I remember when I was young thinking that freedom was the essence of creativity. Longing for this idea of unconstrained creativity, this state that would allow me to create at my best, free from limitations.
Here’s the thing about that. Unconstrained creativity doesn’t exist.
I play this video game called Ark Survival Evolved. A part of the game is building structures. YouTube experts in the game recommend that those interested in building find the biggest, flattest piece of land they can to start building on. It’s easier to build on flat spaces.
But whenever I’ve taken this advice, I’ve ended up with big boring boxes.
The times when I’ve chosen landscapes that were interesting to me and built into and around these landscapes were times that I ended up with remarkable structures, and they’re the times when I worked on them the most obsessively, driven forward by the process of creation.
They’re not beautiful, by any means. But they’re interesting, and they work, and I enjoy building them.
The reason they’re interesting, and the reason I enjoy them, is that they were created through the process of problem solving.
This is the essence of creativity. Problem solving.
It took me a while to wrap my head around this one. I never considered myself an ace problem solver until the people in my life started pointing out the places where I succeeded in developing creative solutions to problems.
These weren’t big dramatic things. It was figuring out how to get by while poor. Finding ways to cope with deep mental illness. Setting up systems that would allow me to succeed in school and work even when I was struggling. Day to day stuff.
But wait, you might ask, how does this related to literature and the arts? Creativity for creativity’s sake?
I don’t believe that creativity happens for its own sake. I believe that it serves human needs at every stage of production and consumption. But this problem solving is the root of creativity in an artistic sense as well. I don’t sit down at a blank page and just… draw something. I don’t sit down in front of my laptop and just… write something. There’s intent there. There are questions. There are problems to be solved.
How do I communicate to the viewer how impossibly beautiful I find this thing?
How do I create an image of pain?
How do I get the protagonist of this story from where she is to where I need her to be?
How should I structure this piece to be accessible to the widest possible audience?
What is exciting about this to other people?
Who will be looking at this and what do they want?
Which need does this fulfill?
It took me a long time to move beyond the mysticism that cloaks our view of creative work and connect it to problem solving in my own mind, but it was a vital frame change. Without it, I would never have understood the roots of my own drive to create, and I would have continued in fits and starts, probably never completing a novel because I wasn’t answering the vital questions underlying each project.
And I would never have connected creativity to my day-to-day work, treating it as a tool in my toolkit, and I never would have had a chance to achieve what I had the potential to achieve.
This division between the creative and the mundane is invented, and artists and writers who propagate this myth are participating in their own destruction. It is not a sacred calling, and believing it to be such only enslaves us to a monastic existence, prepared to work for free because we’re called to it.
Never doubt that when you’re exercising your creative skills that you’re doing something practical and vital. It is not magic. It is work you do with your brain, and it has value in the real world.