Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Is stability the key to your creativity?

by Suw on September 6, 2023

Maybe the best way to be creative is give yourself space and security.

The biggest enabler for creativity is stability. I wish that was made more central to the creative narrative. Figure out what your specific needs are to limit stressors and enable “boring” time and work to achieve that as hard as you’re practicing your art.

It’s not sexy, it’s often not fun. It often involves adulting and day jobs and planning and compromise. But it’s a lot easier to summon the muse when your brain isn’t tuned to the frequency of a low scream due to financial, relationship, etc. issues. It’s going to always be in flux. That’s the work.

When I saw the above two messages from science fiction and fantasy author Ryan Van Loan on Bluesky, I knew immediately what this week’s newsletter would be about, because this is probably the most important writing advice that anyone can receive, but also the hardest advice to put into action.

And it’s the one piece of advice I would give my younger self, if I could.

Optimise for money or for time?

For a very, very long time, I laboured under the misapprehension that the reason I wasn’t writing was because I didn’t have enough time. And that assumption underpinned all my career decisions from about 1998 onwards.

I graduated from university into a pretty crappy job market. It took me a year to get permanent work, and when I finally did I was grossly underpaid. (I didn’t actually realise that until a few years ago when I compared first job salaries with some friends who are about my age, at which point it became clear that I had been earning perhaps 70 percent of what they were earning at the same age. Worse, being lowballed on pay in your first job sets your pay scale, and your own pay expectations, almost permanently, perpetuating the problem.)

I didn’t feel hugely creative whilst I was working for these employers, but I misidentified the problem as a lack of time, rather than that I was being underpaid. The ‘obvious’ solution was therefore to go freelance and regain full sovereignty over my day. I thought that if I could decide when to work and when to write, I’d get more writing done.

But I didn’t do any creative writing at all for the first two years of self-employment, because I wasn’t earning enough money to live, was racking up credit card debt, and wasn’t sleeping well because I was so worried about my financially precarious situation. And I can’t write if I’m tired and stressed.

I had fundamentally misinterpreted my problem: What I actually needed was more money and more financial stability. If I had had that, I could have found the time. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t figure that out for years, leading me into a series of decisions that were predicated on maximising time instead of financial stability, which ultimately meant that I just spent more time worrying about how I was going to afford to live, instead of writing.

It’s hard for me to regret those decisions, though, because they led me to co-founding the Open Rights Group, via which I met my husband, and then founding Ada Lovelace Day, which has helped support and inspire countless women and girls in science, technology, engineering and maths. I’m very proud of both of those organisations and it’s safe to say that neither would exist now had I not decided that they needed to.

What do we need to do to foster our creativity?

However, I have wanted to be an author since I was a child, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve had the financial stability I needed, although that is almost entirely down to my husband rather than my career suddenly taking off. (Thank you, Kevin.) My personal financial situation still isn’t quite as rosy as I’d like it to be, but at least I now recognise that for the problem it is and I’m working on it.

When we talk about stability as an essential part of creativity, we each need to think about how we define stability for ourselves. Some people might have enough money, but need a stable, peaceful home life as well. For others, it might be the routine of job that’s not too demanding rather than one that fills every waking minute. Or it might be navigating towards a stable health situation (or, as stable as possible).

Whatever your necessary stability is, your first step is to properly identify it. Don’t assume you know what it is, because as we’ve seen, you can assume wrong.

Instead, think back over the last few years and try to identify when you felt most creative and when you were at a creative nadir. What changed? What circumstances have stopped you writing? What were most conducive to creative thought? How could you recreate those circumstances? How will they improve your stability?

If we want to prioritise our creativity, then we need to understand the circumstances that foster it, and be willing to make sacrifices to create and maintain those circumstances. I confess, I have not always been willing to make those compromises and it’s only now that I realise why. Sorry, Kevin.

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