Why I Don’t Create

For Stevie (https://twitter.com/StevieFinegan), even if dedicating blog posts isn’t a thing.

I enjoy writing. There, I’ve said it. I don’t really like admitting it, but I do enjoy writing in the broadest sense: blogs, jokes, songs, computer code. I just never share the things I write with more than about two people, and often not even with them. Partly this is because I do the first fun 90%, or 50%, or 20% of each project and happily ignore the last slog to the finish, but I have other reasons too. I’ve been thinking about this having just written a piece for an acquaintance’s company blog (coming later today!). The “too long; don’t read” version is something to do with one of the more obscure American presidents and basic economics.

See, now you want to read the long version to find out how those fit in.

James A. Garfield was president of the United States for 6 months in 1881. He wasn’t meant to become president that year – a long-time congressman and senator-elect he’d gone to the 1880 Republican nominating conference to give a speech in support of another candidate. He only became the nominee as a compromise after 35 ballots of deadlock. Within 15 months of his surprise nomination he was dead, as much a victim of his doctor’s bad practise and arrogance as the assassin’s bullet.

Garfield had lived one of the trope-defining American lives – born the youngest of five children, raised by a widowed mother in poverty on an Ohio farm. He read voraciously to escape bullies, but in his own words, was 17 before he “caught any inspiration”, becoming a strong student, strong enough to find work as a teacher within a couple of years. By the age of 31 he had been elected to the Ohio State Senate, admitted to the bar and led a brigade in the Civil War. He then moved to the national House of Representatives, winning re-election every two years, rising to become the leading Republican in the Congress by 1880. While still at university, he had written “There is some of the slumbering thunder in my soul and it shall come out.” I think it’s safe to say that he fulfilled that prediction.

The story of Charles J. Guiteau starts as the poetical opposite of Garfield. He had a comfortable inheritance from his grandfather (worth tens of thousands of dollars today), but did not excel at school. There is some convergence: both become lawyers (Guiteau less successfully), both experienced religious conversions (Guiteau to an, erm, less orthodox sect) and both died within a year, Guiteau hung for shooting Garfield in the shoulder and back at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station on July 2, 1881. Guiteau had helped with Garfield’s election campaign. I say helped; he’d delivered a speech, maybe twice, which he had originally written for another candidate, just changing the names. Guiteau believed this was a defining contribution to the election effort, deserving of the position of Paris Consul. Garfield (and, let’s be honest, basically everyone else) disagreed. You can judge for yourself if you want: https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/557275 – the speech itself is linked in “Related Items” below.

Garfield believed he had some of that “slumbering thunder in [his] soul”. Guiteau believed he had some of it too.

One of them was right.

This, believe it or not, is one of the main reasons why I don’t create things. I worry I’m not a Garfield, just a delusional Guiteau. Of course, I’m almost certain to be neither. I’m not going to reach the depths of a Guiteau, who specifically picked out a gun that would look good in a museum (it’s since been lost), but then neither am I going to reach the heights of a Garfield. Per Sturgeon’s revelation, 90 percent of everything is crap. So, odds on this is crap. Even worse than that, there’s something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which, when over-simplified, states that if you don’t have the necessary skills to be good at something, you lack the very skills needed to judge how good you are at that thing. This is odds on crap, and I can’t tell. See Guiteau. Or Trump. #Satire

And, if my stuff is destined to be in that 90 percent of crap, then I’d prefer to save the time I would spend creating it. Well, I think I would. If it’s crap, then I certainly want to keep it myself, I don’t want to face that judgement. Sharing a creation is both a demonstration of your skill and a declaration of your opinion of your skill: that you can produce something worth sharing, something worth somebody else’s time. I don’t believe I’m the only person paralysed by fear of negative opinions of my creations or, by the more important extension, negative opinions of myself. So I don’t create. Goodness knows I’m negative and unconfident enough about anything I make. If I’m then overrating it, then it must be truly pathetic. Much better to hide it away.

But it’s more than just cowardly hiding from the risk of failure, the risk of ridicule. Here is the vicious circle I fall into: I seriously dislike ego and narcissism, especially when I see it in myself, but the act of creation is a pure example of that. Why should anyone care about anything I make? To create, therefore, I want, I need people who have told me they like stuff I’ve done, that they want me to make more stuff. Then I wouldn’t be just doing it narcissistically. To have this happen, however, I would need to have created. Ergo stalemate. In those economic terms I promised, this demand can only exist after there has been some supply, so that initial supply has to be created with no demand. This is a broader expertise paradox for me: to be an expert, or someone worth listening to, you need to have demonstrated “something”. While you are demonstrating it, however, you by definition have not yet shown you’re worth listening to. In this scheme, no one can become an expert, no one can prove they’re worth listening to, because I don’t give them the opportunity. So maybe you should create then, as you’re starting from the same point as anyone else. But that still requires some ego. Yuck.

And so I keep creating, and I keep taking pleasure from the process and I keep, well, keeping the results to myself. It might not be the clap of “slumbering thunder” I’m keeping trapped, it might be the clap of a backfiring car, or the slow clap of sarcasm, but I’m nevertheless destined to feel my ideas unfinished, to be lost to that “what if”. Maybe if I risked judgement, maybe if I submitted to ego, some good would come of it. I don’t know. I guess I’m going to find out.

P.S. This is not fishing for compliments! Please don’t compliment me. I would love, however, to know whether you do or don’t create and why.


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