Creative Process Vs. Creative Product

January 22, 2017


As I nurture a fragile recovery after a long dry spell, I am becoming mindful of patterns in my creative cycle. This week I had a pivotal insight: capitalist culture, with its emphasis on product over process, has been profoundly undermining my self-expression.

To give a little background, I’ve nailed down my creative cycle to six basic phases.

The Spark

Something I’ve noticed about the world niggles. It niggles for a while. Then it suddenly assembles itself into something that can be communicated to others – a story, a painting, a song, an essay, a performance. It demands to be made so it can be shared.

The Burning Flame

When I experience this epiphany, I begin to assemble whatever form of art the niggle has demanded. With reckless enthusiasm, I throw everything into the project. I am wary of anything that might slow me down. I want to get as far as possible before the final stage of this cycle.

The Market Research

Once I’m well stuck into it, I think about the thingy, whatever it is, all the time. But I can’t necessarily directly work on it every minute of the day. So I surf the net for advice on how to make my thingy as exceptional as possible. Nearly all of this advice is strictly oriented around the concept of selling the thingy when the thingy is done.

The Entrepreneur

I come back to my thingy with a critical perspective. How well does it conform to the standards for the genre or style? I know, for example, that I am writing a Pixar-esque, four quadrant, sci-fi / comedy feature film. That’s an exceptionally marketable type of film. It could be worth more than a year’s salary to me if I succeed. One would think that would be very motivating!

The Second Guess

I contemplate everything I’ve done so far, asking what conflicts with the objective of eventually selling my thingy in the appropriate market. The last script I started died at this moment, twenty pages from the finish line, right after I wrote the climactic scene. It was a dystopian birth control thriller and there’s no market for such a thing.

The Fizzle

Once I am certain I’m working on a marketable thingy and everything about it conforms to the standards for the genre and style, I suddenly lose every scrap of enthusiasm I ever had for doing it in the first place.

I start about twenty projects for every one that I finish. On the up side, the projects I finish tend to be modestly successful. On the down side, I tend not to finish the most innovative projects I come up with because they have no market.

The first feature length script I wrote was so bizarre that the film school instructor who was offering advice on how to move forward with our own projects just handed it back to me. He said “I don’t know what to tell you”. I was the only student who received no advice at all. Not even “This could use a rewrite.”

It’s pretty clear to me now where my projects go off the rails. I don’t know why I never saw it before. As soon as I emerge from my chrysalis of stewing creativity and look at the relationship between my inner and outer world, the outer world squishes my creative impulse like a bug.

Now I understand why.

Capitalist culture ascribes value to human endeavour only when money changes hands.

Nothing undermines my creative process more handily than the spectre of an eventual sale. Whatever my thingy is, my niggled subconscious didn’t demand for it to be made because it wants a TFSA top-up. I started out with something to communicate – something I felt was not being adequately communicated already.

Through the lens of capitalism, a half finished novel, a song that will only ever see the camp fire jam, or a bad painting are not just inconsequential, but embarrassing. The trope of the “struggling artist” is embraced by most of our peers with contempt and condescension. An artist only becomes “respectable” when their work sells, and sells well.

This market-based approach to creativity leaves no room for the niggle – that original impulse of social criticism that forms the bedrock of every artist’s urge to communicate something too complex for a bumper sticker.

Creativity is a process, not a product.

Understanding that capitalist culture is fundamentally flawed in its approach to art, I believe I can undermine my cycle of flame and fizzle.

The trick is to remember that the reason I’m making thingies is that I enjoy it. I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy it so much I would like to do it all day long, every single day. I enjoy it like a two year old enjoys finger painting without a care in the world for how much it might fetch at a showing.

I believe immersing oneself in the creative process is a fundamental human need. The creative process in this sense includes activities not typically considered “art”, like gardening or tinkering with cars. It’s possible that this is only true for some folks and not all, but I personally feel that anyone who denies it is just broken.

From this perspective, it really doesn’t matter what I’m working on as long as I am engaged in the process. It doesn’t matter if I finish it, if it’s any good, or if anybody else will like it. The primary benefit of engaging in the creative process is the uplifting impact it has on my mood. The prospect of making a “marketable product” is not even secondary – it is not on the list of benefits at all. If anything, it’s a hindrance.

Creativity takes practice.

When I taught music, I told my students it only takes five or ten years to become quite good. If they were daunted, I would argue that those years will pass regardless of whether or not they learn an awesome new skill.

I also emphasized the necessity of practice. I told my students they were wasting their money if they wouldn’t practice. There is simply no way to become any good at anything but by practice. On the other hand, when one practices, it’s only a matter of time before one becomes good.

Being good at things is its own reward.

When we are learning a skill like yoga or ballroom dancing, we don’t think in terms of monetary reward. But paint a picture or write a short story, and nobody knows how to take it except by assessing its dollar value and dismissing it as a waste of time.

From this day forward, I will approach the arts as a skill that I must practice because I enjoy it and I would like to become good. I pledge to nourish the niggles that inspire all my thingies, to allow myself the freedom to explore and to fail.

With this new perspective, I no longer need to be ashamed of all my unfinished, bad or bizarre thingies. They are not a waste of time – they are practice.

Every time we practice should be counted as a success, regardless of the outcome. I look forward to approaching my writing desk armed with this perspective, and I hope it may be useful to others.

How to Fight the Crushing Sense of Isolation Social Media Inspires.

December 18, 2016

head-1597555_960_720A few weeks ago, after months (if not years) of feeling a constant undercurrent of dread and anxiety, I paused to consider where these feelings came from and whether anything could be done about them.

I’m happy to report that my contemplation delivered some really smokin’ insights.

Facebook is making you depressed.

I have meditated a bunch and done a lot of psychotropic drugs. As a result, I often experience my emotions as a primarily physiological sensation that it takes me quite some time to explain. While this brings huge disadvantages in any conversation that starts with “What’s wrong?” it is invaluable in quickly identifying that something or other is indeed wrong.

If I’m uncomfortable with something I know it right away, although I may not be able to explain it. Since you have a human brain too, I assume this may also be the case for you, unless you’ve never had an epiphany, in which case you probably just blame your lover and move on with your life.

Anyway, I observed over a period of time that the more time I spent on Facebook, Twitter and the like, the more anxious I became. That was a startling observation, given the amount of time I was spending on social media, and the fact that my mental health has been steadily deteriorating since Zuckerberg’s left nut dropped.

All the world is NOT a stage.

To make a long story short, I mulled it over and concluded that who we pretend to be on social media is a public projection of our most deplorable self.

In my former life, I used to connect with people by cornering them at parties, allowing our conversations to follow whatever path they naturally took. Facebook interactions are the house party equivalent of forcing the band off stage, grabbing the mic, making sure everybody – even the neighbours and the government – hear what you think.

That is fucking terrifying, right? If you’re just your normal awkward self, spouting erroneous opinions and embarrassing anecdotes hither and thither on social media, whatever will your employer think?

So we adopt one of a range of popular one-dimensional social media personalities. Are we rebels? Are we trolls? Are we activists? Are we “entrepreneurs”? What is our brand? Social media technology demands that we decide which facet of ourselves is acceptable to our network and curate our opinions to conform to that demographic. Or curate our social network to conform to our brand.

Gone are the days when I could have a lively pint with an Albertan conservative, ask him how many Iraqi babies he is willing to murder to oust Saddam Hussein, then go make out. Odds are I’ll never sit down for a friendly pint with a conservative again, let alone make out, given that I’ve curated my social network to exclude people with deplorable political opinions.

In addition to stifling my self-expression and limiting my real world social opportunities, Facebook has become my primary method of interacting with friends and family. If I have something to say to them, I post it on Facebook and tag them. They like it or comment or whatever and I carry on looking at the train wreck western civilization has become.

Slowly, my one-on-one communications with the people I care about have almost completely stopped. No mail, no phone calls, no emails -nothing but the occasional text.

That is my social life outside social media. Even my invitations to real world parties tend to go through Facebook rather than direct communication, which gives me the blissful impression (for an introvert) my absence will not be noticed.

One-on-one communication is essential to our well-being.

I wondered what would happen to my anxiety if I consciously undermined the isolating effects of social media. What if I phoned somebody? Sent a post-card? Invited a friend for brunch?

So I committed to directly contacting one person I care about every day. For science. It can be a post card, a letter, a phone call, an email, a text, anything with no audience other than the intended recipient. It can not be a  fly-by tag, a like or re-share, or a “post to friend’s timeline”.

The people I care about need to know I went out of my way to contact them specifically and candidly, without prompting, without an audience to applaud our interaction, and without any specific business to attend to.

The results are in.

On the first day, I called my 97 year old grandmother. Not to make arrangements for the holidays or the next family reunion or whatever the fuck, but just to say “hi, how are ya.”

Grandma’s reaction was explosive. Her obvious delight at hearing my voice out of the blue brought a tear to my eye. She called me back hours later to see if mum had put me up to it. She’d been thinking about it all day.

Her over-reaction to a bog standard family phone call brought me to a terrible revelation: the positive correlation between social isolation and social media activity might extend beyond my own sad situation. I’m not the only one who hasn’t called grandma lately. It’s my entire family. Maybe my whole generation.

What if none of us are calling my grandma? She’s on Facebook. My family talks about her all the time, shares pictures of her, hearts those pictures, goes to bed thinking warmly of Grandma. But she has no idea how to use Facebook. Her idea of a good time is regaling the family with poetry she learned in a one room schoolhouse in Cattlefart, Saskatchewan in 1925.

Feeling a little overwhelmed, the next day I cheaped out and texted a work friend “happy birthday” rather than Facebooking it.

A brief, private conversation ensued, during which it became clear he had no birthday plans. A reciprocal exchange happened a few weeks later on my birthday, during which I also revealed I had no birthday plans. Nevertheless, I’m still not over the realization he was doing nothing on his birthday. He’s in his twenties. I’m in my forties. I didn’t give up on birthday plans once and for all until last year.

If single twenty-somethings are watching Netflix alone on their birthday while they give upward thumbs to the happy birthdays streaming in on Facebook, something is rotten in Denmark. Nobody, but nobody, gets laid that way.

It’s not just you.

If the world’s sexiest nonagenarian grandma and an attractive twenty-something urban bachelor aren’t being directly contacted by anybody, I have good reason to suspect social media isolation is a serious problem. It’s not just affecting me. It’s affecting my grandma. It’s affecting my younger, prettier friends.

One-a-day challenge.

I have been on this one-a-day anti-Facebook contact program for about a month.

I have to admit, after a euphoric phase in week two, the drawbacks have become clear. Namely, having contacted a couple dozen people, I am sometimes called upon to become more involved in their own lives. This can be tough when there’s so much new Netflix to catch up on.

But the rewards! I’ve started playing music again. I’ve cut way down on television and booze. I’m writing a screenplay. I’m in therapy. And most importantly, I’m not pacing around Facebook like a polar bear in captivity, searching for mental stimulation that never comes.

And, of course, I know how many of my friends and family are really doing, outside the confines of their “brand”.

I think you should try it. I really do. I think you should call somebody you care about right now and tell me how it goes.

Stephen Harper: a billion bucks quickly wasted.

June 28, 2010

Go, Canada!  Splashing out an inexplicable billion dollars on a massive security fence and 20,000 heavily armed cops to cower behind it while a scruffy handful of anarchists wreck downtown Toronto!  Me, I’m thinking it would have been cheaper to build a twenty dollar fence and just have local cops who would have been on duty anyway cower behind it in their regular attire.

On the other hand, there is an up side of the ridiculous level of “preparedness” a billion dollars supposedly bought:  there’s no way for a thinking voter to avoid the suspicion that the riot was purposefully ignored (or intentionally provoked) in order to justify the breathtaking price tag of fulfilling Harper’s authoritarian aspirations for a weekend.  Given the New Government of Canada’s unprecedented fondness for carefully staged PR opportunities, that’s the theory I’m going with until further notice.

Because sensationalist photos of burning cop cars and smashed windows are likely to dominate most mainstream coverage (as intended, one can’t help but suppose), I want to make a point of remembering the type of direct action the vast majority of dissidents were there to engage in, photo courtesy of the Star.

US Chamber of Commerce takes astroturfing to a whole new level

June 22, 2010

Starting last Thursday, the Chamber emailed its grassroots network like-minded mailing list subscribers asking members Republican freepers, Ayn Rand enthusiasts, free market think tanks and Wall Street PR firms to create their own personalized, avatars, or virtual versions of themselves anonymous CGI “protesters”. Once created, the avatar can participate in a “virtual march” on the Capitol.

(There, WSJ.  Fixed it for ya.)

Look out Obama!  The freeple are digitally self-replicating and pretending to be in Washington together!  Time to rethink those financial regulations.

infinite dorks march on Washington

Citigroup tells it like it is.

June 14, 2010

We watched Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story the other night.  As I often do with the contentious Mr. Moore’s films, I found sources to validate a few scenes that caught my eye.

First stop, Citibank’s “plutonomy report”.  In Moore’s film a few appalling sentence fragments from this document are thrown in with some flashy, rapid cutting and a lot of voice-over.  That would be a great way to hoodwink the audience if you felt like misrepresenting the document.  There does seem to be a bit of contextual fantasy (I don’t believe this memo was “confidential”.   It appears to be promotional material for a basket of investments in businesses that cater to the rich.)  However,  the content of the document is pretty much as Moore makes it sound: delight at the fact the rich are getting richer and everybody else is getting poorer.  Not only that, but wealth disparity has become so massive that nobody really matters any more except the rich, economically speaking.

The point here, again, is that the rich are feeling a great deal happier about their prospects, than the “average” American. And as the rich are accounting for an ever larger share of wealth and spending, it is their actions that are dictating economic demand, not the actions of the “average” American.

It’s no surprise to discover rich people are really excited about getting even richer, but it is a major deviation from industry approved propaganda to openly acknowledge that this is happening at the expense of the middle and lower classes.  It’s also rare to hear a Wall Street lobbyist cheer the fact that trade globalization almost entirely benefits wealthy capitalists while suppressing wages for everybody else.

This irritates me to no end, frankly.  If I were to walk up to your average Canadian conservative and say “economic globalization suppresses the standard of living for everyone, everywhere primarily to benefit of the richest people on earth” they’d call me a leftist lunatic and trot out the Fraser Institute approved theorem that if little third world kids weren’t chained to their sewing machines for 26 hours a day they’d be much worse off, really.  And yet here is Citibank happily publishing documents asserting exactly that.

…we believe that the rich are going to keep getting richer in coming years, as capitalists (the rich) get an even bigger share of GDP as a result, principally, of globalization.  We expect the global pool of labor in developing economies to keep wage inflation in check, and profit margins rising – good for the wealth of capitalists, relatively bad for developed market unskilled/outsource-able labor.

The risks?

At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation (on the rich or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous laborers, in a push-back on globalization – either anti-immigration, or protectionism

OK!  Great!  Let’s get on with it!  I have a few suggestions:

Re-localize your economy: Support local businesses and craftsmen.  Implement a local exchange trading system (LETS).   Grow your own food and encourage others to do the same.

Do not support exploitative producers:  Support fair trade products and businesses and wean yourself off  plastic pumpkins and cheap t-shirts.  Read the labels and boycott products from countries with inadequate labor standards.  Be skeptical of deals that seem “too good to be true”, regardless of the purported country of origin.  Having worked in the garment industry, I can assure you that labels and customs documents very often lie to get around trade barriers and influence public perception.

Get out of debt (read: indentured servitude).  When in doubt, go without.  In the current pro-capitalist / anti-labor economic climate in Canada, jobs are scarce, poorly compensated and insecure and the Conservative government’s solution (as always) is “deregulation and tax cuts for the rich”.  Do what you can to get some breathing room if your income is suddenly suspended, your debt repayments spike due to some inconspicuous contractual fine print or your wages continue to fail to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

Stop watching the news. With very few exceptions, the mainstream media can not be trusted to present a true picture of what is going on in the world.  The richest people on earth own most of the major outlets and dictate editorial policy.  On top of that, their peers in many industries spend tens of billions of dollars a year to saturate major news outlets with misinformation and propaganda. Sit back and contemplate what you really care about, then find non-profit, non-governmental organizations working on those particular issues (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, Greenpeace, etc.) and read their reports and news releases.

Most importantly, stop voting for centre-right “liberal” parties. There is very little difference between the economic policies of the Liberal and Conservative parties.  Since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, both mainstream parties in Canada, the UK and the US have been pro-capitalist and pro-globalization, favoring tax breaks for the rich at the expense of public infrastructure and services for the poor.   Don’t be afraid to vote for a candidate that actually has your interests at heart, whether that candidate is an independent, NDP, Green Party or some other manifestation of genuinely liberal sentiment.

Push back.  Tax and regulate the rich.  Demand a greater share of the wealth.   According to Citigroup, we are the only foreseeable threat to the rising income inequality in Canada, Australia, the US and the UK.

Granted, their wisdom is highly suspect.  This document was published in 2006 – shortly before Citigroup went crying to the Federal Government for a third of a trillion dollars worth of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare to save them from insolvency. Moore could have mentioned that, or mentioned that the US government now owns a 36 % stake in the company, or that Citigroup has been removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average due to “significant government ownership”.  But then it wouldn’t be a Michael Moore film, would it?

News of the weird.

June 12, 2010

As it turns out, in South Carolina you don’t need to be a member of a political party in order to vote for that party’s candidate in the primaries.  Rednecks can vote for Democratic candidates, liberals can vote for Republican candidates, socialists and libertarians can stay home and cry themselves to sleep as usual.

It was inevitable that, with these rules, somebody was going to realize you can easily rig an election in SC by staging an unelectable candidate against a contender in the party you oppose.

Introducing Alvin Greene:  involuntarily discharged from military service (reason unknown), living with his parents, receiving unemployment benefits, currently fighting a felony obscenity charge (with the help of a public attorney),  and celebrating the defeat of highly electable legislator Vic Rawl to become the Democratic South Carolina Senate candidate for 2010!

Fun facts about lying:

Body Language of Lies:

• Physical expression will be limited and stiff, with few arm and hand movements. Hand, arm and leg movement are toward their own body the liar takes up less space.

• Hands touching their face, throat & mouth. Touching or scratching the nose or behind their ear.

Emotional Gestures & Contradiction

• Timing and duration of emotional gestures and emotions are off a normal pace. The display of emotion is delayed, stays longer it would naturally, then stops suddenly.

Verbal Context and Content

• A liar will use your words to make answer a question. When asked, “Did you eat the last cookie?” The liar answers, “No, I did not eat the last cookie.”

• A liar may leave out pronouns and speak in a monotonous tone.

• Words may be garbled and spoken softly, and syntax and grammar may be off. In other words, his sentences will likely be muddled rather than emphasized.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  America, you need more than two teams.

Anyway, prediction time:  Greene will either step down (in exchange for dismissing his felony case or avoiding other charges) or be charged with some form of fraud and be removed from the race by a court.   Rawl will eventually run but the Democrats will struggle to defend themselves against charges of elitism for pushing Greene out unless they can successfully connect the scandal to South Carolina Republicans (Jim DeMint himself for the win), hopefully in court but mainly in the news.  Inevitably, Republican incumbent Jim DeMint will win (because incumbents almost always win) and every normal voter in South Carolina will go home feeling just a little bit dirtier and more alienated.

Way to go, South Carolina politicos!

Sneering at dissidents: spiritual tonic for the modern bourgeoisie

June 11, 2010

As much as I love David McRaney for the challenge his blog poses to many of my misconceptions, one of his archived posts touches on a subject that winds me up.  It seems to be a cherished myth for those who would prefer not to reflect on the social and ecological cost of their lifestyle choices that there is no escape from the relentless onward march of global capitalism.  There is no rebellion one could engage in that impacts the big picture, no message one can communicate that isn’t fraught with hypocrisy and naivete, no behavior one can exhibit unmotivated by raw self-interest.

In McRaney’s (truncated, emphasis-added) words:

Wait long enough, and what was once mainstream will fall into obscurity. When that happens, it will become valuable again to those looking for authenticity…

You would compete like this no matter how society was constructed. Competition for status is built into the human experience at the biological level

You sold out long ago in one way or another. The specifics of who you sell to and how much you make – those are only details.

The subtext here is that the only way people can ever hope to express “authenticity” is by buying a shitload of pointless kitsch purposely designed for the “authentic” demographic.  Therefore, the story goes, we are all trapped.  There is no escape.

But what about simply being authentic?  It’s way cheaper and more effective than buying a T-shirt that says “I’m authentic!”  It requires only that we make a serious effort to determine what has real, immutable value to us and attempt to conform our behavior to whatever revelations unfold.

Adam Smith’s argument that pure self interest is the ultimate human motivator has captured the imagination of the bourgeoisie to such a breathtaking extent that competing philosophies are no longer seriously considered by most Western pundits, politicos and ideologues.  I suspect the idea is beguiling because, in a world where a minute fraction of the population sits on the lion’s share of the wealth, the notion that we can effortlessly advance the greater good simply by looking out for ourselves absolves us of shame.  If we can also embrace the delusion that it is impossible to free ourselves from selfish concerns, we can ignore claims that when “the self” is taken out of the picture, compassion flows as indiscriminately as rain and ethical behavior naturally arises.  We are not moved to contemplate how different our culture might be if it were structured around compassion rather than selfishness as long as we insist “compassion” is merely a deluded form of selfishness, from which there is no escape.

With the dogma of inescapable selfishness firmly entrenched, activists, dissidents and revolutionaries can be dismissed as childish, petulant attention seekers.  Even if some dissidents might have been partly motivated by lofty concerns to begin with, their message is entirely meaningless if it becomes popular or profitable.

Suffice it to say, I do not share this perspective.  I believe it is irresponsible, inaccurate, immature and empirically unsupportable.  While it’s true that the concept of individual self-interest underpins our current understanding of biological evolution, research makes it clear that selfishness is not our only motivator.  As it turns out, we are hard-wired to experience the joy and suffering of others as if it were our own.

As a dissident motivated by the desire to reduce the suffering of others, it seems obvious to me that the primary psychological force behind most forms of dissident behavior is empathy.  Whether for children laboring in unsafe factories, civilian victims of state violence, displaced or destroyed wildlife in a devastated biosphere or any other organism we believe has the capacity to feel pain or distress, we object because we feel it too.  It seems equally clear that the primary psychological force behind capitalism is indeed selfishness, exactly as its proponents would have us believe.  I have no idea how anyone is able to subvert their inherent capacity to feel the suffering of others when it interferes with their own personal gain, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that the pure selfishness embraced by the most passionate proponents of capitalism is not a universal and inescapable law.

To return to McRaney’s quote, if Ghandi could overthrow the British empire wearing nothing but a home-spun loincloth, surely there is more that is “built into the human experience” than “competition for status” and we have a great deal of choice in how we behave, regardless of how society is structured.  If the human psyche has a greater range of motives than pure self-interest, surely it makes a difference upon which specific values our society is constructed.  We have learned from our own experience that a society constructed on the principle of selfishness behaves selfishly.  It is not a great leap of imagination to propose that a society constructed on the principle of compassion behaves compassionately.

More on the search for classier blogs…

June 9, 2010

Here are a few good finds:

You are not so smart illuminates widespread misconceptions about the world by summing up psychological research on the subject of each post.  Essential reading for maintaining an honest amount of skepticism.

Arthur Silber and Chris Floyd have rhetorical skills occasionally reminiscent of Shaw or Twain, and on top of that I agree with nearly everything they write.

Greg Palast is an independent investigative journalist.  Perhaps I should say the independent investigative journalist, since I am not aware of any other freelancers who go further in their investigations than “whatever they can find on the internet” (although I’d be delighted to hear about them if they’re out there.)

That’s it for now.

Andrew Sullivan hits the nail on the head

June 6, 2010

Responding to the opinion that sexual ethics are a key element of Christian faith, he writes:

And do I think that Christianity’s sexual doctrines are a corner-stone of the faith? Not in the slightest. Jesus was uninterested in these matters. True faith is not fixated on sex; it has left sex behind – along with money and wealth and pride – in the pursuit of the divine. The only people fixated on sex are those who wish to use its power to control others.

Watch this stuff.

June 4, 2010

Is your house on fire? No?  Then watch this.

And this:

Hat tip to Graham Linehan for the phrasing of this post.