This post is equal part a blog post and a letter to my past and future self, a moment of introspection after a weird couple of weeks.
Creating something is a paradoxical process of pouring love and attention into something you own completely, and then releasing it into the world, where you have no control over who sees it, how they find it, and what they think about it. You build it, release it, lose it from your grip, and do it all over again. Blog after blog, project after project.
I define myself by my willing participation in this process of continuous re-creation. When I introduce myself, I describe myself foremost by what I do online as a person who makes and writes and shares things. There is also my identity as a software engineer at a startup, my identity as a part of my cultural history and how I grew up, who I know, and what I enjoy. But the part of me that I hold most dearly is the fact that I participate in this ritual of pouring love into little artifacts of my craft that I release into the world. It drives me and motivates me.
Most of the time, I don’t realize just how tied I am to this particular part of my identity. The few moments when I feel it are when I can’t create freely, when I feel my creative momentum faltering.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been living in a bit of a limbo as I move out to New York City from my family home in the Midwest. This involved taking some time to find a place to live, get used to the city, and coordinate all the paperwork. All of this was made more complex by the pandemic. But not having a permanent place to live and rest also takes a mental toll, and that has eaten into how much of my mental space and energy I can dedicate to regularly creating new things and sharing them at my regular pace. These past two weeks was the first time since last June where I didn’t have a single piece of writing or software project to share with the public – breaking a ten-month streak. Keeping up with my regular work as a software engineer and everything else happening in life has kept me too busy, and I’m only now returning to a place where I can dedicate some mental bandwidth to making and writing and sharing.
I felt very lost during that small window of time where I couldn’t create anything. I was going through the motions of working and staying productive, managing to teeter on top of my responsibilities, but it felt like I gave up a big part of my identity, temporarily, to remain sane. I was working and getting by, but I wasn’t me.
Maybe this sounds a little crazy. Plenty of people live fulfilling lives out in the world not publishing a single blog or launching a single side project, and here I am, feeling lost that I didn’t make anything in two weeks. I felt a little like a crazy person.
There was one other time when I felt exactly this way. It was late in 2019, when I buried myself under too many conflicting responsibilities and an overcrowded calendar, and I was managing to stay on top of things by sacrificing my regular cadence of writing and making things for my own enjoyment. I ended up burnt out because I was giving up the most fulfilling part of my work to stay on top of everything else. After coming out of that phase of my life, I learned my lesson and promised myself to recognize similar situations in the future before it got worse.
This time, I’m not burning out or buried under work, but I think the root cause of my feeling of lack of direction is the same – the biggest part of my identity as a human is that I love creating and sharing all the things I make, and when I can’t or don’t do that for too long, I feel like I’m sailing blind without a map or a destination.
I think I can make myself more immune to feeling this way over time, but I’m not sure how I can fix this for good. For now, I’m back to writing and ideating and coding, and I love that I’m able to do this again. But in the long term, I want to be able to take breaks from creating and sharing so frequently without feeling lost or purposeless.
In the creative profession, whether programming or design or art, we have a saying: “You are not your work.” It’s something we say to try to resolve the paradox of creatorhood, that we pour love and attention and care into our craft, and then release it into the hands of others, only to do it again from scratch. You are not your work means that we are not defined by the things we make. My self-worth shouldn’t come from the value of the things I create. The things we create reflect us in many ways, because it’s an expression of how we see the world. But it’s healthy to be able to exist apart from, and independent of, our creative output. Perhaps I’m not there yet. Or perhaps the paradox is never meant to be reconciled and what we tell ourselves can’t change that. I suspect it’s a little bit of both.
Caring deeply about something or someone is always a trade. I’m a firm believer that good craft comes from a creator who pours love into the things they make. And when we fasten ourselves to our work with love, we inevitably lose something when the work disappears, even temporarily. This is the price we pay for the joy of creating – the price of creatorhood.
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