The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Ask Me Another, and lucked into hearing one of my favorite creators talking about his process. The special guest that episode was John Darnielle, a staggeringly-prolific artist and brain behind one of my favorite bands, the Mountain Goats. Just to put his creative exploits in perspective, he’s put out 15 albums under the Mountain Goats name alone since 1994, not to mention all the other creative projects he’s been part of. That’s a lot of songwriting.
During the interview portion of the podcast, host Opheara Isenberg asked Darnielle about the release of his novel, Wolf in White Van. Specifically, she asked him if his creative process in writing felt different from his creative process in making music. Darnielle responded:
“For me, I just like to make stuff. And there’s a sense in which the thing you make, the form it takes, is really only the aftereffect of the creative thing you did. Whether it’s a song or a book or a conversation you have at dinner — the creative thing is what happened in the process, not the relic of it that’s the event.”
— John Darnielle
This resonated with me, because to me it cuts to the heart of why we do the things we do.
Am I writing a blog post because I want there to be one more blog post in the world? Because I want to meet a quota or publishing schedule or have something to promote on Twitter?
Or am I writing because the act of writing itself is enjoyable, and the process of thinking things through on paper is valuable to me?
I like to think it’s mostly the latter. But there’s definitely some of the former in there.
I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say it’s almost impossible to create anything remarkable if you’re focused on the first thing. If all you’re looking for is the finished product, getting up the motivation and inspiration to create something special will be pretty tough.
I had the same feeling reading On Writing by Stephen King. King talks about the urge to set up “just the right space” for writing, with the perfect desk and the perfect beam of sunlight pouring in through the perfectly-placed skylight — and nothing coming out. King says, “Life isn’t a support structure for art. It’s the other way around.”
Getting caught up in the accessories of your craft is as bad as focusing only on producing the end product. It’s fundamentally about an exterior perception rather than an interior motive.
“I should have this desk because this is a writer’s desk.”
“I should write this blog post because my calendar told me so.”
Rather, creative motivation should come from a desire to do the act of creating, rather than to achieve the creative outcome. That’s what I mean by the question “Do you like to make stuff or do you just like stuff?”
“I don’t care where I write, I just need to get these words on paper.”
“I have something I’d like to think through; maybe a blog post is the right place to do that.”
I find this liberating. I can write without caring what comes out on the other side; I can scribble and doodle in a notebook without it being a finished drawing. There is value in the act of doing, perhaps more value than in the product itself. Every time we create we build up more creative energy to do more, better, faster, or differently next time.
“The creative thing is what happened in the process.” Thanks, John.