I’ve discovered one of the most insidious creativity killers. I say insidious, because these things purport to be tools to amplify your creativity. Instead, they can positively hinder your creative output. I’m talking about mobile creativity apps and productivity programmes you install on your desktop.
OK, I confess. I am a sucker for things that promise to make me a better creator. I have tools for writing better, for making e-books, for recording sound, for music sequencing, for sound synthesis – you name it. I have multiple digital audio workstations, which all excel at one thing or another. I have a sound library that I cannot possibly live long enough to fully audition, let alone learn in depth, to any great degree. I have tools on my phone that help you learn scales on the guitar, music theory and how to sing. I have applications on my desktop that show you how to compose good counterpoint melodies. I’m drowning in applications that help me create my written works, record my music, write my songs, suggest vivid colour palettes for my paintings, help me play instruments better, help me take amazing pictures and share them with a community. I can listen to pretty much any music I want, wherever I can get a signal. I can produce mind maps on my phone and exchange them with a community of like minded people. YouTube tutorial videos on how to use all of these applications? No problem. I can do it all.
Except that I can’t.
How do you find the time to open, register, login, orientate yourself and learn all of these applications? Even if you find the time, how often do you get stuck because the application’s interface mystifies you? How can you ever hope to become proficient with even a small subset of these applications? Watching the tutorial videos might help, if you live long enough to sit through the irrelevant parts to find the information you need. I wind up feeling utterly ignorant, every time I even attempt to conquer one creativity app or other. Sure, I have so much potential, but it’s so hard to actually write something, compose, or produce and mix a track, because the tools demand that I learn them before I can use them. They can be quite insistent and obstructive about that, damn them.
As far as I can tell, there is no substitute for taking a few of them and spending the time to learn them (and their quirks and limitations). In the world of software based creativity applications, things are never limited by your imagination alone. No, they’re limited by the extent and scope of the software developer’s vision for the tool, their imagination and their incomplete understanding of the artistic work you do and how you do it.
You see, as an artist of any stripe, you do need to find your own process. If that happens to be consonant with the default workflows of a particular software application, then so much the better, but all too frequently you find that you need to use multiple tools to do what you envision you want to do. In those cases, you face yet another fun issue – interoperability. These applications are designed to hold you captive, not to allow information to flow freely into and out of them, or to share the metadata with other creative tools. So that’s yet another impediment to productivity. Figuring out how to get the right file format out and imported into another tool can take considerable time and effort.
I think we’re the first generation of artists to be so overwhelmed with creative choices, in subject matter, influences, materials, media and tools. The consequence of this and the need to connect with your audience through social media on a one to one basis means that your time is spread very thinly, indeed. If you aren’t careful, all of the learning, choosing and interacting with people can reduce your actual creative output time to next to nothing.
Ironically, it’s the things you create that really count. All of the learning, rehearsing, choosing colours and sounds, interacting with people that might be interested in you and your art – well it isn’t very useful and leaves no permanent monument to your creativity, if it prevents you from writing, painting, drawing, sculpting, composing, singing, playing and recording.
It becomes harder to find your niche and do something truly original, if you constantly have to remind yourself where you saw or heard that before. Your audience will also know your influences intimately and will readily spot plagiarism, intentional or accidental. It can happen in real time. Try telling a comedian, via twitter, that you heard his just-broadcast joke two weeks ago on twitter and see how he reacts.
I think the quality bar has never been so high, the tools never before so flexible and capable and the range of choices of influences, materials and media never so rich, but for any artists to absorb all of this, process it and return something of artistic value to the world is becoming truly challenging. It’s the crucial challenge, in fact. The dreaded learning curve is facing us all.
On the other hand, the sheer range and diversity of creative choices means that almost anything you decide to do is going to have your own stamp on it. There are very few people that can possibly navigate the same path you did through your materials and influences, so whatever you do in your creative process is bound to be unique, almost accidentally.
Fortunately, artists have learned, over the centuries that when facing the dreaded learning curve, the only thing you can do is to blunder forth by bluff, pretending you know what you’re doing, but actually learning while doing. You just have to stumble, in abject, blind ignorance, through your tools and your materials and just pick pretty things along the way, putting them together as best you can. The more of this you do, the better you get, but mastery of all your tools and materials may simply be unattainable, from now on. No human can live long enough to do it all.
So build your tool kit, collect your materials, invent your own process and workflow, curate your materials and influences carefully and then step forth boldly. Make the mistakes. Miss out on all of the really good features you have no idea how to use. Overlook the perfect colours or sounds you must already have somewhere in your collection, settling for the good enough ones you discover as you go. Just make what you can, given the stuff you have to hand around you. It’s what I am struggling to do.
Nothing will ever feel finished to you or feel good enough. You’ll forever want to go back and rewrite, re-edit, re-draft, touch up, remix or re-record, but resist that. Along that road lies madness. No, accept that your art is what it is and it will be forever.
What saves us all, as artists is that the poem the reader reads is almost always better than the poem the writer wrote. We might be painfully aware of our own ignorance and technical limitations, but even a half way decent result can be seen by many people as utterly amazing. The more paralysis the plethora of creative tools and galaxy of choices induces in the average person, the more amazing will be artists that manage to create anything at all.
The trick is to be one of those productive artists. Therein lies the skill.