Creating and copying

To create means to make something new.

Kind of.

You don’t create out of thin air.

You start with raw material, which exists along some spectrum of “rawness.”

Maybe it’s a lump of clay, a bunch of words in your head, a few notes of music, or a pile of lumber. Maybe it’s a photo, a folk song, a quote, an antique chair, a pile of flour and butter, or somebody’s voice that you overhear. You do something with it. You make something out of it.

That’s it. That’s creating.

When we start talking creativity, though, it gets a little more complicated.

When we talk creativity, we don’t really mean “just create something.” We mean create something new. Something interesting. Something original. Something unique. Something with a distinct identity.

The problem is that it’s really tricky to turn on that creativity.

To create can be to create something new or it can be to create a copy. 

The most interesting bit, I think, is that the volume and type of work doesn’t differ much whether you’re creating something new or creating a copy.

You’re writing a book or baking some bread or making a chair or composing a song: it’s the same bit of work, technically, whether you are following someone else’s design, mark for mark, or whether you are following your own design, speaking with your own voice.

The only thing that’s different is where the design comes from (you or someone else). And whether you have the courage to use your own design.

To live a creative life we must lose our fear of being wrong. -Joseph Chilton Pierce

To copy great work is helpful for learning. It’s a good way to learn technique. It’s a great way to practice the skills of your craft. It’s an essential part of any apprenticeship. It’s a good ongoing exercise for anyone who wants to keep getting better at some particular thing.

But it’s not the same as being creative.

Of course, every thing you create has elements, bits, pieces, giant portions that come from somewhere else. This borrowing or stealing is part of art. (Read Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist for more on this concept.)

But stealing something to use it as part of something new that you’re making is different than making copy after copy of something that’s already been created.

If you create a copy, and it’s bad, you can always blame the original.

If you create something new, and it’s bad, you can only blame the creator.

So if you are the creator, you have to take the risk and assume the responsibility.

 This novel is terrible. This painting is awful. This song sounds like monkeys screeching. This idea is stupid. This product is lame. And it’s my fault, because I made it.

We identify the self – who am I? – with what the self creates. So, if the novel or painting or poem or strategy or business or product or sculpture is terrible, then… then… you are terrible, too, right?

Alternately, a nice safe route is to just copy stuff that you already know is good, because that seems like a shortcut to feeling that you are good, too. Except it doesn’t work. You know when you are being creative, and you know when you are copying. And you can pretend, but you do not genuinely feel that you have proven yourself by copying someone else’s work.

When you are creating without being creative, you find that the more you do, the more you have to do.

Each copy you produce matters less, and so you need to produce more, or better, copies to prove yourself. To prove your worth.

When you are creative, you find that the more you produce, the more mistakes you produce, but the less they matter. 

You start to see each creative work less as a separate thing and more as a part of a rather amazing whole. You realize that you’re building a creative canon; that your output is cumulative rather than linear; that your creative potential increases in direct proportion to your creative action.

You realize that all of it is part of the creative process.

And the best part of all is that you realize that you are good and worthwhile as a being, full-stop, distinct from any creative output you make or don’t make.

But until you have the courage to be creative, I’m not sure you can get to that realization.

You have to dive in. You have to risk it. You have to be responsible. Then you mess up, and it turns out to be okay. You get it right, and that’s okay, too. And then you can quit needing to be perfect every time.

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