What is feeding my creative soul?
For the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring different ways of living a more creative life, feeding my creative soul instead of merely expecting myself to produce creative work from a vacuum. After a season of busyness, following a year and a half of general uncertainty, it’s especially hard to get back in touch with what truly nourishes the soul.
Today, I want to talk about the fourth habit that helps me tap into my inner creativity:
Don’t try to monetize everything.
I love the internet in so many ways. I love that it’s opened so many avenues for entrepreneurship and small businesses, helping people figure out creative ways to support themselves, their families, and their communities. As a younger millennial, I love the internet. I’m not one of those people who shakes their fist at the sky and pines for the good old days (nor am I one of those millennials who thinks doing so will make them seem extra credible).
I am a big believer in the idea that we each come from our own time. No generation is inherently flawed because of the moment in history it exists in. Each generation has its strengths and weaknesses, the ability to thrive in its native environment, and the gift of learning from the past. I love many things about the time I happen to exist in.
The dark side of internet entrepreneurship
But, like all things, there is a downside, and we have to be as honest about those as we are about the good things. I hate, hate, hate, the modern idea that everything can and should be monetized. I hate the shortcut my brain takes, from “I’m pretty good at this!” to “I should make people pay me for it.”
Granted, this isn’t purely a modern idea. Without the universal human desire to capitalize on our talents, I don’t think we would have technology, commerce, or society as we know it at all. But the age of the internet and social media gives this process an *extra special* twist. Suddenly, even the most banal parts of existence can be marketable, as long as you have good lighting.
Making a living from my writing is and always has been my dream, and it’s one I’m thankful to accomplish in any capacity. Using our talents to thrive and make the world a better place is always a good thing in my book. But the dark side of this is that we start to think of our creativity only in terms of its utility. We can no longer simply play with our art. We can no longer simply enjoy our art. We can no longer make mistakes, work slowly, or do nothing at all. If everything should be marketable, then anything that’s not marketable is simply not valuable.
The Effect on Creativity
This poses a problem, because, as I say all the time, creativity is a process. You can’t always conjure up a novel or a painting or a symphony like Spiderman shooting web on command. It can take years to write a novel (it took me ten!). Sometimes you have to wait for your art to mature. Sometimes your art has to wait for you to mature.
When I was working on my novel, I spent so much time feeling like I wasn’t a real writer, because I couldn’t show the people on the internet what I was working on. I was writing every day, but because no one could see it and it couldn’t make me money, it didn’t feel productive, and so the time spent on it didn’t feel profitable. Even writing short stories feels this way: I can’t share stories on the internet because it will disqualify them from publication (because most lit magazines, understandably, don’t want work that’s already been published). Hours of my work goes unseen, and thus feels unimportant. When it is, finally, seen or picked up or published, the joy and gratitude is real and meaningful, but this catch-22 of doing the work without immediate validation and compensation can be incredibly draining, especially in a culture that values instant productivity all the time.
This is why it’s so important to divorce creativity from the results. I’ve heard so many teachers of writer’s workshops pose the question: “If you were stuck on a desert island and there was no chance of you ever getting published or receiving recognition for your work, would you still write?” This question is meant to separate the true writers from the people who only write because they want to be rich and famous. The artists from the hustlers.
The answer for me has always been, “Well yes, of course. But…” Writing is my lifeline, my calling, my vocation, the language my soul speaks. But. Of course I want it to make me rich. Who wouldn’t? Does that make my art less? Is my art bad if it’s financially valuable, and bad if it isn’t? Am I damned if I do, damned if I don’t?
(As an aside, we never ask people really passionate about engineering or business or whatever if they’d still do it on a desert island. But I digress.)
These questions only occasionally keep me up at night. Because the truth is, the habit of monetizing creativity is a hard one to break. The habit of playing with my art, of letting it take its sweet time, of creating what I want to create without caring how people receive it, that’s such a hard habit to build.
I don’t have easy answers on this. I don’t think anyone does. But, like a lot of things, I think being aware of and responsible with this tension is important. Taking stock of when I’m allowing the dark side of the internet age to take over, and being aware of when I’m no longer staying true to the work, goes a long way in living a life led by creativity, not commercialism.
It’s in the little things
On a practical level, I try to practice this new set of habits in the little things. Writing in my journal, even if it doesn’t make sense, or it’s messy, or no one ever sees it. Writing something from a character’s point of view, even if I ultimately end up scrapping it. Working on stuff that is fun, enjoyable to write, and the kind of stuff I want to read. Writing these blog posts, which are just me shouting about writing into the void for a few hours and posting it up with a cute photo.
Learning to take joy in the creative process, regardless of the results, is what our art ultimately needs. And it’s what the world needs from us artists too: a reminder that we can slow down, enjoy, and savor our lives, and everything will still be okay.