Tag Archives: creativity

Anxiety vs. Creativity

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Over the holidays, I read I Am Brian Wilson, the erstwhile Beach Boy’s second memoir (after the first, written under the heavy influence of his therapist/Svengali Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson eventually disowned).  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone looking for a deep insight into his process or a comprehensive behind the scenes chronicle of the Beach Boys’ history; it is very much the fragmented, personal recollections of a man looking back through a peripatetic lens from a lifetime’s distance.  To my generation, Wilson is known largely as the subject of a Barenaked Ladies song, and as the Beach Boys’ records fade from airplay on all but the stubborn classic rock stations, he is remembered at a glance more for his struggles with mental illness than his musical contributions.  To his credit Wilson does not shy away from describing the impact of his illness in his book and what has allowed him to manage it.  It is sad that even in 2017 mental illness remains dogged by stigma; one can only imagine with horror what it was like to endure it under the celebrity spotlight in the era where it was still acceptable to call such individuals crazy and fling them into asylums tended by Nurse Ratched types.

In one passage, Wilson talks rather nonchalantly about seeing a report on television about a link between anxiety and creativity, identifying that the very same part of the brain which can cause us to worry incessantly about things that may never happen is what also allows us to conceive of worlds that never were.  Maybe I’d always instinctively known that, given how many creative types throughout history have experienced some form of mental illness (or have even been described as merely having extremely difficult personalities), but I’d never read it put so simply and directly.  It led me to reflect on my own experiences with anxiety over the years, and to think about how the two forces are linked far beyond the daily battles that may be waged in one particular individual’s brain.

My anxiety would not be termed crippling by any means, as it has never been so debilitating that it has kept me from getting out of bed or functioning as a capable adult, not once.  But there was a time when it kept me fairly isolated from the world, where family and existing friends were ignored and the thought of initiating new relationships was as appealing as the proverbial root canal.  On many consecutive nights alone with West Wing DVD’s playing on a loop in the background, disappearing into the fictional worlds I was creating was the only way I could calm a turbulent stomach and silence the mantra repeating in my head about how I was bound to fail at everything lying out there in wait beyond the door of my one-bedroom apartment.  When fingers touched keyboard, those stresses vanished, and while I was in the process of creating, they were kept far at bay, locked in an impenetrable adamantium cage.

As soon as I hit save and close and stepped away, however, the anxiety roared back – questions of what now, assurances that no one would ever like this, that I’d never find a way to support myself with it, and that it was all a colossal waste of time.  I could never talk about what I was working on either, as my fear of the hated “oh, that’s nice” response or that people would think I was weird or simply wouldn’t get it made it easier to gloss that part of me over or pretend it didn’t exist.  So writing became more and more of a narcotic, as I shunned the outside in favor of the blinking cursor, but a significant part of me still wanted that outside, even as much as I feared entering it or didn’t seem to be able to function very well while navigating it.  I wanted to be as confident in interacting with real human beings as I seemed to be proficient in writing fictional dialogue, and I could never quite understand why the two did not complement one another.  Whatever the case, it was not a recipe for happiness.

Even years removed from those lonely nights, when I am now married, a parent, a homeowner and gainfully, stably employed, the anxiety lingers, reminding me how much of a failure I am each day – even though an objective observer would confidently argue the reverse.  With dogged determination, anxiety has crept into the previously impenetrable sanctuary of the creative process as well, leaching away what used to be the most reliable source of my confidence.  If I were somehow able to plug into my thoughts as I write this post, here is what they would be saying:  who are you kidding, this is pure shit.  This makes no sense, this is self-indulgent and pretentious, the writing is godawful, high school caliber, and hell, even high schoolers can write better than you.  It takes you hours what some of your peers can toss off effortlessly in fifteen minutes, and you might as well just delete this post because nobody’s going to read it, let alone like it anyway.  You should give up and get on with your life and leave this field to people who know what they’re doing and actually have people listening to them.  No one cares.  NO ONE CARES.  (Repeat to fade.)

I thought that eventually this would go away as I wrote more and published wider, but it’s gotten worse, to the point where literally dozens of posts have been strangled in the cradle, never seeing the light of day, because the voice of negativity has been too strong to overcome – expanding from mere inadequacy about one’s capabilities to sheer terror that some pissed off Trump-worshiping Internet troll is going to go to town on them.  But if anxiety and creativity are the same part of the brain, then it stands to reason that an increase in one would be directly proportional to an increase in the other.  As ideas spring and percolate and yearn to take shape, so too does the counterforce in equal measure, belittling and slapping those ideas down; apathy rears its slouching head to nip persistently at the heels of effort.  This doesn’t do any favors to goals of becoming more productive and prolific, but it would seem that you have to accept this rather Faustian trade in order to get on with things, and the less time spent bemoaning it, the better.

Towards the end of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry ruminates about the possibility of trading away his manic phases to the benefit of owning a more stable emotional state of being, and he offers bluntly, “I need my mania.”  It is a rather potent question to be asked even of those of us who don’t veer to those sorts of extremes:  would we give up our creativity to live without our anxiety and much more confidently, in order to be that guy who can walk into the room and charm the pants off everyone he meets, who always knows exactly what to say in every single situation, who never has the slightest doubt about who he is or what to do next, who never worries about what tomorrow might bring?  If you’re a writer, a painter, a musician or anyone who finds their passion in any creative works – whether it’s a casual hobby or how you put food on the table, could you answer with a yes?  I suspect that for many, there are days that you might, when it all seems to be folding in on you, when the abrupt ring of the telephone is a blade filleting every last nerve into shreds of spaghetti and you can’t fathom how you’re going to make it till tomorrow.  Yet in the calmer moments, you can look back at the impressive body of work that you’ve amassed and shake your head and say of course not, are you kidding me?  It is a lingering question with as many layers of duality as the integration of the two states themselves.

Even after reading his memoir I don’t know if Brian Wilson could definitively say one way or another, if he would have preferred a quiet, certain life over the chance to gift the world with “God Only Knows.”  But there might be a serenity to be found in learning (eventually) to accept that, in the words of Frank Sinatra, you can’t have one without the other – that the pitiless snarls of the beast salivating for your failure are mere fuel for the imagination that will ensure your success.

When you figure out how, let me know.

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Unfreezing creativity

You can emerge from a great movie in any number of frames of mind:  stirred to action, moved to tears, smiling ear to ear or even enraged beyond words.  And then there are those movies that have a different and in some ways, more profound effect.  They come along at just the right moment, when you’re a bit discouraged by a recent course of events, when the well is drying out and replenishing itself with doubt instead.  Movies that embrace your simmering creativity and stoke your desire to tell stories, because they remind you of the possibilities inherent in the blank canvas by pushing the limits of what can be done with it.  They disarm and enchant the cynic and turn him into a dreamer again, fingers twitching to fill hard drives with a wealth of new words.  Frozen, Disney’s magnificent animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, did that for me.

The story of a bond of sisterhood tested by fate, magic, misunderstanding and a heck of a lot of snow and ice, Frozen is visually sumptuous, befitting the pedigree of its studio, and uncommonly emotionally profound.  The two princesses of the vaguely Nordic realm of Arendelle are the playful young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the power to create ice and snow.  They are inseparable until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic, at which point their well-meaning royal parents decide that the two would be better off kept apart, for their own safety, and Anna’s memory altered to remove her awareness of her sister’s abilities.  Years later, after the girls have been orphaned, Elsa is poised to be named Queen of Arendelle until a confrontation with Anna over a rash decision to marry a handsome prince she’s just met results in Elsa’s long-suppressed powers bursting forth and blanketing Arendelle in eternal winter.  Shunned by her people, Elsa flees to the distant mountains, pursued by Anna who has faith that her sister can be convinced to bring summer back to the realm.  I’d prefer not to say more at the risk of being spoilery, but despite some red herrings dropped early on that suggest you’re in for the typical schmaltz about princesses in towers and the conveniently available square-jaws they always fall for, and despite the prominence in advertising of the goofy living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the story goes in a much more mature and welcome direction, keeping the relationship between the sisters as the emotional linchpin – while dazzling your eyes with some breathtaking animation work, especially in any scene involving Elsa’s magic.

Given what I’ve discussed at length here before in terms of the onscreen portrayal of women, how refreshing indeed to find a story that both passes the Bechdel test and gives depth and complexity to a female character with supernatural powers!  The clip I’ve linked above is my absolute favorite moment in the movie, because not only is it a terrific song belted out by a sublimely talented Broadway veteran at the top of her game (even calling back a little to her famous interpretation of Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”), but it’s a scene of a young woman embracing everything about who she truly is and reveling in the wonders of what she can do with her amazing gifts.  A triumphant coming out of a sorceress, if you will, and a scene of unbridled joy.  We don’t get to see that very often, if ever.  Women with powers in movies are usually punished for them – they have to give them up to attain the life they really want, or, they choose to use them for evil and must therefore be destroyed (usually by… sigh, a virtuous man).  While Elsa does cause some inadvertent mayhem that must be undone, the resolution of the story thankfully doesn’t require her to abandon what makes her unique.  She adds to her life instead of taking something away.

As a man writing a novel in first-person from a woman’s point of view (a fantasy about a woman with magical powers, no less), those issues are always top of mind for me.  It’s too easy to venture down the well-trodden, familiar path at the end of which lies the execrable Mary Sue; the collection of cliches guaranteed to please no one, least of all the author.  Experiencing Frozen, though, shows me that it can be done, and done extremely well, and the positive response to the movie by both audiences and critics proves that these kinds of characters can touch hearts.  Magic has always had a lingering visceral appeal, and too often literature and cinema adhere to the conservative religious view that there is something fundamentally wrong about it, forever at odds with how the world is supposed to function.  Yet it’s something that we all still seem to want in our lives – in the first encounter with a new love, in the twinkle in the eye of a child waiting for Santa, in the wish made on the shooting star.  Why can’t the world be magical?  Why can’t we make it that way?

Writers have our own magic to offer.  We have these crazy ideas and wild emotions that we are somehow able to transmogrify into a collection of permutations of 26 letters that cast spells upon those who read them, with the very effects I mentioned off the top.  When we’ve suppressed that nature for too long, because day jobs and other obligations have gotten in the way, or we’ve just been too downright lazy to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we risk not a catastrophic explosion like Elsa, but a gradual withering away of our spirit.  We get mopey and find little to be happy about in what should be fulfilling lives.  What we need to do is have a “Let It Go” moment instead and revel in what we love and what we know we’re meant to be.  Sometimes it takes a reminder; a movie like Frozen that assures you that storytellers are capable of some wondrous things.  And then you want to get back to your own fictional universes and start pushing your own limits again, typing until your fingers fall off and you’ve created magical palaces of skyscraping prose.  Hoping somewhere in the back of your mind that one day your story will have the same impact on somebody else – and the cycle of creativity will continue, forever unfrozen.

To be or not to be… hopeful

“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher (great line regardless of whether you supported her or not)

We have a conscious choice to make when we start writing anything, whether to be positive or negative.  Given the near infinite flexibility of words to create a specific tonality, even one phrase out of place, one ill-timed sarcastic barb, can radically alter the message we are trying to send.  If one tends toward the cynical, toward an overwhelming frustration with the way of the world and humanity’s seeming unwillingness to get its collective act together, keeping an upbeat theme is that much harder.  Throwing up one’s hands and then crapping phonetically over everything that rubs you the wrong way is the escape valve for the bitter, the apathetic and the cowardly.  One can liken optimism somewhat to the idea of faith, in the steadfast committal to believe in something in spite of physical evidence to the contrary.  Human beings are tremendously flawed creatures capable of doing terrible, unspeakable things to each other, but do I want to live my entire life resigned to accepting the limits of our collective potential being defined by the worst of us?  Must we always be forced to play in the dirt by those who choose to wallow there?

Criticism is a word with almost universally negative connotations, because in the age of the Internet, where “coolguy69” can dump polemics of visceral hatred (usually not phrased or even spelled as eloquently) on websites and message boards around the world and skulk back to his mother’s basement free of the responsibility of standing behind his words, we’ve forgotten that the point of criticism is, fundamentally, to offer suggestions for improvement.  Snark gets noticed – when dealing with attention spans so overwhelmed by sheer volume of input they’ve been reduced to microseconds, the quick jab with the blade garners the headline and the retweet, instead of the drawn-out approach of reason and thoughtful consideration and counterpoint.  We then pat ourselves on the back for what clever smartasses we are, forgetting in our momentary endorphin glow as the clicks and likes add up, that we are contributing nothing, advancing nothing, signifying nothing.  It is as Shakespeare so cannily observed 400 years ago, a tale told by an idiot – and deserving of no further consideration.

I don’t want to be that guy.  I don’t want to be the hipster loudmouth at the party who sips his appletini while he pontificates upon the downfall of Western civilization, throwing in handy Cliffs Notes references to Albert Camus and the collected works of Francois Truffaut while he constructs a dizzying, grand unifying thesis of how the human obsession with reality television and Facebook is merely foreshadowing the zombie apocalypse.  Instead, I want to be the optimist.  And that’s easier than you might think, because the evidence is everywhere.  For every Joseph Kony in the world there are a hundred million good, decent, honest people, working hard, raising families, treating friends, neighbors and strangers alike with the respect and tolerance we should all merit by the mere fact of our existence.  Not easy to remember when the Konys suck up all the news coverage, which is why sniping at the big bad universe is always the quicker, more seductive path – the dark side of the op-ed.  When discourse has become so polarized, left and right so implacably divorced and compromise an archaic concession of the ideologically weak, is it not morally better to try and calm the waters – to try and point towards better days ahead – instead of stirring them further?  Sighing and sneering won’t get us to the future that I continue to hope for in moments when I behold the wonders of nature, the possibilities of human achievement, and the smile of a child.

I don’t have a problem putting my name and photograph alongside my words, because I’m of the belief that if you wouldn’t carve it in concrete on your front porch, you shouldn’t publish it online.  I can do that comfortably because I am proud that I have chosen, as the old song says, to accentuate the positive, and if I’m to be criticized for what I’ve written, I can take it, secure in the knowledge that I’ve given my best.  It’s difficult at times; I get frustrated, even downright pissed off at a lot of what goes on out there, and many first drafts full of ugly vitriol have gone into the digital bin when I have stopped, taken a breath and asked myself what good it would do.  That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.  Are we doing any good with our words?  If not, then why are we bothering to write them?

These are the bricks you’re looking for

A few weeks ago, an episode of The Simpsons took a poke at Lego, criticizing the volume of licensed Lego products and charging that the world’s favourite building toy is no longer about individual imagination and creation, but rather the mindless duplication of whatever the designers have created for you.  Certainly Lego has changed since I got my first set back in the early 80’s.  Back then, aside from the boxes of generic brick assortments, there were only three product lines – Town, Castle and Space.  Nowadays, there’s Pirates of the Caribbean Lego, Harry Potter Lego, Star Wars Lego, Spider-Man Lego, and a forthcoming Lord of the Rings line, where you will finally be able to purchase a Lego Legolas (the mind trips at the metaphysical implications of that one).  There are Lego video games, Lego board games, Lego cartoons, Lego movies, even a Lego Architecture line where you can recreate famous buildings like the Sears Tower or the White House.  YouTube is full of amateur Lego recreations of classic movie scenes and Eddie Izzard’s comedy routines.  And the surest sign that the popularity of the little Danish toy that could continues to swell is that much to the chagrin of parents, retailers almost never put it on sale.  Lego comes as close as any product I know of to a textbook example of inelastic demand.

Upon glancing through the Lego section of your local Toys R Us, it would seem that the trend has moved towards replication rather than innovation.  The instructions enclosed with each set used to be harder to follow – you would be shown stages of construction and it was up to you to figure out which bricks you needed to find amidst the pile.  Now everything is laid out much more clearly, with each brick given its own part number, arrows showing how they should be connected, and a helpful suggestion to assemble your set on a hard surface, not a rug (I guess during all those hours assembling spaceships on my bedroom carpet, I was doing it wrong.)  At the same time, not that I’m keen to disagree with The Simpsons on anything, but upon deeper examination, their assertion is still not particularly fair.  To its credit, Lego has been savvy enough to realize that their sets have different levels of appeal:  some want to collect the licensed sets just to build them as presented, but the majority of Lego’s fans treasure these sets not just for the chance to build an X-Wing, but for the customized parts that can spur their own flights of fancy.  The first Lego bricks were strictly rectilinear, but with the new lines came varieties of curved bricks and specialized parts like flags, steering wheels, fruits, swords and countless others that opened up new possibilities for creation – everything didn’t always have to be ninety-degree angles anymore.  Indeed, builders both young and adult have flooded the Internet with images of fantastic constructions, some inspired by popular culture, others wholly new and inventive.  One could be given a collection of paint and shown step-by-step instructions on how to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but the true artist will always use that paint as the building blocks – sorry about the pun – of their own unique fabrication.  The same as how a keyboard could theoretically be used to retype A Tale of Two Cities, if that is your inclination, or it can help write a new, original masterpiece.  Lego is at its core merely a tool for creativity, and the set designs are only one option for how to wield it.  The use of the tool is up to the individual.

There is still significant merit in “just following the instructions,” as some of my friends used to natter dismissively.  A great number of today’s engineers are kids who grew up putting Lego together.  It can be an invaluable vehicle for the conceptualization of spatial relationships.  Personally, I have a profound interest and obsession with comprehending how and why things work – I’m not one to take the world on faith alone, and much of this I can trace to my fascination with watching Lego spaceships take shape one brick at a time.  To this day I still find assembling Lego to be a most relaxing activity – my mind is at peace and my attention focused on the movement of my fingertips as each piece is connected to the next.  If nothing else, it’s made me a genius at putting Ikea furniture together – so let no man assert that those silly plastic bricks are of no practical value in the real world.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that fosters curiosity and a need for understanding is a good thing.

Now I just need to see if that argument works with my better half regarding that $400 Lego Star Destroyer I was eyeing this past weekend…

UPDATE:  This story came out the morning of January 25, showing the kind of creativity Lego can inspire.