Like so many others, I am compelled to create. Through voice, music, and the written word, the overwhelmingly ambiguous essence of my inner world transforms into a more manageable, relatable and (very occasionally) valuable format.
While every creator experiences the joy of this process, it all too frequently subsides. And more often than not, we suffocate ourselves wondering why we create at all.
So… why should we create? What stops us from creating?
And how do we carry on?
So glad you asked!
Why bother to create anything?
For you, I can’t really say. I once thought of creating as something otherworldly, even divine – something on par with a creator God willing a mythical universe into existence. Later on, I started to see creation as something more practical, like therapy – it was difficult but useful, and should be encouraged from time to time. And sometimes, if not always, the result was valuable to others.
But these days, I have come to understand creation by way of a simpler, more essential activity: breathing.
The analogy seems curiously quaint, but consider: I take in the outer world through my breath, and it is transformed inside of me. Whenever I release, I release a part of myself with it, and the air has changed. Breathe in, breathe out; intake, and create. Both can be deliberate, but both should ideally be automatic (autonomic, if you want to get technical about it).
More often than not, though, one is effortless while the other is… exasperating.
I have never once questioned my lungs, or deemed their breathing to be futile – but I declare myself inadequate every day. My breaths keep me alive moment to moment, and I could never condemn even one. To do so would be to condemn the process of breathing itself. To do so would be self-asphyxiation – yet still, I condemn my creations.
Why do I seem so intent on choking myself to death?
And in those rare moments when I actually love my creations… why do I hold onto them? No one breath is ever too valuable to let go. No one breath could ever be held for too long. That would be suffocating.
Breathe in, breath out; intake, and create. Why shouldn’t it be that simple?
Could we make it that simple?
Naturally speaking, creation is as effortless as play to a child. Yet as creators, we add an unbearable weight to our identities. We demand that our creations be more complex and valuable than this… but would any of us tell a child that their play and imagination were without purpose?
When we demand more of our art, we demand ever more of ourselves. We grit our teeth, and we make a deliberate choice to settle for nothing less than flawlessly original works of staggering genius.
We force with immense tension what could be effortless. We struggle and gasp for what was already flowing into us, and is more than willing to flow back out.
Breathe in, breathe out; intake, and create.
Let your art be as your breath, without expectation and with inherent purpose.
How fucking quaint.
What stops you from creating?
Probably the same voice that prompted me to write “how fucking quaint” at the end of my pretty breath exposition. If you’re a creator, you know that voice quite well.
Breathing exercises do have more impact than many expect. But like many others, I can’t help but feel too… uh, hippie-dippie about all this. It may suit the creator, who acts as a child; but it will never appease the critic. The adult. The ultimate authority.
The critic lives deep inside us, always hovering over the inner child. He’s currently lambasting all of this new-age happy-talk nonsense with self-righteous indignation. In other words, he’s a real smug son of a bitch. You probably already know that he’s the one responsible for your writer’s block and self-loathing.
The critic believes his opinion to be absolute and without question. I can’t say that he’s without value – he can be a fabulous editor – but he absolutely cannot help you create.
Do you really need the breath-police standing over your shoulder, commenting on the quality of each individual inhale and exhale? Would that make it any easier for you to breathe, or would that just freak you the fuck out?
Would you comment on every crayon stroke a toddler made on a blank piece of paper? Would you really treat a child with such cruelty, hovering over him and making constant demands?
Your creator is your inner child. Please stop being so cruel to them.
Often times, it’s easier to be gentler to others than ourselves. My inner critic will always be as cruel to me as I am to myself, but the idea of showing kindness to my inner child comes quite naturally. It may seem silly to personify it as such, but doing so has an effect.
You can eventually scratch the itch of that twitchy inner critic of yours – but let your inner child speak first. I’ve written two thousand more words for this post than I would ever have a reason to use. You know what that is? Child’s play. The critic only helped edit the words down long after they were written.
If my inner critic were active when I was writing, he would never have allowed me the freedom to create any of this, valuable or not. And even if he eased up, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable with him around. So, as the old adage says, create first and edit later.
Makes sense, as most of us cannot breathe in and out at the same time.
Breathe in, breathe out; intake, and create.
That’s all well and fine, but how do I tell the critic to quit it?
The practice of creating is far more difficult than the concept. And it often takes more than a breathing exercise (or analogy) to work through the problems that have plagued us for a lifetime. You should try it anyway.
Depending on your artistic medium, you may have to find your own path here (and if you do, I invite you to share it in the comments). But personally, I have found no better way to make creation effortless than the practice of automatic writing. Whether you call it practical, mystical, or just plain silly is up to you. Whatever it is, know that it’s ridiculously useful.
My automatic writing practice plays out absurdly, as follows:
First, I wake up far too early for my brain to understand what’s going on, a little earlier than I would ever plan on for a routine. But instead of hitting snooze, I get up and stumble my way to a computer (which wakes from sleep far faster than I can).
As my hands flop clumsily onto the keyboard, my mind barely manages to eke out a mumble. Without second-guessing it – after all, I’m far too tired for that bullshit – I type out mumble mumble mumble… it’s fuckin early man. Or something comparably uncouth, like peniss LOL.
I laugh at myself, but then – within moments – an unwieldy stream of consciousness surges forth from my fingers. I begin to type faster than I can think, and faster than I could ever write with a pen. I do not follow any rules at all. I simply breathe.
I am always astounded at how many breaths I have held, and how long I have held them.
After a few minutes, I am left with pages of art, nonsense, and moments where I fell back asleep and my head smashed random characters on the keyboard. Sometimes I just type the letter t over and over again with an odd cadence, or hold it down until I’ve got multiple pages of ttttttttttttt.
I didn’t say the result would be valuable – the process itself is valuable. By writing with reckless abandon, you are encouraging yourself to simply create.
Consider it practice if you must, but do not give a single fuck about what creations that practice yields. It should be every bit as inconsequential as breathing, and every bit as important.
Sure, maybe I’ll accidentally write a little line of something deeply sentimental, or insightful. Maybe I’ll remember it when I’m writing later – but I wouldn’t ever expect that, or even hope for it. The whole point of this exercise is to sidestep that critical pressure, and breathe a little more easily.
As the day moves on, my automatic writing turns into automatic singing. Anyone who spends time with me regularly knows that I NEVER. STOP. SINGING. Sometimes the melodies leak out like a hum. Sometimes only I can hear them, and sometimes the guy in front of me at the gas station turns around like “dude, come on”. I don’t care.
I treat my voice like a child, too, and I give it ample love and room to play. Every once in a while, a unique melody comes forward (and if it does, I whip out a voice memo app to record it immediately before it vanishes forever). Maybe it becomes a part of a song, maybe not – but again, that’s not the point. That cannot be the expectation. There cannot be an expectation.
Do not force what need not be forced. Expect as little from your art as you expect from your lungs, and you will begin to cultivate a life of effortless creation.
This is the artistic equivalent of unconditional love, and – far from being selfish – it is the foundation of empathy and deep appreciation of the world around you. When you experience that type of love, you cannot help but express it. You cannot help but continue to create.
Learn to show yourself that love, and your effortless practice will become as powerful as a performance. Your artistic voice will change from being muffled to being clarified – and not because it had to be this way, but simply because you loved it enough to give it the space to try.
So: create like you breathe, limit the time you heed to your inner critic, and practice ways to create while sidestepping him. There could be no better service to your creations, or better state in which to create.
I could carry on endlessly about creative ways to support the creative process – and believe me, I will – but for now, I have captured enough.
I must let this moment go, and know that a new moment will come.
Breathe in, breathe out; intake, and create.
It really can be that simple.
I have bastardized many of these concepts from a workshop book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and thus I am obligated to reference it here. I did not finish the book, but I did enjoy taking its advice loosely with a side of salt. But if you consider yourself a creative – and who shouldn’t? – it is certainly worth your time.