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The Dark Side of Creation

Via Robyn Jay, a wonderful post from Harriet Wakelam on the "dark side" of creativity and how our participation in social networks may help or hinder that process.

First, Harriet puts her finger on something I've experienced myself:

I have recently been through one of those 'life reinventions'.  Unlike the current 'sexy' portrayal of creativity the process was absorbing, consuming and sometimes dark and scary.  During the process  I switched off from my networks. One minute I was talking, the next I was disconnected. 

It was however a rich and a valuable time, productive and exciting, if challenging and complex.

I love how she calls out the "sexy" portrayal of creativity that is so ubiquitous online. Rarely do people share the "dark and scary" parts of creativity. As Harriet points out, we are most likely to see just the finished product--the result of the creative process:

I have always thought that networks are non-linear.  Am I wrong though, are they very linear, our online social places being,  not places where thought can evolve, but a place to report the results of the thinking process?

There is no word, no hash tag, no convention for being present but processing.  If you are not 'present' then you are 'absent'.  

I have seen very few people I admire talk about the dark spaces of the creative process. 

My question: are our online networks missing an important facet?  Are they 'safe' enough for  emergent thoughts, or do we do our 'composting'  alone only presenting when we have visible evidence of growth...?           

Seems to me that would be a sad place falling well short of our expectations of ecosystems...

There are issues that I find interesting  here. First, is the nature of the creative process itself, with all its complexities and "dark and scary places." When we are going through career transformation, the process is very similar, in part because we are creating new selves. 

The second is the impact that social networks have on this process, particularly as they become more a fact of life for so many of us as we pursue our creative and career work. 

The Dark Side of Creation

In my own experience, creativity has consisted of two types of processes. One is active and more social. It includes  gathering information, reading, asking questions, interacting with other people, creating products and processes and blog posts. It is the productive, doing side of creation.  This is the side that we see online all the time. It has been enhanced by the ready availability of networks and people from around the world. It is the "public face" of creation, the side that we all see and admire. 

But there is another side to creativity that is not so action-oriented. I like Harriet's use of the term "composting," for that's what it is. It is a gathering and churning of bits of organic matter, half-formed ideas and thoughts, an inability to really put them together into anything that feels right for public consumption. In those times, my head will swirl with bits and pieces of connection and ideas that never seem to coalesce. It's a stew of  . . . something. . . but what it actually is, I don't know. 

I find that in those times, I am impatient with myself. We are such an action-oriented culture, so concerned with turning creativity into a commodity. If I cannot count on something actionable or valuable coming from the creative process, then why do I even bother?

These are the times when I tend to withdraw from the world, to cut off my conversations and connections. Partly it's because I need the space and time for the thoughts to just germinate. Partly it's because there's something almost shameful about not being able to "produce."  And we are a society that values what people can do

Yet in my experience, creativity and transformation is like pregnancy. There is a gestation period, during which it looks like you aren't doing much, but HUGE amounts of growth and development are occurring inside. Of course, we aren't able to observe a growing belly to tell us that work is happening, so it's harder to accept gestation as part of this process. There are no visual cues to let us know that something is developing. 

But eventually, you will give birth. There will be a product or a process or a new you that emerges. That is when you will receive the congratulations. You have produced something.

Without the gestational period, though, you would have nothing. And how often do we stop that gestational process or try to push it along faster than it should go, simply because we are impatient to have something to show for our efforts? 

Social Networks in the Creative Process

Harriett asks what role social networks can play in this process. Are they a place for us to be able to share these quieter, gestational moments in the creative proceess? 

In the end, it isn't about the technology as much as how we are using it. In my experience, because of the public nature of social networks and the fact that there's such pressure to build that "personal brand," we are reluctant to share with others those times when things are not so clear and perfect.  What will people think of us? If I share confusion or half-baked ideas, will it look like I don't have my act together? If I try out different ideas of myself that aren't part of that "personal brand" will I seem fragmented or confused?

I would love a world where our participation in online networks could more realistically and effectively encompass our humanity. Where we didn't feel that we had to portray ourselves as always being "together." Where we could feel more comfortable exposing our vulnerabilities and half-formed thoughts without fear of judgement from others. 

There's a saying I've heard that goes like this:

We judge our insides by other people's outsides.

I think online social networks exacerbate this problem. Everywhere I turn, there are people who seem endlessly inspirational and chipper,  full of energy and quotes and general awesomeness. To share those moments when I'm in the darker aspects of creation, when I'm questioning myself and what I believe. . . that can feel incredibly dangerous. 

I do think we have a choice. Technology is a tool and we can choose to use our networks to support or hinder our humanity. We can use technology to connect to other people who get that creativity is complex and isn't always about being able to produce the shiny new product or person. It's full of dead ends and weird ideas and things that don't pan out. It's also full of self-doubt and self-recrimination. Even, dare I say, shame.  

Using our networks to support us in the darker sides of creation takes courage and a willingness to be authentic. It requires us to be vulnerable. And it requires us to reach out to others, to show ourselves and to accept others when they are willing to show their own vulnerabilities. 

We can use our networks to support the gestational parts of our creativity and I think that we should where it makes sense. Sometimes we will need the quiet moments of disconnection to get clear within our own minds. But there are also times when it makes sense for us to share those half-formed thoughts and ideas with others. We just need to find and create that safe space where it's allowed. 


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Very cogent piece--thanks. I appreciate the recognition of the 'dark side' of creativity, but also the obstacles to sharing via social media posed by the pressure to present a positive brand. It recently occurred to me that our online presences, our brands, constitute a performance, and that we seek 'payment' from our audience in terms of attention--retweeting our content, visiting our site, buying from us. Including 'struggling, confused creator in the midst of messy process' as part of our show could be very helpful; audience 'payment' could be supportive debate. That 'payment' might not, however, be consonant with other forms of attention we might desire.

Bob, I think you're right about our online presences being a form of performance and that including the struggling sides of our creative work could expand on that. If we think about it, some of the best "art" is about showing the darker sides of ourselves and what we experience, so why can't we do the same for our creative selves?

I will say that when I've shared on this blog those times when I've been confused or in a dark place, I've tended to get a lot of great, supportive feedback and discussion. So I think it's worth sharing. I think it's about getting over the shame and anxiety you feel and being willing to make yourself vulnerable. Which is really what the most creative stuff is about anyway!

Thanks for commenting and keeping the discussion going, Bob.

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