And the risks that at each layer
When I create, I feel both most alive and most at risk.
That’s one half of the creative paradox. You know what I mean, don’t you? And by creation and art, I don’t just mean drawing and painting, writing and music, and whatever other classic arts come to mind. I mean anything that involves making, effort and consideration: from big things like building a business or raising a child to seemingly small things like making a meal or making a presentation—or making love. And writing, certainly. There’s just something about having an idea, bringing it to life and watching it grow, that makes us also feel alive.
If it’s all so wonderful, then, why don’t more people create more often?
Because—and instinctively, we all know this—it’s as full of risk as it is of potential. At every stage of creating, you’re vulnerable: naked and exposed and risking rejection, whether by the muses or God himself (whichever you believe in) or by the people you hope to share your creation with. And in that moment of vulnerability, it’s easy to forget how enjoyable creating can be.
In fact, it seems to me that there are four layers of enjoyment, with some associated risk at each layer. Let’s consider each.
1. Enjoying the idea.
This is delight in the idea itself, the excitement you experience when it crystallises in your mind, and you see clearly something you hadn’t quite before. This is the eureka or aha moment—if others are present, they might see your eyes light up. But this moment comes with two risks. One is that if you don’t act on an idea (or at least record it), it’s shocking how easily you can lose a hold on it.
But the risk is rooted in the very excitement of this moment: it’s equally easy to become addicted to the feeling and find yourself chasing that, like people who chase the passion of initial love but can never quite stick with anything longer term. Which brings us to the second stage…
2. Enjoying the making.
This is delight in the making of the idea, also known in psychological terms as intrinsic motivation—the drive you get from the very process, independent of the outcome. It also happens when you’re in flow, especially, but not only, in sports: it’s that beautiful moment where you’re really in the zone, and the making itself is its own pleasure.
Not everyone gets to enjoy the process of making, however, and even those who do don’t always get to. That’s perhaps just as well, because one must not get too used to the pleasure—it’s too easy to end up unable to make when enjoyment feels absent. Which would be a shame—every creator who persists through this phase (and certainly many mothers on the other side of labour) knows that struggling through the making needn’t mean you won’t enjoy the thing made. Speaking of which…
3. Enjoying the creation.
This is the phase of delight in the thing we’ve made. Not just the relief of having completed the act of making (“I loathe writing but love having written” and all that) but the feeling that what you’ve made is actually good and worthy of its place in the world. It’s what the biblical creation story describes: God, having created, “saw that it was good”. It’s what many parents feel at childbirth, and in all the moments of pride throughout their children’s lives. It’s what I sometimes feel when I taste some roasted chicken I’ve made, or when I finish an essay like this one.
Like probably every creator, you know this feeling, which means you also know it doesn’t attend everything you make. And there lies the danger. You complete an essay, a song, a meal, a career and decide it’s no good. And for every moment of pride in a child, there’s often many more of parental guilt. Even worse, you might be convinced it’s so bad that there’s no desire to try further, like the time I stopped cooking for months after a spectacularly failed attempt at lasagna. And sure, sometimes you dislike what you’ve made because your skills have yet to catch up with your imagination—a gap you can bridge only by making more.
And then there are those times when we only come to appreciate what we’ve made when someone else partakes of it…
4. Enjoying the participation.
I was going to title this “Enjoying the sharing”, but decided that seemed too likely to appear focused on the act of sharing when it’s really about the participation of another who gets to share in what you’ve made. This is the moment when the act of creation is consummated.
I know people sometimes talk about making something “just for me”, but I don’t believe any creator who claims they create only for themselves is being entirely honest. On one hand, I get it—it’s easy to find yourself beholden to the fear of what others might think or say, which is one risk of being too attached to this phase. And when that’s the case, it can be helpful to enter into the “I’m only doing this for me” mindset to create. But we don’t need to stay there permanently, or to deny that there’s still something beautiful about someone else getting to enjoy what you’ve made. Even if you don’t ever get to meet them, and even if that “someone” else is only your own future self.
The paradox of creating
By now, it’s pretty clear that the dangers of each of the four phases of creating arise from an over-attachment to the enjoyment it offers. And right there lies the second half of the creative paradox: creating can be delightful, but being too attached to that delight could itself lead us to give up creating.
We can avoid this by choosing to see the enjoyment of creation as a gift, not a condition.
This is not a new idea, of course. Through history, some of the greatest artists have been convinced that their ideas came from some source external to them—Stephen King still often describes his writing in this way. The Bible describes humans as made in the image of a God who is introduced with the words, “In the beginning, God created.” The ancient Greeks would later attribute creativity to the muses, goddesses who instilled people with brilliant ideas that would become great art. Even our words “inspiration” and “inspire” are related to the idea of breathing—something external entering into us and becoming something new.
There’s a real sense in which we are lucky to make anything, even when it doesn’t feel enjoyable.
It’s why so many makers and creative people talk about a sense of compulsion. You make art because you can’t stop thinking about it or you’ve been paid and have to deliver, you make meals because you must eat, even if you don’t feel you’re the best cook. You build a business because you’re driven by the need to see a product exist in the world. You raise children because, well, to do otherwise would be irresponsible. You write an essay like this because you’ve committed to writing one weekly and, dang it, you’re not about to let yourself down. You do it because you must—whatever “must” means to you—and take what enjoyment comes.
And you might find, as many others have, including myself, that when you don’t do it just for the enjoyment, you’re more able to enjoy it than ever.
Originally published on Medium.