“A non-writing writer is a monster courting madness.” -Franz Kafka
It’s the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and Darren Aronofksy is on stage interviewing fellow filmmaker, Clint Eastwood. He tells him, “You make it seem so easy — and for me filmmaking is pain. I’m in pain the whole time. I’m in pain writing. I’m in pain shooting, and I’m in pain editing, and I just — how do you do it?”
Eastwood lets Aronofsky’s question hang in the air before answering with his slow, signature draw, “Well, if it was that painful, I would consider myself somewhat of a masochist.”
Everyone has their own sliding scale of pain and pleasure when it comes to making things, but the act of turning inspiration into action is rarely luxurious. The on-demand dopamine machines in our pockets don’t make it any easier. We can get a little high off other people’s work anytime. Why spend hours or years wrangling creative ghosts that promise nothing and might take everything?
The answer is simple: On the other side of creative agony is soul-soothing ecstasy.
Each hour of effort is a click, click, click of a roller-coaster cart climbing. Climbing higher and higher until it reaches its apex and rolls into a freefall of fulfillment, satisfaction, and pride. Even creative “masochists” like Aronofsky know that once the rewards of creativity hit the vein, the pain disappears. And then it’s time to get back in line and ride again.
Humans have had 200,000 years and a million reasons to evolve into industrious and creative beings. It should come as no surprise that when we put our ingenuity to use, our minds race with a primal reassurance that we’ve earned our place in the world. The chemical rush of doing creative work is what keeps people like Aronofksy on the hunt for more. Because once you get a taste of that evolutionary high, the withdrawals can be a real killer…
There are some things in life that come along and make you forget about everything else. Forget the lows, the stress, the why-didn’t-they-call-me-backs. And then there are other things. Things that come along and make everything worth remembering. Things that shoot electricity into the vein of every day.
For me, it’s writing. I felt the chemical rush of creativity five years ago when I first sat down and emptied my thoughts onto a blank page. I had just spent four years meandering through two years worth of community college and landed my first 9–5 job. I was hungry for success and was excelling at work, but my life felt devoid of any real meaning or purpose. But when I put pen to paper, everything changed.
The give and take between my imagination and fingertips created an electric current. Everything grew new layers of potential. My black and white field was filled with color. I was suddenly given a front-row seat to an orchestra of life I never knew was playing all along.
But just as quickly as it can arrive, it can also vanish. When we become hyper-focused on being productive and “optimizing” our lives away, we run the risk of letting our creative habit die. The withdraws slowly set it. We become irritable. Mental fog sets in and our creative spirit becomes a malnourished ghost, barely floating yet ever-haunting. It’s as Franz Kafka once warned, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting madness."
People think burnout occurs when we do too much, but so often, it stems from the one thing we know we should do yet neglect.
Darren Aronofsky knows this feeling as well as anyone. In 1996, he wrote in his journal after an all-night rave on the beach in Thailand:
“The tide came in, the sun came up, everyone kept dancing; the tide went out, the sun went down, everyone kept dancing. I was miserable because I wasn’t making films.”
It was this growing sense of misery and looming madness that pushed me to write my first book. And as each new idea and hour passed that I worked on it, I felt a new charge of hope. I was onto something. I was becoming human again.
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” -Walker Percy
It’s unfortunate that not everyone has a creative outlet they’re passionate about. But the real tragedy is when those who have will still let outside obligations, limiting beliefs, and the quest to “get more done” stop them from practicing what makes them feel alive.
Not everyone can chase their dreams with the same intensity they once did. Careers, families, and the warpath of age can derail or distract from what were once master-plans. Yet, I believe anyone can still explore and share their creativity, even if it’s on a small scale. They can still find themselves, onto something.
A creative practice can be the bridge between the existential wasteland of everydayness and life bursting open with meaning. It can keep one from wanting to jump off a bridge. There are many tools to help steady a mood or take the edge off of reality. But if creativity is your drug, keep chasing that dragon — even when it feels painful to get started or see it through. Other pursuits will feel like wrinkled band-aids in comparison to the soul-soothing satisfaction and chemical rush that comes with sharing your creativity with the world.
Remember that creativity is more than words on a page or colors on a canvass. It’s one of the most fundamental parts of being human. It’s how we develop intuition, express ourselves, and design a purpose-driven life. It’s how we protect ourselves against robotic thinking and stagnant output. As Bob Dylan once said, “Life isn’t about finding yourself or finding anything. It’s about creating yourself.”
Ride the roller coaster. Stay human. And then get in line again.