What’s better for you: personal or public creativity?

This post also appears on my blog at Psychology Today
Special thanks to Gabriel Roth for his insights

It’s easy to equate creative endeavors with narcissism when they’re not your own. Who hasn’t eye-rolled past their share of “shameless” self-promotion? While it isn’t always the most instructive or enjoyable pastime to read about someone else making themselves more famous, a lot of that broadcasting likely involves plenty of shame, or at least reticence, realism, and other nuanced feelings that are somehow less satisfying to imagine than delusional love-me ones. An affinity for creative expression doesn’t foretell an affinity for self-promotion—the former is, after all, often deeply personal, solitary work—but for those bent on a career tied to their creative enterprises, that aspect is a real after-the-fact requirement to be wrestled with.

Some do it more gracefully than others: The writer Gabriel Roth has a separate Twitter account called Gabriel Roth’s Ego, where he retweets praise for his recent book, “The Unknowns”, an account he keeps separate from his personal one (@gabrielroth, to date, has  over 1,700 followers to his ego’s 37).  “It totally fails as a promotional strategy,” he says. “But that’s the point: no one wants to read all the nice things people say to you.”

I’ve known writers for years, personally and and as a publicist, and have as often been the person behind the scenes suggesting avenues for self promotion as the one blandly scrolling, thinking, ten retweets of ‘happy pub date’? Really? Self-promotion via the creation and cultivation of online personas is still a relatively new thing in the grand scheme. But even if, as Roth points out, Twitter history has yet to decide whether retweeting compliments is ‘acceptable’ or ‘gross’, Gabriel Roth’s Ego highlights an important distinction between the art of writing and the act of identifying as a writer. Roth doesn’t claim to be retiring about social media in general, and admits he likes hanging around on Twitter. “If I’m doing a reading I’ll announce it, or I’ll link to interviews I’ve done. I try to make that stuff funny or substantive. What I won’t do from my real account is retweet someone saying ‘I loved your book’. That feels a bit desperate.”

Desperation comes with the territory, but if earlier generations feared the savagery of a handful of powerful critics, I wonder what they would have made of a world where it would fall to them to rally their own minions on Twitter. Emerging blinkingly from the delicate task of making meaning and diving into a mélange of self-promotional duties is expected, and by all accounts, professionally encouraged. But while some personalities are cheerfully good-natured about such obligations, or find ways to transform them into a humorous or meaningful discourse, others experience them as utterly distasteful, even embarrassing. “I could imagine that if you were a writer who didn’t enjoy spending time on Twitter, the whole thing would just be excruciating,” says Roth. “The awkwardness really comes through. I can’t imagine it does them any good.”

If Roth’s dual account move seems a bit self-deprecating, a little public humility and cynicism can’t hurt in a culture whose ideas of what it means to be creative tend to teeter myopically between recognition and obscurity, success and failure. It’s not difficult to imagine how internalizing such a dichotomy could transform a person into some kind of creature of aspiration with little time for anything else. When James Wood wondered in The New Yorker whether good novelists make bad parents, he seemed to question, as a commenter to my last post did, whether creative ambition can take the place of loving and doing in the real world. But can’t creativity, taken on its own terms, be both?

Although my own concept of creative pursuit hasn’t always been the most transcendent, personal creativity for no worldly gain has always intrigued me. When I was younger, I regarded it as idealistically attractive—and like various forms of religious renunciation—useful to observe, but not particularly…rewarding. In a culture driven by prizes from potty training straight on up, it seemed, on some level, pessimistic. But the older I get, the more personal creativity seems the opposite of that, offering a measure of freedom, an evolution of goals of ‘being’ to goals of ‘doing’.

My friend Sara recently set out with the mind-boggling goal of painting icons. The process involves successive layers of paint, and the creation of the halo alone involved several steps, including, she told me, laying gold leaf (which requires exhaling with warm, moist breath so that it sticks), and then burnishing the gold with a stone. “After days of intense work, I had to take sleeping pills in order to fall asleep, and when I did, I dreamt of icons,” she says.

She shows me her painting, which is impressive. “Will you try to do this more seriously?” I ask, enthused by her mastery of ancient materials, technique, and her clear passion for the work. She looks perplexed. “What do you mean?”

It’s a good question.

Sara doesn’t plan to be a professional icon painter. Lack of demand for this position aside, she doesn’t care if an adoring public sees her work, although she often creates with someone specific in mind, and frequently gives her work to friends or family. “I’m fundamentally unambitious”, she tells me, an odd claim for someone who spent the better part of her paid vacation time mixing and painstakingly applying pigments containing lead, arsenic, or mercury.

There’s a certain tendency to want to treat all talent as ‘discovered’ or ‘undiscovered’, and guide the latter with all due urgency toward an outlet, some megaphone that will make it into something more. Yet for some, the mere existence of ideas contributes to the intellectual gestalt of the world, and the rush to succeed, make money, know important people, and arrive at a destination takes away from the journey itself. For others, there’s that nagging belief that expression for expression’s sake isn’t quite enough.

Most creativity is destined to be ephemeral. But does that matter when the goal was to create a world to live in? It’s a trope to point to the joyous creativity of children, yet they do seem to understand the value of world creation for its own sake. My kids play games that last for days, fully imagined stories complete with pauses to discuss the plot trajectory. Their worlds aren’t always joyful frolics. Sometimes they seem plagued with internal frustration—things don’t work, and there are tears. But this kind of creativity flexes relationship muscles rather than stunting them, feeds off its own intensity rather than pausing to display it.

Maybe it’s that intimacy, that internal point of focus that makes the magic of personal creativity so intense.

Yet creativity on a grander scale leaves something lasting, we hope, a kind of permanent bookmark. There’s something comforting in the idea of some future wanderer discovering, perhaps during some late-night internet crawl, that slightly earnest but heartfelt thing we wrote when we were nineteen, and feeling an intense connection, if disproportionate to our own talents, certainly not our spirits. Like Patti Smith’s accidental and momentous discovery of Albertine Sarrazin’s youthful novel, “Astragal”, the mind meld across generations would be gratifying to say the least, assuming ghosts can be gratified.

In reality, the explosion of public venues in today’s world creates a situation where, for all practical purposes, nothing and everything is ephemeral. For the first time in history, we can enjoy technical permanence while being swallowed by the din.

That idea might be enough to make some give up in despair, but I find it strangely comforting, a kind of great equalizer. Public or private, creativity, for all attendant indignities, is an act of generosity with no guarantees, only bright moments.

Speaking of which, what will become of Gabriel Roth’s Ego now that his book has been out for a while? “Probably I’ll gradually lose interest in it, it won’t seem funny anymore and I’ll stop retweeting things,” he says.

I suppose these things can’t be compartmentalized forever. After all, Roth says, “When the New York Times gave the book a good review, I retweeted the @NYTimes account, from my main account, because, I mean, come on.”

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