Essays on Technology and Culture

On Why We Create

There’s a certain fetishization of creativity, now more than ever. Molly Flatt in her essay, “The Cult of Creativity” explains how:

The amorphous concept of ‘creativity’ has become the unquestioned MacGuffin of our times, and anyone who doesn’t demonstrate it – or at least a willingness to cultivate it – is in danger of being labeled a conservative desk-monkey unfit for the creative rigours of our fecund social media world.

She also mentions the “over 335 million results” on Google for “become more creative,” and Amazon listing “11,468 books with the word ‘creativity’ in the title.” I know I’ve read more than a few of those web sites and books, and only a precious few have actually helped. Once again, I have to quote Merlin Mann: “Joining a Facebook group about creative productivity is like buying a chair about jogging.” No matter who they are, anyone—myself included—who says they can make you more creative is talking out of their rear end. Creativity isn’t the fluffy, magical gift-of-the-muse. It can feel that way, because when inspiration—another loaded word—hits, it often comes out of what seems like nowhere. Science doesn’t back that up. John Cleese provides a great explanation of how creativity really works, and grounded advice on how to be more creative. It’s took long to summarize here, but the quote to take away from it is this: “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

Here’s the thing: humans are innately wired to create. It’s why there are 17,000 year old cave paintings in Lasceaux, and why make lolcats and rage comics today. The creative instinct is innate and it is essential for human survival. Without it, we never would have figured out to make spears to hunt animals with—or each other, for that matter. Some of us are naturally better suited to certain creative endeavors than others, anyone can still be creative. The inherent difficulty doesn’t justify the fervent worship of the idea of creativity, or the sheer lunacy of people who claim “Oh, I never could do that” when they see creative work. It’s not that you can’t, it’s just that you didn’t. The flip side of this is the line: “Oh, anyone could do that.” You see that one tossed at modern art a lot. Maybe anyone could do what Mark Rothko did, but Mark Rothko did it and you did not. There’s valid reasons to dislike Mark Rothko and related abstract expressionist works, but claiming “Oh, my toddler could paint that” is not one of them.

The worst part is that a lot of other creative types get into the game of making creativity into something mystical. Everything I read that connects creativity with some spiritual mumbo-jumbo makes me want to retch on a very specific level. The people who peddle that crap are often either trying to peddle more “you can be creative too” junk for people to buy rather than actually be creative, or artists with their head too far up their own ass to provide practical, grounded advice. I will make an exception for Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, which has spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but tempers it by hammering the point that the spiritual part doesn’t happen unless you actually sit down and do the work. [1] When it comes to the idea of the “muse,” Stephen King got it right in On Writing.

There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer… He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level… You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair.

It’s fair, but it’s far from pleasant. Writers and artists often live in an abusive relationship with their art. No wonder so many of the best of our ranks fall to drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, or suicide. Never trust a so-called artist or writer who brags about how easy it is to do their work, because they’re probably terrible. It’s not easy to do creative work, but if you do it long enough, it does get easi_er_. Even someone at the top of their game has those days when they look at the page—blank or otherwise—and says “I can’t do this today.” They go through the litany of abusive self-talk to themselves. What separates the artists from the non-artists is that when they miserable, angry, abusive self-talk is over, and they’ve convinced themselves that they suck, are the worst possible person in the world, and that they should burn everything they ever made, sell their worldly possessions, and live like a hermit in the mountains, licking lichens off rocks to survive, they sit down and start to work anyway.


You might as well ask the sun why it rises, or ask the sparrow why it returns to Capistrano. Ask the salmon why it swims upstream to the place of its birth to spawn. It must be done. It’s an innate, deep, internal desire that is as essential to us as breathing. It takes priority over everything else, because to us, it is everything. Like sharks, if we stop moving, if we stop doing the work, we die. No matter what form of art we do, the only thing that is worse than doing the work is not doing the work. No matter how miserable the process is, it’s preferable to the alternative of not doing it. There is, of course, the option of changing what you do, but it’s still doing the work. It’s still being creative.

The only practical advice worth giving to anyone who “aspires” to be creative is this: just sit down, take a block of time, and do the thing you want to do. If you have to buy a book, buy one that talks about the actual nuts and bolts of the thing you’re trying to do: a textbook on iOS programming, or Piano for Completely Inept People. Whatever it is you want to do, the only thing that will make anything happen, creatively speaking, is sitting down and doing it, and the motivation for that has to come from within. It’s there, in all of us. Make the time, play around, make mistakes, and beat your fists against the wall in frustration. No book will do that for you.

  1. Do The Work was the title of a less impressive followup piece by Pressfield which is a condensed version of the practical parts of The War of Art.  ↩