Human beings are at our core deeply creative; it seems, even if we don’t fully understand why, that we are here to make things, conjure stuff from out of nowhere. The energy that arises from the act of doing creative work is life-giving, joyful, pure.
Some of us of course desire to be recognised for our creative work. We attach our identity, even our happiness, to the reception of our creative work by the outside world.
Nick Drake was a very talented singer-songwriter who was active in the 60s and 70s, but during his lifetime, neither of his records sold more than 5,000 copies. This lack of success drove him to a dark, unrelenting depression. He died of an overdose of antidepressant medication in 1976, at the young age of 26, his talent buried, his name barely known.
In 2000, “Pink Moon” — the title track of one of his albums — was used in a Volkswagen advertisement and his songs began to explode in popularity. Posthumous sales of his records far exceeded those in his lifetime. He had made it. His talent was finally being recognised. But he was now dead for 24 years.
If Nick had become popular during his lifetime, would he have continued to be depressed? Does being popular, being accepted by the mainstream, have any bearing on whether he made good or bad music? Should he have stopped making music while he was still alive, since the reception was so bad (or rather, nonexistent)?
These questions are mostly unanswerable today but they are good food for thought. They help us to ask ourselves similarly difficult and confronting questions about art-making, success, money, public opinion, and the meaning of life.
We are made to create — I believe this is a self-evident truth. (And remember, “create” is a word that spans categories; one can create songs and paintings and novels as much as one can create connections, create spreadsheets, create businesses.) But must we connect our creativity to success? To financial rewards? To our self-esteem?
Is it possible to create in the purest sense of the word, which is to create for the sake of creating, without hoping for any reward to come our way?
This is what I propose, that we — creators of all stripes — learn to move forward on our creative paths with a sort of harmonic duality.
We create because we want to, because we are made to do it, because it is our calling.
If it is our desire to be conventionally recognised for our work, we must then be willing to treat our creative work as a profession, as a business even, and learn to market ourselves, do consistent work, connect with our audience, build visibility and relationships, etc.
However, if it becomes apparent after some years that our desire to create doesn’t seem to square with public recognition or any kind of viable financial reward, we must learn to be at peace with it and realise that not every singer becomes a Lady Gaga, not every painter becomes a Picasso, not every writer becomes a Neil Gaiman.
Maybe we are more of a Nick Drake — talented but without an audience in our lifetime. And it’s fine. (It’s interesting to note though that Nick Drake was famously resistant towards self-promotion and would shy away from performing his songs on TV, hence losing many opportunities to grow his fan base while he was still alive.) Our work might find an appreciative audience 24 years after we’re six feet under. But that doesn’t mean we’re not doing good work NOW. The joy, the life-giving force, the meaning of creative work — that is all already present every day in our lives, as we work to make things from out of nothing.
There might be no reward from the outside world, but there is already a reward, in and of itself, in the act of doing the work we are called to do. And that must not be taken lightly. This internal reward is a great gift, since it is self-sustaining and independent of external forces. It is real, rooted, and most importantly, ours.
I want to add a quick footnote: Creative work doesn’t need to be our profession in order for it to be valid. We can be a banker by day and painter by night. We can be a tuition teacher who writes in the mornings. We can be working a boring admin job but lead a wild life online as an indie app developer. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking and seeing ourselves as a painter, a writer, an indie web developer. If very few people are willing to pay us to create, we can still pay ourselves to do it by working a day job.
Another footnote: Chances are, if you really enjoy the creative work you do and you do it in a consistent manner and you are willing to put your work out there for people to see, an audience will build over time. It is almost a law. You might not end up becoming world-famous, but it’s not hard to eventually have 1,000 true fans. And that, most of the time, is more than enough.
And enough is plenty.