True statement: you have something else you need to be doing, right now. It’s bugging you, isn’t it? There’s some task that requires your attention and it’s waiting right behind the five minutes it takes to read this essay. You have an email to return or invoices to process or a diaper to change. You have groceries to put away, paint brushes to clean, code to debug, lawns to cut, a staff meeting to suffer.
Everyone has stuff to do, but if you’re the kind of person who regards his or her daily efforts as creative expressions rather than simply lists of tasks, there’s something different about the endless punch list you need to complete. Those tasks aren’t just annoying or distracting. They’re relentless.
Everyone struggles with mortality, perhaps, but not everyone struggles to climb mountains or write novels. It’s too easy to speak of the creative process as a means of distracting us from our imminent deaths. Death will not be dissuaded and everyone knows it. But there’s a difference. Some people swell with ideas like germinating bean seeds breaching the top of the soil and rocketing for the sun. Most people are more or less content to conduct their affairs at ground level.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw put it this way:
“This is the true joy in life — being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.
Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.” — GBS
Well, yes and no. Life is a sort of splendid torch, but I am not content to simply burn brightly and hand it over. In a creative soul there is something absurd and yet real about wanting to invent a solution to defeat eternal non-existence. As we create things, we consider living forever, consider loving forever, consider the conversations and meetings and epiphanies and shared experiences that we simply cannot project into an endless future. Creative expressions belie the limits of existence. They offer the acrobat’s chance of surpassing ordinary potentials. They offer a tightrope walker’s path to transcendence. A creative life draws breath from the opportunity to make something that didn’t exist a moment before.
Having things that need to get done versus having a need to do something for it’s own sake is not at all the same. For some people the biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to survive their list of obligations while irreplaceable time continues to evaporate. With bills to be paid and dishes to be washed, a writer doesn’t simply wish there weren’t tasks to perform. A writer yearns for a pen and paper, solitude to reflect, and quiet time to focus and refract life’s experiences into the abstraction of words. An animator wishes he or she could submerge into the deeply saturated spaces of color and movement and light in order to bring cold pixels to life.
A moment ago I suggested that some people churn with ideas and some don’t. Implicit in that articulation is a value judgement, a statement of aesthetic preference. Don’t be hasty; it’s hard to tell which side is preferable. The pressure to write a book rather than simply read one does not imply superiority. Time stalks everyone like a relentless cat, but for those who meet each dawn with a head full of ideas, that cat has particularly sharp claws. Creative people feel time always against them, that daily pressures are a cosmic conspiracy to consume precious life that might otherwise go towards more sublime enterprise.
Think that’s too much? Too big, overstated? If it were, artists would have an easier time simply accepting their lot and making due. It’s much, much easier to sleep normal hours, to be free from churning ideas and endless strategies. But the real relentlessness is that it’s not really the world closing in all the time. The real relentlessness comes from the unexplainable urge to say something meaningful before the day is done.