terrifying notion that many authors will first publish under a pseudonym. You likely know someone who’s talked for years about “maybe writing a book one day”, and yet has never put pen to paper. The reason isn’t that they’re lazy — it’s that if they never write, they also never risk producing garbage. And so, they never risk their ego. As journalist Megan Mcardle wrote: “As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good.”
Lastly, who could speak of the emotional pitfalls of creation without mentioning crippling self-doubt? This feeling often leads me to shelve a project before I even start. My mind does a wondrous job excusing itself from mental effort by conveniently shaking the rattle of fear and self-loathing, whispering:
The good news is you can crawl out of the swamp of fruitlessness. There are ways to manage how hard and scary creating can be. The way out isn’t, of course, easy — or we’d all be creating like machines. But I’d like to share some tips that have worked for me.
First, document religiously. It doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need an app. I’ve used a paper calendar on my wall with a tick mark next to “Wrote today?” which has worked wonders. When you can’t avoid seeing those ticks every single day, you tend to hold yourself accountable and keep your momentum. These days, I use an online spreadsheet with a cell for each day, and I fill in an “X” when I’ve done what I had set out to do.
Second, give yourself artificial time limits when you sit down to work. Make them purposely unfair. I tell myself: “I’m going to work on this thing for fifty minutes, and then no matter what, at 2:30pm I’m going on a walk.” More often than not, the artificial time constraint pushes me to get a lot done in a short amount of time. Sometimes, I fail and get sucked into a YouTube vortex, but then at 2:30pm, I take the walk anyway (when negotiating with your lazy conscience, you need to play hardball). After the walk, I feel so guilty for accomplishing nothing that I don’t make the same mistake for a long time afterwards. If time were a vessel, effort is a gas. It fills its time-container. The more time I give myself, it seems, the less I get done.
I’ve also found a few tricks for dealing with the fear of actually publicizing your work.
Caveat lector: this first way is strictly for those who don’t mind staring into the abyss. If you torture yourself enough with philosophical readings, you can let nihilism into your heart and accept that everything is meaningless. Realize that anything you do or do not do will have no consequence for anyone or anything when the universe ends. You will have no legacy. Realizing this does wonders to untangle your fear of publishing. (It also helped me get over my fear of being nude in the sauna.)
Want to write that book, but aren’t sure if people will think it’s good? Don’t worry: upon the heat death of the universe, your book will be a frozen block of matter. Your critics? Also frozen, and all of civilization along with them! What anyone though of you? No longer a discernible arrangement of atoms. Isn’t that comforting? Get to work!
Okay, okay — I understand if you’re not ready to face the void. A less upsetting approach to get over your fear is to get just one person’s reaction about your work, even in its nascent stages. It stops you from quitting. This phenomenon works whether or not the critique is nice. Consider: if your reviewer says your work is rough, you knead it a bit more. If they say it’s great, you bake it. Either way, you mentally focus on the work instead of leaving it half-done. Somehow, by showing it to someone, you’ve made an implicit contract with that person that you’ll see it through. And that agreement pushes you to finish. So, show your work to just one person — even if it’s a draft, even if you think it sucks, and even if that person is your mom. I swear, it works.
Come to think of it, I’ve been feeling uncreative lately, so I’ll take my own advice. I’ve just published this article, and am hereby holding myself accountable to write another eleven articles by the end of the year. See? Now, I have no choice.
Software engineer building machine learning backends.
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