Survival Creativity

Growing up, writing was something I did outdoors or in transit. There was a wood beyond the playground where I would hide at recess. I took my notebooks there, following a narrow path between tall grass to a nook of dirt and autumn leaves under deciduous trees. I wrote on school buses or in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, the spiral of my notebook scratching against the window. Now it is rare that I write outside, except perhaps under umbrellas in front of coffee shops. And I don’t write on metro cars or buses either. My laptop is just too big, has a glare in the sun, and needs to be plugged in someplace. The irony of the laptop is this device designed for portability really cannot go everywhere. Not compared to a notebook, for which the only limitation is the size of your back pocket.

The cost, of course, is the other thing. We can’t discount the price of computing. Since the dawn of the microprocessor, the price of a personal computer plateaued at about the price of a coach roundtrip ticket to Tokyo. Now a netbook is just a little more than dinner for two at a nice restaurant. But our idea of cheap is always relative. It’s not cheap in the third world or when you are broke and your system breaks. It is never cheap if you need to buy it again. Pens run out of ink. You run out of space on paper and need a fresh sheet, but that is nothing compared to the fragility and planned obsolescence of technology.

Cloud computing has mostly resolved the problems of access and storage, but anyone who has ever had a camera lost or stolen on vacation knows what I mean. Then there’s the other key reason we can never fully rely on our laptops: battery life. The electricity goes out in your apartment. Arrive in a foreign country and forget to get an outlet converter. You are stripped of your power. Now you cannot create.

Unlike dead languages or the destruction of buildings, media is additive — no kind of it will ever cease. New methods to tell stories and express ourselves creatively may result in the specialization of platforms — nevertheless all possible ways to communicate still exist. TV never totally killed AM radio, but the variety that one may have once encountered with a twist of the dial, is now replaced with sportscasts and right wing cranks. People still write on walls, but now instead of stone carvings, it is most likely scrawl in spray paint.

Modern technology gives the illusion of limitless opportunities to get a message across. The remaining barrier is knowing code, hiring a coder, or understanding software that processes code for you, and that last one is becoming less of burden for every one of us every day. But, and I mean this with as little neo-Luddite antagonism as possible, is it safe to base our creativity as something inextricably linked to a machine?

For the same reason it’s good to get outside after working indoors all day, I think it is equally healthy to train one’s mind to create in ways that do not cost anything. Survival creativity. This is less of a collapsitarian paranoia than a practical fear of ever finding one’s self priced out of creative thinking.

There was a time when all of my writing was by hand. Using word processing software or sending an email was a novelty. Gradually over the past fifteen years, the reverse became the case. I infrequently reach for a pen besides to compose a hasty to do list or thank you note or journal entry here and there. Now, I’m training myself to balance the two writing practices and recommend you try the same.

With a change in tools is a change in the conversation. I like that I can type as fast as I can think —even faster. Those stray thoughts that so often get lost when I have a pen in my hands have a chance to survive on a laptop screen. Maybe these thoughts aren’t even that great, but that’s for me and my editor to decide later with the delete key. And the uniform typography offers endless clarity while my chicken scratch handwriting can seem as indecipherable as Farsi.

Sometimes I purposefully leave my laptop at home and bring a notebook with me to the coffee shop or library or wherever I plan on writing. Regrettably, this action often makes me feel lost. I cannot as easily tell a story on paper, as I can on a screen. Part of it is also the lack of physical barrier. The laptop screen is a shield from the rest of the world, it guards you from the rest of the coffee shop like your car on the road or cubicle in an office. And the gesture of handwriting feels so strange, like petting a cat rather than communicating something.

I miss the days I spent as a teenager writing on the beach or in the woods. Even writing in the bath. I can’t do that with a laptop. I worry about dirt or sand or water getting in it. It is too big to rest on the top of my knees when I sit on the ground and cross my legs in front of me. The weight of the laptop is an every day burden. A laptop is an indoor thing. But bringing a notebook with me on a hike or bike ride tends makes the difference. The movement, the silence far away from the city, and my solitude makes handwriting seem like the only plausible way to communicate my ideas. It is hard for pen and paper to compete with the distractions of the city. Just as hard as it is for a word processing software to compete with the wiles of the Internet.

On a more sentimental note, why do we still — almost all of us — keep journals on a paper? If you would never keep a private journal on a screen — because it feels too formal, too concrete — then you really ought to try writing on paper as often as you can stand. I decide when to turn on or off the pages. It requires nothing from me but ink.

A story can be told over multiple platforms and hold up on each one whether comic, videogame, film, or text. But the storyteller is never really platform ambivalent. A filmmaker or an artist or a writer is always conscious of his materials when he creates. Platform is a muse. I encourage you, at least some of the time, take up with the less sexy option: the notebook over the Macbook. See what kind of ideas spring from this experiment.

This is a practical application for any creative discipline, like music made with unplugged instruments and sketching designs by hand rather than using Photoshop. Think about Tino Sehgal’s unforgettable work of art, “This Progress,” a team of actors performing in a stripped empty Guggenheim museum or the science fiction fantasy worlds Tara Donovan builds with scotch tape and styrofoam cups. Consider the runners from poor countries who perform so excellently at the Olympics. They didn’t pick up sports requiring uniforms or equipment. Sneakers are nice, but all they need are their feet.

Never think of creativity as an expensive thing. You always have the option of the cost-free transfer of ideas from brain to paper. If you can find water, you can find a pen and paper. Go outdoors with your imagination. And take comfort in the fact that even at your most desperate hours, you can always create.


The Orphan, Issue #4
June 1, 2011