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Ex Materia

How Faith Can Unleash Your Creativity in a World Where Nothing is New

CH 3: Consume to Create

Note: the following is the second chapter in a book that I wrote called Ex Materia: How Faith Can Unleash Your Creativity in a World Where Nothing is New. If you haven't already, I would recommend reading Chapters 1-2 before launching into Chapter 3. 


As I said at the beginning of this book, I used to be a struggling creator. I was trying to create stuff, but I never could come up with ideas I that I liked.

As I considered the concept of ex materia creativity, I began to see my problem. I was trying to create stuff without acquiring quality material. I was attempting to pull out unique ideas from a pile of overused garbage.

Big mistake. After all, we are limited to creating out of material that is already in existence, so the material and content that we consume (or don’t consume) is directly affecting our creative output.

Consume to Create

Let’s start with the basics. The core of creativity is not found in routines, exercises, or prompts. It’s actually found in consuming. Ultimately, in order to create things, we have to consume things. We can’t create out of nothing, so we have to gather materials and inspiration.

Pablo Picasso is usually credited as saying, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” That might sound controversial or even illegal, but it’s not.

You have to be a good consumer before you can be a good creator.

In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon talks about the need to gather and collect inspiration and good ideas. He keeps something called a swipe file, stuffed full of all the creative things that he might end up using or drawing from later.

His swipe file is a collection of ideas and inspiration that will help him be a better creator.

Application: you have to be a good consumer before you can be a good creator.

Down the Road

Similar to a diet or a fitness program, the content we consume right now does not usually affect us immediately. It could be anywhere from a few days to a few years before we see any results. In fact, we may never see direct results or connections, but under the surface the work is happening.

What you watch, read, and hear today will affect you further down the road. Let’s hope the effects are positive and not negative.

It all depends on what you are consuming. Remember, creativity isn’t about the lightbulb moments. It’s all about the pre-game work.

Knowing What to Consume

If there’s nothing new under the sun, and if we have to consume to create, what exactly should we be consuming?

There are at least two key areas to focus on: complimenting content and challenging content.

Complimenting content is content that is similar or applicable to your profession or craft of choice. If you are a filmmaker, then watch films in your genre that are well known and quality works. If you are a painter, then observe and analyze paintings that inspire you. If you are an innovator, study past products that revolutionized the way things were done.

I blog and write articles for online publication, so I make sure that my RSS feed is full of bloggers and writers that are producing great content. The thoughts and ideas that I read about influence me and cause new ideas to pop into my mind.

By consuming other peoples’ content, I learn what works and what does not work. I know what’s not being talked about and what needs to be talked about.

The other kind of content we as creators need to be consuming is challenging content. This is the content that is different from what we would normally run towards. It’s not our default. Challenging content generally takes more work to digest, but the benefits of consuming it are powerful: an open mind, a diversity in knowledge, and a greater pool of ideas to pull from when creating.

Challenging content can also be content that contradicts our beliefs or goes against our preferences. In a world where we can customize our news and choose exactly what we read (and don’t read),  our tendency is to consume stuff that tickles our ears. We hear what we want to hear.

It’s better to keep an open mind and be more aware of what other people think, even if you don’t agree with them.

Active vs. Passive

Getting your feet wet with the concept of ex materia creativity is not hard. It is not a radical plan that requires a huge time commitment and lots of discipline. All you need to do is to begin making a conscious effort to consume something each day.

There is a catch though: you need to be doing it with the right mindset. 

Most people are passive consumers; they watch a movie or TV show and never give it a second thought once the credits start scrolling. Passive consumers are the people who pick up a book, read through it, and yet never apply it to their lives.

Active consuming is quite different, and it’s not as easy. Consuming actively requires you to engage with the content in front of you. As a story unfolds you ask questions, analyze the character’s motives, and even reflect on what you would do in a similar situation.

Active consumers write notes in the page margins of a book.

Passive consumers move on to the next episode immediately, without further consideration of what just unfolded.

Active consumers form discussion groups in an effort to understand a piece of work in greater detail, all the while participating in a intimate community of like-minded people.

Passive consumers listen to speakers but never apply the message to their lives.

Active consumers ask questions before, during, and after.

It’s Not One or the Other

What I’m not saying: always be an active consumer.

If you try to do this, then you’ll eventually get burnt out. Do it well, and do it often, but don’t forget to give yourself a break.

Watch a movie just to be entertained. Read a novel just because you enjoy it. You might not be actively participating in the content, but I can guarantee that it will affect you, even if it’s in a small way.

The Dark Side

The concept of consuming in order to create might sound a little odd, but that’s because it is. It’s odd because we’ve been taught that being creative only involves the actual act of creating. In reality, you have to cultivate a lifestyle that breeds creative ideas.

Before we move on though, I need to offer a word of warning. There is a dark side to the process of consuming. We can get so caught up in searching for inspiration and material that we become hoarders. I think of the people who spend hours searching on Pinterest for cool ideas, but fail to ever act on any of them.

At the end of the day, consuming content does us no good if we never move to the creating stage. Consume content that is going to inspire you to be your best, but don’t invest all your time in it.

Digestion

There are two types of people in this world: those that chew their food, and those that swallow it whole. If we want to be better creators, we should aim to be the former and not the latter.

Once we begin actively consuming content, we have to digest what we eat. Without digestion, the human body can’t absorb the nutrients and energy from the food. Creatively speaking, we can be consuming articles, paintings, poetry, and music, and yet never digest them. They might taste good going in, but we’re depriving ourselves of the creative benefits if we don't do anything with them after the fact.

I touched on this subject earlier when I talked about active versus passive consuming, but it needs to be discussed further.

Trapped in a Consumer World

All around us we see people consuming stuff. As I write this, people have been walking by me with cold coffee beverages and fruit smoothies. They didn’t make these things for themselves, they bought them from someone else. Most people have no care or concern for what went into their drink’s creation.

Being a consumer is both necessary and fundamental to a creative life. However, if our consuming never leads to action, then we are only along for the ride.

We can have a lot of enjoyment as consumers, but if we never translate it into creating, we are actually depriving ourselves from a greater joy.

As it says in the epistle of James: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says."     

Get Alone with Your Thoughts

One of the best and easiest ways to become more than just a consumer is to begin thinking about what you consume.

Whether it’s a book, a movie, or even your life experiences, find yourself a quiet place and get alone with your thoughts.

  • Summarize the content.
  • Ask open-ended questions.
  • Figure out how you feel.

Remember Winnie the Pooh? That red-shirted bear knew what was up. He had a dedicated place where he went to sit and think. It was called his Thotful Spot.

Take 10 minutes, put your phone away, and just think. Do nothing else but think. You don’t have to pursue any particular subject, just let your mind wander and see where it takes you.

Application: next time you are forced to stand in a long line, treat it as your thinking zone instead of a waiting zone. 

Talk It Out

One of the ways that I get around creative roadblocks is by talking out loud. To myself.

We brainstorm on paper and write things down, but rarely do we consider verbalizing our struggles. Talking about an idea or problem out loud to someone else might just do the trick. 

It may feel weird, but start talking your ideas out loud. We brainstorm and write things down, but talking out loud can really change the way you go about problem-solving. It can get your brain working in a different way. Try this: open the audio recording app on your smartphone and talk into it. I've done this during long commutes, and it does wonders.

Discuss it With a Group

On your own, you can come up with some pretty intriguing thoughts. However, when you add a couple of other people into the mix, things get interesting.

Gather a group of friends to watch a movie or read a book. Afterward, talk about it. Discussion is a great way to begin digesting what you consume. Instead of there being one perspective (yours), there are numerous other people who all have different personal histories and experiences to bring into the equation. And once those thoughts are expressed, they can create a chain reaction by causing new ideas to pop into your head.

When you digest content with other people, you’ll stumble upon ideas or concepts that never would have occurred to you on your own.

There’s power and inspiration in numbers.

When I was in college, a group of my friends and I met together occasionally to watch movies. These movie nights usually featured a film that is more thought-provoking. Afterward, we have had interesting discussions about what the movie means and how it relates to our personal lives.

This is the kind of group digestion that I’m talking about.

The group has to have enough similar interests to be able to agree on what movie or book to consume, but it also has to be diverse enough to bring about true discussion. Balance is key.

You and Your Notebook

One of the ways that I frequently digest what I consume is by writing it down. Keeping a pen and notebook with me at all times ensures that I can “think on paper” at a moment’s notice. I call my notebook my "creative notebook".

Keeping a creative notebook gives you a place to muse and brainstorm.

I attended a theater production recently. It was a great show, but I appreciated it even more because I took some notes as I watched. I recorded my reactions and thoughts.

After the show, I stuck my notes in my creative notebook and clipped the theater ticket to the page with a paperclip. Every time I see it, I’m reminded of that play and the influence it had on me.

A History of Your Creative Self

When you keep a creative notebook, you’re actually making a history of your creative self. My theater ticket is now a permanent part of one of my creative notebooks, and it reminds me of a moment in my life.

When you flip back through the pages of a full notebook, memories that lay dormant in the back of your mind will come back to life. Whenever I do this, it’s a reminder of an important fact: I am creative.

I think about the Israelites in the Bible. Whenever a significant event happened to them, they would build monuments out of stone. They were sometimes called Ebenezer stones. Whenever the people would see them, they acted as reminders of God’s faithfulness. In turn, this was supposed to help them stay committed and devoted to God.

As creative individuals, I believe we need to raise our own “creative” Ebenezer stones. We need to be reminded of past victories, but we also need to be reminded of God’s provision.

It’s easy to have self-doubts as a creative, but when you have a log of your creative life that you can go back to, it’s an in-your-face reminder that you are a creative person, no matter what your brain might tell you. 

Fill It

Another side effect of carrying around a creative notebook is the fact that it will start begging you to fill it, inside and out.

It will motivate you to start thinking, collecting, and creating. The more you do, the more it becomes filled.

If you don’t carry a notebook with you, you’ll never fill it.

Start Digesting

Remember, creativity isn’t just about the act of creating. It’s also about all the behind-the-scenes work. The first step is to consume. Then you have to digest.

What are you waiting for? Start today.