on the wall in my front room

Create something every day

Why I made this my rule for living, and what happens when you decide to make things all the time

Stef Lewandowski
Jun 10, 2013 · 11 min read

There are certain days in a life that, on looking back, turn out to have been major turning-points. Where up until that day, things are a certain way, and then from that point on, everything is completely different.

I had one of those days, and it lead me to make a decision, and to follow a simple rule from then onwards – to create something every day.

Each day, to attempt to wake up and by the end of that day, to feel that I’d made something new in the world. It’s a rhythm I’ve been in for over fifteen years, and I wanted to share some things that I’ve learnt.

I’m surprised I’ve never sat down and written something about it, but recently I’ve been standing up at one or two small events, talking about sketching with code, and I’ve found it impossible to talk about how I work without going into my motivations, even just for thirty seconds.

Inspiration for a career?

Young and directionless

I was a typical, reasonably-good student. In my exams I’d received mostly A grades and was fortunate to get to a good university. On arriving I felt I like I was on cruise control, however. I wasn’t that inspired by the lectures. I was able to do the coursework and the exams pretty easily, so I was slacking, enjoying the student lifestyle and not really sure what I wanted to do with my life.

Parties, graphic design in my spare time and electronic music were much more interesting!

For one particular piece of coursework I’d suddenly found that I had to work a little harder to complete it, and had been working late in the (notoriously smelly) computer labs. Late into the night I’d be wrangling with computer code in front of a screen and trying to get a program to work.

I didn’t have much money, I was under weight and had a pretty awful diet. As a result of that, and the impending deadline, I was tired, worn down and I put the regular headaches I was experiencing down to staring at those screens too much.

A brush with death

A friend convinced me to visit the doctor, and they just told me to take more painkillers!

The next day, I had the worst day of pain ever – like something piercing my skull, and went home to lie down. It was awful – I couldn’t look at the light, I had to close the blinds and I was feeling really sick…

At that point, you might expect that I just curled up and went to sleep. Except that’s not what happened. The opposite, in fact. I got out a canvas I had, some acrylic paints, and began painting.

I painted an image of a nuclear explosion with three overlaid graphic novel-style picture-in-pictures zoomed in on the eye of a viewer, and zoomed in, and zoomed in to the pupil so that it resembled a hydrogen atom. Yeah, deep, man.

The next day I wouldn’t come out of my dark room, and my friends, recognising the signs of meningitis, drove me back to the same clinic I’d visited earlier that week.

Something something…
brain tumour
…something something

I woke up some time later in a nearby hospital to find that I’d been through a serious experience, that without the NHS I’d be dead, and that it was all due to a tiny brain tumour.

A “benign” one apparently, although it definitely didn’t feel benign at the time! I’d had meningitis as a result – the tumour had been in a very unhelpful place to start with, and had then popped. The resulting swelling of the brain caused all sorts or problems. Suffice to say, my bad student art was weirdly accurate – an explosion from something tiny, with massive effect.

Mortigo

That each of us dies, and at some point it’s going to be me. Luckily not that day, but some day. We might write songs about how we’re going to live forever and make outlandish predictions about the length of human life, but it doesn’t make it so, sadly.

I still experience a similar feeling occasionally, and I’m sure it’s familiar to you. You’re going about your day, and then suddenly you remember this fact, and you get a rush of adrenaline and thoughts.

I call the feeling mortigo – it’s a kind of spinning vertigo, with all the adrenaline and confusion you’d feel if you were suspended cliff-hanger style from a precarious height. It’s not nice – like a series of overlapping thoughts about darkness, nothingness, cold, the end of things, terror, the unknown, sadness and unfairness hitting you at once. It’ll be different for all of us, yet I find it surprising that there’s no name for that moment, and to deal with it I had to name it.

There are few ways to respond to mortigo. One way is to stuff that whole chain of thought back into the place from whence it came and just get on with your life, trying not to think about it. Another might be to reach for whichever religion you adhere to and hold tight to a belief in reincarnation, an afterlife or something similar.

I don’t believe in such things. My reaction was creativity. I recovered swifty, with amazingly no lasting effects, and I made a decision to do one thing in response – to create something every day.

Wabi-sabi – the appreciation of beauty in broken, rusted things
Image by Nicholas_T

Entropy

There’s a beautiful Japanese concept that deals with entropy, and accepts it as not just a part of life, but something to be viewed as a form of beauty – wabi-sabi. We spend our lives trying to push back against the force of entropy – arranging things, making patterns out of objects, designing processes for how things happen, sometimes just attempting to keep things the way they are for a little while. Wabi-sabi is an acceptance of the inevitable decline of order and that the imperfection and fleetingness of things is to be celebrated, not mourned.

So, my reaction to my near-death experience was based in an appreciation that when things might not be perfect, you can still find beauty and purpose there nonetheless.

I’m writing this on the day that perhaps my favourite author’s death was announced. Iain Banks has filled my head with amazing science fiction ideas over the years, and I’ve admired his astounding creativity since I read the first of his Culture novels. Yet it was his ability, in his final message to the world, to apply some of these wabi-sabi ideas to his own coming death that inspired me the most. Here was a man, given news that he wasn’t to live more than a few months more, that took the news with realism, humour and grace.
I encourage you to read it.

The cover for Peter Broderick’s “Float” on Type Records

Making a decision

I’d always loved music, so I wanted to start a record label. I loved design, I was obsessed with typography, I’d often talked about starting my own design agency –maybe I’d do that! Gosh, I really enjoyed all those club nights that I went to – I should try running one of them! Oh, and club visuals were brilliant, I should totally become a VJ. And a t-shirt designer. And I’d love to put some music of my own out. Oh, and I loved games – making a game would be fun too. And maybe write a book! And… and…

Those of you reading this who have that creative spirit will know what I mean – when you’re in a certain mood there’s just so much you can do, and not enough time, so where do you put your energy?

For me: Into an idea. I picked something, and that was essentially “every day, I’m just going to make sure I’ve created something by the time I go to bed”. Plenty of people live by rules, and that was to be mine.

I’ve talked about entropy, and for all that I’ve observed of human life, I’d say that counteracting, yet appreciating, entropy is its purpose. So I’d do my little bit once a day.

Some things I’ve learnt doing this

I won’t couch this as some kind of structured process. I decided on a very simple rule. Roughly, every day I’d have created something, and being one of those people who’s okay at lots of things but not amazing at anything I’d go for variety. There’s a simple measure – when you go to sleep at night, ask yourself what you’ve made that day.

What’s the definition of “a thing”? I don’t care — I know if a “thing” is a “thing” when I’m doing or creating it. There’s nobody watching or measuring, there’s just the process of making things.

A few things I’ve learnt trying to keep this process going:

Seek flow

Just start

Creating things is all consuming

Surround yourself with the right people

You’ve got to get comfortable killing things

Yes, and…

You can’t eat awards

Creativity leaks into all areas of your life

It’s the process

Looking back, what’s amazing is that thanks to my tiny little rule I’ve done a fair few of those crazy things I thought up that day.

Not in the way I imagined probably, but I did. Much of what you’d call my portfolio has evaporated thanks to the web being so impermanent. But John Xela continues to run the beautiful label we set up together (I’m no longer involved); over the last five years I’ve been averaging about a hack a month; I’m doing things all the time at Makeshift, the company that I set up just this year where the entire spirit of the place is around rapidly making new ideas; at home you’ll find me drawing monsters and making up stories with the kids, elsewhere taking photographs, doing mixes, designing web apps, going to hack days…

Creating something every day is now a way of life.

Creativity is a habit, and I think it’s one you can learn. I just hope you don’t have to go through a brush with death like I did to get a little bit of seize the day into your daily rhythm.


Since writing this, I’ve set up Makelight, where we teach people how to make a living through their creativity. Thanks for the inspiration, everyone!

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