The Nature of Creative Expression

[Warning: whining about my creative difficulties ahead… but also I think an interesting exploration of the creative process]

Creativity is a remarkable thing. As far as I am aware, it is a uniquely human thing. Not everyone does it, or wants to do it, but for those who enjoy the act of creative expression, there is often nothing better. And for those who enjoy receiving that creative expression in the form of entertainment, there is often an intense emotional response.

But what drives creative expression?

I’m sure there’s a neurological or psychological or social reason that I don’t know, but I’m looking at it from within my own mind—which means my answers and explorations may be very personal and not applicable to anyone beyond myself. And the reason I’m asking this question is that lately (and by lately I mean the last decade or so), I’ve been struggling with the intense disconnect between wanting to create in theory, and not wanting to create in practice.

Creative expression consists of, in my opinion, three things: creation (in the mind), production (through medium), and sharing (to others). Creation consists purely of thought, whether verbal or visual, and can take place entirely within the mind. Production is the process of bringing those thoughts into a sharable reality, whether in words, drawings, paintings, sound, film, etc. And sharing is the act of showing that produced reality to others, either for free or for financial return.

The desire to create (as in the initial act of creation) is often an automatic one. Our mind supplies an idea, a character, an image, a sound. We enjoy thinking about this thing, so we develop it more in our minds; refine its edges, invent what happens next, revise and edit its details. It may be as simple and personal as a daydream.

Sometimes creation requires a bit more prompting and direction. Writer’s block (as in the complete lack of ideas) results when creation brings nothing to mind. Doubt emerges when we don’t like some aspect of what creation brings. Prompts and exercises are meant to stir things up out of creation with a little bit of force. Discipline applies that force in a direct and organized manner. I’ll come back to the nature of this “force” in a bit.

Once something is created in our mind, whether “automatically” or deliberately, the next step in creative expression is the desire to share. If we only care about our own emotional responses to the creative entity, then why produce it? The exception to that is when the enjoyment of the medium’s process itself is its own reward—and for many artists and writers and musicians, that is absolutely the case. The process is rewarding as much as the creation or the sharing. But it takes time and patience to develop the skillset of the process, and depending on the process itself, it takes time and patience to follow through with it. So only if we desire to share it with others (and I would include in that our future selves, thus sharing becomes a form of remembering or re-experiencing something) do we put ourselves through the process of production.

Production itself may be a joy and a passion, or it may be a means to an end (sharing). The desire to produce can be as much of a mystery as the desire to create in the first place; or it may be intrinsically tied to it. How much “force” you have to apply to the act of production is an individual matter, and again, I’ll come back to that.

Sharing is both the easiest and the hardest element of creative expression. It can exert immense pressure and psychological agony on the earlier portions of creativity, as the idea of sharing is coupled with judgment and reputation (and potential financial pressures). But it can be as simple a process as clicking a few buttons to share it online. You can absolutely create and express yourself without ever sharing it with anyone; so sharing is the most optional part of the process. In many ways it is its own complex entity that is not really the point of this discussion, so I’ll leave it be for now. The point is, the desire to share is often a key element in earlier parts of the process.

So now to this idea of “force.” What I have struggled with is how much force should be part of creative expression.

There are people who create in their minds automatically and with joy, then sit down and produce what they have created through the processes of a medium (perhaps with the same joy, perhaps with a bit more frustration and discipline). “Force” is rarely a part of their process; discipline and patience may be required, but it is never so great that it is less than voluntary. For example, they envision a scene (characters, dialogue, action), sit down and write it, maybe aren’t thrilled with the quality, go back and revise it, then share it.

How much force must they use to sit down in the first place? How much force to continue writing when they no longer want to (and I don’t mean just doubts about its quality, I mean no longer want to)? But perhaps more importantly for me, how much force in the envisioning of the scene? When the dialogue and the characters just won’t appear, or are so stilted and static and forced, what then? For everyone else who creates out there, how much is force a part of creation?

I am aware that most published authors would say that discipline is a vital part of the process. That sitting down and starting is the hardest part.

But where I struggle is that there are aspects of creativity that I don’t have to force. Take writing about writing for example—perhaps not that creative of an act, but still writing. I think of an article or something to say (such as this piece I’m writing now), and then I sit down and write it. Not too much force in it at all. It comes naturally.

And worldbuilding. Often my “stories” begin as worlds, settings, little inventions of culture or society or language, and I fixate on those things and develop them and write them down. My mind returns to them again and again, developing more details, visualizing more elements, and it is fascinated. And I can often come up with the basics of a story, the vague plot, the general themes. But as soon as I try to come up with individual characters (and their expression through dialogue), specific plot points, “what happens next,”… nothing. Blank. Void. Apathy.

That is where I struggle. I could build new worlds all day long—and I mean, I think of them, I produce them (in the form of lists and notes and documents), and I want to share them. But when it comes to stories? Nothing. I’ve been trying to force it for years now; I’ve tried committing out loud, writing every day, short things, long things, everything.

I want to share my worlds and my vague ideas more than anything. That’s what I naturally create. But I don’t know how to produce them in order to share them; posting a list of spells is hardly interesting to anyone else without the context of a story to go with it (let alone trying to make money with that). And I don’t know that I create stories. Not without a great deal of force, at least.

I’ve considered changes in medium (and still am considering it). I create images in my head easily enough, of characters or settings, and if I worked on my artistic skills maybe I could produce those images and share them. Would that be easier or less forced than writing? Certainly on the creation end, yes. Though it will take a lot of time to develop the skills to produce them.

I have also considered “writing” through recording my voice, or writing in the form of scripts. Both might change up the nature of the process of production. But those solutions don’t change the difficulty I face in creation, and thus they have not worked. At least, not yet.

This is what I’m dealing with right at this moment. My mood may change, and my thoughts with it. I may come up with a new solution to try. Maybe I post my worlds for free online just to share at least what I have? Maybe I find a collaborator… somewhere? Maybe I develop a text-based RPG… (because that’s hip and financially viable)? Maybe I try to get a job in the video game industry in some sort of worldbuilding job that doesn’t exist yet? (I’ve often dreamed of being a “worldbuilding consultant” for writers, screenwriters, whoever if they want to write a fantasy/sci-fi story but don’t want to worldbuild… as far as I know, it’s not a real job.) Maybe I just post drawings and poetry and whatever other scribbles pop inconsistently out my head?

Or maybe I learn to force myself like a real artist?

I’m not sure, and I’ll keep trying. I have an innate desire to create… something, and I can’t just ignore that. Right now, I’m just trying to figure out the best way to use that creativity. And I’ll try not to just keep whining about it. I’m cautiously optimistic, I guess, or at least desperately avoiding despair.

I have fragments of creative expression inside me. Now I have to work on setting them free.


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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