Cultivating Collective Creativity
With the 95th Oscars right around the corner, and Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) breaking records at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month, I was reminded of a couple recent interviews where the actors discussed what it was about the atmosphere that their directors created that encouraged the cast and crew to do their best work.
Particularly in EEAAO's case — how a low-budget, surrealist sci-fi (and it's cast) have become the front-runner for several of the top Oscar prizes.
It made me think about the delicate nature of creativity, but more importantly, what can be accomplished collectively and individually in a safe environment where experimentation and vulnerability are encouraged.
The worst enemy of creativity is self-doubt. - Sylvia Plath
As Steve Jobs once said: "[ideas] begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished."
As I try to start publishing more consistently again, I can hear that voice of self-doubt whispering in my ear, "creating in isolation is lonely, sharing it with the world is scary, and you should just give up because nobody cares" — these interviews reminded me that creativity does not happen in a vacuum. That human creativity thrives within a nourishing community.
My Internet friend Salman explains this vulnerability struggle eloquently:
You imagined the inevitable moment when you would dip the toes of your little creation into the vast ocean of the internet, helplessly watching its struggling strokes under the critical gaze of the world's eye as you completed the obligatory rituals, trumpeting its arrival on the channels of social media.
Would it sink at once, dying an invisible death, mourned only in your memories?
Would it swim far enough to surpass the thrashing waves of algorithmic entry, and onto the judging jaws of trolling piranhas?
The Most Dangerous Myth About Creativity: The "Lone Genius"
If creativity is such a delicate act, and we want to encourage others to create as a way to explore who they are, and who they are in relation to others, then there couldn't be a more dangerous myth than that of the lone genius.
In Show Your Work, author Austin Kleon writes:
If you believe in the lone genius myth, creativity is an antisocial act, performed by only a few great figures, mostly dead men with names like Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso. The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements.
But then Kleon suggests we pursue a healthier alternative, finding what musician Brian Eno calls a "scenius":
Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an "ecology of talent."
Many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of "a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other's work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas."
Being a valuable part of a scenius is [then] about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start.
The essence of art is living and sharing our stories. And through this human expression, we can connect, encourage, and inspire others. Which brings me back to my earlier interview examples.
Communities Cultivating Creativity in Cinema
The EEAAO Cast on Working with "the Daniels"
EEAAO is philosophy disguised as fiction. The absurdity and outlandishness of the movie — the conceit of a multiverse, the pyrotechnics, the cinematic flourishing — all serve as a way to help the audience let our guard down so we can reflect on the underlying question that the movie asks us: how do we pay attention to the ones we love when the universe is trying to take that attention away from them?
The actors in a film are the vessel for its script. And to get the best from the actors requires a certain level of vulnerability — them connecting with themselves, each other, the directors, and the audience. That connection to self and others requires vulnerability. That vulnerability requires a safe space to allow people to feel like they won't be judged or rejected. And from what the actors have said, the set of EEAAO was very much that:
The Daniels are really good with hearing their actors' thoughts or feedback. It is very much a collaborative process.
Every scene has been thought out and composed and yet [they] allow you to play. They have created a situation where everybody should be more friendly and more creative. There's a real feeling of kindness — it's very intentional the way that everyone is cultivating a workspace that is full of joy.
Austin Butler on Working with Quentin Tarantino
I was similarly struck by something Austin Butler said about working with Quentin Tarantino in a recent Hot Ones interview.
Quentin Tarantino needs no introduction. He's a director with a distinct cinematic signature that puts him among the likes of Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, or Lars von Trier. But what Butler said in his conversation with Sean Evans was a wonderful reminder that making movie magic "takes a village":
Sean Evans: Is it true that Quentin Tarantino will oftentimes request another take even if he has everything that he needs just because making movies kicks ass?
Austin Butler: Yeah [...] it's really awesome when you're on set the first time [...] and he says, "okay we got it, but we're gonna do one more. You know why?" And the entire crew screams "because we love making movies!"
And the first time you're there you kind of go "oh you're not in on it?" and so Brad and Leo, everybody's like "because we love making movies!"
There are sets that are so sterile, there are sets where there's no joy, there are sets where people are just at a job, and you're trying to make something that you're gonna give to the world and with Quentin that was so cool because it just changes the atoms in the room and then the next time that "we love making movies" happens, now you're in on it. So every new crew member or actor, whoever, then suddenly they're a part of the tribe at that point saying "we love making movies!"
To Create is to Connect
Serendipity on the internet only happens when we share our ideas with the world. Every word, tweet, or essay we write is a search query to find our people — a signal to others about what is meaningful to us, and about how we want to connect.
For some, the fear of rejection (or worse apathy) outweighs the potential rewards of connection. Luckily, there are burgeoning communities (like Write of Passage) and platforms (like Substack) that are hopefully going to lay the groundwork for what it means to create, connect, and grow (individually and collectively) in the Internet age.
As the novelist Henry Miller once said, "part of the act of creating is in discovering your own kind." And if you really think about it, the Internet is just a bunch of sceniuses divorced of physical geography, and devoid of traditional gatekeepers. The opportunity is there for those who grasp it — to connect, to create, to express, to grow, to inspire.
Create things. Discover yourself. Find the others.