Creativity is Stress
Why Creating in a Vacuum Doesn’t Work
The age we live in is constantly seeking escape and peace.
Mediation has become a mantra itself, a way for people to escape from the horrors of their life. Box breathing, Wim Hof, mindfulness, countless versions of breath work and zen litter the internet.
While there is nothing wrong with meditation, and it is in fact one of the more useful tools for focus and creativity, if we long to make things we must learn to live with the age old axiom: necessity is the mother of invention. The myth of Sisyphus pushing that boulder up that godforsaken hill is one of the most powerful metaphors for life, or as the Beatles put it, “Boy you’re gonna carry that weight.”
Writers write for two reasons: money or there’s nothing else they’re good at. Perhaps you can make the argument some people write to get laid, but that bohemian idea of the tormented writer sitting in a cafe really gets old (especially in 2020). We may wish for a perfect storm of time, tranquility, and inspiration but rarely if ever have those things combined to make great art.
How many people fantasize about renting a cabin in the woods for a weekend, escaping, and writing their novel? How many young screenwriters think if they could just quit their barista job, their bartending job, their 9 to 5 and sit pool side for a week they’d crank out the next Chinatown?
Any professional actor can tell you the business is brutal. We may long to for the celebrity life, that Instagram jet-setting fairytale, but real creatives know that when they are tested the most is when they produce best. Actors hit the pavement, send in self-tapes, memorize lines, do bad commercials, do good commercials, do regional theatre, do tours, do improv, create comedy, and spend hours and hours second guessing themselves. Not to mention that the career works nothing like the NFL combine and each job is a roll of the dice.
Diamonds are forged through pressure, and just like a great character arc creativity is forged through tough times. We do not have to become heroin addicts or create a traumatic backstory to write books (or blogs).
What we need to remember, always, is that pressure is exactly what we need.
We want to believe that great art is created the Buddha discovered enlightenment: sitting under a tree in tranquility. Yet, as if it is a koan itself, creativity is born through stress.
Author of Discipline Equals Freedom and all around bad ass Jocko Willink knows what stress is, yet his advice is not to yield to it but overcome it. Accept the stress and use it:
“Don’t fight stress. Embrace it. Turn it on itself. Use it to make yourself sharper and more alert. Use it to make you think and learn and get better and smarter and more effective. Use the stress to make you a better you.” — Jocko
Get to Work
We often think we must first be motivated and then act. Psychologically this is incorrect. In actuality, act and motivation will follow.
Anyone who has started a workout challenge can tell you this is true. Look for an excuse and you will find one: I don’t have the time, I’m tired, I’m sore, I should rest, I should, I should I should.
“Don’t expect to be motivated every day to get out there and make things happen. You won’t be. Don’t count on motivation. Count on Discipline.” — Jocko
If you want to write, write. If you want to paint, paint. We do not get better watching YouTube videos and searching Instagram. We do not become better artists by pontificating about art (yes, the irony is felt).
How do you get in fighting shape? You fight. Boxers will tell you nothing builds stamina like sparring. All the miles logged, the crunches cranked, and the rounds spent pounding a heavy bag prepare you for the rush that is the ring. The only way a fighter can get ready is by fighting.
The same is true for golf, baseball, basketball, any sport. The best way to train for the game is to play the game.
Now, certainly there are hacks that may benefit one area of the other. Cross training, that is training other areas of a sport like strength, benefit the athlete; however, nothing compares to doing the work. We may be able to visualize and create the world in our mind, but the lungs, the legs, and the limbs need the stress of the times.
You cannot pay for calluses.
As Jocko put it:
“Stop researching every aspect of it and reading all about it and debating the pros and cons of it … Start doing it.”
So what do we do to chew through the reps?
Crossfitters learn this technique early on. How do you get through a brutal workout with some ridiculous rep count? One rep at a time. All you can do is focus on this rep, this down, this chunk.
When faced with a monumental task like writing a novel, memorizing a classical play, or filming a feature film the task can seem insurmountable. Yet, we are not the first or last to do this. How then did all those countless others accomplish this? One step at a time.
Rome was not built in a day and all those other timeless cliches aside, great feats take time, and in order to accomplish them it is best to chunk them out. Despite popular belief novelists do not sit down over a weekend and churn out literature. Screenwriters rarely expose a blockbuster screenplay over 48 hours.
Books are written one chapter at a time, or, even more likely piece by piece. Writers think about plots, beats, and character arcs long before they put pen to paper. Then, when they sit down to write they simple focus on one chapter at a time.
Actors often memorize their big scenes first. In the case of classical works like Shakespeare, it is often best to start with the great speeches and learn them cold before moving on to the smaller chunks.
Films are shot out of order and therefore require talent and crew to be prepared for random scenes on random days. The movie is not shot in a day. the book is not written overnight, and the work does not pour out of one magical night of inspiration.
Creativity is hard work. When we were kids we were filled with a sense of play and wonder, and we will forever be seeking out that wonderful feeling again. As adults, however, the price we pay for making art is time.
Art is made out of love, but that doesn’t mean it is easy going. The best relationships are ones frought with pareil. Show me a couple that doesn’t fight and I’ll show you a divorce waiting to happen.
If you want to make things you must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We don’t always know where we are going, the road seems lost, the journey fruitless. Yet, we must find the strength to press on one step at a time.