“A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” -Franz Kafka
Darren Aronofsky is known for making films that push the human experience to the fringes. There’s the ecstasy ride of a desperate ballerina in Black Swan; the heroin-addicted characters in Requiem For A Dream; the tug of war between God and Mother Nature in the creation allegory MOTHER!
His characters are driven by primal and often painful needs, so it’s fitting that the filmmaker himself uses the word “painful” to describe making movies. When Aronofsky interviewed fellow filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, he said this:
“You make it seem so easy — and for me filmmaking is pain. I’m in pain the whole time. I’m in pain writing, I’m in pain shooting, and I’m in pain editing, and I just — how do you do it?”
Eastwood replied in his signature draw, “If it was that painful, I would consider myself somewhat of a masochist.”
There’s a sliding scale of effort and anguish when it comes to putting our creativity to work. It may be easier for some, but it’s rarely luxurious. Just carving out space in our brain to sort ideas is a hurdle. To then sit down and wrestle them out of our head and into the world?
Painful isn’t the best word, but it’s the first that comes to mind.
Plus, we all have slow-drip dopamine machines right in our pocket. A flip of the thumb delivers an on-demand rush of happy chemicals straight to the head. When we can do that a thousand times a day without actually “making something,” then why bother going through the pain of building, writing, or designing something new?
There’s an easy one-word answer to the question, “What really sets humans apart from robots?”
When we sit down and put our creativity to work, our pre-frontal cortex goes on a rollercoaster ride. Our veins get a royal flush of emotions like fulfillment, satisfaction, and pride. Entering into a creative flow state feeds our bodies and minds deep relaxation and reassurance of our place in the world.
The bit of brain mass that controls our capacity for Self-Reflection (a cornerstone of human consciousness) is called the Precuneus. It wakes up once we go to sleep. But when we create…it lights up like fireworks on the 4th.
Writer and engineer Michael Lopp has a brilliant explanation of this feeling which he has coined as the Builder’s High.
“When I am in a foul mood, I have a surefire way to improve my outlook — I build something. A foul mood is a stubborn beast and it does not give ground easily. It is an effort to simply get past the foulness in order to start building, but once the building has begun, the foul beast loses ground.
I don’t know what cascading chemical awesomeness is going down in my brain when it detects and rewards me for the act of building, but I’m certain that the hormonal cocktail is the end result of millions of years of evolution. Part of the reason we’re at the top of the food chain is that we are chemically rewarded when we are industrious — it is evolutionarily advantageous to be productive.” -Michael Lopp
It’s in these moments of “chemical awesomeness” that we approach Self-Actualization — the promise land sitting right at the top of Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs.
It’s here that we discover the physical manifestations of our true potential. It’s here that we give ourselves the chance to amaze ourselves.
I first experienced the Builder’s High when I began writing. The give and take between my imagination and finger-tips, pecking out words to make sense of myself, helped me make sense of the world. Once I decided to see life through the lens of a writer, everything grew new layers of potential. The dull dramas of every day began to sing like the words of Shakespeare blasting out of a Chet Baker trumpet. Like Theodore Roosevelt when he tried on his first pair of spectacles, “My entire world leaped into foucs.”
There are some things in life that come along and make you forget about everything else. Other things come along and make everything else worth remembering. Entering into a creative flow state every day gave me a front row seat to an orchestra of life I never knew was playing all along.
However, there is a double-edged sword to the Builder’s High. It brings us incredible rushes of satisfaction and purpose, but the withdraws are a killer…
Even Aronofsky — the man who describes the process of painful — knows the alternative to creating is far worse. He wrote this in his journal after an all-night rave on the beach in Thailand, back in 1966:
“The tide came in, the sun came up, everyone kept dancing; the tide went out, the sun went down, everyone kept dancing. I was miserable because I wasn’t making films.”
I didn’t realize how nourishing writing was for me until I stopped. I allowed myself to be swept away in the rip-tide of overworking and overthinking. I began to forsake the time I used to save for writing and opted for passive scrolling.
The withdraws set it. I became irritatable. Pain developed in my body. A thick cloud of mental fog parked itself on top of me. My creative spirit became malnourished and bitter and it started to haunt all the areas of my life.
I’d taken the creative flow state for granted and treated it like a luxury — something I could do when I had “free time.” I learned the hard way that in order to live a fully-functioning, self-actualized existence, I had to run the race of creativity.
It’s sad knowing that not everyone has found an activity in life that gives them this high. Not everyone has found the outlet that feeds electricity into everything else. The real tragedy, however, is that many who have will still allow outside obligations, limiting beliefs, and insecurities to stop them from pursuing what lights their human purpose on fire.
Humans don’t easily forget. We can’t unsee. Once we’ve felt the magic that comes from creative flow, there’s no turning back. It can’t be wiped from our hard drives. We’ll forever crave a bit of Builder’s High to help take the edge off of the everydayness of life.
There are lots of ways to steady a foul mood, but never underestimate the soul-soothing satisfaction and brain-wave bliss that comes from creative flow. We can all use our creativity to massage our prefrontal cortexes and keep our consciousness sparked. Not only for the sake of “making something” but for the sake of staying human.