Consumer vs Creator

The significance of the relationship between 21st Century consumerism and its impact on human creativity.

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I haven’t written for three months. There, I’ve said it.

I have, of course, written bits and pieces in my day job as a Storyteller Consultant. Rewriting an English translation for a Swedish Import Handbook, for example. As editor, I’ve also created blurb about Write On! Magazine—press releases and emails in which I have asked for support have met with some success. But I haven’t written creatively.

Instead, I’ve been consuming—too much social media, too much food over the last few months with the holidays, too many opinions, but fear most of all. I’ve let it consume me. Indeed, I’ve revelled in it. To me, the victimhood fear brings in its wake is familiar territory. At the moment I’m very far from the absorbed, ideas-sparking me who by mid-November had broken the 60,000-word halfway point of my second novel. So, what happened?

I start writing this piece on the 20th of January. Labelled by the press as Blue Monday, this day is said be the most depressing day of the year. Despite lots of great bits and pieces flying around in my life, the new cover for issue four of Write On! and the advanced proof copy for my debut novel Mother of Floods sitting on my dining room table, I’m feeling anxious and, if I’m honest, quite low. I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a while, but the general feeling of being restless and discontented seems to hit home today. The result of this is that I have put some time aside to unpick that knot inside me with more determination, whilst hopefully serving the writing community in the process.

Quite simply, glitches beyond my control around my first book left me feeling worried. This interfered with my writing. To make me feel better, I started focusing on things that could offer a more immediate return—more consultancy projects, my social media presence, audiobooks, food.

I have noticed that the more I consume, cramming the place my creativity comes from with things money and time give me access to, the less I am able to create. One could certainly argue that the personal data driving the 24/7 algorithms does a good job of reaching into my life, targeting me with subliminal and overt messaging driving me towards buying this or doing that as the answer to my existential woes. My behaviour is, of course, in line with everyone else’s.

Not everyone wants to be a writer, so, why does this matter? I believe that these days we are all called upon to be creators in one way or another so, therefore, the relationship between 21st century consumerism and its impact on human creativity does have wider significance. We writers are supposed to be the vehicles by which culture is recorded, yet when I’m consuming I feel like a facsimile of myself, certainly unable to write and so showcase humanity in all its diverse glory.

In order to get your attention, I’ll start with a very well documented form of overconsumption, said to be particularly prevalent in writers. Six giants of American literature—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman, and John Cheever—were all addicted to alcohol. There are, of course, many other wordsmiths who have publicly shared tales of overconsumption of a variety of substances. In my case it was food, which is why I reached twenty-one stone by the age of thirty. These days I’m glad to say I weigh around half that.

My theory is that in order to write, you need to feel. Then, in order to truly be able to translate those feelings into words, you, yourself, need to be able to do so more deeply than most. I can tell you from personal experience that we don’t always want to feel everything! Many, though, see this depth of feeling as a ticket into nature of the muse, or ‘genius’ as Elizabeth Gilbert calls it in Big Magic.

The fact that we have no definite timescales doesn’t help either—especially if we are working other jobs to fund our writing. We never know when the muse will show up, which means we just have to be ready—always ready—to receive and act when it comes, while keeping our heads down and writing even if it doesn’t turn up. Emily Dickinson, in one of the most important poems of the 19th Century, shared that ideas would hit her like a train, so she always had a notebook handy to capture them before they fled. It’s this combination of being constantly on-call to inspiration, linked to our ever-hungry digital world, which is so dangerous. It stands in direct opposition to the focus and strength of mind we need to create a room of one’s own to write in. In essence, we have no creative downtime and therein lies the problem. Having taken a year out to complete my novel, for example, I know that space to write is—for me, at least—essential. We are solely responsible for the worlds we create—a tall order when the only thing fuelling them is our own energy, split into innumerable compartments.

It would be much easier if consumption and creation were compatible. But, to my mind, they’re not. Maybe it’s because contemporary consumerism demands a coinage that is quite removed from the creative one. Money provides us with a roof over our heads, food to eat, and a way to protect and support those we love. By putting us very firmly in the world, it does indeed make the world go around. However, the pursuit of money does not just take away from writing time; it dulls our creative energy. If we make financial security our focus, we curtail our words and ideas.

The currency of creativity is quite different. This is because our imagination feeds on a number of things that bear no relation to making money. It’s almost as if two worlds are colliding, with us writers performing a mad juggling act with objects akin to a feather and a shotput. At best they overlap in a mad, Dali-esque counterpoint, but at worst this peculiar performance can stop us creating altogether.

One of these places of collision is the way we work. A strong, consistent work ethic is necessary for writers. However, this can easily slip across into the consumption process if we work to excess to help us avoid or change the way we feel. Crashing due to exhaustion will ultimately stop us writing. It’s also worth remembering that everything, including work emails, are always available and therefore much more likely to insinuate themselves into our creative psyche.

Another peculiar overlap between consumption and creation is around how we see success. If we are basing our creative coinage on traditional measures, such as the numbers of readers engaged or the money you make from your writing, it’s often difficult to maintain the sense of self-worth necessary to keep going.

That that brings us to the dilemma we as writers face. In our quick fix world of immediate gratification and superficial measures, the very things that make us good writers are not recognised as being of value. This means we have to create and maintain that sense of self-worth ourselves, having faith that the magic moment—when the value of our creativity turns into real monetary value—will happen, knowing all the while that it may very well never do so. Does that make what we write less?

The rules of creativity are ephemeral. Set against this, the rules of consumption are easy. We pay money or give time or information in order to consume. We consume, feel better and then many of us do it again, and that is the vicious circle. How, in that world, do we create safe spaces to write? This place extends beyond ourselves, as we need to build somewhere we can invite our readers into. How can we construct a place where all our needs are met, our readers are drawn in, and we have the courage to create?

In my case, it is all about balance and the creation of personal boundaries. Exercising, reading (but not obsessively), spending time with my family, and mindfulness most of all. For you, it will also be balance.

The good news is that you and I are not alone. Thanks to organisations such as Thanet Writers, who run a number of regular events for writers to get together, and Pen to Print, who offer writers and emerging writers a way of connecting and engaging with each other, we can help define our creative coinage. To me, this is based on community rather than isolation and creation rather than consumption, and that is something we call can benefit from.

Madeleine White was born in Germany, with roots in Canada and the UK.

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