Categories / Inspiration

You Can Create Amazing Things, Even When You Are Happy

Whatever your creative outlet, don’t buy into the lie that you have to be sad or dejected or depressed to create great art. All you have to be is you.

Joshua Carroll March 31, 2021 · 7 min read

This post is part of the Decoding Creativity series from Creative Market. Follow me on Medium or subscribe to the Creative Market blog, and join the discussion by commenting with your questions and thoughts.

Hi. My name is Joshua, and I am a creativity addict. A very happy creativity addict.
I work at Creative Market, and if I’m honest, the word Creative being right there in the name is one of the things that drew me to this company in the first place. It’s part of why I still love working here.
All of my life, I have pursued a wide variety of creative interests. But lately, I have been making a study of creativity itself. Our shop owners and customers are doing amazing things, and I’m fascinated by their creative processes, how they come up with good ideas, and how they find success with whatever it is they make. The overlaps and contrasts between creators are incredibly interesting to me. I want to understand it and figure out how we can better serve and equip creatives around the world. I’ve read a lot, talked to a lot of people, and formed a lot of opinions (which are still being shaped). One of those opinions is that creative work is some of the most fulfilling work a person can do. If a creator is not happy creating, I tend to suspect that something, somewhere is broken in their creative process.
So when a tweet popped up from a writer in my Twitter feed asking, “What do you do when personal happiness zaps your ability to write?”I was immediately drawn into the discussion.

I sympathize with this question so much because I have been there. When I was in school, I wrote a lot of (admittedly terrible) songs and poetry that were 100% powered by a bottomless pit of teenage angst. I had no idea how comically stereotypical this was. All I knew was that I was head over heels in puppy-love with a girl who did not return my feelings, and I had discovered that I could draw on that well of pain and self-pity to create art. It wasn’t any good, but I didn’t know that. And though most of my poetry never saw the light of day (thank God), I did find outlets for my music. A few people even seemed to like it, and every round of applause, every kind comment after a gig confirmed to me that whatever I was doing was working.
It felt like a magic formula. All I had to do was dig deep down into the “tragedy” of my very privileged life to find my muse. If I hung out down there long enough with my guitar and a notebook at hand, I would eventually emerge with a song. It never failed. Writing from misery was addictive, not because it was producing brilliant art, but because it was easy and predictable and I got a nice little hit of self-satisfied dopamine every time. It was my own little toxic echo chamber, and I came to rely on it.
But then, when I was at my most prolific, I fell in love with the woman I have now been married to for more than sixteen years, and she utterly destroyed the foundation of my creative process. That deep well of angst I had been drawing from dried up like a mud puddle under the Texas sun. And though I was thrilled at having found someone who so fulfilled me, who made (and makes) me so very happy, I feared that I had lost a piece of myself — the piece that knew how to create.
Indeed, the muse seemed to abandon me for a while. There was a long dry spell when I was newly married in which I simply could not write music anymore. I began to worry that I would never be able to create anything meaningful ever again. In desperation, I did what one joking Twitter user suggested in that conversation I mentioned at the beginning of this article: I engineered some unhappiness for myself. I sought out reasons to be dissatisfied, listened to my insecurities, and generally sulked. It was awful. I was miserable, and the self-pity was poison to my marriage.
Eventually, I quit trying to write songs. It seemed to me at the time that I had to choose between happiness and creativity; I was convinced that I could not have both.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
The turning point came from an unexpected source. My wife and I worked very different shifts in those days, and we were too poor to eat out much, so out of necessity, I started cooking more often. The more I cooked, the more confidence I gained. The more confident I became in my skills, the more I tweaked and experimented and played in the kitchen or on the grill. It was fun. I made up my own recipes for grilled chicken and for salsa. People liked eating the food I made (at least, most of the time), and sharing it with them was incredibly rewarding.
It took me a while to see that the way I was cooking was just as creative as songwriting, but when I did, a switch flipped in my brain. I realized that my ability to create had not left me; I just needed a new way to access it. I toyed around with wood carving. I dreamed up and built a website content management system from scratch at work. I designed some logos and tee shirts for a friend. And eventually, I started writing music again.
In time, I realized that my old way of accessing my creative center was as pathetic as the poetry it produced. I learned the hard way what many artists and creators have learned before me: while pain can be a powerful and valid catalyst for creativity, it is not a prerequisite, and consistently drawing on personal suffering as a source of creative inspiration is both unreliable and unhealthy. To quote the indomitable Lin Manuel Miranda,

The myth of ‘You have to be a tortured artist’ is a myth…You can have a happy, healthy life and still go to all these crazy dark places in your writing, and then go play with your child and hug your wife.
—Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: The Revolution

It’s true. The proof of this for me is that, years later, I completed the most ambitious creative project of my life so far—writing and publishing my first novel—and it was 100% powered by the joy my oldest daughter brought into my life. Rather than using creativity to fill a void in my soul, I found something so big and so vibrant inside myself that it overflowed onto the page.
I wrote a novel because I had a story to share. I spent years writing, revising, and editing that book because I wanted to share this living thing with my kid and anybody else who cared to read it. I wrote it because I was happy.
And I’m so much prouder of this book than I have ever been of the things I created out of darker emotional places. I was able to keep working on it, honing it, revising it, and tweaking it over a long time because I was happy while I was working on it. And as a result, the quality is better. It just is. It’s more meaningful. It’s having more impact. It’s reaching more people. And it has taught me more about myself than any of those silly poems and songs ever did.
So please, whatever your creative outlet—be it designing typefaces or tinkering with electronics or painting murals on the sides of historical buildings—don’t buy into the lie that you have to be sad or dejected or depressed to create great art. All you have to be is you. You are already a creator. Don’t try to manufacture happiness or sadness or anything else. But when life is good, enjoy it! Practice gratitude. Be wary of self-pity. Lean into joy. You and your muse will both be better off for it.

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About the Author
Joshua Carroll

Senior Engineering Manager at Creative Market. Creativity addict. Author. Dad/foster dad.

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  • This is fantastic and I 100% agree. Times when I've been "suffering" and thinking I've been doing my best work, I've been self-indulgent and only chasing approval. Now I'm older I'm so much more comfortable in myself and my life that I feed on the energy that happiness brings - which makes me more productive and engaged in the creative community in a healthy way. I think that the "art-is-suffering" mindset is dying out, and with online media art and creativity is so much more accessible to everyone, and not such an exclusive or pretentious club. 3 years ago