How To Be Creative In A World Of Fast Changing Technology

Never in human history has it been easier to be a creative person when using video, audio or music production technology. All media-making gear is better and cheaper than it has ever been. Yet, that “blank slate” that has confronted all creative people for the ages remains unchanged.

Prior to 1975, creative videographers (they weren’t called that back then) blamed the Big Three television networks on their lack of creative freedom. Those big media corporations were the distribution gatekeepers. That is until cheap, small format video and free distribution came along. Without the big, bad networks, the excuse not be pursue creative work evaporated.

Interestingly, with many of the genuine blocks to creativity now removed, there are fewer creative people working in the world today. Sure, the quantity of video productions has grown, but the quality of the work has not. Truly great work in any media field comes along very rarely. It has always been that way.

An old producing partner, who had worked as a radio actor and business executive of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air, told me that in the so-called golden age of radio drama during the 1930s that most of the work was mediocre. “We only remember the great stuff,” he said, “but most of the work in early radio was pure garbage.”

Where do creative people come from? Often they come out of nowhere with a simple idea. In 1950, Sam Phillips was an engineer at WLAC Radio in Nashville. He did freelance audio recording work on the side — recording such fare as weddings, funerals and speeches. He built a small audio studio for hire in an old radiator shop.

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips

Phillips had grown up around black music and loved it. He had a simple idea. Why not record white artists who had black sensibilities and a unique sound. From this concept, his studio became Sun Records and he discovered Elvis Presley and other members of the Million Dollar Quartet, including Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. “If you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything,” Phillips famously said.

Every creative person faces a blank slate at the beginning of the process. Regardless of their tools, the creative person must make something out of nothing. Even cave painters faced a blank stone wall. Today, that blank wall may be a computer screen, a sheet of paper, a new tape or an empty disc drive. It doesn’t matter the era or the technology, it always starts with a blank canvas.

With far cheaper technology today, many think the walls to creativity have been broken down. Of course, they are wrong. But everyone should explore their creative potential, whether they are misguided or not. A waitress one day happily told me she had bought a $6,000 video camera and was going into the video business. She didn’t have any basic skills, a microphone, light or tripod but was determined to do it anyway. She wanted to better her life. Not wanting to discourage her, I wished her good luck and never saw her again.

When people ask me how to be a writer, I often tell them to just sit down and write an hour each day. At the end of a year, they will have accumulated a book. Whether that book is any good or not is another question. But at least during that period they will learn a lot about writing. Most never do it, of course, because they don’t have the self-discipline to write even an hour a day.

Let's say one is a creative person and understands the challenges of the creative life. How does one keep the creative process moving, even on those days when totally out of new ideas. This can be a key to helping maintain creative momentum.

One way to avoid struggles with the creative process is to keep your tools ready to go. Whether it is video, audio, music — whatever — have your gear ready to work on the spur of the moment. An old mentor used to describe it as, “A clean kit is a happy kit.” Having your tools always ready to use and organized prevents excuses not to create while the inspiration hits.

Most creative people befriend other creative people. The best creative friends keep you challenged with new ideas. Send first drafts of new words, recordings or videos of your latest work with mistakes to perceptive friends for comment. Don’t edit, just trust your first instincts and see what someone you respect says about it. You will learn things about yourself that you didn’t know.

If you do audio or video recording, create a space that is easy, fun and creative to work in. If music is your thing, have it always ready to perform by just hitting the record button. If video is your thing, use your mobile phone anywhere you go to capture great and unusual scenes. Always think of your creative work.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

The folk singer Tom Paxton told me in his early days in Greenwich Village in the 1960s he would walk the streets with Bob Dylan. The young Dylan would always carry a notebook and stop to write down phrases heard on the street or spoken by friends. He was constantly working on his songs.

Always collect ideas, whether for stories, articles, songs, recordings, videos or whatever. Write them down and keep your notebooks. Free yourself as much as possible from obligations to do new work. Let stories find you. Cultivate simple ideas that might bear fruit later on. Once the seeds are planted, who knows what might come of it?

Sometimes great ideas come during sleep in dreams. Embrace those dreams. The song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” came to Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones in a dream. "It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it,” the writer John Steinbeck once said.

As a creative person, analyze your personal strengths and weaknesses. Remind yourself why you began to pursue a creative activity. One creative task often leads to another. But while doing things and taking risks, virtually all creative people settle on what they do best. It is a lifelong pursuit.

Sometimes even the most talented creative people get in a downward spiral. Of course, it is all subconscious and in one's head. I don’t believe writer’s block exists. I think it's an excuse to delay doing the work and avoid breaking the creative wall. For talented people, it is temporary and always soon goes away.

We may live in a technologically advanced time with many low-cost creative tools, but none of these will actually do the creative work. That has never changed and never will. The secret is to learn the craft of what you want to do, perfect your technique and then break the rules to do your own thing. 

That is the only path to becoming an artist. And even then, never call yourself an artist. That is for others to decide. Don’t think about it. Just enjoy your work. The journey is always the best part of all creative work. 

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