So You Want to Be 'Creative'
There are qualities in a person more important than being creative, but you wouldn't know it from scrolling through Instagram.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
In one of the worst inspirational-marketing conceptualizations of the last few years, the current, brush-font, abstract-floral, blank-journal stripe of self-helperie insists that everyone is creative, or, no, a “maker.” (And, pals, most of the inspirational-marketing conceptualizations of the last few years are the worst, a depleted ethos of grinds and hustles, even while the self-care movement suggests we’d respond better to a soft touch, you know?)
As always, using “everyone” like “everyone is creative!” does some of everyone dirty, but the economic utility/scam in convincing the exhausteds and undersatisfieds in mid-day lines for corporate salads that there is a yellow diamond inside of them, glowing and ready to be plucked, is pretty obvious. (But also: there is!!!)
It’s just rude to insist on it like that, unless we mean “creative” like how surfing and getting dressed and snow shoveling are creative, or could be, because, sure. But believing that everyone is or must become, like, actively or productively creative really undersells the value of other ways of being. It’s as or more important to be good at “care,” but unlike “creating” or “producing” there’s not much capitalistic urge associated with empathy.
It’s a lot to ask that everyone should be falling in love with their art all the time, but, taking the feelings and emotions that are inside of your body and putting them outside of your body via some kind of creativity is at least part of feeling better. It’s definitely part of freedom.
A lot of people have emotional strugs with creativity because connecting a vision, an idea, an impression, and a style with a specific mode of expression and then also with labour, iteration and completion is about the most challenging, painful self-stuff that is available. There is no solution, but the effort itself is the “beep-BEEP!” pass-card to doing anything. You know: “beep-BEEP!”
Art is about making decisions, which is a line I got from a Michael Douglas movie, which was based on some book. (Jk jk jk!) Or, it’s about intentions. I don’t actually care! If we can agree for now that “art” is just external representations of internal visions, we’re good. What I care about is what it does for us, to make these warm bodies of decisions from your own taste and values and perspective and experience, and the obvious thing is that carving your own decrees into a pile of Gak necessarily rearranges both your personal atmosphere and the atmosphere of some other person or a vibe or a paradigm, even incompletely, even microscopically. And that’s good!
Art and creativity exist wherever they’re imposed, but also, social media—the very thing that convinced everyone they had to be a brand, hustle their (in)sides, and “make”—is less creative than you think it is, because for people who are Somewhat or Very Online, most posts are careful, pre-destined, de-risked versions of whatever their community’s dominant internet mode happens to be, and is also attached to a corny gratification process of approval via likes and retweets. And that sucks, right? Like, posting might be part of some other, ongoing and in-relationship creative practice, or it might be another kind of salvation, but, it’s not enough. Social media is for playing and practicing, but I don’t know that it’s for working, is something I would say from the butt-pit of a lawn chair before gesturing too hard and falling over sideways.
Humiliation is a leitmotif of the creative process, in everything from the first unwieldy sword-stab at doing anything creative that does not, will not, can not adequately capture what you see or hear or feel and are trying to, essentially, interpret (this never ends, it just gets MORE, but at least FASTER) and definitely in the self-promotion that’s required if the result of that creativity has to be or do something outside of your apartment, all the way on up to the humiliation of being a specific person attached to a specific body of work, which can be a claustrophobic wrongfeel horror-movie life-mistake. It’s not necessarily good or bad, to have established something like that, it’s just a lot. (Is this a good time to tell you about how people hear you write for VICE and think you’re going to spit in their face? Like, I am nice!)
Then there is stuff like the editor (not VICE!) who said I should “humiliate yourself more,” like that was his edit, and that will live on in my imagination as the moment—truly!—when I realized I had to find another way to make money.
Related: “Quality Disease” is the condition of being so precious with either your work or the ways in which you want your work to be part of the world that you either don’t try anything new or weird or possibly bad, or don’t finish it, or don’t let it go. It’s hard to diagnose because sometimes what is unfinished is just because it’s not finished, not because of some perfectionist, protective urge, and sometimes what is done but hasn’t been released is not work that’s supposed to endure any kind of promotional or critical spin-cycle.
Being embarrassed is embarrassing, but it’s why most people do nothing and are sad about it.
The upside and upshot of both perceived humiliation and Quality Disease is that if you’re very lucky, and work very hard for a very long time, you’ll realize that neither you nor your imagined work was ever as cool as you thought it was (if it was truly cool, it would easily resist the uncoolening of external forces, dig?) and protecting it from evils like a small group show or film festival submission process or a public blog was totally silly and egotistical and what was actually humiliating all along. Being embarrassed is embarrassing, but it’s why most people do nothing and are sad about it.
Once you start “making” (GROSS) for a while you have to find a way to vac the construction dust off of you and out of you and for me that’s meditation, silence, just-me “vacations” where I bring a stack of books to one of two corporate-y but just-fine hotels where I spin around in empty pools and eat plain cheeseburgers in clean white bathrobes.
Meditating, btw, is also the only good way to procrastinate. Today I did a Tara Brach guided number where there was ice in our bodies that became water that became gas and OMG.
Obviously, don’t be a writer, unless you want to have a shitty life, like shit-on-tap, Shit on Rye, but if you do, and don’t, but if you do, only do it if you absolutely have to, like, if you’re reading mastheads and can run down every writer and editor at wherever, and their position on the Oxford comma, their kicker style, their over-reliance on which phrases and tropes (mine’s fun, like a word search for “transgressive” and “WASP” and “performative”), and if you read books like you breathe or eat or fuck, and if you don’t care about security or holidays or respect (there are, after a while, flares of appreciation, and sometimes, rarefied opportunities, via emails and DMs and at parties, but the rest of the time you’re squarely outside of the adult world, alone, maybe lost). Also writers can not dress! Which makes no sense, because we’re otherwise so busily curating and balancing, but then I guess, always blinking in the new sun that is physical human life.
ANYWAY the only really good writing-specific advice is via the boss Margaret Atwood and misremembered here and is something like “get your money in order.” It’s impossible (well, harder) to write if you are thinking about rent. (Also writing is easy to do with another job because it’s so time-limited: nobody writes well beyond five or six hours a day. Get up really early and don’t watch TV, there, solved! I’m 90% being a dick and 10% helping you out.)
“MFA VS. NYC”
A perfect, living genius/reader wrote me an email asking the eternal question of, should she get an MFA, and wrote “because don’t you—to be a writer—need life experience more than you need craft tips? Like shouldn’t you get a masters in a different thing, if you want to write and also go back to school?”
First, applause to her for the stray “Like” because the feminine-juvenile is our grammar, and a second, shorter, less-enthusiastic round of applause for providing me with a direct way in to the driest, dullest writing question, but one that lasts:
Everyone has to do whatever is right for them, a phrase I dislike and distrust because the more something applies to everyone the less it applies to anyone, and like, how gnarled and greedy does a heart have to be to offer as advice “Whatever is right for you” especially when we are born to learn from specifics, and from story?
If an MFA is connected only to art and craft, and the money won’t ruin your life, then, sure.
If I were someone with infinite time and cash and an interest in what other people had to say about me, I might do an MFA. I applied once and got in and cried and looked at the financials and laughed and never went. Life is so great and stupid and I like that I’m finally able to see some of it behind me, as a silver-lit, dark-green arc of a horizon. But anyway: being part of a group of people doing the same, hard work is essential, and it’s what you’ll miss when you spin into doing your own, eventual thing. It would be really dreamy to have this posse around you who care enough to tell you what’s wrong with what you’re doing, so you could get better, I’ll say that.
But, if it’s so you can be a journalist, probably don’t. The industry no longer exists, for one thing (and still standing in the rubble is a hothouse of class privilege, like, with a moat: this is a world where working for free, even for three months, is considered lucky). And, if you must-must-must try journalism, you’ll find out fast that you have to learn, or re-learn, the rules on the job, in every job, and it’s way more important to be stupid-rigorous with yourself and your reading and your tenacity than to have fulfilled someone else’s program requirements. And, you can start a writing club or pitch an editor at a publication you like for free. A good editor is the same as a good therapist: they should be smarter than you, but appreciate what you’re trying to do, and genuinely want to help. This is super-true for baby writers; as a Grown and Sexy you probably already know what you’re doing but still need to be wrangled.
So, my thing here is, I don’t know.
If you live in a body that isn’t eligible for expansive and non-commodified fun and joy and adventure, and/or, if the version of fun and joy and adventure that you most desire isn’t available to you, creativity is a way to just take it. Creativity is, of course, how women are making fun and joy and adventure out of art and business and just regular life (and not some shitty dogmatized domesticity, but the good, happy, warming and cooling stuff of life, mostly).
As a kid the forms of expression I was so totally drawn to, like skateboarding, or like punk bands, or just fucking around (and it’s not like I wanted to be a CKY dude, but, I wanted to do some stuff), were not sociologically available to me in the way they were for my guy friends, even in the free-for-all daytime-silent suburb of McMansions that are mini-Death Valleys in the summertime, like the one where I grew up. So instead I read Hunter S. Thompson and Still Life With Woodpecker and a lot of everything else and started writing little booklets and then undistributed zines, which I could do from behind my boobs, and in my room. So I got to be wild, at least a little, without compromising my feminine values (which, look, at that point was already compromised by my fashion, hair, language, and cultural choices). That my guy friends still climbed trees while I was supposed to stand there with my arms crossed, a knockoff Fendi baguette tucked under my arm, worrying over them, didn’t resonate as bullshit because our respective socializations spread like hot tar over the scenario, preserving it. It’s really just too devastating to think about very hard, what girls give up.
Creativity is the corrective. There is the taking up of space of it all, the physical space of a Kara Walker sugary sphinx and the emotional space of a Lena Dunham, who I know we’re mad at but she’s been doing the thing and came to mind, and I don’t know, just, when I see my watermelon-lacquer desk covered in papers and pens, eternally, it makes me so happy, for the me of some other time, mostly.
Also you have to finish at some point, and that can be hard.
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