I was asked this question on the SVS forums several months ago and it has stuck with me. I think about this a lot.
Before I start unpacking this, there’s another (maybe even more important?) question:
Why does knowing why you create even matter?
You need to figure this out because knowing why you create informs everything you do as a creator.
Knowing why you create helps you stave off feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and imposter syndrome that often come with putting your creative self out there for people to see, judge, and respond to.
Knowing why you create motivates you to improve your craft, and sets a foundation for you to build a career on.
Knowing why you create gives purpose to your art, and by extension, to you.
Knowing why you create is key to being a happy, satisfied, and more creative person.
I think there’s three reasons to create. There might be more. If you can think of others, please share in the comments.
A particular act of creation can satisfy one of these reasons, or all of them. I also think that all of these reasons are the right reasons. And you shouldn’t feel bad for being predisposed to one over the other.
But I think these three just about cover everything.
So, why does a person create?
Reason 1: Personal Fulfillment
This is the most basic and primal reason for creating. This is why little children pick up crayons and fill sheets of construction paper with colors. This reason satisfies one of our most innate desires: to turn raw materials into something organized; to turn imagination into reality.
I had a knack for drawing early on...but I admit, when I look at my early drawings they look no more special than any other kid who liked to draw. However, I got a lot of positive reinforcement from my parents and classmates, and that gave me confidence to to improve.
I remember getting a rush when I would create things, sometimes with my art, sometimes with LEGO, sometimes it was just combining my toys into new creations. I loved putting something that had my creative fingerprint on it out into the world. I began to crave that feeling and I found myself in what I call my “creative rush” cycle:
- step one: put myself in a position to get the creative rush
- step two: feed off the rush creating something as awesome as I could create
- step three: get positive feedback and reinforcement from parents, teachers, and peers on the thing I created
At every step I was feeling good things, and that's why I did what I did, to feel good. To keep those feelings coming I kept repeating the cycle.
What happens when you do something a lot, over and over and over again? You get good at it.
By the time I was in high school I was the best artist at the school. I was known as the kid who was good at drawing and was sought out to draw things for people. I designed a bunch of t-shirts, I was president of the Art Club (and we went on to win club of the year that year). I won the artist of the year award my senior year. Drawing and art was a central part of my identity.
It is this very personal reaction to creation that I think drives many people to pick up a pen and make something that wasn’t there before.
Reason 2: Reciprocation
This is creating as an act of mutual giving and receiving. You create to receive something beneficial in return. Sometimes this is a job or contract work that you’re financially compensated for. Sometimes it’s not for money, but for exposure. Sometimes it’s to build out your portfolio, or to learn how to do something better. In the end, your act of creation facilitated the means to receiving something that benefited you.
When it was time for me to go get a job and make something of myself I realized I wasn't qualified, nor interested in doing anything that wasn't creative. In my early 20's I found myself working for an animation studio, getting married, and having a kid all in the space of 3-4 years
Now my reasons for creating meant doing the thing I was good at to get a steady paycheck. Personal satisfaction would have to take a back seat. For about 12 years I grinded at different studios working on projects that I was sort of interested in (I wasn't super excited designing foliage for background environments in talking animal movies full of fart jokes). But I was getting better at my craft and supporting a family.
I was creating to support a family and a lifestyle, but I still craved the rush from reason 1, so I did a lot of personal side projects that allowed me to go through my “creative rush” cycle. I posted on forums, then blogs, then social media, then got work published. I got the rush of creating things I thought were awesome. These were things that I wanted to create AND got a lot of positive reinforcement from my peers.
Reciprocation is the reason so many things you love were put in the world. Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Spider-man all exist because people had rent due at the end of the month.
Reason 3: Societal Enrichment
This reason for creating is based on a selfless need to put something good into the world. This could be because the creator feels indebted and wants to pay back the community. Or a creator sees a need and tries to fill it with something only they can create.
If you’re a storyteller, you hope that your stories strike a chord with an audience, and that the audience is changed by your creation. An artist hopes that her art adds to the conversation that society is continually having about how we should behave and think. The teacher is motivated by his student’s success in their application of his teachings.
While the rush and the financial support are still a part of what I do, I’m finding myself more and more motivated to share what I do with others as a way to improve their life on some level. That’s why I like teaching, I like making youtube videos that unpack issues/problems facing creative people. I like drawing things that have a story to them; they aren’t just pretty pictures, but hopefully they make someone stop and take someone to a place in their imagination.
If I have a mission now, it’s to help elevate people’s ability to create good things. I want people to have that awesome feeling you get when you make something, I want them to get positive feedback from peers, and I would love it if they could someday turn it into a career or a way to supplement their income.
Whether it’s the impetus or a side-effect of a creative work, societal enrichment is a beautiful reason to create.
As I look at these reasons through the lense of my own creative life it’s interesting to see what was driving my decisions at different times of my life.
At first I was drawing because I wanted to do what was good for me.
Then that turned into drawing because it was a means to do what was good for those I was immediately responsible for.
Then that turned into drawing because I want to do what is good for the larger community.
Creations that have the biggest impact in the world satisfy these three reasons. They fulfill your needs, they fulfill the needs of your responsibilities, and they fulfill the needs of the community.
That said, not everyone sets out to impact the world with their art, and that’s perfectly fine.
If a drawing puts a smile on your face, that’s reason enough.