I write for a living – in two different ways.
I’m a web content writer/editor for an Internet marketing firm, which means I output around 13,000+ words a week, translating into nearly a thousand pages/blogs/articles a year. In short: I write a lot. And most of the time, it feels good, because it’s measurable work – something I never had the luxury of at my old job. I’m lucky to be in a writing position with a company that actually pays me a salary. How rare is that?
The problem is that my words at work exist to sell a product: nothing more than that. I’m contributing to a culture of consumerism nine hours a day, five days a week. And then when I’m not at work, I’m usually busy being a consumer myself, putting my paycheck to work for me.
Creative writing is the one thing I actively do that shakes up this stymied routine. When I carve out some time during an ungodly hour on a weeknight to work on my novel, it flips me completely around. When I bundle up my laptop on the weekends and stake out a comfy spot on the couch at my local coffee shop, forcing myself to work on the latest scene that’s been intimidating me, I am revitalized. I can’t think of a more satisfying feeling than the one I get after I’ve created – no matter how messy my output was, or how minuscule (compared to my work output, it’s always paltry). Because I’m expressing myself, instead of regurgitating something that expresses a client. I’m figuring out what I think, instead of figuring out what my clients want others to think.
I was created to create, and when I don’t, I feel empty.
Consumption is the American way of life. We nearly always take more than we give. From the way we invest our money and time to how we view our relationships (e.g. “How much am I getting out of this friendship?”), our instinct is to take first, and maybe give later if there’s anything leftover. This is, in my opinion, glaringly backwards. It leaves everyone sucked dry. If we fought to reverse this mindset – if we tried giving first and only taking if there’s anything leftover – everyone would be accounted for. No one would be lacking.
That’s idealism speaking, of course, but I still think the pay-it-forward philosophy is an incredibly valuable thing to practice on an individual level. And I think the habit of excess consumption has a lot to do with why creativity is such a difficult habit to cultivate in the modern age.
Creativity requires giving myself away. It involves nicking an artery somewhere and seeing what bleeds out, then using what’s there constructively and thoughtfully. In this way, creation is the very opposite of consumption; it’s a generous outward motion. There is no greed in it. It’s communication, born of a desire to participate in and engage with the world, instead of merely absorbing it.
Of course, sitting back and absorbing the world is hardly a bad thing – it’s how I’ve learned anything in life… by taking in other people’s stories, comparing my understanding of the world with someone else’s, filling in the gaps of my own limited experience. Being present in the present moment. But if that’s all I do, I’m defeating the purpose of gathering knowledge and experience. I can fill myself with the most amazing ideas in the world, but it’s useless if they just sit inside of me and I do nothing with them.
If I fail to channel inspiration into creation, it will eventually become stale and atrophied, and I’m forced to look for another shot of it, and another – always breathing in, never breathing out.
It’s like taking in oxygen without ever expelling the carbon dioxide in my system. Eventually, it’s toxic.
Which is why I so love how Ray Bradbury puts the matter in Zen in the Art of Writing: “If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.” It’s true, hyperbole notwithstanding. When I don’t create every day, the world gets under my skin and stays there, instead of being worked through and turned into something useful in my art.
We’re conditioned to be observers and armchair critics, always tearing down what’s in front of us instead of building something of our own. It’s a tragic habit, and a hard one to break. But when I do break it – even for a moment – I feel like I’m finally doing what I was meant to do, finally using all of me. I’ve been given plenty in my life. At this point, I’m burnt out on taking. I want to give, engage, and create. I want to speak something true to the world in my own words (no matter how much another armchair critic might take me to task for it).
It hurts, sometimes, to nick those arteries. It means making myself vulnerable – and if you knew how much I fear what people think of me, you’d know how hard that really is in my case.
But it also means letting loose the storm of thoughts and ideas in my head and using them for something constructive, instead of letting them fester. It means applying what I really think and testing it, instead of letting it remain mere rhetoric.
Heck, all of this may just sound like rhetoric to most people. But the struggle to create has been a major theme of the last two years for me, and I needed to talk it out a bit. I’m trying to establish new habits and it’s kind of hilarious to me how tough it’s been, after so many years spent bursting at the seams with things to say but no discipline in making myself say them.
All I know is there is so much joy in creating – just as there is joy in giving – no matter how trying the process is. Both have no promise of reward, and yet for that very reason I want to make them my default mode of living. I am made in the image of the Creator, after all; it makes sense that this is in my bones, and that shying away from it feels like shying away from what makes me human.
The fear is that I have nothing new to say or contribute. But that’s a lie. After all, it is through other people’s bravery in expressing themselves that I have learned and grown and felt understood in life. If I can provide that for just one other person, it’s worth it.
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.