4 min read

What is Creativity For?

What is Creativity For?
Photo by Laura Nyhuis / Unsplash

“Nothing so effectively stifles our lives as the transformation into work of the activities and relations that satisfy our desires.” —Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle

“If we opened people, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me, we’d find beaches.” —Agnès Varda

I’ve been thinking a lot lately (always, really) about creativity and capitalism. Creativity against capitalism, creativity in service of capitalism (google, et al), and just what it means to be creative in this particular time and place (and from each of our specific positionalities).

Last year I was a freelance writer for a serial romance app, writing up to 7.5k words a week (around 28 pages double-spaced) of a romance series about pirates and royalty (yes, both). It was a period of about nine months, a waged gestation of sorts where I was continuously producing and producing for a relatively low rate of exchange per word (though I must say the rate was much, much better than that of many freelance writing projects out there). In some ways, it was a dream job—the story itself was actually quite good, I had some amount of creative freedom beyond the major storylines (which were themselves dreamed up by my editors and their bosses, former soap opera writers), I was making steady money writing, which is basically unheard of, and yet…I totally burned out.

The timing of this was just such that I became unable to work right at the start of the pandemic, and even if I hadn’t been burnt out, I’m not sure if I could have written, anyway. Instead, I ended up taking an unplanned-for break from creative writing (both paid and unpaid) for nine more months while I continued to work on my dissertation (which, yes, maybe working on two massive writing projects at once may have been part of the problem…).

And then, this month I signed up for a novel drafting class. It’s super fun, I’m taking it with a friend, the instructor is great, and…when I started trying to draft my first scene, I found myself completely blocked.

How do we re-wild our creativity? Is it possible to reclaim it from capitalist productivity? Is that even the right question to be asking?

I started reading How to Not Always Be Working: a Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self Care, by Marlee Grace in hopes that it would be an avenue of exploration on that very issue. And it is; it’s a book I’ve found quite useful in some ways, but it does suffer from one significant problem, which is Grace’s belief that we each choose how to define our work, that “…it’s all work. It’s also all not work. Work is subjective.”

In part, she’s totally right. It is all work. But it’s also totally not subjective. Most of us are always already working under capitalism, and if we don’t think that’s true, it’s really just our social positioning that veils the labor of others (and even sometimes of ourselves) to a certain degree. And it’s useful, I think, to conceptualize work in the way that Grace does in her book, as a word that does a lot of, um, work—encompassing both waged labor (the work you’re paid to do by a boss, even if that boss is yourself, though honestly I’m not sure that counts as waged labor then) and self improvement/growth (the work of becoming more authentically you, and the question of authenticity under capitalism is another issue I won’t get into as much right now). The multifaceted nature of work here is generative in some ways, but where Grace ultimately takes it is unsatisfying for me, which has to do with the individualistic nature of her argument. After all, it’s not called How to Not Always Be Working (on a Societal Level): Electric Boogaloo or whatever. The solutions it poses, while potentially useful for (some) individuals, are still just that—individual.

But, what, seriously? Do I want this person to have written an anticapitalist manifesto?

Grace does take some space to write about capitalism and its impacts, and she positions herself against it, at least rhetorically. But her advice misses the deep need for change on a systemic level, and thus remains incomplete. She also doesn’t really consider the ways in which her own work is still embedded within and—at least in some ways—upholding capitalism.

What if instead of thinking of work as subjective, we thought of everything as work, in the way that Sophie Lewis describes pregnancy as a form of work under capitalism in her innovative and bold book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, “…as something to be struggled in and against toward a utopian horizon free of work and free of value”?

What I appreciate about this formulation is it doesn’t position creative labor (in this particular instance, in the most literal sense) as something that can be reclaimed outside the bounds of capitalism, but rather as something more agential—something we can struggle within. Now that I’m writing creatively again, it’s not for pay, but writing is a skill that I have monetized and will likely monetize again if I ever get paid to publish something. My writing takes place in the context of capitalism. That’s not something to embrace, but it’s something to acknowledge—and it’s something to work against.

It’s going to take some time to get used to writing “for myself” again. Deadlines, even the ones for my writing workshop, still freeze me up. But I keep thinking about the Agnès Varda quote I opened this letter with. Each of us has landscapes inside. How can we struggle together to make a world where those landscapes can be seen and appreciated for more than just exchange value?

How can we create a world where the beaches and forests and glens and mountains inside of us can be treasured?