What better way to kick off the work week with a theory of creativity including why it doesn’t occur at work as much?
What better way to kick off the work week with a theory of creativity including why it doesn’t occur at work as much?
This is one of my rare time-sensitive posts, so bottom-line up front: if you want to watch The Little Prince on Netflix — and my premise is you should — it’s leaving on May 4th, so do it now!
Those of you who have read last year’s installment of my Favorite Films list already know I hold this film in high esteem, but I believe the 2015 film version of The Little Prince is one of the best animated films released in the past 10 years. And there have been some good animated films in the past decade.
And here’s the thing, due to a distribution kerfuffle, people here in the United States almost missed an opportunity to see it until Netflix stepped up — and we’re all better for it.
Many people may not realized just how many different adaptations of The Little Prince that have been made. It’s a story that touches all of us (assuming we’re not too much of the wrong kind of grown-up). And while some people of my generation may remember Stanley Donen’s musical version from the 70s (aka the one with Bob Fosse as the funkiest yet disturbing snake you ever saw), the story of The Little Prince is not, to my mind, a feature film length tale. Much like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, it’s better as a compact and moving half-hour special — though look how thoroughly Hollywood has ignored that assessment.
So what I love is that the 2015 film version tells the original story, but wraps it in another story of The Aviator passing the story along to a little girl. The girl herself is being raised by a single mother who, while loving, has clearly been buffeted by events offscreen in ways far too many of us can imagine. And so she wants her daughter to be serious and “essential” to better survive this crazy thing called life.
What I love, and why I would urge all of you to give it a rewatch on Netflix, is how many lovely little notes are adding into this as the story unfolds. There’s great truth and depth beyond the dialogue that hearkens to Terry Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of the Baron Munchhausen). In this way, I find the film to be great family viewing, because adults can get references and moments understandable only by experience, but it doesn’t make the tale too scary or dull for kids.
And for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, you will be treated to great voice work by Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Paul Giamatti, and more (the French version is similarly impressive from what I’m told for you French speakers). The score from Hans Zimmer and Richard Harvey is exhilarating, and the mixture of computer animation and stop-motion animation just feels right.
At the end, you’ll find you’ve seen a film that clearly tackles themes of imagination and the human spirit, but softly meditates on how we face life and face death. And that’s no small feat to introduce to a child, or remember as a grown-up.
So I hope some of you make the time to watch it before it leaves Netflix and, yes, I am aware of DVD/Blu-Ray technology and already have my copy in preparation for its departure. But for those of you on the fence, you’re more likely to click over to Netflix than order a disc. So go ahead. Treat yourself to a little movie magic.
The seven or nine regular readers of my blog will recall I have, over the years, advocated setting aside time to do creative work, even if you’re not good at it! (from January, March, and December of last year).
One of the activities I love doing is “Inktober,” an annual art challenge every October where you try to do an ink drawing every day based on a one-word prompt. I’ve done this as an after-dinner activity with my kids and it has always been enjoyable, even when the drawing or inspiration is lacking some days.
We’re going to stick with the drawings, which we usually do within 20 minutes or so, but I like how this one is about whatever you want to do however you want to do it. (I do find value in doing all 31).
Sound good? Here are the prompts.
TED Talks are probably good fodder for Monday Motivation posts, and here’s a good one, especially for creatives wondering about why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Most people who know me generally observe I’m pretty darn busy which is one of the reasons that I feel the need to carve out time that is entirely not productive.
It’s hard in today’s “make every job a gig and make every gig a hustle” economy — and heaven help you if you want to do something creative for money yet want to do something else creative as a hobby — but I’ve become convinced carving out time for non-productive hobbies is a must.
So I enjoyed reading this piece by Hope Reese in Vox about tips for picking a hobby. I especially liked how to avoid some philosophical traps in the choice of hobby. And, yes, I’m writing this while staring at a screen and you’re almost certainly reading it on a screen, but I really like the idea of taking these hobbies and pastimes analog and offline wherever possible.
One great example of going analog is Inktober, a month-long exercise in drawing every day based on prompts. I’ve done this with my kids for a couple of years and we really got into this year (one of my kids was very into drawing and then coloring, which added a whole new delightful aspect to the activity). In fact, I went so far as to post my drawings to friends on Facebook (analog back to digital).
I was inspired to share in part because a college friend was sharing their Inktober drawings (and they draw hands far better than I). This included all the days, including the drawings which were really bad. But that was, I hope, encouragement to others to try their own hand at Inktober or something similar. Per Reese’s article above, doing something where you’re not going to excel or have an expectation to monetize it is ideal.
As I mentioned in my “Get Creative… Off the Clock” post, Molly Conway has a great article about how turning hobbies into hustles is a trap. Heed the warnings. Don’t do it. At the beginning of 2018, I was also in this reflective frame of mind, especially with the notion of “Ikigai.” That might be worth a second look as well. There’s a lot there about “dayjobs” and purpose and percentages (plus one sweet, sweet Venn diagram — and who doesn’t like Venn diagrams?).
Trying to make a living –or just some nontrivial income– from your creative endeavors seems like a monumental task. At least it feels so for me.
Luckily, for me, I enjoy some of the minutiae of process and procedures and figuring out devilish details I can repeat so all that small stuff is not stuff I sweat over.
Then I constantly get reminded about how much I don’t know. Also I don’t have enough time. Also, there’s something else I don’t know.
That’s where I appreciate all the writers and other creatives who share their experience including the lumps . There’s Holly Lisle for a lot of advice on writing, John August for a lot of writing and screenwriting, Seth Godin for a lot of marketing among others.
One energetic creator and entrepreneur whose resources I’ve shared before is Russell Nohelty. One of his recent posts goes into all the various ways you can try and build up the business side of your creative business, including the prime importance of having and cultivating a mailing list. But lest you want more, he does go into detail on all sorts of things.
Seriously, he goes into the weeds. He wants to go into the weeds. He’s like Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s site Wordplayer where they want to explain what muscles in your hand are used when picking up a pencil to begin writing. I’m talking about that level of detail.
So he’s been posting his monthly income and musing on it for the whole year and he recently did a breakdown of what he’s doing with that aforementioned mailing list.
It’s so hard finding an audience –and many people won’t care for your stories anyway– that demystifying the boring yet vital stuff is very much appreciated.
(And I should mention if you really dig the sort of stuff Russell does, he’s got a crowdfunder going that’ll end in just about a day).
Let me start by giving credit where credit where credit is due. The inspiration for this post, and indeed the title above, comes from a post this past May by Russell Nohelty on his Complete Creative site.
His post hit on the current issue I have with Jabberwocky Audio Theater. It’s perhaps the most difficult metaphorical needle I’ve ever had to thread — and so I’m writing it about it here in case you’re in the same boat.
See, making audio theater is essentially a lifelong dream. Talking with other creatives, they often have similar passions even if the dreams are, naturally, unique to the person. And when you have a chance to earnestly and continually work on your lifelong dream, you want to talk about it.
The energy behind this urge to share is tantamount to the thrust put out by a Saturn rocket launching. So, by gum, I’m gonna share. And who better to share the news of your lifelong dreams with lifelong (or at least very long-term) friends?
So that’s what I’ve done… and I’ve run into an issue some of you may have as well.
That’s right. You let people know. You share links and images and mention it quite a bit and you find that people –including friends– do not care. At least, they don’t care in the way or care to the degree you need them to.
“Need?” Yes, because if you’re engaged in creative pursuits, more often than not your dreams include being able to make a living from said creative pursuits so you can do those wonderfully energizing creative pursuits “full time.”
So what you really need are fans of your work: people who like you and like what you do — and here is the trap I think we can fall into.
Because, ultimately, you need enough people to like you and your work, people who trust you and trust that your work will be good, and people who will then give you money for your work one way or another. In the end, it’s transactional.
And when you step back from all your efforts to talk up and hype your creative pursuits, you realize that you usually don’t –or at least don’t want— your relationships with your friends to be transactional.
One of the reasons I think being able to make this separation is so hard these days is that social media has made friendship so transactional. (And so much of our communication with friends is now through social media). How many likes does your post get? How many retweets or shares? When your birthday comes around, how many people shoot you messages? And how many were ever with you in person at any of your in-real-life birthday celebrations? Though some have tried to divide acquaintances into separate, overlapping groups (rest in peace, Google+), there’s an inherent blurriness in online forums as to who’s a friend, a work colleague, a peer, or simply a non-objectionable acquaintance.
And in among the blurriness of friends and colleagues and peers and acquaintances is the fact that you’ll never love someone else’s work the way they do. Even, your dear, dear friends.
Sure your friends want to be supportive of your dreams and sure you want to entice potential fans with “calls to action” in ways that are quite transactional, but you just can’t mix the two. Conveniently, social media mixes the heck out of transactions and messages with friends because these tools care more about “engagement” or umbrage rather than effective communication or enriching relationships.
So what does all this mean for you and me and our desire to realize our lifelong dreams? I have actions that come out of observations, which are:
Okay, so I’m a project manager. What’s my plan?
You need fans to support your working as a creative. That means you need to get a big enough group of people who:
That’s a lot of steps. People will drop out between step 1 and step 5. You simply can’t rely on just your family and friends. Not only will your efforts to find buyers invariably get transactional (see observation #2 above), no one had enough family and friends to make this sustainable. You need to go after complete strangers… just like you’re a complete stranger to the companies and people behind so much of the stuff you buy.
If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve known this for years. It’s just that building some sort of sales funnel that accomplishes all those steps of knowing, liking, trusting, and eventually buying is a lot of work. I just wanna get back to creating stuff already! Can’t I just ask friends and family?
Nope. My long term goal is to not ask my friends and family for support, just let ’em know how I’m doing in my quest.
Friends and family can be supporters. I think most of them are.
In fact, I firmly believe the vast majority of friends and family want you to do well in pursuing my dreams. I mean, assuming said dreams are not Lovecraftian, Machiavellian, or otherwise awful, how hard of a stretch is to just wish someone success?
But at the same time, if I step back and think about it, I know my friends –even my best friends– never liked the same stuff that I do. Not all of it. And the stuff we both like? We almost certainly like it for different reasons.
No matter how closely our tastes align in music, movies, books, or other art, we’re coming to that art on our own unique path. What resonates with you might not resonate with someone else. And that goes the same with art we create ourselves. I think art is most relevant if it does have that uniqueness, yet isn’t it paradoxically wonderful that it resonates with other people at all? Thank goodness that art resonates in many ways at the same time.
If your friends and family support you and support you creating art? That’s huge in and of itself. My mother has one of the nicest gifts for me whenever we talk. “Have you had a chance to write?” she asks. I can talk about what I’m writing, what I’m excited by, what troubles I’m having with this story or that, but her question goes straight to the point. My passion is writing and have I had a chance to feed that passion?
I am old enough now to appreciate the value in letting people love what they love, even in this age of angry, entitled fans (or perhaps because of it). You can wish that people shared your passions a thousand times over and they just won’t. To paraphrase Gandalf’s advice to Frodo, you can’t choose what passion you have. All you can choose is what to do with it.
(Oh, and if it’s a destructive or sociopathic or otherwise nasty passion that hurts peope, please see the Balrog to the door on the right. Back to the creative, enriching passions…)
Likewise, you can’t choose what other people’s passions are. Let friends and family support you as much as they can. As long as they’re not trying to drag you away from your passions (again, we’re assuming they’re creative and enriching passions, not nasty ones), then let them support you as much as they might. And bid them farewell wherever they want to stop following you on that journey. It doesn’t mean you need to stop following each other as friends.
It’s important to remember that there are these two paths, that of friendship and that of fandom, and that you must allow the people in your life to “opt-in” as much or as little as they want to on the fandom path.
Bear in mind that, and I’ll just speak for the United States here, but for a lot of people on a personal level: business isn’t booming. The economy sucks. You’ll find that people are living paycheck to paycheck or otherwise fighting their own battles in ways which you have no insight or ability to change. That goes the same for complete strangers as well as friends and family.
As I’ll go into next, one of the ways to make sure friends and family implicitly feel they’re opting in as fans and not being forced with you on your journey is to be clear, even if there’s some nuance, about your personal and public channels — and to make sure your personal channels are not transactional.
If you’re going to find fans and build your creative brand/reputation, you simply have to have a presence online. You have to get out in the world.
That means putting on your marketing hat more often than many of us like. And that does mean putting yourself out there on the Internet (ahem, like a eponymous website) as well as social media (e.g. Facebook, etc.).
This task can be difficult. Because who are you online? More and more, companies and websites want you to be ONE person and, speaking for myself, I don’t want the one person I am online to be a salesperson.
What keeps me sane, and perhaps what may keep you sane, is not just “branding” but curating your persona based on where you are. I’ve mentioned before about my social media strategy in a joking manner, but there’s truth behind the humor.
Right now, you have different personas, different faces you present to the world. This is simply human. It existed before the Internet. It exists now. I’m in a different mode at work than at home. Not only that, I’m going to be in different modes at work, whether I’m in a meeting with executives, leading a meeting, or talking with my team. We curate the persona we present to the world… depending on what part of the world we’re presenting to.
Now the Internet and social media come along and, unsurprisingly, can’t parse the very subjective, idiosyncratic way we define and redefine ourselves every day in so many spheres. I have no doubt they’re getting better, but it’s best to remember that the various corporate forces at work want to define your identity to better market and monetize you. To any degree that they understand you contain multitudes, they want to set the ground rules for your complexity.
This isn’t the stuff of tinfoil hats. Corporations like to make money. It’s kinda their thing. So they’ve been trying to define prospective buyers and actual buyers and then placing us in nice, marketable groups since well before the Internet. The Internet and current data analysis simply allows them to reach more people and have more marketable groups.
I wrote about this a little in June, citing Conor Friedersdorf’s article about how the Internet is eroding are ability to curate our identities.
The nice thing is you can curate your identity even in this environment. You’re probably doing it already to some extent, but the trick is to take the time and be more mindful about it.
Consider that Facebook has your timeline, but also gives you the opportunity to create a more public “page.” I have many friends who, in addition to their personal presence, also have an official page for themselves as the actor or the artist or the musician or any of a number of things they are. It’s nice to have that barrier: take it. You the artist or the brand are clearly you, but that channel will not be doing the family updates and cat videos (okay, maybe it will be the cat videos, I’m not sure).
If you’re a company, you can also have a Facebook page, just like you could have a corporate Twitter account, Instagram, web page, or what-have-you. Define your channels. Yes it’s extra work on the one hand, but it’s also creating built-in ground rules for which types of posts or content will go where. In that sense, I find this separation of channels helps me greatly. The canny people who are their own brand are quite aware that their tweets are not as private as a conversation had among friends at home. You don’t need to bare all everywhere — and someone going to the YouCorp page or twitter feed or website knows that’s different from You on Facebook. And you never have to bare all anyway online, even for your “personal” channels.
BjornMunson.com is here, in part, to be a more personal channel. I have a Jabberwocky Audio Theater website and Facebook page for those posts as well as a general Team J website and a Facebook page for casting posts. I resurrected this eponymous website to post more personal thoughts and updates. This site is, in part, to scratch that itch, but also to help not dilute the posts and content that will be on those other websites. They are separate brands. Yes, I’ll happily mention Jabberwocky Audio Theater a hundred times here –it’s a lifelong dream, remember? However, you opt-in to visit that website, get those tweets, get on that mailing list, and so on. That’s where you will get more explicit selling and branding.
I realize my approach may not work for all people — and powerful currents are pushing you to “be your own brand” just as related currents want to make every hobby and interest a “side hustle.” (I disagree with making all your efforts a “hustle” as explored here and here). However, if you just stop and think how and what you want to post or reveal online, I think you’ll find you have a lot more agency than you realize. If your name is integral with you as an artist, than maybe a less personal (yet still personable) you is who is online.
My main point is that you retain the ability to interact with friends as friends: not a brand, not a side hustler, not a salesperson. It’s not that you won’t sell or can’t sell, but give yourself time and space to be “off the clock.”
I don’t think it’s far-fetched to imagine that every entrepreneur and small business owner has experienced the pressure to never be off the clock. Sure you had a good day or week or month, but no matter what you do a bad day or week or month will come. You could always do more market research, do more outreach, finish this before lunch, finish that before dinner, stay up a bit longer…
There is always something more to do.
Combine that with all the external pressure to maximize the branding of You, Inc. that any freelance creative will recognize and is it any wonder that we want to see how to maximize our fandom among family and friends?
But if you’re like me, you’ve caught yourself during interactions with friends or family (online or in-person) where you’ve realized you were more mercantile then you’d like. Perhaps you feel that tinge of guilt tactic in there. Again, back to the article that kicked this whole post off: guilt makes bad friendships.
This is where having the different channels is handy for me. I can tell friends or family about the website or twitter feed or whatnot. They get to go check out my on-the-clock persona if they want and it’s implicit what they’re getting now is off-the-clock (observing doctors, therapists, and lawyers in social settings has taught me a lot about being on and off “the clock”).
Remember what you’re doing creatively that you love. Share that. I will tell people about projects I’m working on ’til the cows come home. I just don’t dwell on the selling of them to friends and family. That, incidentally, is why creatives should always have something free. That way, you can always offer them to check out the real deal. Here again, I agree with Russell. That free stuff should be as good or better than anything you’re selling. And you’re giving that to friends and family without a second thought. Because, first, they’re not only implicitly giving you the time to read or watch or listen to your creation, they just might be giving you extra fans in case they love it. It doesn’t hurt that they have a bit of ‘insider knowledge’ in knowing you (“Oh, I know this person who does this comic you would love.”) How cool is that?
I’d mention here that this is also where it’s very good to take a cue from those doctors and therapists and lawyers: strictly define what the “free” is you’re giving and don’t venture beyond those borders. If you have a free book, that’s what’s free, not every book you ever write for all time. The free thing you give to friends and family serves the same purpose that the free thing you give to perfect strangers: to go out into the world and find fans and buyers (see “A” above). Friends and family just have an inside track to get that free stuff. Your free thing isn’t a gift, it’s a marketing tool.
That’s a key fact to remember: you’re not doing them a favor by giving them the free thing. They’re doing you a favor by taking it and implicitly promising to spend some time reading or listening or watching. So what is doing them a favor?
It could be as simple as listening. Odds are if you’re a creative, you have a bunch of creative friends. What have they been doing? What are they struggling with? And it doesn’t all have to be “talking shop.” What’s been inspiring them? What are they listening to, watching, reading? Have they traveled anywhere recently? Are they planning a trip? You know: the kind of things that would fill up a lot of conversations before you were busy creating, trying to create, and trying to get people to buy your creations.
This is yet another reason why I push back on the attempt to make your every interest a “side hustle.” You need spaces and people where your actions are not tied to performance metrics. Odds are your friends and family need that more of that too. Make time for that, just as surely as you are being mindful of your marketing and personal channels. Because when things aren’t going well on the business front, the salve isn’t another sales opportunity: it’s time with friends and family.
Wait! What’s this? This doesn’t align to one of the four observations above. That’s right. Still, it’s necessary.
Look, we’re all just one person amid a sea of powerful societal currents and a whole bunch of other people trying to do whatever it is they’re dreaming about. We’re not going to be unmovable by all that moves around us.
You’re going to be too transactional to one friend. You’re going to care more about a relationship with someone who sees you more as a colleague. You’re going to care less about something where a friend really needs validation. Things won’t go well on an emotional, personal level. Somewhere, sometime, some interaction is going to suck.
But all your interactions don’t have to suck. And they don’t have to be bad forever.
So, after writing all this, have I figured out everything I’m going to do? Have I managed my ideal balance between finding fans and maintaining friends? No.
Am I going to keep on letting friends know about all I’m working on with Jabberwocky Audio Theater? Yes.
I’m even going to keep seeing if any of them might be fans or supporters or pass the word on. But I feel better about how to thread that metaphorical needle without hurting friendships.
Because guilt can’t scale.
Someone posted an article by Casey Lesser on Artsy about one of those things we creative folks already knew.
Having a network is important.
In this case, some MOMA researchers looked at artists in the 20th century, their personal networks of colleagues, and their work to do analysis on how much “who you know” helped.
How to network is worth its own series of posts, but reading some of the observations was interesting… and there’s also an interactive map that you can play around with.
Having just been at Escape Velocity last week, I was reminded how meeting complete strangers can be energizing: knowing what excites them can in itself spark creativity. And then there’s articles like this that remind one we can’t be islands surrounded by vacuum. We need to be part of an ecosystem, durn it!
I had the opportunity over Presidents’ Day weekend (aka Washington’s Birthday weekend for OPM sticklers) to do something I can’t remember doing in a long time, if ever: painting miniatures.
Many of my gamer friends have various Warhammer and related armies and I know my efforts are not remotely in their league. They paint minis regularly. In fact, for several, it’s a bona fide hobby. One preditor friend (that’s producer-editor for the uninitiated) has taken to painting miniatures quite expertly since directing a feature where D&D plays a central role. All but a handful of the denizens in her miniature army are used in D&D games: it’s mainly about the painting. In other words, the journey, the act of painting, is the joy. And that’s what I found here. I mean, I’m really hopeful we have plenty of fun with the game, but just the painting was a lot of fun and relaxing — even as I obsessed about details (though as you can see from the picture, not too much).
In part, it’s nice to be practicing what I’ve blog-preached in terms of being creative while not being expert at such things. It was very liberating to be working on something that doesn’t have to be yet another side hustle destined for some marketplace or part of “my brand” (as I mused about last January — I guess I get reflective about such things this time of year).
It’s good to have the opportunity to obsess about something that isn’t going to be a payday. Hey, this whole blog post comes after reading an article in the Harvard Business Review that mentions hobbies are good for jobs. Time off is good. Time off doesn’t mean you’re comatose or asleep. The brain gets to do things. As Richard Jeffries talks about regarding “care and feeding of a writer,” hobbies allows your brain time off from the monetarily-linked activities.
I’ve also long suspected that a significant percentage of many people’s urges to turn hobbies into hustles is to feed the “must-keep-busy” monster. Speaking as someone whose thoughts have turned to that frequently, that monster is forever insatiable. As Molly Conway writes in an article last month, it’s a trap. Go on hikes without being a guide. Learn to be a better baker without selling your wares at a local farmer’s market. Better yet, don’t feel the need to have any wares if you don’t need to. The enjoyment you get from things that don’t bring money can filter into the the things that do.
Or you might just have to enjoy the leisure time without quantifying it. That works too.
I thought I had already posted this article by Sean Kane from 2016, but evidently I hadn’t. So go ahead and read up on seven darn good scientifically-backed reasons why you should make art even if you’re not “any good” at it.
A perfect example of simply making art is Inktober, an annual event to do an ink drawing every day during October. I did this with my son –and moms and dads reading this, that’s reason enough to give it a go. Because while I tried things with shading and perspective that were hit or miss, he developed recurring story elements in the scenes he drew throughout the month that was a delight to witness (and on a parental note, it was a good transition to bedtime).
So go ahead, get your art on, whatever way you want to. You don’t need to share it with anyone. Science has your back.