"Creating Stuff is Hard"

Photo by Hilary Detwiller.

Photo by Hilary Detwiller.


This quote has haunted me during my career of writing, art and creation. It was uttered by an unnamed individual at the beginning of a huge video game project, to an associate and myself. We just kind of sat there and tried to wrap our heads around the stupid.

We finally said: yeah, no shit, what did you think we were doing? Initially, this guy’s comment filled me with a deep, deep, derision. Today, it has come to mean something to me. 

Creating Stuff IS Hard.

I mean, he was right. Creating stuff is hard, but if you’re there for the right reasons, it’s worth it. It’s pretty clear this unnamed associate was not there for the right reasons (the act of creation itself) — in any case, he didn’t survive the process — and went on to complain somewhere else.

Still, his comment stays with me.

All of this is just stream-of-consciousness, personal opinion stuff, so all you creators out there, please take this with a grain of salt. To me, it seems very clear there are two ways to create something. These two ways seem to define the quality of the outcome (however, they don’t guarantee it, just seem to push it in one direction or another). These two methods are: creating to create, or creating on call. 

Creating simply to create: This is one of the most magical things I have ever experienced in my life. To explore a completely fictional universe for the first time, creating as you go, is amazing. This is how all creators come to this business; they make their own worlds and then try to monetize their ability to make their own worlds.  

Creating on call: to pay the rent, for instance, is fine, but seems to dampen the experience, leading to similarly muted results. To be clear, I’ve done both, but creating to create has always trumped creating for any other reason. The results, to me, are always better when it is an act of pure creation.

Now, this choice does not define quality (you can create great stuff you don’t care anything about, or crud based on your most sacred concepts) but instead shifts the likelihood of a good outcome. Creating to create succeeds more often for me than the other way (YMMV). Whenever possible — and it’s not always possible — I try to find the beauty in something I’m working on, and create in that world to create. 

Still, there’s no way around it, the act of turning the first block, of cutting the first length, of defining the first idea is so hard as to turn away 99.99% of those attempting it. It’s so fundamental, many people don’t recognize that such an act is necessary to create an idea; they imagine the concept: Middle Earth, Batman, On the Waterfront, Für Elise, arrive, whole-cloth and finished, in the creator’s mind, and the rest is mechanical dictation to notepad, bristol board, typewriter or sheet music. While some creators are like this (Moebius comes to mind) most I have met are not. 

I know I’m not.    

Laying this groundwork is vital, but so is a flexibility early in the process. Some people arrive at definitive concepts instantly (all Angels are immortal) while others arrive at generative concepts (Angels exist). I prefer generative concepts — ideas which are open to creating new ideas. The more early definition, the harder it is to shift the mass of the concept into something interesting.

Ideas seem to take shapes in my mind and then settle, like gelatin, hardening over time to something significant. During the early stages, the ideas are flexible; new elements can be introduced and absorbed by them. Later, as rules are established, less and less is permitted, and I begin coloring within the lines more and more. 

For me, from this point on, the danger of the idea mutating or failing tends to fade in the rear-view and the idea begins to roll on its own. If I have done my job, you are imagining a hardened gelatin full of bits of random stuff, rolling up some desert road… It’s not so far off that idea. You kick it, it bounces and spins, and maybe picks up momentum. Leave it be for too long and it comes to a stop (and eventually gets picked at by predators).

For me, the initial solidification of the idea is the hard part, past that, it’s just plain fun; that’s why I keep doing it, and will keep doing it, for as long as I can. 

I would love to look the “creating stuff is hard” guy up. See what he’s been up to since we parted ways over the basis of creation. If I do see him again, it’ll be the first thing I ask him:

Has creating become any easier for you? 

Somehow, I doubt his answer would be yes.