The Myth of Creative Bliss: How I learned to make Resistance an ally, not an enemy

This is a guest blog post I wrote for Hypable:

Tackling a creative project is exciting and full of promise, but once we begin, the challenges and self-doubt we encounter can often derail the best of intentions. But once we identify Resistance, and recognize it as part of the creative process, we become more empowered to meet our creative goals. 

rebelgeniusInto the Unknown: From Animation to Publishing

In December of 2014, the series finale of The Legend of Korra aired. After more than a decade spent breathing life into the Avatar universe, I decided to step away from my nearly twenty-year career in animation and transition onto a new creative path, one that was unfamiliar and uncertain: I planned to write my first novel.

I already had the concept: art as magic. And I had ten years’ worth of notes, ideas, and character sketches to pull from. I planned to call on my own experience as an artist to tell a story in which a group of young artists would set off on a high-stakes adventure, confronting dangerous creatures and villains along the way. With my intention clear, I couldn’t wait to get started. I envisioned myself blissfully writing for hours, lost in this new fantastical world. Each morning, I fired up my computer, sipped my coffee, and sat down to write. But those blissful moments? They were elusive and impossible to sustain.

Instead, I found my breath shortening, my heartbeat quickening, and my body tensing. Rather than joy, I was met with its opposite: anxiety (and its cousin, overwhelming self-doubt). Why did I ever leave animation? I asked myself. Who was I to think I could write a book? My writing is awful, I told myself over and over. No one is going to want to read this crap.

Shaking Hands with Resistance

I’d felt that unease before, but because I was trying something new, the anxiety stabbed more sharply and forcefully. After reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, I learned this feeling has a name: Resistance. It is the embodiment of all our anxieties and self-doubts. It’s the voice that insists we’re not good enough or smart enough or creative enough.

And that voice can be loud. At times, deafening.

But when I put a name to Resistance, I found I could lessen its power. I couldn’t make it go away entirely, and as it turned out, I didn’t want to. Resistance became an essential part of my creative process. Identifying it helped illuminate what would become the theme of my book: How through creative acts, we have the power to transform ourselves and society.

Rebel Genius as metaphor for the creative process

In the Renaissance-inspired world of Rebel Genius, we meet an aspiring artist named Giacomo, a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the sewers underneath the city of Virenzia. One night, after surviving a violent attack, Giacomo discovers that he has a Genius — a birdlike creature that acts as his protector and muse. At first, Giacomo is thrilled to have his own Genius, but immediately panic sets in. Because in Giacomo’s society, there is only one artist who is allowed to have a Genius — the empire’s leader, the authoritarian Supreme Creator.

Giacomo is discovered by three other children who also have Geniuses and they bring him to a secret studio where he studies with an old, blind artist. Giacomo learns how to use his Genius to tap into the energy in the universe and manifest it into powerful, glowing shapes.

He also discovers he has a unique ability to access a potent creative source called the Wellspring. In Rebel Genius, the Wellspring is the primordial ooze of creation and the source of all that we taste, smell, touch, see, and hear. When Giacomo accidentally opens it the first time, he is met with a maelstrom of foul odors, deafening booms, and freezing winds. Fearing its power, Giacomo steers clear of the Wellspring, though over the course of the book, he learns more about it and how to gain some control over it. Metaphorically, the Wellspring represents the creative process – a swirling cacophony of sound and color that an artist must learn to tame.

After realizing the scope of his talents, Giacomo has a unique insight into the location of the first of three Sacred Tools – powerful objects that have the potential to create or destroy. But when he is asked to go on this quest, Giacomo balks. He doesn’t think he’s ready. He’s inexperienced, unsure of himself, and full of anxiety.

Sound familiar?

Trust the process

Living a creative life means we will inevitably have to embrace uncertainty. When we embark on a new creative project (or a new adventure, like Giacomo), it is because we have a burning desire to know something or to discover something about ourselves and the world we live in. But when we set out, we have only a vague idea where we are headed. We may have a destination in mind, but achieving that goal can often feel daunting and overwhelming. Maybe it’s safer to sit out the journey, we tell ourselves.

And if we do muster up the courage to take those first steps on the creative path, you can be sure that Resistance will be lurking around every turn. It will try to frighten you away from your dreams. Giacomo faces vicious creatures and cunning villains on his adventure, which causes him to question himself and whether the goal he seeks is worth the cost. That’s his form of meeting Resistance.

For me, Resistance appeared with each sentence and at the start of every chapter. Some days I was able to fight past the Resistance and write pages I was satisfied with. Other times, Resistance won and I had to regroup and come back to fight it again the next day.

I realized there is no shortcut around the anxiety (believe me, I looked). Any time we forge into the unknown, it is impossible to predict what will happen, so there is bound to be fear. We have no idea if Resistance is going to trounce us, or we will subdue it. In order to continue creating, we have to trust that no matter how hard Resistance tries, it won’t prevail in the long run.

Finishing the book and seeing the first printed copy of it was a proud moment. I felt like I had weathered Resistance and won, or at least survived. But the war isn’t over. Rebel Genius is the first book in a series and a few weeks after completing it, I settled in to tackle the sequel. And sure enough, my old nemesis, Resistance, was waiting for me once again.

But this time, I’m more prepared for it. And even though my writing day is still fraught with self-doubt, I try not to let Resistance get the better of me. My intention is keep moving forwards on this new creative path. I’ll face Resistance whenever it appears and remind myself that the reason it’s there is because I’m venturing into new, creative territory.

And that is exactly where I want to be.

Your inner creative vs. your inner critic

How do we balance our creative minds with our critical minds?

“If you take life absolutely seriously, you must realize there’s the counter-play to it, that the world of law is simply an optional world. When you do something you create a pattern that excludes other possibilities, and there comes a time for opening up to all possibility and the creative act.

“Actually, everybody who has ever done creative work of any kind knows this moment. You make your plans in terms of what the mind can think of, and if you hold to those plans you’re going to have a dry, dead piece of work. What you have to do is open out underneath into chaos, and then a new thing comes, and if you bring your critical faculty down too early you’re going to kill it.” – Joseph Campbell

When I think of creativity these are the words that come to mind: flow, exploration, inspiration, curiosity, no rules, freedom. The word critical makes me think: reasoned, intellect, decision-making, organized, categorized, clarity, communication.

In the act of making art, writing, music, etc., we use our creativity as well as our critical minds. Is one more important than the other? When should we put aside our “creative” minds and put on our thinking caps? There’s no simple or firm answer. For me, I often flip back and forth between the two.

Last week, I spoke to some local high school students about what my job entails. I only had eight minutes with each group of students, so I had to figure out a way to succinctly sum up what I do. My official job title is “co-creator and executive producer”, which is always cumbersome to say, with the added problem being it doesn’t clearly express all the things I do on the show. But in preparing for the students, I realized that these roles encompass the creative aspects of my job and the critical aspects.

On a daily basis, I switch between “co-creating”, which involves everything from the initial ideas for the series to developing and writing episodes, and “executive producing”, which means reviewing and critiquing storyboards and animatics, as well as overseeing different aspects of the production. I enjoy the creating aspect of my job more, but both are necessary to making the show. I think this can apply to our own personal projects as well. You don’t need to oversee a crew of people to be an executive producer of your own work.

So when is it time to put aside our creative sides, step back, and look at what we’ve made with a more critical eye? It’s a personal choice, but like Joseph Campbell warns in the above quote, it’s important not to let your inner critic show up too early in the creative process, or you might risk losing the spark of energy fueling your ideas.

The creative mind says to the critic: “I hate rules! Just let me be free to roam and explore and make beautiful things.” The critical mind says to the creative: “You have some interesting and inspiring ideas here, but I don’t understand some of the choices you made. It’s not clear what you’re trying to say.”

Creative: “You just don’t get it, man! This is the pure expression of who I am.”

Critic: “But don’t you want your art to communicate with others?”

Creative: “I want chaos!”

Critic: “You’re impossible.”

Creative: “Leave me alone!” (Storms out of room.)

The creative mind is a bit of the rebellious teenager, while the critical mind is the more mature adult, trying to make responsible decisions.

So why can’t we just live in the blissful world of the creative mind? It sounds fun. But if we did, I don’t think we’d ever finish a project, and even if we did finish, it wouldn’t effectively communicate with others. Of course, we don’t want the critic running the show either, for exactly the same reason. That self-critical voice that assuredly exclaims “my work sucks” isn’t really helpful when it comes to completing a project and sharing it with others. The inner critic also has a tendency to work on something until it drains all the life from it.

Balancing the creative and the critical came up a lot in the Korra writer’s room. At the start of each season, we carve out a couple weeks where Bryan, the writers, and I just focus on idea generating. We throw out any and all ideas, trying not to criticize them yet. This is where we talk about big picture concepts — what the season’s about, what we’d like to see the characters do and how we’d like them to grow, who’s the villain, etc. But we also pitch on smaller ideas too —  cool action set pieces, funny character moments (like Bolin becoming a movie star), or ideas for new locations.

At a certain point, we then take a more analytical look at all the ideas and figure out what works and doesn’t depending on what we’ve decided are the story and themes for that season. Usually, it’s pretty clear what will stay and what won’t. Those idea generating sessions were a great way to let our imaginations wander freely as we explored new possibilities for Korra and her world.

I’ll leave you with something to consider: In your life and work (whatever you consider your work to be), do you tend to be more creative or critical? Is there a way to bring more of one or the other into your process?

Where Do Ideas Come From?

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question lobbed at artists as if it’s a perfectly reasonable and easy question to answer. It’s usually asked with the same matter-of-factness as: “What did you have for breakfast this morning?” It’s an intriguing question (the idea one, not the breakfast one, though I suppose it depends on how creative you get with your breakfast). But whenever I’m asked it, I’m usually at a loss and offer some vague explanation about my general interests. So I figured it might be a good thought experiment. What if I could travel into my brain and see where my ideas come from? Bear with me for a moment…

I close my eyes. Take a couple deep breaths. I imagine I’m in a tiny spaceship, like in “Fantastic Voyage” or the ’80’s quasi-remake “Innerspace” or Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” ship… Anyway, I zoom along while electrical charges go off all around me. I have to steer the ship, zigging and zagging so I don’t get zapped by all these synapses firing in my brain! I emerge from the brian storm and spot a nice, clear spot to park my ship. I hop out and stretch my legs. The ground feels squishy beneath my feet, like those pseudo asphalt ground coverings at playgrounds. I look out over the vast network of crevasses that make up my brain. It’s like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon gazing out for what appears to be an eternity. Then something catches my eye. It’s a small bird carrying a closed shell. It drops the shell hundreds of feet and the shell bounces against the brain tissue. As it ascends back towards me the shell splits open and thousands of glittering orbs sprinkle on and around me like confetti and suddenly, an idea comes to me…

So I’m pretty sure that’s not how it technically works, but it’s fun to imagine. And while it might be an entertaining allegory for where inspiration comes from, maybe there’s a more grounded explanation.

In my experience, the creative process is sort of a chicken vs. egg situation — does the idea come first, then you start the creative process? Or is it because you are in the midst of the creative process, that new ideas spring forth? It’s a little bit of both, but more often for me the ideas flow once I’m already engaged in the creative process. While an initial spark of an idea might come while I’m in the shower, or taking my dog for a walk, it’s always a fleeting moment and if I don’t write myself a note about the idea, I often forget it.

So ideas aren’t worth much if they’re not followed up. And usually the follow-up involves a lot of work — examining the initial idea, asking questions and coming up with new ideas, then actually executing those ideas into a form that can be shared out in the world. There’s a great book about the creative process called “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. In it, he lays out how the obstacle to creativity is resistance, both internal and external. Often resistance comes in the form of our own inner voice saying, “I’m not talented enough”, “I’m not smart enough”, “What if I fail?”, “What will others think of my idea?” And on top of that, there are external forms of resistance — organizations or people who aren’t interested in your work. The only solution? Do the work, as Pressfield urges. And I’ve found this to work in my own life. For example, writing this blog. There were plenty of negative thoughts trying to prevent me from writing, but once I shut off those voices and started writing, the resistance began to fade and the words began to flow. Imagine it like a river that’s dammed with sticks and logs. The water is stuck. But just remove one stick, and some water starts to get through. Take out a few more, and soon you have a flowing river again.

So are we any closer to figuring out where ideas come from? We’ve got magical birds in the brain (not too likely) and sitting down and doing the work (much more likely). Let’s take a look at what current neuroscience research knows about creativity.

I was really intrigued by this article in Scientific American. Here’s my layman’s understanding of it. Basically, the idea that right-brained people are more creative has come into question. When engaged in the creative process, our brain uses three different networks, to varying degrees. They’re called the Executive Attention, Imagination, and Salience Networks. Yes, there is an actual Imagination Network in our brains! (That must be where I landed my ship during my thought experiment.) The study of this stuff is still early and there’s a lot neuroscientists don’t know yet. Maybe there will be a day where we can take an MRI scan of our brain and know exactly where a certain idea had its genesis. Though I suppose that would take some of the magic out of making art.

So for now, I’ll be content not knowing exactly where my ideas come from, but confident that if I keep doing the creative work, the ideas will keep showing up. I’ll let my brain networks handle the rest.

 

Just Create

New look! New blog! Well, not exactly…

I want to evolve this blog from being story-centric, to creativity-encompassing. There is a lot of talk in the marketing and blogging worlds about “branding” yourself, a term I despise. It reminds me of farmers branding cows. It’s limiting and I squirm at the thought of being put in a box. I understand the idea behind it – you want your potential audience to know what they’re signing up for when they buy your book or watch your movie or read your blog. Compartmentalization can sometimes be helpful, just not so much for me when it comes to living a creative life.

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Korra hates being boxed in too! (animation by Studio Mir)

Part of what I’ve struggled with in writing this blog is figuring out exactly what I want to do with it. It initially began as a way to explore stories and understand why we need them, but it’s also been about Avatar and Legend of Korra. But my creative interests expand well beyond those things, into photography, painting, philosophy, spirituality, sociology, cosmology, nutrition, etc. There are many things which fascinate and inspire me. I try to remain curious and open to new ideas and new ways of understanding myself and the world around me. Story is one way to funnel a lot of these interests, but at the same time, it feels limiting.

I realized the overarching theme I want to explore is creativity and living a creatively satisfying life. So what does that mean, exactly? For me, it’s about living authentically, honestly, and as transparently as possible. It’s about listening to new ideas, taking what works in my life, and discarding what doesn’t. It’s about being proactive and creating a life that inspires me, and sharing what I create, hoping it will inspire others to pursue their own passions.

And this isn’t just about art and writing. Creativity appears in myriad ways across every discipline and aspect of life. I’m not a great cook. In fact I don’t really like cooking, but I am in awe of chefs who can take various ingredients and create something visually stunning and mouth-watering. In an age where craftsmanship has been too often replaced by automation, where fast-food becomes preferable to thoughtful preparation, we lose a connection to what matters. We lose a part of what makes us human.

I totally accept that I sound like an old man lamenting the “good old days.” But I’m not advocating we all move out to the woods, throw away our cel phones, and forage for our own food (though I’ve thought about it). But I often wonder if we’ve lost our connection to our more primal, spiritual selves by moving away from the physical and into the virtual.

When we started the Avatar production in 2003, the artists and I all drew with pencil (or pen) and paper. Other parts of the production used computers to color and composite the show, but by and large, there was a lot of physical evidence of our work. By 2010, nearly everything is done digitally. Everyone still draws by hand, but it’s with a stylus and Cintiq. The exception is at Studio Mir, where the animators all draw with pencil and paper, then scan the drawings into the computer to be colored and composited. The show looks better than it ever has, and I still think the style of each artist comes through in the digital medium, but I can’t help but feel like something gets lost along the way. It’s something small and almost intangible, but I can sense it, like a dream you can’t quite remember upon waking, or a smell that triggers a nearly-forgotten memory.

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

Would something be lost if this drawing of Tahno was done digitally? (animation by Studio Mir)

So I guess the reason I’m writing all this is to reaffirm my commitment to creativity, no matter what the form, and to hopefully inspire others to do the same. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter whether we write our novel by hand, or by typing it on a screen. It doesn’t really make a difference if we photograph with film and develop it in a darkroom, or make photos digitally — what matters is that we write the novel, or take the photo, or paint the picture, or cook the food. Just create.

Check out these TED talks (here and here) by Elizabeth Gilbert if you need a creative kick-start. She’s one of my favorite speakers on the challenges and joys of the creative process.