Staying Creative

After having to get up early, I took a looong nap after getting home.   This is probably one of the first blogs I’ve written in years where I’ve actually gotten a decent amount of sleep!  Downside is this blog is going to take until the wee hours to finish.  Ah well.

One of the most odd, and awkward parts about being creative is… well… just the simple act of being creative.  My creative process is somewhat of a trainwreck, and currently needs to get jumpstarted after a few years of telling myself “I’ll never get what I want so don’t bother”.  I’ve been sort of just satisfying myself with derivative works and what if questions.  The matter was made more complicated when a few things combined to result in me being way too “systems focused”.  While useful, by itself it isn’t enough.  I need to get back to where I can create complete original ideas again.

Something that’s helped get me going again has been being inspired by the Maker Movement.

For some context as to why this inspires me, I should point out part of where I come from: One of the unusual things about the way I grew up is my parents were largely the type who reacted to almost everything as “That’s too expensive”.  It took years for me to become aware of what they actually meant: “That’s not worth that much money to me”.  This condemnation was usually followed up with the comment that “You can make that yourself.”

As a child, once I got over the fact I’d been told no I had a predictable one word response to this: “how?”

And so my parents would teach me what today we refer to as DIY skills.  Since from 4th grade on I was homeschooled, learning how to do some of these things ended up as a “class”.  Sometimes they’d find a local small business workshop where you could see people work, or get lessons directly from them.  By the time I was highschool age, I’d done my own sewing, created lace, learned the basics of woodworking and wood carving, had made my own nails, had written a few simple pascal programs, had a reasonable knowledge of electronics, had fired pottery, and the list goes on.  I know just enough to be dangerous with most things and enough to produce quality products within a few areas.

Some things were in the realm of magic to me even still.  Somewhere in all of that “You can do this yourself” the difference in polish convinced me there was this strange magic barrier between “what I made” and “what I buy in the store” where special magic happened to make it look good.  With time, I eventually realized the barrier I imagined was actually just a matter of technique and tools.  Where I was hand carving by eye, they were using math I hadn’t even reached in school to precisely design tools to either mold or cut away materials to shape.

Over the years, I’ve had little tastes of what it would take to build electronics or quality products.  In my family IT business I purchased a PIC microcontroller for a customer once, and briefly got to play with and study it; and on occasion I have had to do some building touchup after running network cables, learning some of the finishing exterior touches to the scraps of carpentry I knew; and went back to school to learn java and C++;  started to build the foundations of technical knowledge, beginning to grasp what it took to “finish” work.  Forming some friendships with people who’ve made it past the amateur barrier, I also learned how “just behind the finish and polish” is the same crude work as what an amateur produces, but somehow it still felt like creating something of quality was out of reach, still hidden behind a curtain of magic.

Roughly mid 2011, I was introduced to The Ben Heck Show by a RL friend named Greg.  The episode he showed me demonstrated CNC Milling, and the seeds of what was possible in a garage were planted in my head.  Another episode showcased Arduinos.  I had known intellectually about these things, but the expense of a CNC machine and my experience with the expense of the PIC controller and flash software had deterred me from even looking into them.

Not too long later, a client who I’d known and worked for over a decade came to us with a project that was completely out of the normal computer repair: He had an invention he wanted to make.  Had any other client asked that question, I probably would have turned them down, but because of who it was, we began working on it.  We networked with a few other people and over the year and a half we’ve been involved- as time allowed- I taught myself techniques I’d never imagined learning before (Multithreading an app on a 16mhz Arduino with RAM measured in kilobytes?  crazy stuff.), and bought equipment I never would’ve dared buy otherwise.  Last week I milled out my first wooden part and while it turned out about as bad and unusable as you’d expect a first part to turn out, it’s got me excited in ways I haven’t been in years.  I’ll probably have a working prototype by the end of the week.

Over the last year and a half, as I’ve worked on the project, I’ve been encountering “Maker culture” and it continues to amaze me.  The way it parts the magic curtain of commercial quality and brings the techniques from the warehouse to the home office is just awesome.  One of the things maker culture encourages that we all too often forget?  Is disassembling stuff for reuse.  At least where I live, use and dispose is the norm.  Looking at “hacker projects” where people have salvaged parts from broken equipment and given them new life is inspiring, but the learning potential in these projects?  astounding.

This doesn’t use the same kind of creativity that I need for making games, but I find that doesn’t really matter that much.  The mind is like any other muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets.  So I’ve been looking at different kinds of DIY projects I can do as I go with the idea that trying to make something will help me foster the kind of thinking I need to successfully code my games.  I keep coming up with fun and interesting projects.  The contraption my client has me building is possibly the most “active” project, but I also want to build a larger CNC and at some point build my own CNC Lathe and a 3D printer.  I spent a few hours tonight looking at LED signboards to learn how you’d build one because of a possible use for one that sprang up.  At a more basic level, I want to remake my desk as the drafting table I use for a desk is too small and being something we got for $10 at a thriftstore, it doesn’t really work that well, anyway.  One of my long standing projects that I just haven’t been able to devote the time or effort to is I’ve been planning on making a DIY touch-table for D&D play.

Some of the business opportunities the Maker Movement has created are also amazing to me.  It reminds me of pre-industrial tradesmen.  In many ways it hearkens back to the business models of that time – a skilled craftsman setting his mind to solving a problem and moving on to the next problem.  Some people have been fortunate enough to be able to live comfortably with their maker projects.  One that I read about recently was the story of OpenROV, where the creator went from knowing nothing about electronics to being able to build his own ROV.  His project is relatively successful, and he’s now able to live off his project.

I love that idea that a lone guy can make a living as a tradesman, but Maker Culture goes a step farther.  They have “hackerspaces” where you can go to learn skills from other people.  Some places even have available machine shops and workshops for fabrication, and hold lessons to teach people the art of building things.  Although my city doesn’t have one, I wish it did.   The opportunities and ideas that the maker/DIY movement provides are simply astounding.

I really have more I want to write about, but it’s 8 AM and I see daylight, so I think I’ll crash.  Blogging about my the near miss disaster of my job situation will have to wait until next week.  (I think it had a happy ending, but I’ll know better next weekend anyway!)

Leave a Comment