Life Sentences, Day 119: Why Bother?

January 27th, 2011

Why do creative people do creative things?

One of the nice things about blogging, as opposed to academic writing, is that I don’t have to begin this by defining “creative.”  I’ll let the Joseph Cornell piece up there do it for me.  As I see it, what Cornell does is take more or less everyday things and put them in service of an internal vision, producing something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Most creative people, I think do something analogous, whether they work with objects, as Cornell often did, or with paint, words, musical notes, pre-existing images, fabrics, clay, film, electronic components — almost anything you can think of.

So on the one hand you have the creative person, who possesses the internal vision and wants to get it out there.  On the other hand, you have the medium — any of the things above.  The creative person brings them together and makes something that didn’t exist anywhere in the world before.

But why do they do it?

Speaking for myself, there are three reasons.

1. I can.

2. I don’t know what I’d do with my energy if I didn’t.

3. It’s fun sometimes.

My list is pretty bourgeois, pretty polite.  I haven’t personally experienced the grim, haggard, wild-eyed, damn-all-the-world-and-let-the-children-go-hungry, “La Boheme” compulsion to create that is often depicted in books and films — Michelangelo lying cramped on his back for years to produce the Sistine Chapel, Van Gogh starving and shivering in the field at night to paint the cosmos, or Dickens pacing the streets of London all night long, reciting out loud the words as they came to him and then rushing home to write them down.

I’m more in the mode of Trollope, who believed that talent arose from the act of exercising it, that it was something that should be done by the clock.  (Unfortunately for Trollope, when he revealed these convictions in his autobiography, the Romantic view of art still held sway, and some critics dismissed him as “a mere carpenter.”  His sales fell off drastically.)

Maybe that’s the difference between genius and talent. Perhaps creativity is very different for those of us who possess talent than it is for those who are possessed by genius.

I don’t write because I am compelled to.  I do it because I don’t know what else to do. It fills my days and allows me to choose my company, even if most of them are fictional.   Nor do I write to make scads of money.  In twenty years of writing novels, I have earned perhaps one scad of money, although if you average it out, I could probably have made more teaching school.

So for me, creativity is kind of pedestrian.  I do it every day, sometimes well, sometimes less well.  It hasn’t made me rich or famous.  Once in a while, I get to finish something, and it feels a little like it popped into existence from another dimension. (This is the way I feel when I first open the box of books from a publisher.)  That’s cool, but once again, if you average it out, the total thrill amounts to something that could have been doled out in infinitesimal sips of watery pleasure over the months and months of writing.

What about you, now that I’ve pretty much reduced creativity to a cross between drudgery and addiction? Why do you think people create? Why do you create?  What’s the satisfaction?  Why do people keep doing it?

Oh, and speaking of keeping doing it, today’s blog puts me just a smidgen over a third of the way through the year.  If my multiplication is correct.  People who are mathematically creative really impress me.

12 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 119: Why Bother?”

  1. EverettK Says:

    Well, not quite a third. 3*119 is only 357, so another 3 days (3*122=366) makes just over 1/3 by day count. By month count, you’ve got to finish January, also another couple of days, before you’re 1/3 done. But none the less, getting close, getting close… 🙂

    As to creativity: it’s wired into our genetics. There are lots of niches in the environment, filled by lots of creatures that aren’t too terribly creative, or that have been pretty much the same for tens of millions of years. So it’s not that humans have reached some ultimate potential that all other species are also striving towards. But we HAVE taken a path that encourages and requires creativity in order to succeed and reproduce. Hunting and gathering requires creativity, and the more you have, the better at it you will be. Agriculture and cities (permanent abodes) require even more.

    And then what do you do with all that creativity when you no longer need to spend all of it and all of your time on surviving and reproducing? It (our creatively evolved brains) has to find new outlets. And our brains have evolved to be fantastic pattern matchers, pattern finders, and as a working mechanism, our brains find pleasure in patterns, whether those patterns are musical, visual, or purely …rhubarb (the right word escapes me) …non-physical, abstract! that’s the word abstract, as in the beauty of a life well-lived (beauty is another related issue… what is it?). Beauty is closely related to creativity and patterns and balance and strangeness. We’re attracted to strangeness, because it often hides either danger or something valuable, and sometimes nothing of interest at all. But until it becomes not-strange (known), we don’t know whether there’s danger or value there or not.

    Our minds are beautifully complex things, carefully balanced between the parallel precipices of genius and madness. All of it comes from being more successful, and then sometimes evolution throws in an item that isn’t necessarily helpful, but which also isn’t harmful.

    Ah, life. ‘Tis a wondrous thing!

    That’s the general, philosophical answer. In my own experience, writing computer programs (and games in particular) for the past 30 years or so, I find pleasure in putting together just the right sequence of code to cause something cool to happen. Defining ‘cool’ is the tough part. 🙂

    It might be a small function that takes a string of alphabetic characters and makes them all uppercase (or all lowercase). It might be code that generates a sequence of seemingly random numbers. It might be a set of functions that draw a pretty pattern on the display. Each one of those is a small squirt of pleasure juice from the creative teat.

    And then you put them all together, in just the right way, and you get a great BIG squirt of pleasure juice from having created a game that thousands of other people will play and enjoy, some of them for thousands of hours.

    And why do they enjoy ‘wasting’ away their hours playing a silly game? Again, in their leisure, it satisfies their need to create, to solve, to accomplish, those same pleasure-needs that have been bred into our brains because they’ve helped us as a species to survive and reproduce better. And right now we don’t need them 24 hours a day JUST to survive and reproduce, so we spend them in recreational ways.

    And writing a novel is very similar to writing a game (but totally different). One word at a time, you build a sentence, one sentence at a time your build a paragraph, one paragraph at a time you tell a story.
    And after hundreds or thousands of hours, you have a finished story that (hopefully thousands of) others will spend a few hours of creative visualization time enjoying, because they have the leisure to do so, because our creativity has made us successful enough to have that leisure time.

    ‘Tis a vicious circle.

    This is an interesting post (of yours), because I’ve been reading through all of your old blogs starting back in late 2006, and I’ve just gotten to the blogs in late 2008 and early 2009 where you asked a bunch of your “creative friends” to write guest blogs for you about “Creative Living”. These can be found starting here:

    Questions About Creativity — Nov 27, 2008

    Although in a tomorrow that one will be pushed back one page, so you may need to use the “Previous Entries” link at the bottom of that page to find the Nov 27, 2008 entry. Then you can work your way forward to read about “Creative Living” from the points of view of many of Tim’s friends and acquaintances.

    Good Stuff.

    And since this has already gone on so long, this is probably a good place to point out that I’ve created a web page on my site to ‘host’ the compendiums of Tim’s blogs and the index to them. I still have most to work my way through 2009 and the first 9 months of 2010, so it’s not complete yet. But what’s there is at:

    eBooks – Timothy Hallinan”

    The concatenated blogs and the index are available in Open Office, MS Word and Adobe PDF formats.

  2. Laren Bright Says:

    I think if we take the romantic notions out of the equation, being creative boils down to positive use of energy in whatever form it takes.

  3. suzanna Says:

    In art school I repeatedly heard that artists are artists because they have to be. It fulfills a need that nothing else can.

    Another constant refrain: the best art was that which demonstrated the most compulsive tendencies. Great attention to an art work was one way that compulsion showed, another was that an idea alone showed a level of compulsive original thinking that made an art work great.

    Yes, as Everett has already stated so well, and I agree, we are wired to be creative. When people don’t use that creative energy they do silly things equivalent to the rat that chews its own tail.

    Great topic Tim. Sorry I was not as articulate as I wanted to be, and as this topic deserves, but you’ve given us great food for thought.


  4. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I have to be doing something or I get fidgety.

    I’m not really a born writer because I get more satisfaction from handcrafts than writing – you get more of a finished product. Correction, I get more of a finished product!

    I used to get a similar sort of satisfaction from my job when I was well. Writing reports, organising meetings, counselling clients, making things happen that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. It’s all good.

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I think we are hard wired to be creative, because the ability to survive was often contingent on being creative. I think the addictive part of creativity comes from the pleasure, and sense of accomplishment that comes from doing something well, or not so well sometimes. It is the act that seems to be important. Like fairyhedgehog, I balance all my mental work with a lot of handwork-to the point where it becomes an addiction. I think there is a lot of work being done on dopamine, and how much the pleasurable rush of this brain chemical affects our behavior. In the end, I agree with all of you. We create because we must.

  6. Gary Says:

    A good proof that creativity is a compulsion external to our wills: when we look back at something we produced in the past and forgot about, and think, “My God, that’s brilliant! Did I really create that?”

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everybody —

    Really, Everett, couldn’t you just have let it pass, instead of publicly humiliating me? Here’s a specious piece of multiplication in a post that pretty much screams battle fatigue — there’s nothing in it I haven’t said better elsewhere — and you have to correct me? Could’t pity have won the day?

    And then to refer people to the “Creative Living” thread, where people talk about all these same issues, but better than I do? What have I done to you that you should treat me so?

    I am, however, stunned and flattered that you have taken the time and bandwidth to index this site. For one thing, it means you had to read all the blogs since I started this thing, back when Harry Truman was in the White House. Which reminds me, whatever happened to our resolve, which has been stated by every presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter, to “eliminate our dependence on foreign oil?”

    Got sidetracked there.

    I agree with everyone who feels that creativity is hard-wired, and that it’s somehow related to the pleasure we take in pattern recognition (great book title) as opposed to chaos, but I still don’t know why some people feel the need to put it front and center while others seem to be perfectly happy watching Snooki. I suppose the liberal, egalitarian sentiment would be that all those people express their creativity in different ways — figuring out which TV program to watch, maybe — but I know an awful lot of people, including some very intelligent ones, who don’t feel compelled to make anything. Perhaps it’s enough to get through daily life; perhaps their art is the way they live. But that seems intrinsically different from making a decision to use your energy primarily in making things that fit even the most elastic definition of a creative enterprise. I like the pattern idea, Everett; I just don’t think it addresses the question of why some do and some don’t.

    Laren, I agree that creative enterprises require positive energy but I’m not sure that all use of positive energy is creative, not unless you expand the definition of creativity to include most positive human activities: making friends, helping others, etc. I think all those things can be done creatively, but they can also be accomplished by rote — help others by writing a check, for example. It’s positive energy, but it’s not necessarily creative activity.

    Suzanna, I guess that’s often true — that artists are compelled to act on their creative impulses, although I’d argue that there are lots and lots of creative people who never overcome their insecurities or procrastination or laziness or unwillingness to break familiar routines and who therefore never express their creative impulses. So I guess, by definition, they’re creative but not “artists.” I’m usually reluctant to go in this direction because I don’t think of myself as an artist, although I’m the creative example I’m more or less obligated to refer to when I write about these things. The Balinese would argue that there’s no line between life and art, but when they need to carve the stone for a temple, they don’t assign the task on a random basis; they go to the best stone carvers. I have no idea what I’m trying to say here, so no apology from you is necessary. What it boils down to, I think, is that I do believe everyone is capable of creativity; I do believe that there doesn’t need to be a big thick line between life and art. I guess the questions are why doesn’t everyone act on his/her creative impulses (as they do when they’re children) and why, by contrast, are some of us compelled to? And I don’t mean “compelled” in the Romantic, tousle-haired, puffy-sleeve shirt stereotype.

    And there has to be a difference between artists and compulsives, unless what we’re suggesting is that there are just a lot of talentless compulsives.

    FHH, I understand the pleasure in completion. It’s powerful, and it’s most powerful when it’s a creative completion, as opposed, say, to doing a month’s worth of laundry. And I envy my brothers, both of whom work in art forms that require less time from idea to completion. I’d love to know what it feels like to get there five or ten times a year.

    Lil, I’m with you although my question about why some people and not others remains. In addition to the pleasure of work that’s purely creative, there’s also a lot of joy to be derived from completing anything that’s really complicated or difficult. I think people get a real thrill from completing an enormous jigsaw puzzle, for example; they’ve put in all that time and met all those little challenges to complete the big one.

    Gary, I think it’s interesting that we do that, and I know I do, but I’m not sure that it means that the creative compulsion is external to our wills, although the work we bring into being through creative activity may seem to be something that was directed through us or something that we uncovered rather than something we “made up.” It’s the old distinction between making it up and getting it down, and I have no idea what it actually means although I experience it almost daily.

    I think I can rest secure in the knowledge that I’ve muddied the waters rather thoroughly.

  8. EverettK Says:

    Tim said: Really, Everett, couldn’t you just have let it pass, instead of publicly humiliating me?

    I’ve passed up far too many opportunities lately, Tim, and the pressure has been building. Sorry that this post just broke the camel’s back and released all of that pent up steam (better it come out the back than out the back end…)

    And just to save you from future embarrassment (at least, along this line), you will pass these milestones on these days:

    1/3 122
    2/5 146
    1/2 183
    3/5 219
    2/3 244
    3/4 274
    4/5 292
    1/1 365

    Just tryin’ to help. (But maybe I shouldn’t have laid it all out like that. It might seem daunting to you. But look at it this way: with each blog you write you’re becoming a more and more experienced writer. Soon, you may actually get published! No, wait… that’s not right…)

    Tim said: I like the pattern idea, Everett; I just don’t think it addresses the question of why some do and some don’t.

    Why are some people tall and some short?
    Why are some skinny and some fat?
    Why do some have brown eyes and some blue?

    Roll of the dice, man, roll of the dice.
    That, and up-bringing, environment, examples, teaching, pressure…

    The usual stuff. 🙂

    Tim said: I guess the questions are why doesn’t everyone act on his/her creative impulses (as they do when they’re children) and why, by contrast, are some of us compelled to?

    Training (to fit into The Machine) and/or the lack thereof (parents and teachers who don’t encourage it).

    Also, I think another aspect of it is that different people are just different (different brains). Some folks are ‘butterflies’, they’re ADHD, they can’t stay focused on any one task or subject for more than 5 or 10 minutes, while other people swing towards the ‘obsessive-compulsive’ end of the spectrum and tend to lock in on One Thing for long periods of time. I suspect it’s harder to be creative (in many ways, anyway) when you’re a butterfly. Of course, it can be hard if you go too far off the obsessive-compulsive end, too. It’s an interesting dance of balance that our brains perform, and it’s different for everyone one of us, I think.

  9. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I agree with Everett about people. (The rest I’m not so sure about-my math ability is nothing to write home about). But, Tim, do you know people who never read a book? Whose creativity is limited to cooking what they have for 50 years? Whose sense of security rests on things being exactly the same all the time? OCD, insecurity, fear of the unknown, and a terror of things being out of whack, and so blunted that life is lived at a level that is scary in its lack of discrimination.. And then there are people whose whole life is a creation. They are artistic at even the smallest things-decorating, helping people, a great sense of humor. The artist has to do with how we “dance” with life. Maybe with how we make omelets out of broken eggs, or how we relish as many “moments” as we can. And I’m not even talking about the artist, writer, photographer, etc. There are people who are gifted. And some who are not.

  10. Debbi Says:

    Some people climb mountains because they’re there. I write stories because they’re not there. Yet. 🙂

  11. Larissa Says:

    I have to say, I’ve been called a Butterfly before and I struggle with my creative endeavors but not with my creativity itself. Of course, I go through my modes of “I have no creativity” but then I do something absurd (I’m still haunted by the beautiful quote from the Creative Living series about turning flour into dough and dough into pizza) and I’m reminded, that yes, I do have creativity I just don’t always know what to do with it.

    I actually stopped creating entirely one time. I stopped buying art supplies, yarn, knitting needles, whatever. I quit every expression of myself that I knew because I was convinced that I was an impostor and a cad and had no business trying to be “artistic”.

    It didn’t work. I don’t remember what the last straw was but I remember trying to “redo” something that didn’t need to be redone just so I could get my hands on fabric and dyes again. It wasn’t a conscious thing either.

    I’ll use my dad as the best example. He’s an engineer. He tried to work for someone else doing engineering-esque stuff but not the stuff he’s good at and loves. He didn’t want the stress that came with the former life style etc. etc. What happened? He ended up explaining how the sprinkler system worked to me and what the pipeline system must have looked like randomly one day at lunch after I asked him a question about his lawn…

    I laughed and told him that he needed to be building again because his brain needed the fuel to chew on…he was literally inventing intellectual stimulus because he was going crazy without it. And he didn’t even know it until that day at lunch.

    So-perhaps it’s true that we’re hard wired to create something whether it’s a home or a waste-water treatment plant like my dad, but no, simply because we bounce from one thing to the next doesn’t mean it’s more difficult to be creative-sometimes it’s harder to channel all the energy we do have-but it’s not harder to be “creative”.

    People bother with being creative whether it’s a choice or not (“artist” vs everyone else) because life demands different answers for different situations. People just happen to interpret what that means very personally.

    Perhaps all this is just a regurgitation of what Everett said but it was fun to parse through all the thoughts that lit my brain on fire when I started thinking about why I create or why my dad explains sprinkler systems over lunch.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Debbi, that’s basically my reason, too. Very concise. And when you’ve finished, they are there.

    Riss, the “imposter” phenomenon is the most devious of all the smoke screens thrown up by the Nozers, those little internal demons that exist to do nothing but say “no.” No, you can’t write — you’re only pretending to be a writer/painter/quilt-maker/sidewalk artist/whatever.

    The only answer is “Well, I’m writing, so I’m a writer. And if I’m not a very good writer yet, this is how I get better. So thank you very much and fuck off.”

    I got through that 400 times on every book, most frequently in the Dread Middle.

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