What would you create if no one would see it? If you didn’t need to Boost Engagement or Capture SEO Traffic or Push Product or Increase Your Digital Footprint? If what you set out to make wasn’t content, but simply art?
I’ve been reading and watching and scrolling, but lately, I’ve been most inspired by things I’ve seen offscreen. Like the man with the molasses voice singing “Earth Angel” on the subway, the car falling silent, strangers letting their headphones drop and their eyes lock: Damn, this guy is good. “Support the artist if you can,” he said without irony, the soft plink of his keyboard swallowed up by claps. Not everyone paid him, but most of us thanked him. He smiled back. He knew.
Across the car, a young girl sketched with a furrowed brow, stealing shy glances until she held up her finished masterpiece: me. In her drawing, my Beats by Dre were replaced with a tiara, my tired eyes large and sparkling. What a joy to see the world that way — more joyful still to capture it just because.
While they were creating, I was bemoaning my failure to thrive in the super-speed age of snackable content. Blogs have been all but replaced by apps, and it’s hard to do long-form, mixed-media work and not feel like I’m wasting my time. Instead, I’ve been doing most of my writing in a Google Doc titled “ANGST + RAGE” that I pray is never leaked for the sake of my exes, a habit that keeps me sane but that adds up to… what? Nothing useful. Nothing beautiful. Nothing I can point to and say, “I made that.”
I started taking watercolor classes a few months ago, just to remind myself how it feels to create without profit in mind. It’s both freeing and maddening to have a hobby I’m truly bad at. I don’t often do things I’m bad at. I like to feel safe — from danger, from failure, from judgment of others and myself. If I try and fail, will I hate me more or less?
The answer is always, always less. Creating, even with the intention of sharing, has never been about collecting validation from as many people as possible — something that can be easy to forget when churning out content for a faceless internet. That’s a recipe for restlessness. An endless pursuit of a fix. Content is a business, and it’s different from creativity, which is both selfish and servile in nature. Creativity is where the desire to say “I made that” meets the hope that an audience — be it 5 or 500 or 5 million people — might find it useful and/or beautiful.
I believe in creativity, not just content. I believe in making and sharing — that those are ends in themselves. I want to make art, as pretentious as that can feel to say out loud, for myself and the 5 people who need to find it at the precise moment they do.
The young girl’s mother told her to put her drawing away and “leave the nice lady alone.” It broke my heart a little. I hope she went home and drew 12 more princess pictures. I hope she never forgets how. I hope she always sees the world that way: large and sparkling, and worthy of capturing just because.