I’ve been thinking and talking about creativity quite a lot lately. First of all, I participated in a podcast which veered a long distance from its normal subject matter (wargaming with miniatures) because my co-host and prolific blogger, Neil Shuck, has decided to retire from his role as a regular columnist in the magazine I edit. This triggered a fascinating conversation about the role creativity plays in our lives, what it means to be a writer, how to overcome writer’s block, the impact creative editing can have on our work and our attitudes to writing for money as opposed to writing just for fun.
We’ll come back to that last bit…
The Rewards of Creative Coaching
Following the podcast, and purely coincidentally, I’ve given two creative coaching sessions.
First, a friend revealed that she is considering changing her career, leaving the corporate world behind and opting instead for a life as a writer and illustrator. She’d put out a call for help and advice, and I persuaded her to have a chat with me via Skype. Two hours later, she was left with far more questions than answers – but they were definitely questions she absolutely needed to be asking herself.
The lovely “Thank You” card I received afterwards would seem to indicate that she appreciated me not simply being sycophantic and giving her fatuous and flimsy flattery. What would be the point? Those of us who do this for a living would like nothing more than to see more creative people entering and enriching our world, but we also know how tough it can be and so want those people to follow in our footsteps with their eyes wide open.
I’m rather pinching myself when I write that. I’m extremely conscious that I’m barely on the first rung of the ladder I have chosen to climb, and when I look up, I see countless writers who are far, far higher up than I am. But I see it as my honourable duty to turn and offer a hand to those just starting the creative climb behind me, just as people like Joanna Penn and Roz Morris and others are doing for me. And they in turn, look up to Stephen King, Dean Wesley Smith, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury and other great names who are even further ahead on the journey.
Then a third thing triggered my thinking. I went to another friend’s birthday dinner recently, and got into conversation with a young woman who, like me, is interested in a number of creative pursuits, including graphic design and photography. It turns out that she is, also like me, self-taught but, lacking experience with Adobe InDesign, has struggled to master it. So, she came for an evening’s creative coaching. Not only did she find my pro tips a revelation, but I also found spending time with her, a talented, creative soul with a real thirst for knowledge, hugely rewarding. She insisted on paying me for my time, but I count that as a bonus.
It’s Not What You’ve Got, It’s What You Do With It
Merely knowing how to use a piece of software is not creative per se, of course, even if that software is often used as a tool by creatives. Writers have their favourites too, such as Scrivener, but it’s really no different from giving someone a pencil – it’s what you do with it that counts. One person might produce meaningless doodles, or stare blankly at an empty sheet of paper, whilst another turns out to be a new Shakespeare.
Many potentially creative people are confused by the trappings of modern creativity in the digital age. After all, we’re constantly being bombarded with advertising messages telling us that we absolutely must have the latest iPhone, stuffed full of apps, and the most up-to-date camera with gargantuan pixel resolution, and the newest MacBookPro into which to plug them, with huge amounts of RAM and vast prairies of space in The Cloud in which to save it all at the speed of light via the latest mega-broadband connection.
But just what are we saving? Is it really creativity, or just activity?
I’m as guilty as the next person of taking ten photos when one will do because of the ease of digital photography. Has this made me lazier about proper composition, focus and depth of field, because I have got into the habit of constantly ‘bracketing’ what would really be the best shot? Have I become a machine-gunner instead of a sniper? Probably, if I’m honest.
When I open my photo library I find, in effect, thousands of unwanted digital casualties, that I almost never get around to deleting. Look, there’s a batch of a dozen photos of the same subject, almost identical, but not quite. Which to choose, and which to discard? I don’t know about you, but I find it agonizingly difficult when the images are of someone I know, as if deleting them might actually affect my relationship with that person. At best, it makes me feel odd consigning them to the trash.
But in fact, the key to so much that we think of as creativity is the creative editing. It’s the negative space in the painting. It’s what we decide to leave out. It’s what’s left behind when we empty the trash. It’s the dark matter of our creative universe.
Get That Clay On the Wheel
During the podcast, Neil Shuck was talking about the struggle to be inspired to write anything at all sometimes, especially when burdened with a deadline and the feeling that whatever he wrote needed to be good enough to be paid for. I explained that what anyone needs to do under those circumstances to overcome the terror of the blank white page is to just write something, anything, even if you feel it’s rubbish. Why?
Because you can’t edit nothing.
A potter needs that lump of clay in the middle of the spinning wheel before she can stick her thumbs in it, draw up the sides and start to create a beautiful vase. The painter needs pigment on his brush, the sculptor needs a block of stone, the musician needs notes on the staves and, yes, the writer needs words on the page. With regular practice, of course the creative gradually starts to hit more than miss, but if you put nothing on the page, then you’ll say nothing and, in effect, as a creative person, be nothing.
What is a dragon that doesn’t breathe fire? A lizard. Do you want to be a lizard?
And then there’s the money.
I quizzed Neil about why he seemed perfectly capable of cranking out several blog posts a week on his Meeples & Miniatures site, and yet balked at putting together a couple of thousand words a month for the magazine. The difference was obvious, he said: he gets paid to write for the magazine, whilst what he writes on his blog is “just for fun”.
So, I asked him, is the writing he does for his blog of a noticeably lower standard than the writing he does for the magazine? “Of course not!”, he replied.
And it’s at this point that I’ll shut up and send you away to a wonderful blog post about ‘the play ethic’ by the great Dean Wesley Smith, courtesy of Joanna Penn who, in one of those wonderful creative coincidences, alerted me to it earlier today.
Keep writing. Especially when it’s just for fun.
Screenshot from Adobe.com
Sun and beach photos © Henry Hyde