How To Create Art And Make Cool Stuff In A Time Of Trouble

Right now, for me — and maybe for you — making art is like oral surgery on a rabid bear.

It’s very difficult to just sit down, not look at the news, open a Word .doc, and start writing some cool shit. It feels, nnngh, somehow precious, too special, like you’re eating cake while the house burns. “Oh, I see we have zombies trying to break down the door,” you say. “This seems like an excellent time to watch Cinemax and masturbate.”

That’s how it feels.

And how it feels is wrong.

What I mean is this: if you’re a person who Makes Art, then that’s who you are, and there’s nothing precious or small about that. It’s not masturbation. Not even in times of crisis and duress. It matters because it’s who you are, it’s what you want, it’s what you do. Art is vital, and as such, the artist is vital for making it. Part of the goal of the chaos going on is to put a rope around your wrists, your throat, and your heart and try to stop you from making cool stuff. It’s designed to hamstring you creatively and critically. You can’t let that happen. You gotta carry on. You gotta do the work. YOU GOTTA MAKE THE THINGS.

Question is, how?

How do you persist? How do you create art in a time of unfolding fuckery?

I, as always, have thoughts.

1. It’s Okay If Your Output Slows

You don’t have to go warp-speed. You don’t have to create at the same level. It’s okay to be slower, to produce a little less, to create a little more methodically.

2. It’s Not Okay To Stop Entirely

You can take a break. But eventually, making art means making art. Writing requires writing, music means picking up the instrument, creating stuff means grabbing the tools even as it feels strange to do so. To do the thing you gotta do the thing. This is the hardest and simplest truth of making art. You have to do the work, even if it’s a little at a time.

3. The Tools Of Art Are Your Weapons

Art is how you fight back. It’s how you take ALL THIS NOISE inside your heart and FORCE IT OUT. The tools of the creator are conduits for expression — and it’s totally okay to express your rage, your bewilderment, your grief, your overall teeth-gritting and pants-shitting distress. Funnel it all into the work. Don’t be afraid of that. Don’t be afraid to bleed on the page and yell at the screen and metaphorically punch the work into shape. This is your barbaric yawp. Your tools can be your weapons. Your art can be your battlefield. This can be how you resist.

4. Art Can Also Be Your Escape

You also don’t have to do any of that shit. You don’t have to see your art as war, or your pen as a knife you want to stick in the imaginary neck of your enemies. Art can also be a window or a doorway. It can be a way out. Sometimes pop culture is called escapist, and that’s used as a criticism, but fuck all that in the ear. Nothing wrong with needing to escape from time to time. And there’s nothing wrong with being the one providing that escape. Not everything needs to be a mirror reflecting back the world, or a battleground on which we fight. Sometimes we just need a nice meal, or a hot bath, or a good goddamn book.

5. Shut It All Off For A While

Out there? The news? Social media? Life, in general? You can shut it off and shut it out. You can do this willfully or with the help of software like Freedom or Anti-Social. Sometimes media and social media feel like drinking poison. But that glass of poison? It’s in your hand. Put it down. Yes, we all need to be informed. Yes, we should endeavor to engage with the world. But not at the cost of what we want to do. Everything in moderation.

6. Consume Art Greedily In Great, Heaving Gulps

Up your art quota. Read more. Watch more. Go look at a fucking painting for an hour. Bathe in it, brine yourself in it, grow fat on the unctuousness of other people’s creativity. Then: think about it. Contemplate what you’re getting out of it. Behold the power of art as a generator of ideas, as a means of escape, as a tool of engagement and resistance. It’s long been true that if you want to make art, you need to also digest art. You don’t become a writer without already being a reader. So, go back to the well. Bring up fresh water to fill your canteen, man. Go read a book you loved and haven’t read in a while. And expand your horizons, too — look at creators who are making art beyond your current window of experience.

7. Remember Your Audience

Creating art isn’t just for you. It’s for them. I always say that the first draft is for me, but every subsequent draft is for you. People want what you have to to show them. So — show them.

8. Practice Self-Care

Some of this list is already about aspects of self-protection, true. But making art requires your brain and your heart and your soul to be relatively intact. They can have wounds and scars — we all do, and we probe those old injuries sometimes to do what we do. But they cannot be torn asunder, and if all of this is just breaking you into little pieces, find a way to put it all back together again. You know the things that give you solace. Friends. Loved ones. Ice cream. A Netflix binge. An oil drum full of schnapps. Softcore Cinemax porn. Whatever it is, go do it. Take the time to protect yourself. It’s armor you wear while you make cool stuff.

9. Make A Change

Sometimes, we need to jump-start our processes by changing them. If you write in the night, try the morning. If you paint in one medium, choose another. Modify the process or the output. Make a change big or small, see what happens. It’s like driving on a different road — sometimes the change of scenery matters.

10. You Matter, This Matters, You Can Do It

Trust me on this one. You can do it. You have to do it. It matters. Nobody can take that away from you. Making art is always, now and before, an act of defiance. So, defy. Resist. Nobody wants you to make art. You’ll always feel like an impostor. And in times like this, it will forever feel like a waste of time too precious to preserve. It’s not. Art is a throughline of human history. We’re all holding onto that rope and it helps pull us along — better yet, it helps those who come later understand what came before. So, grab the rope. Add your own knot. Pull yourself along and help others to do the same. You can do it. Let’s go.

56 comments

  • Mad props to Freedom and Anti-Social. It’s the only way I survived the week following the election, and also how I managed to still win NaNoWriMo.

  • Thank you. Having a terrible time right now and this is exactly what I needed to give permission to myself to be selfish and take the time to write. So much of this is just also telling other people to fuck off (politely). The book is clawing its way out of me. It’s time to open the doors and let it pour forth.

  • Nnngh, but my art is all unicorns and rainbows and doesn’t the world need something… well, punchier? I mean, those dried up male balls that moan about how Romance is unrealistic actually have a point now, because how can anyone live Happily when the world is going to hell in a hand basket?

    Because I don’t know. Writing romance at the moment feels like I’m sticking my fingers in my ears and yelling “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” at everything. I’m not sure that’s enough.

    • You can take a risk. I have – I write gay romance, my story is contemporary, in a red state, and it’s impossible to ignore the concerns of my gay friends. Into an ordinary meet-cute story comes a local asshole, and a bunch of locals wearing safety pins.. and a fist fight, and courage, and hope, and it’s not a bad world after all. Because only 26% of eligible voters voted for Trump, and I gather 2/3 of those didn’t do so happily. Do the math, most people are decent and generally nice. There is hope in statistics. Moreover, there is hope in romance. (And yes, the book is selling as well as the ones without a political undercurrent.)

    • Oof, I feel this. I write the opposite of romance, really – YA thrillers and dark urban fantasy – but it’s still hella escapist. I know not every book has to contain Trenchant Political Commentary, but writing about celebrity kidnappings and gangster vampires still feels frivolous and self-indulgent. I was working on a WIP with much more timely subject matter, but it was depressing the hell out of me, so I shelved it. And yet writing a story that takes place in a political vacuum feels disingenuous.

      • Boy, do I ever relate to this. It’s like Chuck says:
        It feels like masturbation. Like self-indulgence and frivolity and HAHAHA, this is fun for MEEEEEE.
        But that probably means it’s also fun for someone else. And if there’s something we need more of right now, it’s good feelings in our hearts.

  • I am not an artist. But I love art and the artists who produce it. Keep going and as always a great voice. Thanks Chuck.

  • Thank you. Distributing this widely.

    This morning my inexplicable earworm was _Adeste Fidelis_ and rather than reading Twitter I played some actual performances of that and read web comics.

    * * *
    I can’t help but feel that Trump’s “grassroots” appeal is escapism of a sort; wallowing in old resentments, and a yearning for high-paying factory (ahem cough because of UNIONS cough) jobs. that. aren’t. coming. back.

    We can counter by imagining better, fairer, wilder, kick-ass futures.

    “Act like you are in the earlier days of a better nation.”

  • This is exactly what I needed today! Thank you Chuck!
    I just booted the book of faces off my phone (it’s already blocked on my computer) because it’s been ruling me and leaving me feeling so at sea- disconnected and pulled in 20 different directions.
    And so for the next few days when I have the desire to pop the app back in, I think I’ll read this instead.

  • Oh, Chuck… You need cookies! Thank you for a great post. Yes, arting has been a lot like distressed farting of late, but it’s getting better. All of my WIPs threatened to turn very dark for a few weeks, and that was hard. I didn’t let them, though. I will write dark when *I* want to. And I will… just not now. Because people need twinkies for the mind, too.

  • This is seriously exactly what I needed. I’ve been having such a hard time trying to get back into my swing. I devoted my entire life to my photography, and I got clipped at it from the knees, and I’ve felt hopeless for about 2 months now. I know people have had longer create blocks than me, but man, did it feel good to realize that I’m not alone and that this is all okay. Thank you, seriously.

  • Great advice–I’m hearing it a lot these days. I’ve been Netflixing “West Wing” and “House of Cards” because both are great soothers to the insanity (hilarious, I know), and catching up on my To Read pile. It’s refreshing to shut it off for awhile, but I’m not sticking my head in the sand either. Don’t stop fighting against the corruption, but don’t let it consume you, either. Hate leads to suffering, as we all know, and it cuts both ways.

  • I feel a bit Nano-ed out. I kept going after the election by putting one word in front of another and got my word count for the month. And I got some good stuff. Now, I’m mostly editing. I shared a short story I wrote in November with my writer’s group last week that got good feedback. (I think I’m going to try turning it into my first screenplay.) I’m doing an edit on a book I’ve been working on for FIVE years. But I think it’s nearly ready to start going out. I have found myself reading a lot about the psychology and sociology of where we’re at and I think it’s vital to what I’m going to write in the future. We need to keep taking it in and letting it synthesize into something new, then putting it out.

  • Good advice all around. I’m still at the “everything has to be wiseass” stage, which is my reaction to stress. But I’ve been through stress before, and everything you say to do has helped at one time or another.

  • As so many others have said, I needed to hear this today. Putting words on the page is how I interact with the world, but it does feel a bit precious and pointless right now. Thanks for reminding me that it’s neither. Think I need one of your “Art Harder” mugs to keep that in perspective.

  • I love this list because it runs the gamut of how I’m sure most or all of us feel. “Why do I art? I’m not gonna art. My art is pointless. Eff art. But I need art! I need to art. My art matters. Ima art.”

    ‘Preciate you, Chuck. Always. I’ve accidentally fallen into a few things on this list.

    Discovered an indie author and was thrilled.

    Binged 15 epis of a show and was stunned at how guiltless I was. First time I’ve binged away a Sunday with zero words typed in years.

    Polished three short stories and have plans to extend one into a very short play.

    Saw Fantastic Beasts on a Saturday afternoon in an almost empty theater. My son (J-Dub, really) and I went to Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. (now a kickass IMAX) and caught the 3:45 on a wonderfully cloudy day. There were 50 people there. Was FUN. The lobby is from the ’30s, the place is cozy, and the tourists outside placing their hands into Harrison Ford’s hand prints in front of the theater reminded me of the joy of silliness. None of those tourists cancelled their trips. (Native Angelenos love Grauman’s but don’t always engage with it. That day I did, as though my mind knew I needed it.)

    Baby steps, but I’m trying not to feel like my steps don’t matter cuz the Devil done won anyway.

  • Holy smokes. I wake up and find this. And it’s like you always say the right thing at the right moment. My family is going through financial hardship so writing right now feels like cheating. My family needs me to work more on my day job, make more money. But Hail to your words of wisdom. I need to create something, or I shut down. It is now that I fully get it. I need to keep writing because it not only feeds my mind with the right stuff. It also triggers my productivity and the engine that pulls me forward. Thanks, Chuck, for your words of wisdom. I have your book, The Kick Ass writer on my bedside. My Bible. X, Julieta

  • Thanks for writing this. I had reached a severe level of frustration at the low level of output I was doing and feeling guilty about immersing myself in books and reading nonstop. I realize that I’m seeking ways to recharge.

  • I needed this post- thank you so much. After November my stress and anxiety went through the roof. December has been a month of picking up the pieces, donating to charities and educating myself in preparation for the coming years. It’s hard, but artists of all sorts have always been the voice of the voiceless, we have stories to tell, and nothing should stop us. Thanks again, your posts always make me feel better.

  • Dear Lord, I needed to hear that so badly right now. I’ve struggling to be creative, as well as not turn into a snarling, mean-tempered person I don’t want to be. I’ve been binge-watching old TV shows on Netflix (the kind where everything turns out well and the good guys win), as well as stress-eating my way into a new pants size.

    However, I have been able to do some things that seem to help. I perform small, random acts of kindness–sending a little money to people in tight circumstances with the intent they treat themselves to something fun. I read a post by The Bloggess in which she mentioned someone gave her a ring with “Never Give Up” engraved on it (I really wish they had “Never Surrender” engraved on the inside as well, but you can’t have everything…) and I ordered some to hand out to anyone I think needs it more than I do.

    My writing has always been nothing more than lightweight escapism, but more serious matters are creeping in. Most of all, I will not be quiet. I will not shut up. I will not give up. I will not surrender.

  • Timely words, thank you. Amazing how ridiculous it still feels to do normal things, let alone trying to create. I found another useful way to help get beyond that if nothing else is working: help someone else create, or, more specifically, support them, via Patreon or whatever monthly give-em-a-$-to-help-them-work set-up they have. It’s empowering to empower others to create, even when you can’t do it yourself – takes the edge off “I can’t put ANYthing creative into the universe right now!” anxiety, and hopefully de-strangulates your own process too.

  • Said it before, and I know I’ll say it again, and as long as you keep on telling it true like this I’m going to keep on saying it: GOD, I love you, Chuck Wendig! You say what we need to hear right when we need it the most. Thank you.
    Tell it true, Chuck. Sing it loud and clear. ART HARDER, MOTHERFUCKERS.
    It’s the only thing that matters.
    It’s what MAKES it matter.
    Right on, brother. Write on.

  • Totally agree, just wish I could get there. Grief, personal and political, such a sapper of energy altogether. Suffering from creative and emotional paralysis, like my heart and all other muscles are just plain frozen in grief….

  • December 14, 2016 at 5:09 PM // Reply

    Thank you Chuck. I had a similar thought after the terrible election. I think its time for creative people to focus on their craft and produce, produce, produce. This is a time to make art, whatever form it takes.

  • I’m living in Haiti right now and Haitians’ make art. Through all of Haiti’s difficulties, art is being produced. I am having a hard time writing here. I do feel like my stories are too light, unimportant in a country riddled with strife. You are right, Chuck. The Haitian people prove it. Art is important and I need to make art. Thanks for kicking my butt.

  • Phenomenal. And entertaining. Nailed it once again, Sir Wendig.

    I, too, recently wrote on the importance of writing through the dumpster fire. Rather than me being a dick and adding a link to that piece (to draw your massive audience to my little-known site), I’m simply going to be a dick and paste that piece (called “Everyone, Write for Your Lives!”) here for anyone interested:

    War. Terrorism. Mass shootings. Economic collapse. Natural disasters. Political idiocy. Pokémon Go.

    Welcome to hell on earth.

    The good news is, things are terrible everywhere, thus we humans can enjoy a sense of global unity. The bad news is, that sense of unity is growing stronger everyday.

    In other words, shit’s getting ridiculous. That said, we have to try to make the most of the world crumbling. Personally, I use it to punish my teenage daughter. Whenever she misbehaves or blows off her homework, I no longer ground her; I just make her listen to the news.

    Another thing I do to make the most of a crumbling world is write.

    And so should you.

    Writing – particularly writing fiction – is one of the best ways to raise a middle finger to reality, to rail against the chaos, to control the uncontrollable. To flip the script. To remain sane inside the loony bin.

    Not happy about all the horrible things happening in the world around you? Create your OWN world. Use your imagination to rip a whole through apathy, angst and hopelessness. Or, if you aren’t up for creating new worlds, then just write about how you feel about planet Earth going to hell in a hand-basket. This can be very freeing.

    “But Greg, I’m not a very good writer.”

    That doesn’t matter! Most writers aren’t very good writers. Just write. You needn’t pen (or type) perfect prose or poetry. Simply take what’s burning you up inside, what’s tearing you limb from limb, and kick its ass with whatever words come to you. Forget about who might read it; in fact, don’t even worry about showing it to another living soul. After all, I’m not talking about you trying to land a multi-book deal with Harper Collins or Penguin Random House. (If you DO land such a deal, please put in a good word for me.) I’m simply talking about expressing yourself via the very liberating and powerful written word. Hell, you can even use emojis if you must. No judgment.

    There are a lot of terrifying things to be frightened of. Writing should NOT be one of them. We cannot let all of the daily horrors destroy our spirit or send us into panic mode.

    There’s no need to run for your life. WRITE for it instead.

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