Creative Survival

I talked to you about how to get more work out in the blog post before, but today I’m returning with a blog about a related topic. Creative survival. I might possibly return to this topic somewhen later in this blog, but here’s the wisdom I have to offer about this right now.

Why creative survival at all? Yesterday I finally finished working through concept artist Nik Hagialas’s “Art RPG”, a great introduction course to concept design. I’m immediately embarking on the follow up “Creature of the Deep” right now. The book doesn’t waste any time either, the first task is a profound one already. Before you even take a shot at the drawing tasks, the author wants you to think about a time you have overcome a huge obstacle and see what you can learn about your strategies – and then apply them on large creative projects that can feel like a huge calamity at times, too. I thought to myself, if I’m writing it down, why don’t I blog about it, so that others have something from it, too?

1. What is a strategy

First of all I had to do a websearch what a strategy is. Originally, this is the art and science of leading and moving an army. Imagine it like this – you and me can decide to go for a walk on a whim, but try to move thousands of armed people in a sensible way, even on a day march from one camp to another. That requires planning effort and foresight how the movement of the troops might impact the troops themselves, the locals, the area itself, what to do when something goes wrong during the operation.

Businesspeople have adopted the term strategy for the context of the development of companies, too. After all, leadership has to “lead and move” the employees and ressources of a company towards defined company goals and predict as well as possible how employees, clients, competitors, markets, governments or any other players will react, how it impacts the company assets, the environment and other circumstances and what to do when things go terribly wrong.

If you are reading this you are probably not an army or a multinational corporation. Most people don’t have or want a complicated manual on how to govern themselves and go about reaching their goals. Yet we could profit from looking into how they solve problems efficiently and successfully. You have goals you set yourself, too. You want to get things done, go places with your career.

Also, everyone will have a certain amount of survival strategies already without naming them as such. If you are in unexplicable and lasting strong pain you make a doctor’s appointment to find and eradicate the cause of your pain. If you run out of money you are looking for a job or apply for welfare to help you through the worst.

2. My academic paper nightmare

So how did I go on about big challenges in my life? Preferably one with lessons that seem like they could be easily applied to art, too? The first thing that comes to my mind was having to write many many papers in university. One in particularly, the biggest and last one that counted directly into my final grade, was a dreaded and awful thing, but I actually have no residual bad feelings about it. No grudge. It started off horribly. I had a time limit, although I’m not sure how long, I think it was a month. Day one when I got my topic the secretary accused me of forging one of my report cards of a previous course that qualified me to attempt this paper at all.

I did still brainstorm how to tackle my paper’s topic and collect some first ressources like I planned to in the library of the university the same day, but I also had to exchange some e-mails with university administration and student office and make a couple of visits in more offices over the next days. It did not help that I also some heightened pressure to succeed from an unsuccessful attempt before, I was absolutely not allowed to fail this one or I couldn’t graduate. But that day, that time, I employed a harsh strategy to go through the nightmare: I suppressed all my emotions, I shut myself out. People tell you, you have to acknowledge, respect and feel your feelings, yes, you do, but not in the circumstances I just described. If I had listened to my fear, my rightful anger (I hadn’t forged anything), my sadness, the agony of academic pressure I would most definitely have done or written or said something stupid and botched everything in the first week, even before and outside writing the actual paper. Or I would have deleted myself. Instead, I focussed on the work and work only. There was just proving my academic certificates and report cards were real and writing the paper, and I made sure to put most of my energy into writing the paper. I did not shut off my critical thinking though and have some thoughts on my university, the secretary, hierarchies and other topics, but that here is not the place for them. Administration confirmed the authenticity of my certificate, I wrote and finished the paper and got a good grade, graduated, and the bold secretary hopefully doesn’t carelessly accuse other students of forgery today.

3. Learning from this for art

Now I wonder, how can this help you and me in art? Obviously, you do not get graded and you set most deadlines yourself or negotiate them with customers. Also it’s hard to question your qualifications unless you outright lie on your resume or accuse yourself via impostor syndrome. If the latter happens, just ignore it. It goes away when you do the work and get ahead in your art career. If you listen to impostor syndrome, you don’t get your work done and end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy where your self-doubt keeps you from getting things done while getting nothing done in return feeds your self-doubt.

Other than that, I do not wish it to you but you might get into circumstances where you reach stress levels that are a threat to your wellbeing. Long term creative projects can do that to you. Usually it’s not the project alone, but personal problems and very unlucky other circumstances joining the mix. Temporary(!) shutting off your emotions and fighting until the bitter end to get the job done might be a way to do it. It would be preferable to not end up in a situation like that at all, but if it happens, that might be a way to get you through it. And please be gentle with yourself afterwards. I think I came through this experience at university so well, because I didn’t try to make harsh survival mode my default mode for the rest of my training. Also, I worked through that experience in private later, taking some time to heal from it. There is no shame in doing that or in seeking professional help to help you doing that.

4. Academic papers and long term creative projects – birds of a feather?

Maybe writing an academic paper is not that different from getting a long term creative project done. You set or are given a goal in the beginning, you brainstorm how you want to approach it and what you need for it, you collect information and whatever ressources you decided you need, then you work on it…probably every day. You must live with the pressure that you will not see results immediately, that some days will be bad despite best efforts, days in which you do nothing hurt you, so better not procrastinate at all, but that you also may not do too much per day, otherwise you spend your energy too fast and burn out.

And then don’t forget that you get numb in the end. What do I mean by that? When you have spent weeks, months or even years with a thing, you are too close to it. You cannot tell whether it is good or bad and you will not see obvious flaws, and probably you don’t even want to see anything anymore, just get it done. You are numb. Therefore do not plan on finishing the evening before due date. You need time to let other people check your work. If the scope of the work is really big, also think about breaking it down in smaller parts that people can check for you without going numb themselves. If it’s a private project and you haven’t announced a release date yet, maybe even take a couple of weeks off yourself and either relax or work on other things or a mix of both, then return to the thing like someone who hasn’t created it themselves and experience it as a reader or player. You will be surprised what you will discover, what a difference in perception that break can make.

That’s it for today. Happy creating, everyone!

Originality, the dreaded magnum opus and you

Rereading my pile of notes for past and upcoming blog entries – harshly disagreeing with you from weeks ago is a hilarious thing and it is a thing indeed! What has happened? As mentioned in the last blogpost, the lasting pressure to succeed is gone like a migraine. There is no need to beat myself up over things, insecurities are at bay. There is no need to become so dense about achieving that you start making stupid mistakes because you can’t even see what’s right before you anymore.

What happened? Amongst other things, I made an important discovery. I learned that everything I could hope to do in and with my creations has been done in one form or the other already. After all, works and ideas that inspire me, already exist and will also inspire others! And more works will be created with the potential to inspire future creators. Of course, there aren’t ever 1:1 matches that would make you creating your own version obsolete. There is always room for your version in your voice. But if I die tomorrow, nothing is truly lost. In the most optimistic case, one or two good original ideas I could have in my lifetime would die with me, and a creator voice vanishes in the big choir that doesn’t even sing together. But mostly, it would not affect culture in any way. I’d still feel sorry for my characters who can’t write their stories themselves, but the ideas underlying the characters do not die. They can return in other forms.

This is not self-defeating, on the contrary. Imagine the pressure you are under if you believe you are the chosen one and your future creations are so important that your premature death means the death of something new, that never was before and never will be if you – and only you – aren’t there to create it. In a way, there is some truth in that. You cannot be replicated. But creating something on a cosmic level of originality… these are expectations you cannot possibly fulfill, even if you are objectively good at your craft. At least you can’t force it.

I felt huge relief when I saw everything is safe. I still intend of having a lifetime full of creative endeavors, telling my stories and living life. Even if I fail, I cannot fail so hard an idea or a whole culture dies. I’m free. I am free to create whatever pleases me and I’m free to enjoy it no matter what I believe it’s value is. I had the looming shadow of an anticipated magnum opus over me that kept me from fully enjoying doing the smaller things. A magnum opus is a defining creative work a successful creator is mostly known for. Of course, if you yourself would know what that work is, why would you want to work on anything else? Most decide to wait to work on it for a couple of years, get good first or worse, wait until they feel ready which will never happen. The thing is, you as the creator do not get to decide what work of yours is the most popular one. Your audience and your audience alone makes that decision. So don’t worry about it and create your things, treating them equal and allowing yourself to enjoy them equally. What the dream of a magnum opus is good for on the other hand is bringing you through the difficult years in the beginning where you have to build up your skills from zero. Having a big dream definitely helps to deal with the frustrations of skill and ambitions never matching. You just have to be ready to let go off of the dream later when it doesn’t serve you anymore. And I’m not talking about giving it up. Imagine a situation where you as a child decide what you want to make and how you want to make it and how it is supposed to be. Later, as an adult, you have learned that things actually don’t work this way in reality, you know your craft and your personal limitations and your flawless work from back then actually has some brutal flaws that would keep it from becoming an enjoyable experience for people that aren’t you. Wouldn’t you want to adapt it? Wouldn’t it be an act of love to undo the magnum opus status of your own creation so that you can properly challenge and improve all aspects of it? And what if you have created things that are clearly better in the meantime? How would you deal with that emotionally?

I am lucky Street Prey(SPREY) was never meant as my magnum opus. Actually, it was a quick idea from a subway ride somewhere in 2011. SPREY just ended up as the thing that made it through and that I’m making right now. And I can take the unhealthy pressure out of that, too. There is no need to rush anymore. I have been and I am deeply in love with SPREY, every day, every working session I spend with it. I guess I will look back on this time and say SPREY was the project I figured a lot of things out with. SPREY that killed my future and gave me one.