I had originally written a totally different post, but while out getting lunch I was conversing with my most ardent fan (myself) and realized that in pursuing this topic out loud, I wanted to take a different approach.
Creating is a calling. Some people are content to consume, while others must create. For creators, there is no stopping, no downtime. They are always creating something and when they don’t have access to their environment or their tools, they are thinking about current or future projects.
In many ways, my self-image is stuck back in 1990 when I was 16. I still think of myself as working on that level creatively, when I was creating entire TTRPG rulesets out of thin air (we had to since we didn’t have the massive riches that we enjoy today), writing continuously, drawing, and even getting started with application development (such as it was). I remember that ideas came easily to me back then and it was easy to keep my output in step with my intense desire to just make stuff.
Now, though, while I retain that drive to make stuff, I have to admit that my ability to do so isn’t where it used to be. I might credit age, but never having been this old before I can’t say for certain. I do think that experience is partly to blame. After 40 years I find myself cribbing a lot from all of the media and situations I’ve consumed in the past. I can’t always put my finger on the exact sources, but upon closer scrutiny, I often come to the realization that my original ideas aren’t original at all. I don’t think as fast as I used to, and I find myself unable to dig as deep as I once could in summoning fresh approaches.
This causes me great anguish because I end up starting a lot of projects only to leave them aside when I reach that precipice and look down into a pit of emptiness. Dramatic, no? Sometimes my abandonment happens out of sheer boredom; I burn out after intense participation and almost never return. Other times I walk away from projects because I reach that empty point. Here are two examples.
The first time I actually realized that being creative was putting some serious stress on me was when I was running RPG sessions for D&D and later for Starfinder. In the runup to starting these projects I was all gung-ho in getting back to TTRPGing. Since I didn’t know anyone who was running a game or who had availability in their game, I opted to start my own. In my mind, I had grand plans but opted to gate this feeling by using pre-published modules. That way, I believed that I could focus more on creating memorable flourishes and not have to worry about the details.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out so well. Our D&D sessions were OK, but just OK, and sometimes horrible. We had a rotating cast as several people lost interest and drifted away. In the end, the campaigns ended on a dissatisfying note for several reasons, but one relevant to this post, I feel, is that I just sucked at achieving my personal goal of making the game memorable and interesting.
Later, during our Starfinder game, I felt that things were going better. Much better, actually. I had a good group of dedicated roleplayers, and that helped to get the creative beats in place. Then something else happened: the creative planning started stressing me out. I was of the belief that I had to plan the next week’s session almost as soon as we had completed the current week’s session and that the enjoyment factor had to equal or exceed those which came before. This made me anxious every week. I felt that my ability to make the game “fun” and memorable was being judged each session, and ultimately I asked to put the campaign on hiatus for a bit in a bid to calm down and reorganize. I fully intended to get back to it, but as the players eventually moved on to another game and I remembered the reasons why I asked for the break in the first place, we never reconvened. Eventually, I felt that the ship had irretrievably sailed.
Creativity begs for an outlet. Sometimes folks can be very specific in their interests and dedicate their energies to one (or a few) areas of expertise. Other times, any opportunity to create is a good opportunity, and should never be turned down. That’s how I got started in the game streaming business.
Truth, I was streaming before it was cool, before Twitch and even before Justin.tv. Back then, live streaming was pretty much the sole domain of industry aiming to provide content to corporations and pie-in-the-sky attempts to bring live news and event broadcasts to the Internet. Streaming a video game, with its intense graphical requirements, didn’t mesh so well with the early ways in which we were able to stream content, so I never really went anywhere with it past a few honest but ultimately futile attempts.
The thing about creating is that creativity wants to be seen. As social creatures, I think there’s a need for us to want to be recognized. We can rise to positions of power and influence, but that’s…messy, and sometimes ill-gotten. Creativity is one part inherent talent, one part hours and hours of practice, and being seen for what we produce can be a much more rewarding and heartening experience than acknowledging our creativity ourselves in a vacuum.
To that end, when streaming started becoming more widespread and possible without spending money on licensing and expensive software, it was something that I became re-acquainted with. Unfortunately, this was at a point of the rising tide; there were already more charismatic people much younger than me playing games that were more popular than the ones that I played, and were played with more skill than I had. Soon the room started to get really crowded. The Internet, being The Internet, was already filled with consequence-free opinions flowing like water, and it seemed that the act of putting oneself out there at this time was like putting a “kick me” sign on one’s back.
The balance between creative vision and accepting critique is not an easy one. Creation is personal; we create because we have a personal need or are personally drawn towards a medium or outlet. We have something to say, even if what we’re saying is pure nonsense. If we keep our creativity to ourselves, we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over without ever realizing that we’re making them in the first place. Sometimes in our heads, though, criticism is heard as an attack, an invalidation, and a kick to the teeth — especially on the Internet. Ideally, a critique should be offered in the spirit of helping the creator to improve his or her craft, even if the output is not intended to be mass-marketable. Often, though, critique is really criticism provided as a way to intimidate, belittle, and make the criticizer feel superior to the creator. Even when a critique is valid, the avenues for offering feedback through the Internet can muddle the message so that it is received wrong, and ultimately it may very well be that the creator is self-conscious enough about putting their work out there that no matter how many disclaimers are offered, no critique given will be seen as constructive.
It’s bad enough being a stranger in a strange land as I felt I was whenever I was streaming, but the potential for real-time criticism was panic-inducing. I was too old, too boring, my game wasn’t interesting, I wasn’t paying enough attention to viewers, why was I even bothering…in reality, I never heard any of these things from anyone, but these were the thoughts that were running through my head and were causing me to question my fitness. What was happening, though, is that people weren’t showing up. The most offered advice to new streamers is to “stream what you want and people will find you”, which, in an era of streaming ubiquity and partisan fanbases, is completely disingenuous. Streaming requires either a superhuman level of self-confidence or a complete lack of self-awareness, neither of which I personally suffer from. When I tried to make an honest go of streaming at regular times, advertising my intent and participation — no one showed. No one supported my efforts. I took this to mean that my product was invalid and no good, or that I was invalid or no good. The whole process was disheartening, and that bled into the act of gaming itself, so I asked myself, why risk poisoning the well of something that I enjoyed by forcing myself to do it in conjunction with something I was being signaled was not enjoyable? And so that is how I decided to get out of the streaming business despite being continuously interested in the streaming business.
The why of creativity is difficult to nail down, I think. Some creative projects produce a meaningful output: making a table, or creating jewelry that people can wear, for instance. Other creative outlets exist mainly to be appreciated, like painting or music. We can do all of these things for ourselves and never for others, and on some level, we can still feel validated by that. Seeing talent made real is satisfying; seeing improved talent made real can be intoxicating. One we reach that point of diminishing returns, we as human beings may feel the need for some level of validation from the community, but that comes with risks: rejection, debasement, and an assault on our confidence which can lead to us question our own abilities and purpose in creating. If bad enough, it can drive us underground, or off the field entirely.
I don’t really have a point, I realize now, but I felt that this analysis of my own approach to creativity and the stumbling blocks were important to write down. I see this reflected in my daughter’s own work; she is at college for creative studies and has been struggling with the requirement in some classes that she receives feedback on her work from other students. She fears criticism-as-critique, and I can only assume her reasons are the same as my own, as we are nearly identical in so many ways. I can afford to flounder around, creating for myself and appreciative audiences only, but as she is hoping to earn a living from her creativity, I am worried for her. I know it won’t get any easier, but I do hope that she can develop a sense to ingest the honest critiques and dismiss the criticism.