Messiness and Creativity

I just read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Ed is a founder of Pixar Animation and presently President of both Pixar and Disnay Animation, two companies now owned by Disney but run as separate businesses. The book is more about managing large complicated creative projects than about the sources of creativity, which makes it a lot more interesting to me than all the self-help stuff out there about inspiration. I think humans by nature are bursting with creativity- just look around at all the stuff we make!

The most interesting thing about Ed’s story is a statement he makes repeatedly about messiness. First, to put it in perspective, Pixar’s record is unbelievable: 14 #1 films in a row. And not a stinker in the bunch. But Ed is vehement that every single one of them was a complete mess at one or more points, a genuine clusterfuck. He believes this is an essential aspect of creating things, especially things that have meaning to others. And even though writing is a solitary occupation rather than a gigantic team effort, my experience is that this is the way things work.

I’m in the middle of two novels (not by choice but what am I supposed to do? It’s messy!) and if I judge them now, they’re both a big mess. Going in too many directions, characters getting lost or doing stuff I don’t want them to do, plots blurry or non-existent…I have no idea. Nor do I want to have an idea. I learned from writing The Rememberers (and most of my non-fiction and doing original music and producing bands in the studio and marketing startups and…) that messiness is where it’s at during the first draft. But when I was there the first time with that novel, I was a bit panicked and started reading whatever I could about whether other writers had the same experience. Beautifully enough, the answer was yes. In fact, in most process interviews, creative artists all state the same thing: Things get messy, you lose sight of the whole, you freak out and then, if you’re truly creative, you hammer your way through and don’t worry too much about it.

It’s also why I don’t have much patience with writer’s block. No matter how bad you think things are there is only one response other than giving up: Keep going whether you like it or not and 99% of the time things will figure themselves out. If you really can’t get started again, take a long walk and then try again. Works for me.

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