“I sometimes disappear for weeks or even months at a time. When I do this, I’m not abandoning my work or being lazy. I’m just trying to breathe.”
So writes Matthew Inman, creator of the web comic The Oatmeal, in a post titled Creativity is like breathing. To explain the analogy, Inman writes: “When you make stuff, you’re exhaling. But you can’t exhale forever. Eventually, you have to breathe in. Or you’ll be dead.”
That’s why Inman spends lots of time reading books, being outdoors, and jumping from project to project, he says. They’re all forms of breathing, and they don’t just make him better at his job, they’re also reasons why he loves his job. It’s the beauty of being a creative: Everything you do is fuel for your work.
When your job is to make things, your whole life is your canvas. You can have a brilliant idea over a bowl of cereal, write about what happened on vacation, even the bad stuff, like going through a breakup, you can work into your creative output. In fact, you’ll both have to and want to.
Whatever happens in your life impacts your emotions, your thoughts, and, as a result, what the outcome looks like when you put those thoughts and emotions on paper — or any other medium. Why do you think I just used “a bowl of cereal” as an example? It’s because, for the past two days, I’ve been staring at a comic called The Oatmeal. That’s how the human mind works.
While there’s nothing you can do about your intelligence running under the influence of many biases, you likely won’t mind once you realize there’s an active benefit on top of this more passive dynamic when creating: You consciously get to work through the events in your life. Writing about a positive experience makes it better. Sharing your business failure on a podcast mellows the pain.
Soon, you’ll process your whole life in real-time through the lens of creativity — and it’s one of the most powerful forms of self-healing there is. You’ll constantly learn, evolve, and challenge yourself to accept your past by creating something others can use in the future. As wonderful as it is to find this kind of outlet, there’s a downside: Your work can become addicting.
When everything is input, it’s natural to consistently want to form output. You’ll feel like you should shape and release all your experiences and ideas, which, of course, is impossible. What’s more, not all input is created equal. Some stories will have more value to your audience than others. This is another, less appealing part of the artist’s job: You have to curate your work and select what’s most worth sharing. This is where it helps “to breathe.”
As Zat Rana put it in The Philosophical Argument for Working Less, part of respecting your work is accepting that it’s “just one part of life, not the whole thing:”
Even if you love your work more than you love anything else, you are likely to find it more complete and fulfilling if you step away from it, time to time.
Eventually, you have to breathe in — or you’ll be dead. If you’ve ever hit creator’s block after a long stretch of releasing a lot of work, you may have realized: It’s not that you can’t publish daily, it’s that your posts start to feel stale. You’re panting. Short, choppy breaths, out, out, out. You need time to breathe in — literally, and then figuratively. Beyond our own desire to insta-journal about our lives, there’s also a component of societal pressure, Zat says:
There seems to be a certain guilt in our current culture associated with just taking time to do nothing, to relax, to leisure, to waste time, and to simply have no plans. But the truth is that, without these things, you are not going to get the most out of your work anyway.
When you feel tired, sleep. When you lack good analogies, watch a movie. Don’t feel bad about taking a vacation from time to time. Leisure creates its own form of productivity. If you allow your experiences to ripen, more of them will mix. Your subconscious will add its own kind of seasoning, and, soon, it’ll send a powerful insight back to the surface.
Once that great idea strikes like lightning, you won’t be able to not act on it. A breath of truly fresh air is so empowering, you’ll have to direct it somewhere. Well-rested and fired up, you’ll rush back to your chair, ready to put out the next comic. Who knows what brilliant metaphor you’ll write about. Maybe something like, “Creativity is like breathing.”