Recently I went to Sri Lanka to visit family. I knew in advance that I wasn’t going to be able to make anything so I made sure to notify everyone who would be affected and set things so I wouldn’t need to work. For the first time in a long time, I would be unable to do anything creative and I remember being very stressed about it prior to the trip. While I was there, I saw a thread by Hello Games’ Innes McKendrick that argued:
hey— moth dad (@innesmck) December 23, 2017
If you're able to take time off for the holidays, it's ok to do nothing. You don't have to have a side project. You don't need to get ahead on work.
Your portfolio might be important for you career, but so is rest, perspective and self-care.
Reading that, I realized that a part of me felt resentful for not being able to create for three weeks; and I wanted to address that feeling here in the hope that I can combat it going forward. I honestly didn’t realize how much I needed some distance as a creative--some time to be introspective and look inward--and I feel that it’s something we can all make more time for.
In game development as well as other creative industries, there’s a huge amount of pressure to be creative all the time. I know that I often catch myself during moments of downtime thinking “I need to find something productive to do”. As creatives, we are constantly exposed to our colleagues’ projects and successes, and it’s easy to feel a sense of inadequacy about our own creative process. Plenty of people will tell you during your career that even when you’re putting 110% into your day-job, you need to be pushing your own personal projects, showing people your work, and networking, or you’re wasting your time. Of course there’s value in that, but the opposite should also be discussed. So I’d like to come out and say to everyone: sometimes you should avoid making things.
Rest a little; you deserve it.
One of the things that was really nice about being home was the opportunity to be a little healthier in terms of food and exercise, even if it was just a couple of push-ups some mornings. Creativity is often likened to a muscle, and I think a lot of the same misconceptions concerning physical improvement are applied to creative growth. A common misunderstanding when going to the gym for the first time is that the act of exercising is what makes you stronger; therefore, the more you exercise, the faster you will improve. In reality, all that exercise does is damage your muscle fibers--it’s when your body repairs itself during rest that you’re actually improving. Very often, people see improvement during those first couple weeks of exercise, so they try and do more and more and end up overworking themselves. Overwork ruins both your performance and your enjoyment, and all too often it leads you to quit.
When you work hard and see little improvement, it’s easy to blame your own ability; this way of thinking is both professionally problematic and personally harmful. Overwork in creative industries harms creativity, and that can’t be said nearly enough. As with physical exercise, creative work can be very exhausting. If you’re always pushing yourself to create, your mind is not getting the time to reflect on the process and grow from it. Before my trip, I was really hitting a wall with my work: struggling to solve problems and running out of ways I could improve the game. By stepping back for a bit, I discovered a ton of ideas that feel really obvious in hindsight. When you’re in the same creative mode everyday, it’s easy to lose perspective. When you have time to de-focus and be introspective, all those creative problems filter into your subconscious, and solutions come more readily.
Allow things to get in your way.
Living abroad means that I’m cut off from a lot of people who would otherwise interrupt my need to be productive. Unfortunately, these interruptions can be vital to maintaining a fresh creative outlook. When I’m back home I focus more on my family, since I know I’m not able to do so most of the year. This puts a lot of my creative impulses on hold. It’s weirdly easy to feel guilty for lost productivity when you’re spending time with people instead of working, but I think those feelings are misplaced. By the end of a family trip like the one I just went on, I’m always dying to do something creative, and creating again after not doing so for a long time is such a release. I end up with a mental list of all the things I want to do when I get back, and taking time to revitalize my excitement about being creative is so important to maintaining motivation; especially in an industry notorious for young developers burning out.
Cut off your access to creative tools. Go off the grid; make it as inconvenient to create as possible. Figure out something with all the time you now have, or do nothing--it’s your call. Be bored. Get to the point where you really want to make stuff but can’t. You can write down any creative ideas you have during this period. Next time you’re hitting a wall creatively, pull out that list and try to revisit that desire to create.
New environments breed new ideas.
One of my favorite things about being home is simply staring out the window as we drive around. In Sri Lanka, even the mundane details can be so different from the US. I still see cars and roads and trees in Los Angeles, but the feel of it is different from Colombo. Once in a while I see something that I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I latch onto it creatively; this can be really inspiring. At one point we found ourselves exploring a 16th century temple. My cousin was giving me a tour and she pointed out this carving of a dragon above a door called a makara kata (dragon’s mouth). It had been created for the purpose of guarding the threshold, and for whatever reason, I found the dragon fascinating. It percolated in the back of my head over the course of the following weeks.
I saw these makara kata ten more times during the trip, although I’d never noticed them before during any of my previous visits. Now I absolutely want to make a game incorporating the aesthetic of these temples; I love the appearance of the dragons and that I can identify with the art as a Sri Lankan. I’d never see that style in a game unless I was the one to put it there, because Sri Lankan art is not known to most game makers.Your own personal experiences as a creator are so important. They are what you offer that no one else can replicate, and taking the time to be in different environments and see things that are different from your routine leads to more original and interesting art.
Go somewhere unlike where you usually create. Do something memorable while you’re there; bring back a souvenir of the experience. When you return to your usual space, add it to your creative environment, somewhere you can see it while you work.
Old environments also breed new ideas.
Everyone misses the food back home when they’re away. For me, even just the bread in Sri Lanka is so nostalgic; I would easily endure a whole day’s worth of flying to have it. The local cuisine, the neighborhood mall, your childhood home; the vast majority of the world has no awareness of them. But they can offer a lot of real estate when crafting your voice; re-experiencing and recontextualizing those formative memories in the present can be incredibly rewarding from a creative standpoint.
When I’m back in Sri Lanka, my mindset is very tied to that area. Old habits and figures of speech resurface. I’m around people that I don’t usually get to be around, and my thought patterns change as well. It’s very surreal to approach pre-existing creative problems while you’re back home and in that nostalgic state of mind. It’s also a great chance to reflect on your current creative trajectory. Is all the work you’re doing for your career getting you to where you wanted to be? Do you still want the same things? Being in the places where you initially imagined that career and the life you’d have can be amazing for holding it up against your current outlook.
Make a ritual out of going to past haunts. Examine where your life was when you were there last, and the steps taken to get to where your life is now. Do you still agree with how you thought back then? If so, what would the past you think of your current direction? If not, what does the current you think of your past aspirations?
No need to be dogmatic about it.
To say I didn’t do anything creative the whole trip would be a lie. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things I did in Sri Lanka was a traditional mask painting class--a Christmas gift from my brother. The technique was infuriatingly hard to learn; it involved making a lot of very thin, precise lines on a curved surface with the very tip of a paint brush. There was almost no room for error. I was incredibly out of my comfort zone, and by the end my forehead was drenched in sweat and I was so drained I was ready to pass out. The class was at ten in the morning and afterwards I was ready to climb back into bed.
What was really refreshing about it, however, was the lack of an agenda behind painting the mask that day. I think an under-discussed aspect of being a creative is that we’re often expected to create for a reason; for something or for someone. To please fans and consumers, to make a portfolio piece, to get a job, to get your name out there, to participate in the industry or in a community…
It’s really easy to fall into this trap of always creating with an agenda in mind. I have plenty of hobbies unrelated to games--like songwriting, for instance--and I often feel like I’m wasting my time by not putting that stuff out there. But not everything needs to be monetized or exploited. I think that creating for no reason often feels worse than not being productive at all. It feels doubly wasteful, and that’s something we need to move away from. Especially with the rise of social media, documenting work has become the de facto way to behave, and we need to look at that critically and sometimes make the conscious decision not to document.
When I was a kid I remember reading about Buddhist monks who formed mandalas out of sand. They would spend days pouring their souls into these intricate designs, and when they were done they would sweep the sand away, and it would be like the work had never existed. Recently I saw a video of that process in my news-feed and I remember thinking, “Doesn’t this video existing defeat the purpose of the mandala?” I think there’s a lot of value in making something with no intent to share it, just for experience and the process of actually making it.
Start a Mandala project. Make something you can be proud of and decide beforehand that whatever you make will be destroyed when it’s finished. Stick to that conviction. If you really like what you make and want to share it, you can make it again from scratch afterwards or incorporate those lessons into a future project.But this instance has to be destroyed, along with any photos or evidence that it existed; trash it, wipe it from your hard drive, give it a Viking funeral, have fun with it. I promise it will be both cathartic and instructive.
At the end of the day, you’re going to be fine.
If none of this convinced you to plan some time in the near future to just do nothing, you’re probably still going to be okay. There’s no one way to create or to be a creative. If you are entirely happy with your process, there’s nothing wrong with that, and I encourage everyone to follow their own creative truth. But if, like me, you’ve ever felt bad about a lack of productivity, I really hope that you at least consider the value of having downtime. It might seem like some people have it easier, but being creative is not something that comes easily to anyone; it’s just that we never see our creative heroes on the days when they’re unproductive or creatively frustrated. Those moments get obscured, but it’s important to know that they happen to everyone. Those moments are necessary. I would push for a trend towards rest and introspection and away from constant overworking; at the very least, I’d love to see less stigma around the moments spent not being creative. They are not a sign of weakness or laziness, but an inherent--and vital- counterpart to the creative experience.