Creative Types

Serdar Yegulalp wrote a great essay over at Genji Press the other day about the mismatch between our cultural expectations of creativity, and the actual process of practicing creativity.

You can assume, far too easily, that what you pick up and read was what came out the first time for someone else. You can lead yourself to believe that rewriting is a sign of some failing on your part, that when everything else seems to have popped out fully formed as if from the forehead of Zeus, your inability to germinate something that complete is just another sign you're not cut out for this and should go drive cabs or something.
The first thing that came to my mind was a review I wrote a while back of a self-help book by Jeff Goins about how to sustain creative activity. Building upon the aforementioned cultural myth of the creative type, Goins sketched out behavioral adjustments that a person could make to achieve a ""more creative lifestyle," but anyone paying attention to the details of his regimen could not help but notice a number of contradictions, mostly centered around money, free time, and most especially, quality. Those conflations can seem to make sense if the reader is not too attentive to details and particularly if their desire to realize their conception of a creative lifestyle is strong.

The second thing that came to my mind was that Serdar's observation about creativity constituted a broader phenomenon, that this principle applied to a large swath of human endeavors.

The one that comes to mind from my own recent experience is exercise. I enjoy lifting weights, but for years I struggled to move past particular weight numbers on particular exercises, and so I would get discouraged and my gym visits would get inconsistent. Last year, I discovered a regimen called StrongLifts. It seemed too deceptively simple. Unlike other routines, it has no complex progression scheme. StrongLifts prescribes just five sets five times of five different exercises. If you succeed on a lift, you simply add five pounds to its weight on the next round. The routine also recommends that you start at ridiculously low weight, which I found odd, but nothing else was working, so sure. Why not? I figured I would try this thing out, and I didn't expect much beyond the usual burn out and disappointment. Instead, when I reached my old max weights a month or so later, I was shocked to discover that the weight that had formerly taxed me to near failure was now easy. All I had needed to do all along was to progress slowly and give my body appropriate recovery time. It did no go to rush up to my max.

I didn't learn how to code or do systems administration in either a binge or a flash, either. I'm entirely self-taught, having arrived at my technical skills by learning a little bit at a time over a two and a half decades, and for the first half of that I was merely solving specific problems in specific contexts without any sense that I was building up "expertise" in anything.

Both of these examples are susceptible to the same kind of mythology. It is tempting, upon seeing a well-muscled person in the gym, to think, "it must just be genetics." Or to think that technical abilities are the result of some freakish intellectual capacity, a mythology evident in the way figures like Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, et al. are presented in our media. Predisposition (genetic or otherwise) undoubtedly is a factor, but musculature won't build itself without stimulus and technical competency doesn't just magically weave itself into one's neurons, either. You have to put in the work, and the most effective mode for that work is in little bits over a long period of time.

The same is true for writing and creativity. Tune out the Goins myth, which creates an unnecessary, and, in my opinion, unhealthy fixation on salable products, and which will only lead to disappointment, since most creative work is generally not salable. Not to dismiss the economics of creativity, but that is a concern that I will save for another essay.