Sometimes, I find sitting down to write daunting. I find it daunting because before I’ve even started I need to figure out how fast I can stop. I find it daunting because when I sit down to write, my primary concern isn’t so much “what do I want to write?” as it is “what hasn’t been written yet?”. It’s ‘starting a business 101’: identify a gap in the market, plug it. So when it comes to selling my writing, I ask myself: “what hasn’t been covered? What do people want to read right now? Where’s the niche?”
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s how it should go. But only to an extent.
I wonder how ‘done’ a particular piece is and scour the Internet to get a feel for what’s out there. I spin-cycle my ideas through Google searches to avoid repeating what someone else has already said in some other article. I drum my knuckles against the desk in duet with my flat-mate next door, a music student, who plays his piano with the furious devotion of someone who’s piano is about to be stolen from him, and hope I’ll somehow concentrate profitable new ideas into existence. The background noise is inescapable, and it’s more than just the Chopin. From amongst all the pressures of an increasingly competitive job market, the inescapable minutiae of other people’s lives, and the mind-boggling number of things that can happen within just one second of internet activity, comes the ultimate irony: originality is in-demand and unattainable. We want unique content so bad that we’re ruining our chances of getting it.
At first glance, things look good. Opportunity lies in our own hands – we’ve got a whole new shiny generation of internet entrepreneurs to prove it. We’re able to engage larger audiences faster, connect with likeminded creators, learn new skills and express ourselves in ways we couldn’t before. Unsurprisingly, technology is lauded as the toolkit for artistic expression: if you dare to dream it, there’s more of a chance now than ever before that you can do it. ‘It’s never been better’ for the underdog, the artist, the dreamer. Yes — and, well, no.
Young people, all too aware of the increasingly competitive job market, are desperate to distinguish their work. But standing out, especially artistically, is a task made all the more difficult in the age of instant communications where anybody can ‘have a go’. The pressure to create something eye-catching and special is intensified by a fear that we’d simply be drowned out otherwise.
This is where the scale and pace of the digital age comes in. It’s incredible: inspiring and intimidating all at once. Part of the problem is that we’re always switched ‘on’. Ever notice how much less time you seem to have when you know what everyone else is (purportedly) achieving with theirs? Ever notice how much faster trends come and go nowadays? Time seems to move faster; the shelf-life of what’s hot grows shorter. Nothing sticks. In these conditions, achievement becomes a matter of urgency. The affected artist — by no means feeble, simply overwhelmed — moves faster and faster in a bid to keep up only to falter altogether, unable to produce work of any personal value.
Perhaps this pressure to perform — and to perform immediately, and somehow still authentically — is having a demotivating effect on young artists and their creative agility. It can be hard to let the ideas come and evolve naturally, to trust in the ‘creative process’, under the pressure generated by these circumstances. We started out wanting to set ourselves apart but, in desperation, are more of us crumbling into sameness? Some decide to take the safe and easy route of guaranteed success by copying what’s already known to be popular. Maybe that’s why big artistic accounts on social media are starting to resemble one another, dominated by almost identical photographs of the same locations and stories; our ‘news’ feeds are reels of the same terrible clickbait titles; every other song on the radio seems to sound the same, and we find ourselves looking back in nostalgia to an era of ‘greats’, where the music, fashion and art of the past seemed more vibrant and more genuine.
Follow the formula, do what gets the clicks —this seems to be a growing attitude within the creative community, to the effect that things are starting to feel a little too manufactured. People are reluctant to experiment for fear of losing the popularity they fought so hard to gain from anonymous users who switch between veneration and vitriol in the blink of an eye. Less experimentation means less artistic innovation — and surely that’s no way for any creator to live.
We have to be unique. We have to be fast. In a constantly-connected world in which our eyes are on each other at all times and the pressure to produce and sell exceptional content is high, the last thing we’re able to focus on is the creating of the art itself in the present moment. Our modern circumstances may be cultivating creativity, but there are sure signs that they’re killing it too. We’ve bred a highly competitive, at times uninspiring, social climate where we look at each other too often and with too much thought to outshining one another.
For me, as for many, the best art is the art that speaks to me personally. It’s whatever I find something intimate and thought provoking in. Without passion, the final product is never really as wonderful as it may otherwise have been. True creativity doesn’t have to keep within the lines, and it shouldn’t. We want originality, but we’re making it hard for each other to feel comfortable being our authentic selves — and that inevitably filters into the art we produce.
I write my best work when I’m truly passionate about it. On the days where I find sitting down to write daunting, I tell myself the following: if you begin the process only thinking of the final sale, you will fail. If you begin the process thinking about how quickly it can be over, you will have moved too fast to create anything of value. If you write what people want you to write, you’ll never write anything truly great – as if you do what other people want you to do, you’ll never do anything truly great.