I haven’t written words in a while. My head doesn’t even whisper them to me, as it listlessly does when I shower or fall asleep. The notepad on my phone where I write essay ideas has gone (mostly) blank, replaced by an uncommittable grocery list and a few passwords I can never remember and books I hope to read. I’m not sure when the switch stopped working, when the inspiration dimmed slightly. I write when I have to, only when I must. And without the things I write, I exist as-is, not to be remembered. Doomscrolling Twitter is just easier for now. And double-tapping a photo of Adele in British Vogue jumpstarts a serotonin rush or two. I can sit in the unknown, watching the world as far away from myself as I can.
I know this sounds sad. And it’s okay. Sometimes, that’s how creativity works. We get caught in a riptide that covers all our edges and our hearts aren’t in it to fight. Feeling uninspired is as much of a valid emotion as feeling innovation itself. I like to believe that the lack of something makes the presence of it, in time, the best evolution in the entire world.
Feeling uninspired is as much of a valid emotion as feeling innovation itself. I like to believe that the lack of something makes the presence of it, in time, the best evolution in the entire world.
However, today, I want to write about how searching for creativity, the bones of it, is all about redefining and remembering who you are.
Creativity is self-defining. It’s imagination. It’s torturous and ugly and everything that’s beautiful. Everyone is creative because we all crave to know our own existence. We want to know who we are. The tough part about losing the drive to understand it is, we have to let go of who we once were. Writing through that is painful sometimes. And I run into moments where I don’t want to look in the mirror.
I think I’m fumbling to explain this properly. But, the loss of creative drive makes me feel like a pile of skin and organs. With the pandemic, I’ve changed. And I fear a version of me has come out of that experience somehow, while another version claws at the walls to get out.
I recently learned about pandemic flux syndrome via Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast. She chatted with Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, about her recent Washington Post article, “Why This Stage of the Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious.”
They discuss how humans experience affective forecasting error. Basically, people aren’t good at predicting emotions. As we’ve gone through the motions of the pandemic, it’s been tough to predict when we’ll be able to celebrate and come out of the fog. So, we end up feeling constantly hurt and confused. A beautiful psychological thing called “surge capacity” got us through the first stage and the immediacy of the crisis made a lot of people epically creative. That’s what happened to me. I started a newsletter. I wrote feverishly every day about what we were going through. I was so eager to understand what was going on, writing became intense therapy. We worked together. We sang music out of balcony windows and wrote music. We were burning with high expectations, flickering in a pool of hope.
Creativity is self-defining. It’s imagination. It’s torturous and ugly and everything that’s beautiful. Everyone is creative because we all crave to know our own existence. We want to know who we are.
And then this other thing happened. Everything continued to be uncertain. We grew tired, withdrawn. Powerless to control the narrative. We weren’t sure what to do to make everything better anymore, so we searched for an escape.
My escapism, because I can’t travel or run away, has become social media. I’ve never been so addicted to my phone, fumbling through other people’s lives to escape my own. I post updates about my life too, but I always wonder what the point of it all is. Am I screaming into a void? Why can’t I cling to a book? Why can’t I rely on a pen and paper? Where is the root of my imagination? And who am I becoming without it?
I recently read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Reading, like writing, has been something I’ve neglected lately and this book launched me into a whirlwind of feelings. No spoiler alerts here aside from a quote that resonated with me (Writer’s Note: but please read this book immediately).
Here’s the quote that popped out: “You are forgetting who you are. In becoming everyone, you are becoming no one.”
I love when quotes in books put a figurative mirror right in my face and force me to look deep into my own soul. There I was, getting through the first book I’d been able to focus on in the past six months, finally feeling a sense of personal revelation. For once, not tapping through images of strangers, and instead looking right into the deepest fragment of myself. I had been spending so many months getting lost in other people’s lives, I’d barely paid any mind to my own. And with that, imagining how it would feel to be everyone else, I’d lost myself. Without my creativity, I was becoming no one.
Writer’s Note before I go on: Social media gives me joy as well. I’ve met the most incredible people on that stinkin’ app called Instagram and I think it does boost my creativity here and there. I can look for things that make me feel inspired and I can write out my feelings on posts if I need to. I’m simply saying that Instagram also makes the world feel overwhelming. It’s easy to get lost in its numbness and comparative drive. Originality, the simple things, float away in its numb, tap-happy existence.
I had been spending so many months getting lost in other people’s lives, I’d barely paid any mind to my own. And with that, imagining how it would feel to be everyone else, I’d lost myself. Without my creativity, I was becoming no one.
Anyway, I digress. Here’s where Robin Dunbar comes in. As a professor at Oxford University, he discovered that human beings are wired to know only 150 people, because that was the average size of hunter-gatherer communities. Therefore, our brains can’t handle “knowing” so many people on social media. For that, we crave face-to-face communication more than ever.
Among many other things. Face-to-face communication. Escape. Clarity. Fleeting, simple beauty. Books. Words on paper. I do believe self-reflection, writing/painting/singing/running through how things work, can give us parts of ourselves we’ve never known. But we have to allow time to get there. A big piece of remembering who we are is opening the space for it. I haven’t been able to find that open field for a while, but I feel it coming back as I slowly try to let go of social media and find a place for myself in the “normal” world. I’m getting there.
From what I’ve learned, I’m not sure if I have any insightful tips to seek out the creative elements we feel we have lost. I think the safe start is the realization itself. That we change, and the world changes, and sometimes change makes it difficult to be inventive. By accepting the void we feel, the imaginary loss from the pandemic and the moments we never got to have, the minutes we weren’t able to bring into being, we can heal. Perhaps this is a little spin on creativity: accepting ourselves as we accept things that make us most human.
Here’s a non-inspiring list of things that make me human to get you started: I haven’t called my grandma in a while and I should be better about that. I am territorial about sharing pizza. I am deeply neurotic about cleanliness. My empathy hurts sometimes. I actually hate being naked. I feel most beautiful when I’m surrounded by water. I always feel guilty about what I eat. I have horrific taste in music and expect too much from my friends. I love deeply. I hate to take up too much space as much as I like to be seen.
So, that was a tough list to write. But even a small paragraph of self-reflection helped me figuratively keep my toes on the ground (I’m sitting pretzel style on my kitchen chair right now). Despite everything, I feel centered and open. And I think maybe … I could write a little. And you know what?! I just wrote 1,300 words in this last sitting! Progress!
How can we be creative beyond social media? How can we go outward from trying to be like everyone else?
Furthermore, I think we can ask ourselves: How can we be creative beyond social media? How can we go outward from trying to be like everyone else? How can we step away from how we see ourselves through others and instead accept ourselves for the messy, untamed, beautiful people that we are?
Being creative is remembering who we are.
Ending, of course, with another quote from The Midnight Library. “The paradox of volcanoes was that they were symbols of destruction but also life. Once the lava slows and cools, it solidifies and then breaks down over time to become soil. . . . She wasn’t a black hole, she decided. She was a volcano. And like a volcano she couldn’t run away from herself. She’d have to stay there and tend to that wasteland. She could plant a forest inside herself.”
A forest, indeed.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.