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inSANity by Lawrence San

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About San


inSANity columns:

I Don't Get No Respect

What's Money For?

The Better You Are,
The Longer It Takes

Nothing Is Possible

When The Bastards
Criticize You

The Theory Of
The Hairy Arm

Always Ready To Walk

Ugly Brides and Other Temptations

Under Fire By The VP of X

Waiting For Aliens

Will The Real Freaks Please Raise Their Hands?

Putting Your Stamp On It

Junkyard Creativity

Two Kinds of Fear?

How To Blow An Interview

Season's Growlings

Booted from the Womb

Rules for Rule Breaking

The Fine Art of Kicking Yourself

Fresh Eyes and Feedback Loops

Little Shop of... Freedoms


Junkyard Creativity

creative (kree-ay-tiv), adj. 1. having the ability or tendency to create. 2. original; inventive; imaginative; ingenious. 3. Sarcastic. creating fraudulent or deceitful materials: creative bookkeeping. -cre-a-tive-ly, adv. -creativeness, n.

Somebody walked by my desk the other day while I was drawing an illustration for this magazine. "That's creative," he said. The remark puzzled me. Perhaps he just meant he liked the drawing... but then I'd have expected him to say, "That's good." Isn't all drawing, by definition, creative?

I have a strange and personal relationship with that word, "creative." It's a key part of my history; hearing it flashes me back to my deranged childhood, where "creative" was the most overused word in our household. My father wore his creativity like a badge, and made a religion out of being weird. Once, when we suggested that he cease his endless and useless entrepreneurial ventures and get a real job, he explained his hard-core IP-hood (of course the term "independent professional" didn't exist then) by saying simply, "Forget it. I could never work for a boss." When he wasn't losing money at some hopeless small-business venture, he was a painter (the beard-and-beret kind, not the walls-and-ladders kind) and something of a beatnik.

That's Entertainment

Normal families went to the beach on a hot Saturday, but we got dragged to a junkyard to watch my father watch the junk and paint landscapes. We called them junkscapes. The summer junkyard smells would mingle with his oil-paint and turpentine fumes and the smoke from his pipe, and waft over us like a cloud of bohemian neurosis. In addition to being odoriferous, the experience was also boring, especially to small kids. "This is so dumb," my sister and I would groan. My father would rinse his brush in the turps and barely notice us. "Do you want to grow up to be conventional?" he'd ask. ("Conventional" was by far the most despised word in our household.) "This is boring!" we'd respond. "Nonsense," he'd say. "Expand your minds. This is creative."

Face It, You're Maladjusted

Unfortunately, society, almost by definition, expects its members to conform to its standards, and views such conformance as evidence of being psychologically well-adjusted. Nonconformists, if they think about their behavior at all, would probably credit it to originality; but conforming individuals are more likely to ascribe nonconforming behavior to neurosis and dysfunctionality. Nonconformists make their own paths. Independent professionals make their own paths. No, I'm not proposing some silly syllogism that 'most people think self-employed people are just a bunch of neurotics who can't hold a job' (although I do think a smidgen of that prejudice does exist). On the other hand, I do believe that career IPs are often subtly, psychologically different from the corporately employed masses. And that difference, if it doesn't imply more creativity, at least opens up more possibilities for it.

Of course, different cultures have different standards of normality. Exactly a year ago I was in Tokyo, where I spent about a week researching the state of freelancing in Japan. I interviewed a few independent brave souls, but overall I discovered that there are relatively few freelancers there. I'm convinced that this is related to certain underlying realities about Japanese culture. I admire the Japanese in many ways, so I hope my friends there will not take it amiss when I say that the scarcity of freelancers in Japan has something to do with that country's conformist culture. America, however, is something else entirely.

Brand Me Different

The cult of individuality has always occupied prime real estate in the American psyche, but I suspect it has reached new heights today. Nonconformity -- or, more commonly, the superficial imitation of it -- has become almost a sacrament. I know I'm dating myself, but the proliferation of strange body piercings and tattoos are, to me, an expression of this intense desire for individuality, not evidence of the substance of it. Of course, people could say the same thing about the long hair and ripped jeans that I sported in my long-ago hippie days. Choosing to work for yourself is, presumably, a more substantial decision than deciding to get a tattoo or grow out your hair, but it's often similar in one respect: it may be driven by the desire for autonomy. I doubt if it's an accident that this period of intense desire for individuality coincides with a rapid growth in a number of phenomena: people altering their bodies in idiosyncratic ways, people listening to music because it hasn't been picked up by a major record label, and... people choosing to become career IPs.

Proud to be An Accident

To be honest, I realize that a substantial percentage of self-employed people -- probably most -- become self-employed not through any act of will but by accident. They don't quit their job; their job quits them, so to speak. They freelance for a while as a stopgap measure while looking for a job, or while planning to. For some, freelancing becomes a long-term proposition without their even realizing it. This is, perhaps, the most common way to become an IP. But doesn't this inconvenient fact destroy my argument, the connection between self-employment and creativity that I've been hinting at? Not at all.

Let's face it: most people, freelancers or not, don't plan their lives. Your original intention may matter less than how you react to the environment you find yourself in. If somewhat non-conformist people are more likely to choose freelancing, it may also be true that people who accidentally fall into freelancing may find in it the opportunity to become less conformist -- and, perhaps, more creative.

We live in revolutionary times, and as parts of our society crumble, many IPs may do better than conventional employees. Of course there are self-reliant people who hold regular jobs; but many employees, while thinking they've been "playing it safe," haven't been learning how to adapt to new rules, make new rules, and build their own systems of survival.

It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world that you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses.
-- Tennessee Williams

When I was a child, I saw through simple eyes: the junkyard where my father painted was boring, and his paintings were stupid. Now I understand that he was searching for beauty where most people never thought to look for it, just as he sought to make a living in ways most people never thought to try. His businesses mostly failed; I hope yours do not. But fail or succeed, planned IP or accidental one, you have an advantage over corporate drones: being self-employed makes it easier to discover your true originality. Sometimes it feels like you're stuck in a junkyard while everybody else is at the beach, but that's an opportunity: shift your view around, and you may see a landscape waiting to be painted.

San was the founding editor of 1099 Magazine, serving as its first editor-in-chief and creative director. He's now back in the boss-free world as a freelance writer and illustrator. In addition to the inSANity column on 1099, San's other writings and cartoons are at www.sanstudio.com.

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