Musings on creativity, passion, and conviction

By | June 18, 2017

I often wonder at people who are artistic, who have sudden bursts of creativity and desire to make something beautiful or whatever. I don’t have quite that same impulse – I don’t see something aesthetic and decide I want to make something similar; instead, I see something made and desire to have mastered the techniques used to make it, to be able to point at an artifact of my own creation and say, yeah, I made that. It’s not so much the creativity I’m seeking to explore, but the making.

Of course, here I’m assuming a little about how people who are artistic respond to other people’s art and feel inspired – part of me assumes that they see something and think “ooh, I’d like to do something like that”, but really I have no idea what’s going on. Is it mimicry? A desire to express oneself through a new medium? A joining in the mind of a new way of expressing things with an idea that was longing to be expressed? An opportunity to test oneself against the skills and knowledge required to do a thing? The latter is closest feeling I have is that, but honestly, I don’t know how an artist feels when they look at a painting painted by someone else.

But, in a moment looking at, of all things, a Windows Spotlight picture of a stone pier, I was struck by the feeling that my desire to make, to engineer a thing I’ve seen that someone else has that looks cool is really just an expression of that universal something that drives artists and creatives the world over. It’s just that for me, I’m more interested in expressing myself by playing with the method and the functionality of the thing than I am in expressing myself in its form or meaning.

I wonder if, at its core, this is the key difference between artists and engineers, at least in how they draw inspiration (I doubt things are really this simple).

A related thought is that I sometimes wonder if I want passionately enough, particularly when I’m low, when I’m tired, or when I otherwise have low executive function. A common self-doubt for me is that there are many things in the world where I either realize or at least later reflect and realize that I just don’t have a strong preference and I feel like I should. This covers everything from taste, in-the-moment desire and choice, politics, ideas, and so forth. It gives me a dreadful bland and moderate feeling about some things that I have sometimes connected to a lack of creative passion in my personality.

An effect of this is that I find it easy to see things from both sides in too many arguments, to empathize with people I otherwise would and feel I probably should be morally opposed to, but can find ways to see as not actual morally repugnant, but just misguided, or seeing from a different perspective, or sensitive to something I’m not, or coming from a different background.

On the face of it, this should be a good thing – I ought to be able to empathize, to understand how others feel. But, I’m very concerned about the real or apparent lack of principle that moderation can lead to, particularly when it results in relativism. If everyone’s perspective is understandable, it takes much more work to determine what is right. But maybe that’s a good thing, a more realistic take on the world that a firm, passionate, self-sure way of thinking would just gloss over – maybe conviction is mostly just delusion.

Certainly, in my more philosophical moods I would agree with that, but when talking and communicating with others, a lack of conviction often makes things harder, particularly if they are highly passionate themselves. People seem to assume that if you don’t have a strong belief in things, that if you’re not outraged in the kinds of ways they are, that you are somehow less authentic than them, that your opinions and beliefs by dint of being weighed carefully against too many other concerns and perspectives are more calculating, more susceptible to manipulation and falsity. Passionate conviction is real, right? It’s an emotional thing that can’t be faked, so clearly it must be more trustworthy than the words of someone who can’t tell you what they think or want without deliberating and thinking for a while. Or so it seems people feel.

A mirror to this is that in not being driven by passionate conviction in most things I find it hard to take seriously passionate conviction in others. I often see it as a poorly considered animal drive rather than a real, human reaction to someone’s experience or circumstances. I see someone’s anger and assume poor self-control rather than trauma, I have no real idea how to discuss ideas with someone in that situation, and worse, I think that discussing ideas is the right thing to do when what they probably want and maybe need is someone to hear them, to sympathize with them. Certainly that’s gotten me into a lot of trouble in the past.

All of this has been a bit meandering, but the idea I’m exploring is that the bursts of passion and creativity that I see in the outpourings of others are not in fact qualitatively different than the more cerebral “isn’t that interesting” thoughts that pop into my own head. Sure, the content is different, but the place they fit is the same. Then, if they’re really the same thing but differing in content, perhaps that’s a way to alleviate some of my suspicion at the passionate outbursts of others and to manage some of the self-doubt I have in dealing with them.

I do feel a bit inadequate sometimes around artistically creative people. Not in the sense that I couldn’t do what they do, but that I just don’t have the drive to do it. I’ve always felt that I would have been good at music, that I have the right aptitudes and interests to develop the skills for composition or performance, but that I just don’t have the drive. I don’t have the passion for creative expression – it just doesn’t excite me as it seems to do most people. But, I do have passion for knowledge and an appreciation for that expression, and that at least lets me play in the same space as people who are that creative. An idle thought passing by suggests that maybe this makes me more intellectually suited to teach than to perform, and that at least seems to mirror my life thus far.

One example that challenges the above is food – I’m thoroughly intrigued by everything about it, the methods we use to collect and prepare it, the expression of emotion through it, and the many forms of creativity involved in it. So, why is creativity there something I’m interested in and not elsewhere? A theme I might explore another day is whether the reason for that interest and the other areas of expression where I am enthusiastic (notably game design and world-building) is the knowledge intensity of it. Perhaps the thing that distinguishes the arts that draw me in from those that just don’t get me excited is the knowledge intensity – I like learning, and I love things that I can get better at by learning rather than appeals to some concept of innate talent.