How To Survive a Creativity Storm

January 05, 2010

Last night I finished watching the third season of Californication.

While it was overall a slightly weaker season than the other two, it continued to provide more insight into the mind of Hank Moody as well as the rest of the characters. And while it is true that the plot is nowhere near as compelling or engaging, the character-oriented focus of this season made it worth watching for me. There’s a certain aura of unpredictability to these creative characters (Hank is a writer) that appeals to me, and I often found myself looking for cues and trying to guess what would happen, only to be pleasantly surprised with the amazing talent Hank has to get himself in big trouble.

On a related note, a couple of days ago I re-watched The Usual Suspects, which kind of requires your undivided attention in a similar way. When I watched it for the first time, I was blown away. The great thing about it is that you need to stay alert the whole time because you never know when the key piece of information that ties the plot together is going to be revealed. It could very well be during that seemingly irrelevant conversation that you are subtly given the detail that could enable you to decipher the mysterious identity of the ever present villain, Keyser Soze.

And boy, Keyser Soze is terrifying. Fucking badass, as we are led to believe for the two+ hours that set the tone for the epic ending… which I won’t disclose here in case any of you haven’t seen it, I’m not that insensitive. Suffice it to say, the movie will stick with you long after you’ve finished watching it. Which is why I watch it again. And again. And then I watch it some more.

But I was talking about Californication. For those of you who enjoy living under a rock, here are a few more details about the show. What I love about this show in general, and Hank in particular, is precisely this unpredictability that I mentioned before. Only in this case, instead of looking for a seriously maniacal I-will-kill-you-and-every-person-you’ve-ever-loved murderer, you’re looking to laugh your ass off. Which you will, repeatedly. I promise.

You see, what is so great about these movies and TV shows is that every time you watch them, you find something new, some detail that you didn’t discover in any of your previous viewings. I love that. It’s like being rewarded for exercising your own Nerdery.

My point, you ask? I started ranting about Californication and The Usual Suspects a while ago, but really I was talking about one simple thing the whole time: Creativity. And how when it shows up, it usually leads to the unexpected in a wide array of sizes and shapes, color and content. This post is a good example of that. The other two examples I told you about are in their own right incredibly entertaining pieces of creative work, and it shows. You see, any time creativity kicks in, it’s an unstoppable force that cannot be ignored, no matter how hard the effort. It’s like the proverbial elephant in the room.

The actual creative process changes very little for just about any discipline. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re trying to write a novel, a blog post or the grocery list; whether you are painting a masterpiece or a piece of crap. Everything starts with a blank page, a blank canvas on an empty room. And fear is the first feeling than comes to you. There are few things more intimidating than a blank page. The root of that fear is hidden in the same drawer as the rest of your insecurities; some dark, damp place inside your brain. When you create something, you are deeply aware of the fact that everything that comes out of your mind is subject to the filter of your physical skill. Sometimes that is a deal killer. It’s actually what separates the geniuses from the rest of us, mere mortals. You may have the idea, the image or the sound perfectly shaped in your mind but your big, fat, lazy hands won’t let you bring it to life.

Other times, however, it’s the other way around. It’s just you in an empty room with your notepad and a pencil, or a blank canvas and a piece of charcoal. And then you just try to step out of the way and let your hands do the talking. It’s there and then when you know you are producing something of genuine value. Something true to yourself. That can be scary too, because you always wonder how much of your inner self people are going to see when they have a look at the finished work. Sometimes it feels like you’re standing naked in front of a huge crowd: you can’t really talk your way out of that one. But eventually you learn to confront your insecurities and appreciate the work for itself. Which brings us to the last step of the way: Pride. It’s when you stop trying to fix the imperfections and realize that they too, can add value to a piece of creative work. They are part of the process, and they’re there for a reason.

Art is not about perfection, not the way I see it anyway. It’s about beauty, emotion, empathy, connection. And imperfections are part of what makes it feel real, close and personal. Revealing.  When I look at a painting, I try to imagine what drove the painter to create it. Can I relate to it at all? When I read a novel, I try to put myself in the skin of the characters. Would I have done the same thing in that situation? Could I? What is the author trying to tell me?

We all keep trying to find empathy in the world. That’s how we connect, mature, evolve. When we look at a piece of creative work, we should be able to at least catch a glimpse of the creative process behind it. The endless hours of work that resulted in the particular piece of work we have in front of us. If we fail to do that, there’s really no point. If you want to do yourselves a huge favor, next time you go to a museum, read a novel, watch a movie or listen to a song, look for the message behind it. Listen carefully, be patient, and wait for it to reveal itself.

Every piece hides a message. Behind every single one of them, there’s a story. And if you don’t listen, you’re missing the best part.