You are an artist, a philanthropist, a dreamer. You have ideas; you’ve kept them caged in notebooks, scribbles, napkins, and half-finished word documents. There is something within you driving you to create. It may be a novel, a company, a song, a piece of jewelry, a recipe – anything as long as it is something meaningful.You are driven and you are inspired. So why, you wonder, is this “creating” business so difficult? Why haven’t you finished that novel? Started that company? Finished that song? Why are your ideas still just that – ideas?
Because there are a few dirty truths when it comes to creative enterprises. No one will tell you these truths. Your mentors will often allow you to harbor under the belief that all good ideas take time and little else to realize their potential. They will pat you on the back and tell you how wonderful you are before quickly changing the subject.
I am not your mentors, and after nearly a decade of struggling and striving, I’m prepared to tell you 10 dirty little truths about creating.
The first truth?
- It doesn’t matter how creative you are, how profound your ideas are, or how talented you are as an individual. The creative process depends on one simple equation: Needs and Wants / Needs Met = Success
You are creating a product – one meant for consumption, which makes you a capitalist at heart.
Regardless of your lofty ideals, you still live in a world driven by needs and desires. These desires may seem silly and unpoetic, even downright laughable, but they exist and people need them to be met. This doesn’t mean that you sacrifice your integrity, but it does mean that you creations must meet some need in order to matter. As a working creator, your livelihood depends upon you making and marketing a product that people need and will want to buy. However unique or inspired your work may be, you will fail to create anything meaningful (or profitable) until you accept this fundamental truth: it’s not about you; creating is about them and what they are willing to pay you for.
2. Forget what you wanted to create- what do they need you to create?
I teach classes in professional writing to a wide range of students – some are business professionals, some are fresh out of high school. They all face the same problem when they write the first draft of their proposal. They don’t care, not even a tiny bit, about their reader. “So what if I need this bank to finance this project? If they can’t see how great this idea is, then they are _____(insert derogatory remark here).” I see it again in my creative writing class. “That story was genius! How dare they not publish it! Their loss. When kids are reading my novel a hundred years from now and studying me, they’ll be sorry.” No they won’t. Because you, and everyone else, will most likely be dead at that point.
While it’s true that great creative works are overlooked and that great ideas can be dismissed too easily by organizations and critics alike, it’s also important to consider that it might not be them – it might be you. You may have a great idea; your book might be beautifully written, with complex characters, vivid scenes, a well- paced plot structure, and jaw- dropping plot twist at the end. Your company may be the next Apple or Microsoft. But it only matters if you can sell it; if you can speak to your reader and prove to them that they need you to create it.
It’s really that simple. Your reader (whether that reader is the bank going over your loan, the publisher reviewing your article, or the client browsing your jewelry) is more important than you, is smarter than you, is better than you in just about every way. And you need them. Without them, everything you think, dream, and do is meaningless. So, you need to speak to them, work with them, do everything in your power to convince them that they also need you.
How? By being a better communicator.
3. Invade other people’s conversations.
As a lesson in humility and dialogue, my mentor and celebrated fiction writer, Bobbie Hawkins, sent us out into the world to invade other people’s conversation. Creativity, she argued, isn’t borne of fiction or imagination, but of reality. What people, real people, are saying and doing is more interesting than anything you may be thinking of right now.
Sure enough, Bobbie was right. I camped out on a bench and, pen and paper in hand, listened to other people talk. I watched them for hours. You know what I learned? Reality is more strange and far more interesting than fiction. I also learned a great deal about the way people connect, how they argue. I learned to recognize the subtle ways we communicate and also learned a great deal about recognizing a person’s wants and needs. What do people think when you aren’t looking? When they think no one is watching? How do they act, think, speak?
To find true inspiration and to learn more about your audience and your art, you need to listen. Invade other people’s conversations like some interview ninja.
Get out of your mind, your office, your own imagination, and get out into the world where your product will be used.
And once you are out there, make sure you brought your tools.
4. Buy a notebook and pen – one without lines. Bring it with you everywhere. I mean it. Everywhere.
Not your IPad, your notebook. The touch of pen to paper, the sound of ink and the process of words becoming something tangible within the world, will inspire you. Make sure to write in circles, draw arrows, get lost in your own ideas as they pour out of you.
And make sure that you bring it with you everywhere.
Why? You never know.
In addition to my career as a writer, I am also a struggling and average cyclist currently hoping to move out of that last place finishing I’ve managed in every mountain bike event this year. I train six days a week, averaging about 80 miles a week (mountain) and about 40 miles (road). It’s a lot and it takes a lot of commitment, energy, and time. Another thing that cyclists care about? Weight. The lighter you are, the faster you go. We don’t bring anything extra with us – only the bare essentials. Which is why I get so many strange looks when I pull my notebook out of my pack and begin conducting an interview mid-ride.
I bring my notebook everywhere. Not my phone, not my computer. My notebook. I listen, I write, and I scribble. I try to be a constant medium between the world outside of me and the creative process within me. You never know when a story is going to strike, when that next “aha!” moment will hit you. You never know when, you’ll be riding down the trail, only to run into the CEO of a major bike manufacturer who you’ve been struggling to get an interview with for weeks. Good thing I brought that notebook.
5. Now that you have that notebook, make sure that you steal ideas.
Good artists are thieves. They steal ideas every chance they get. A color, a word, a conversation, an image, a plot line, a note – you name it. They will steal inspiration from just about anyone and anything. They don’t steal things – that’s a crime. But ideas? Fair game!
A good creator sees the world around him as a source of endless inspiration and opportunity. They take a bit here, a bit there. And they bring it together to create something new. You can’t create on your own. And inspiration isn’t isolated or polite; it’s dirty, raw, and unapologetic.
6. You’ve stolen some ideas. Great! Now you must use what you know to focus on what you don’t know.
The possibilities of empty space are more uncomfortable, and therefore, more exciting than what you were going to create in the first place. Empty space is where creativity happens. You will begin with something, then abandon that something to fall within the empty space you have created. Let go and just fall in.
7. To create, you need to begin with endings – beginnings are over-rated.
It’s not where you started, but where you end up. Why, then, do we always stress over beginnings? Start with the end. What do you want to end up with? Where do you want that plot line to go, that business to earn, that song to become? Start with the ending and work backwards.
8. Seek out boundaries and limitations.
This is where true creativity lies. Creativity depends upon struggle. Don’t give me a blank canvas; give me rules and limitations, give me boundaries, challenge me to find a way to make the impossible, possible.
9. When it comes time to create, turn off the internet the phone, the mp3 player, lock the fridge, lock the door. Abandon yourself to struggle – forget the nice studio, the desk, the iPad – all these things you think you need. Those things are nothing more than convenient distractions.
To create, you need space but you also need struggle. You need to hit the wall, toss the computer out the window (figuratively, of course), go after your ideas with red pens and scissors.
You need to sit within your creative process when it is at its darkest, when you are at your most uncomfortable rather than surfing the web, eating something, getting some air, etc. Don’t escape, don’t run. You are on the cusp of something brilliant. Keep typing, keep drawing, keep speaking, just keep moving.
10. Share what you do – not what you think.
You are a good person, a beautiful, creative flower with incredible potential. I think that you are magnificent.
Now, go and do something, because no one else cares.
Sound harsh? It is, but it is true. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are – all that matters is what you do with that brilliance. Creativity is a good place to start, but unless you use it to create something real – something with actual presence in the world – it’s worthless, a wasted talent.
As a writer, I witness this mistake far too often and it’s a big one. I have also fallen into its clutches from time to time, wallowing at home, eating ice cream while reflecting on all the incredible stories I have locked away in word folders and half-finished documents. I have written and I write – but do I publish? If you don’t publish, you aren’t a writer. Sorry. Remember that reader? That person who is more important than you, who actually brings your work to life? They need you and your work. And, for that work to matter, you need them. So why are your ideas still locked in your mind? They aren’t getting better with age. They are suffocating.
If you are a writer, write but then publish what you write. If you are an artist, paint but then submit your work to galleries and festivals. If you want to start a business, draft the plan and then take a leap of faith, quit your other job and actually do it.
Tapping into your creativity is a process, but the measure of its success depends upon a product, on you, your work, and your reader (and how well you can facilitate the space between them). Create constantly, openly, and without reservation. Create as though your life depended upon it, as though there was nothing else in the world that you could do or become. Create as though dinner, rent, etc. depended upon it. And then cast that desperation out into the world, share your struggle and your triumph, and be happy and poor in the way that only creative souls can be.
That’s pretty much it.
Now do it.