Sometimes, it is very hard to write.
A couple of months ago, I went with a friend to a cafe to do some work. I had intended to try to do some programming, but when I tried to make my first line of code my brain filled with static. I quickly became frustrated with my inability to focus and packed up my laptop, pulled out a sketch pad, and just started making semi-random marks. Before long, I was getting really into my drawing, and made a somewhat interesting design which I’d scan and put here if a) I had a scanner set up right now and b) I wanted to embarrass myself with my terrible pencil work.
More recently, I got into playing Terraria. At the same time as my genuine creative output stagnated, I poured hours on end into building bigger and more elaborate castles, imagining strange and exotic features I could add. Again, I’d post pictures of these here, but I haven’t finished any of them to my satisfaction. At such time as I do, you can expect me to flood this blog with pictures of my castles like a new father showing everyone pictures of his ugly goddamn baby and to, I daresay, approximately as much genuine interest.
Both of these experiences made me start thinking about the nature of creativity, and why I often find it so difficult to get into a creative state. Why should I need a game like Minecraft or Terraria to be a canvas for my creativity when I have all of the tools I need to be creative, in a far more unbounded way, at my disposal?
It’s complicated, I suppose, and I can think of a couple of reasons why it might be so. Firstly, forms are often useful in order to grant creative output a format and a context to narrow the range of expression. This is something which newer artists often balk at, because they naively believe that any restrictions on creative output are inherently bad, but pre-determining aspects of one’s creative output can in fact be an incredibly powerful tool to aid in creativity. Trying to be creative with no overarching pre-determined form is like trying to get a fitted sheet onto a large and heavy mattress, and when you manage to pull one corner over another slips out. Having one corner taped down, while not strictly necessary and preventing you from changing to a different set of sheets, can be hugely advantageous when it comes to actually getting the stupid thing on.
Secondly, when one is designing to achieve a goal, it’s extremely easy to feel anxious, and anxiety is generally not conducive to creativity. While this was something I had already sometimes observed in my personal life, I recently saw, on youtube, a lecture by the inimitable John Cleese which really helped to tie all of these concepts together in my mind. In this lecture he discusses the difference between the open and closed states: The open state, a state of playfulness, a state of unbounded creativity, where absurd ideas are plentiful and, if one entertains enough absurd possibilities, real solutions can emerge; and the closed state, a state of energy and readiness to implement solutions to problems– essentially, the state most of us are in when we are at work. This is a distinction which strikes me as, perhaps, a bit of a hasty abstraction, but an extremely useful one for our purposes. Indeed, I think it is an inconvenient truism that when we are at our most desperate to solve a problem is generally when we are least able to do so cleverly. The trick, seemingly, is to learn how to give oneself enough space to be creative, while at the same time keeping oneself more-or-less on-task– which sounds simple enough, I suppose, but is a skill that we spend lifetimes learning.
And both of these observations, one culled from experience the other from research (though both, I’m sure, informed by both research and experience), seem concordant with each other. Form is an aid to creativity in great part because it ameliorates the need for us to be in the agitated closed state that constipates imagination. And, because of their status as games, because we call them games, Terraria and Minecraft provide automatic cues to put us into the open state and, within the limited forms they provide, allow us to be creative.
When I was playing these games, I kept thinking “wow, this is effortless! Why aren’t more tools for game creation like this? We could get so much done!” But now I think, perhaps it’s not so much about how good, or how fun, the tool is. Maybe it’s more about what we intend to do when we pick up a tool, and how the very fact that we call it a tool tells us that we have a specific goal to achieve, and that those mental cues sometimes devour our creativity before we even start.