Between Chaos & Control, Part Two [Guest Post]
“Being constantly creative and producing new works for people to enjoy and criticize is both intensely satisfying and painstakingly difficult.” – Kristopher Matheson
How you arrive at creativity is in your hands alone. I don’t think people can be taught to be creative. You only need a sense of self-discovery, to be open to new ideas, to be fearless, to be willing to let go of your control and take chances—you have to educate yourself. The best course of action you or I can take is to engage with everything around us. Go out into the world and be a student of life, looking for and collecting more material that you will ever use. Read, go to museums, interact with people different from you, study architecture, appreciate music, cook, dance, hike, write short stories with your friends. Everything you do—with the exception of watching TV and playing video games—engages your mind, creating connections between the various reservoirs of knowledge in your brain. The more of these connections you have, the more ways your mind will be able to process information—new and old—often in ways you cannot fathom. The more you educate yourself, the more leaps, insights, inspiration and happy accidents. You will be more creative if you’re open and ready to receive it.
I have a piece of advice which is a difficult lesson that you’ll need to learn. This goes against everything that’s been ingrained in us since we started school—learn to fail. Everyone fears failure. When you go out into the world to seek opportunities to learn, remember that you are going to fail. You’re going to fail once, twice, maybe all the time. You’ll constantly have to remind yourself failure is acceptable. Failing won’t feel natural at first; you’ll want to give in and quit. Learn to push through! My idea journals (which as of this writing consists of 7 books and nearly 500 pages) are full of failed ideas, failed attempts, poorly written sentences, scribbles and doodles made out of frustrations. Every one of these failures I embrace as an opportunity to learn and grow. Take this article, for example—it’s been written, rewritten, and edited at least 10 times because I respect the fear of failure. Starting out with that fear is better than never starting. Doing nothing is the ultimate failure. With each failure, I take a moment to evaluate what went wrong and what didn’t work. I try to look at the problem from a different angle. Failure leaves us feeling vulnerable—it lays our faults bare for everyone to see and it requires us to do something else people have trouble doing: admitting we need help.
Some of you reading this may want to ask me “If I’m going to fail all the time, why should I keep trying?” To that I would ask what do you do after constantly failing? Do you take a moment to evaluate yourself? Do you look at what went wrong? Have you asked for feedback or help? No one has all the answers, but there are classes, online communities, friends and friends of friends who could help you. You’d be surprised how many people want to share their knowledge, especially if you’re eager to learn. All you have to do is make yourself vulnerable and ask for help. I would caution against expecting instant results. Just like the reservoirs of knowledge in your brain, you are going to have to build connections and relationships to be able to access other people’s knowledge.
Failing and laying yourself vulnerable feels bad enough, so really there is no point in sugar-coating this next part. There will be times when everything feels perfect, when you’re getting more work done than you ever have, when you see past all your problems (internal and external), when creating something new it’ll feel like your first date all over again—awkward, nervous, heart pounding, and exciting—these moments are going to be few and far between. You are going to struggle, wrestle with self-doubt, feel desperate and useless. You’ll question why and have doubts about your self-worth. The creative part of your mind always knows the exact right moment to turn on you. It’s in these moments your mind and your work are testing you: how badly do you want this? There is hope. Some days it’ll be easier to overcome than others, but there are no quick cures.
Creativity, when harnessed, will empower you and your work. Many creatives suggest it’s necessary to cultivate daily habits to build a routine that invites creativity and inspiration in, such as working in a comfortable setting, finding the tools (paper, paints, devices, utensils) that fit you, putting in the effort to work everyday no matter what. Creativity is fickle—it won’t wait for the proper moment to strike. One suggestion I have from my own experience is get into the habit of capturing your idea as soon as they come to you. Here’s what I do: I use a combination of Evernote and a paper journal to record my ideas, and what inspires me. Many of my ideas are captured digitally, then sorted and some are written and expanded in my journal. In truth, I have several journals: my idea journal I just described, another for writing (drafts and research), one for art project planning, and a daily planner to keep me on task. Are you starting to glimpse the extent of my control?
When inspiration strikes, who among us has the time to drop what we are doing to go back and work on our projects? This next point I cannot stress enough: capture your ideas as soon as they come to you. If you write it down, you’ll have a much better chance of remembering it. Five minutes later you won’t remember the idea and it’ll be lost forever. If the idea is written, even if it sounds stupid at the time, you can always go back to it, months or years later it might make sense. Always keep your idea journal close so you have the opportunity to use it—it’ll do you no good sitting on your desk gathering dust.
Just before this past summer started, I was on a photographic roll. I got some great shots, I was asking for and receiving constructive criticism, the traffic to my site was up, then a short time later it all fell apart. Nothing was working. I had hit the photographic equivalent of writer’s block. I questioned why, had my doubts, but pushed on carrying my camera and idea journal with me. I picked up my pen and tried writing more often. I continued participating in the OTP G+ Group, I tinkered with my website making cosmetic changes, I started my Postcard Project, and I talked with people like Jeffery. I didn’t give up on my creativity or my photography—I just looked at it from different perspectives. From this experience, I learned that when everything seems impossible your conscious mind is going to tell you to give up. Don’t. Take a step back and let your unconscious mind search for the answers. As I learned and was told, the troubled waters will pass.
After we’ve navigated a turbulent course through the chaos and control and created something, naturally we want to celebrate the work. We also quietly and purposefully hide the disasters, the failures, the broken attempts and the pain we struggled with. Remember from Part One when I said we often lack the words and understanding of our creativity? This is it. We hide it all and pretend none of the bad stuff happened. Creatives are often portrayed as coming to solutions in an A to B to C order, or they instantly had a certain style and were discovered and became famous. We see the finished work, not the journey. We too often delude ourselves that the work is more important than the journey. We don’t create just to create. It’s the journey we are seeking. What we create is the by-product, not the end product.
When immersing yourself in the creative process, you’ll collide with uncertainty, the unknown and a lot of discomfort. Being constantly creative and producing new works for people to enjoy and criticize is both intensely satisfying and painstakingly difficult. Prepare yourself. Embrace failure and learn to push through its pain. Create networks. Fill your reservoirs of knowledge and understanding in as many ways and as often as possible. Creativity will happen when you least expect it, when you open yourself to accepting a loss of control and embrace chaos.
About the author
Kristopher Matheson is a Canadian photographer and writer currently living in Tokyo, Japan.