Optimistic Nihilism and Creativity

Okay… let’s go there right away: What is the meaning of life? 

Is it to multiple? Is it to find happiness? Is it to save people from an eternity in hell? 

For many of us, the answer is to be creative. To make something, leave it behind, and be remembered for it. 

But look around you. Hear all the music. Read all the books. Watch all the videos. You can spend the rest of your life consuming other people’s creations and not even come close to enjoying it all. There is so much out there that it calls into the question our answer to the meaning of life: to create… for who? Who will see this? Who will remember this? 

We now know how unlikely it is for us — regardless of talent — to have our creative works enshrined in a pantheon for all of history. There is too much out there! There are too many different tastes, genres, languages, cultures, and traditions. The only hope for you is to pave your own path and be the first or get lucky and hit the market at the perfect time. But there’s still hope. 

However, know this: regardless of what you make, how great it is, how wealthy you become, how revered you are by your contemporary — none of it matters.  

As Conan O’Brien recalled from a conversation he had with Albert Brooks, where the late-night host lamented to the filmmaker that movies have the sustainability to last forever, while his late-night shows are forgotten and never seen again. To which, Albert Brooks responded: 

“What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.”

As a creative, it’s helpful to be an optimistic nihilist. I remind myself that there is no meaning. There’s no great thing that I need to create — and in the meaninglessness — I’m free. I look around and see all these people moving purposely as if they know the answer. There is no answer, except the story we tell ourselves. Their creative stories are as valid as mine — they might not be writing, drawing, or making music, but their creativity might be raising a family, starting a business, or traveling the world. Everyone is creative; a creator of experiences. Everyone’s choices are valid. And it’s because of all these experiences spinning in all directions, hitting off of each other that new stories and new creations are generated. Surely if there was a meaning to this life, and we know it, there would be some order by now.

When we think of nihilists, we think of cynical assholes or depressed alcoholics, and while there are some, those who are nihilistic have found an escape from the pressure of existence. Sure, some people thrive under pressure. Some people sell big businesses, some people hit home runs, and some people launch bombs at civilians. However, for many of us, the pressures are fabricated for ourselves by ourselves as guidelines to follow. 

We are supposed to graduate, get a job, get married, have a family, and retire. We are supposed to pass on traditions. But why? No, there is nothing wrong with those pursuits, inherently, but those are not necessarily the only pursuits worthy. In fact, there are no pursuits worthy. 

We can be vegetarian. We can travel to space. We can have children. All of these are worthwhile but none of it will change the outcome of the universe. This is doubly true for the novel you’re writing. This is doubly true for the movie you’re making. This is doubly true for the painting you’re painting. Don’t do these things to alter the universe. Do these things for yourself. Do these things for those who are present. Don’t worry about legacies. Now is the only moment there is. Creativity is a small acknowledgment of this moment. To set something in a time and place. To merely wave back at the abyss. 

Optimistic nihilism is the hopefulness that you can make a difference and it’s the knowledge that it doesn’t matter. Life is an exhibition game. And while we’re keeping score. It’s not going to count for anything other than our participation. Go for it. Write that story… make that video… paint that painting, because as Albert Brook said, “Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter.” 

For more videos about writing and the creative process, please check out my YouTube channel here!

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