Creating for Creating’s Sake

Would you keep making art if no one saw it?

Mar 05, 2019

Writing Art Artist Motivation Creativity
black typewriter on table

Photo by Kristina Tamašauskaitė

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.

— Albert Camus

I think the question all writers must ask themselves at some point in their writing journey is this: if no one read my work, would I still write? Would I still show up to the empty page and string words together for the mere pleasure of the act of writing itself? This defines the true artists from the ones doing it simply for profit, or fame, or some other external reward.

I have asked myself that a few times over the last two decades, and I am finding that question creeping up more recently. Before posting my work online, I rarely even thought about it. I started journaling very young and writing poetry just because I loved it. It was my chosen medium of expression. I have always loved words. It was only when I began writing online where others could read it that the idea of readership became more prominent in my mind. And with it, the idea of writing even if the work never had an audience.

It is a strange thing to write online without any expectation that someone will read it. It’s like a painter who puts up his work in an art gallery without expecting any visitors to come view the work. Would it still hold value?

I argue that it does. Most artists start out creating art simply for themselves. They have a deep need to express something, to give form to a feeling or thought or experience. Like Maya Angelou says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” It’s completely the artist’s choice to share their work with the world. And if they find that others are moved by it, how attached do they become to that? Can they remain unattached to the effect their work will have on others and continue to create?

I am not suggesting it’s a terrible thing to want acknowledgment and praise for your work, or to be touched when it helps someone else. But I wonder if that will become necessary to continue creating? Does that become the motivating factor to keep making art?

I say all this at a time when my writing is not “doing well” on Medium according to Medium’s standards. I am drawn to the God-awful impulse of comparing myself to other writers on here. And I’m left with that question hanging over my head: would I keep writing if no one read my work?

The answer is… Yes. Writing is such a solitary act. It is beautiful when it meets an audience but it is first and foremost conceived for the writer herself.

There are things we want to say to the world, but then there are things we need to say to ourselves first. I write in order to discover what both of those things are.

I show up to the blank page, over and over again, despite having readers, because ultimately I’m showing up for the craft, the muse. I am honoring the work itself and what wants to emerge forth from it.

I must admit, there is a part of me that of course wants the views, the claps, the monetary reward. But if I depended upon these things to keep writing, I wouldn’t have enough steam. So I must dig deeper, find my why — as they say — and write from there. And my why has always been my love for words. For their indescribable capacity to create emotion, to express. And to stir something inside of the reader as well as the writer.

The artist is not expressing himself. He is discovering himself.

— Steven Pressfield

Would you keep writing, painting, sculpting, creating, if no one saw the finished product? If it had no audience? As the great poet Jack Gilbert said once to a young writer, when she asked him for advice about her own poems: “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.” There are treasures hidden inside your craft, waiting to emerge. Should they find admirers, that would be marvelous. But if not, keep making art, keep exploring, keep showing up for the muse. And soon you will discover that art for art’s sake will keep civilization from destroying itself, after all.