The secret to creative success is disequilibrium.
What are you oversaturated with? I'm at a point where I'd like to write less about relationships, physical appearance, interpersonal conflict and emotional turbulence. Not because I’ve artistically exhausted any of those things, but because I’m personally exhausted of them. There’s a quote that describes addiction as the opposite of variation. I’m sick of addiction and I want variation; I don’t want to write about these experiences anymore because I’ve long been fascinated by them, spent time exploring them thoroughly, and now want to experiment with new subjects. But what do I write about, if not the things I’ve always written about? One answer is to shrug and say, I don’t feel like writing today, I will when I feel the urge. But that often results in not writing very much at all. How do you get better if you don’t put in the practice? How do you mature aesthetically, and produce output that’s closer and closer to what you want to make?
There’s something Rachel Cusk said in an interview that I really like: “Some people have a lot farther to go from where they begin to get where they want to be—a long way up the mountain, and that is how it has been for me. I don’t feel I am getting older; I feel I am getting closer.” I think about this all the time. I want to make things and I don’t necessarily feel that what I make right now is very good, but I'm aware that I'm getting better. Jeanette Winterson: “Art does not imitate life. Art anticipates life.” Good art requires acute sensitivity to both yourself and a world that continually shifts beneath your feet. The secret to creative success is disequilibrium, which is to say noticing things in the world that confound you. When we pay attention, we see things that disturb our expectations of how life should be. Our surprise revises us.
To make better things, to write better words: that’s something that no object can give you, no person or experience. Which means that you have to give it to yourself. It’s not fun, especially at the end of the day when I'd personally prefer watching a TV show or vegetating in bed—anything else. It feels like I’m trying to sketch a picture with my eyes closed or rolling a wheelchair uphill, which is to say it's hard work with shaky results. But when I think about a life that feels meaningful, what leaps to mind is always a life in which I am making things that are expressive manifestations of my ideas and beliefs. Which doesn’t mean that they necessarily have to be public, but they have to exist. And if I never make them they won’t exist. So: I eke out words, and then more words. Development and repetition. Recurrent motifs.
I can also tell you what not making things feels like: scrolling through Reddit gifs, watching Youtube videos compulsively even though you think they're dumb, Facebook stalking people you barely care about, lying in bed having slept way too much, still unable to get up, moping over someone who is awful and also doesn't like you, stressing out over work that's fundamentally uninteresting. It feels like the same fucking thing, over and over and over. Unsatisfying, and worse, boring. Writing can also feel horrible, but at least it's generative. Something comes of it, and if you're lucky that something has substance and originality. Mary Oliver: "The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time."
Things that I want to write more about: sunlit nature, and being outdoors in nature, especially in places that are cold and snowy. The difficulty and monotony and odd joy of getting better at something. Groggy morning runs. Loving yourself fully and expecting that same standard of love from other people—because God, self-loathing is boring. People who make completely different choices than I do and have completely different values, but are nevertheless very happy. How they think about meaning. The ecology of our changing planet and the adjustments we'll have to make to adapt and survive. Navigating objectification, and learned self-objectification, in a society that places great value on female beauty and youth. How to communicate clearly and kindly in high-stakes situations. Technology and its effect on productivity. Strange possible worlds. Fear, vulnerability, loss of control. Surprising statistical truths. Small things that give me joy: the smell of lemon, rain and freshly-cut wood, un-sexualized intimacy, inventive and engaging movies, children in motion. Attempting to live a less self-serving moral life.
As you get older, your emotional range narrows. In studies asking people to report the frequency with which they experience specific emotions on a daily basis, older adults reported fewer experiences of intense positive and negative emotions than younger adults. My own emotional experience of the world is noticeably less extreme than it was, say, five years ago. I assume this will be a consistent trend throughout my life. In some ways it’s great: I feel better most of the time, and my highs and lows are muted. But when I first noticed it I was terrified because my feelings, especially my lows, had always been huge driver of productivity for me. Lately, however, I’ve realized that being terrified of being less emotional meant investing in a model of the world where all my creativity and desire to produce was based on the up and downs of what I felt. That doesn’t have to be the case. The world is beautiful separate of whether I feel ecstatic. And the world contains suffering separate of whatever hardships I’m going through. Seeing that, really paying attention to it, and responding accordingly matters. Careful attention results in output.
Making things requires integrity, which is to say commitment to what you are trying to do. Without conviction there is nothing. I’m trying to take input from the world around me and give something back. What do I want to give back? A considered response. To respond thoughtfully requires a level of belief and attentiveness and creativity that I sometimes doubt I have inside me. But I believe that in attempting to search for it, we produce it: necessity births invention. I want to dig within myself, and then keep digging past the cliches, the bad first drafts, the failed ideas. To keep myself constantly off-kilter, to expand the search space, to want to know. Life is a two-part excavation: of the undiscovered outer world, and the unexamined within.