What Makes Something Art?

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This has been my most popular post on Creative Juicer by a landslide for over three years. For this series, I’ve revisited this topic and updated the post with new reflections.

Like porn, many people think they simply know it when they see it. Art has a feel to it, a certain weightiness or gravity that distinguishes it.

… right?


Often, when people put these kinds of boundaries on art, they are talking about high art — classic forms of art like painting or sculpture. But society  left those limits behind long ago, if they ever really existed to begin with.

There is so much incredible pop art that would be easy to dismiss under this stiff, traditional definition–Banksy, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Whedon, Tarantino. The list, of course, goes on and on and on.

To my observations, there are a few different elements to what we tend to call art. And then there is those things combined, which is where we enter into actual art.

Those elements art creativity, skill, entertainment, and meaning.

1. Creativity

All art is creative, but not all creativity is art.

Creativity is innate to all of us, and unique to each of us. It helps us find new answers to questions, problem-solve, discover and imagine. We use it to pick out our clothes each morning, cook dinner, make an impromptu joke in a conversation. Whether you realize it or not, creativity is part of who you are.

Often, when someone says they are not creative, what they really mean is that they are not an artist. I hate this. Everyone is creative. To shut yourself off from that is to miss out on the richness of your being. And sadly, the more one says something, the more one believes it.

2. Skill

Skills are specific abilities that are fostered with careful, diligent practice. This includes abilities like drawing, programming, playing a sport, writing, or public speaking. Creativity enables you to imagine a beautiful picture; the skill of painting allows you to bring it to life.

It’s easy to mistake skill for art. Skill can paint an exact replica of a beautiful setting that looks artistic. Skill can bring to life an incredible musical composition. But an ability to copy exactly is still merely skill.

Another reason for the confusion is that many art courses start with the skills required to create art. My college photography course spent a lot of time discussing framing and lines. But taking a well-framed shot of a spiraling staircase doesn’t make me an artist. It means I have mastered the basic skill that sets the foundation for art.

Don’t mistake my meaning here–skill is essential to art, as is the foundational knowledge of an art form we gain from practicing skills. But to make it art, we must add our own creativity and meaning to skill.

3. Engagement

I used to call this element “Entertainment,” but I don’t feel that’s accurate anymore. Entertainment is optional to art and not always appropriate. But art must engage–otherwise its meaning never gets out.

For example, last year a movie was released called American Sniper, depicting the true story of Chris Kyle, a record-setting sniper from the Iraq war, who struggled with and overcame PTSD, and then used his experience to help many other veterans cope with PTSD, only to eventually be murdered by a veteran he was trying to help.

Many slammed the film for using the man’s story for entertainment and profit. But after seeing the film–and how it touched two Veterans and their significant others in the same theater–I didn’t feel it was exploitative, and I did feel it forced a close look at the important issue of PTSD. It didn’t entertain as much as it engaged.

But that’s not to say that entertainment is bad, or even that it isn’t art. There’s a lot of great pop/genre art out there that’s excellent entertainment, while also containing meaning that I’d label as art. I’d put shows like Game of Thrones and Younger in this category, along with satires like Family Guy.

4. Meaning

Art has to have meaning. However, that onus falls largely on the viewer, not artist.

The stereotype of modern art may be the best example to represent this divide. For one person, a square filled with a single bold color is not art–in fact it seems amateurish. But another sees great skill in the textures and methods applied, and great meaning in the resulting brush strokes, or simplicity, or boldness, or what have you.

So is it art? This is where art gets subjective. For someone who finds meaning in the work, yes, this is art. For someone else, it’s not.

It makes defining art really messy, but hey, what’s wrong with that?

Which brings us back to where we started:


Art puts skills and creativity and engagement to work for the purpose of amassing meaning by exploring a theme, critiquing society, making a statement about human nature, or otherwise communicating an artist’s message.

Ultimately, the distinguishing element of art is intent of the artist.

The distinguishing element of art is also impact of the viewer.

Which brings us into some murky territory, since no one can know a creator’s intent unless they share it–and artists so often don’t. Also, even the artist cannot control what any individual takes away from a given work.

There’s great tension and significance in that gap in between the two. That gap is the work itself. The art is really more the gap than the physical work.

And just to make things more complicated? Just because something is art doesn’t make it good art. Many talk about art as if it were a status instead of a category, and I think a lot of confusion stems from that. An artist can say something has meaning, but it’s up to you to decide if that message has value.

At the heart of this question, is the fact that so often, art gets associated with a special status. Someone creates something, and it’s not just art, it’s Art. In our insecurity about our own creations, we feel this need to force labels to ensure we’re taken seriously. Or, when viewing others’ art, to show our own Artistic Status.

But none of these categories have any more or less value than the rest of them. You respond to what you respond to. I respond to what I respond to. Each of these is equal.

Tell me … do you agree with these categories? What do you think makes something art?

Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

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Real-World Art-ing: The Most Dreaded Creative Question

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“Where do you get your ideas?”

It’s one of the most common questions authors, and probably most creatives, are asked.

And it’s a pretty reasonable question. Here you are, a fan who has gone out of their way to attend the reading of an author you admire. This is probably due in large part because you find something about the ideas in that author’s books fresh and intriguing. This person’s creative work spoke to you in some way.

When that happens, it’s special. And everyone wants to sneak a peek behind the curtain and catch a glimpse of what makes the creator’s ideas different.

But if we’re being honest, authors typically hate this question. And I’m already starting to see why.

People love to ask me questions about my book. And ya know, it’s really kind of awkward for me in general. Some of that is because I’ve been writing in mostly in silence for over five years, so now that it’s suddenly Out There it feels somewhat like having your towel ripped away on stage.

But even discounting that factor, talking about where ideas come from is hard. When this is posed as a question, you want to deliver a story on par with Archimedes’ classic “Eureka” moment in the shower. But most of the time, that story just isn’t there. What you really have to share is more like showing how a sausage is made.

For example, the I got my idea for Mud because I was deliberately looking for a story idea. I wanted to deviate from the vampire and werewolves that were so popular at the time. Golems, quite frankly, just seemed fresh and rich in potential. And then I built it bit by bit, point by point, from there. Every day of writing involves a few new ideas to build out from where I already am. Most of it is a matter of necessity and logic.

What it comes down to, really, is perspective. When you don’t work in creativity regularly, or even just from the outside of someone else’s process, a great idea can seem magical. You don’t see all the work and creativity that was put in before the big idea became a book, so it seems like it just came out that way. But most of the time, creative ideas are a process full of slow, persistent effort.

The real magic isn’t the idea—it’s the slow, persistent effort that comes both before the idea and after it.


Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

If you like what you see & want more, join my author email list for updates on my writing, posts about sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, and other readerly fun by clicking here.

Endings, and also Beginnings

Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

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You’ve probably noticed that the blog has been on hiatus a while. I’ve had to make the hard choice to let this go while getting some other projects in place.

Which brings me to an announcement: Friends, the Creative Juicer to come to a close. I’ve written many times about choosing where you invest your creative energy carefully. I’ve written about the power of saying yes, and also the necessity of sometimes saying no. The simple truth is that I’m spread too thin right now, and other things simply must take priority.

For one, my fantasy novel Mud has been aquired by City Owl Press, and will be published in the coming several months. It’s fantastic news, and I could not have gotten here without the support of this wonderful community. Thank you for all your support!

Which means that not only do I have a lot of edits to take on, but I’ve also got to whip my author platform into shape! And this is only one of a few big projects I’ve got underway right now.

wordhaus is expanding. In January, we’re launching a book club. I’m super excited for it to kick off, but it’s a beast of a project and requires a large chunk of my time as I get my team in place, reach out to authors to feature, and prepare for the launch promotion. (If you want to participate, join the wordhaus email list–deets coming soon, ONLY to these wordhaus subscribers).

I’ve also started an exciting new venture of my own. After eight years as a marketing and PR executing online strategy for clients, and another year applying those strategies to authors in my DIYMFA column, I’m creating a new program to work with authors one-on-one.

It took a while to create just the right service, but I’m crazy thrilled with the results: It will be a 12-week program where I work with authors one-on-one in weekly sessions to work toward a specific, personalized goal the author wants to reach for his/her author platform. Along the way, I’ll teach the authors how to keep up their progress long-term, so that after the 12 weeks is up, they’ve not only met a goal but also are well equipped to continue the progress on their own.

For the first round starting in January, there are a very limited number of spots, which I’m offering at a significantly discounted rate–check it out and apply here. 

And then, of course, there’s ongoing client work and also my new WIP sci-fi novel (to stay up on my latest fiction news, join my author newsletter).

So as you can see, I have to do something to make sure I can give these projects the focus they deserve, and not spread myself too thin. Creative Juicer has had a great run, but it’s simply time to put it aside, at least for the forseeable future.

But please stay in touch! The links above will connect you to other ways to keep being a part of this expanding online neighborhood.

And welp, I guess all that’s left to say is goodbye. Thank you for all your support, and the best of luck to you in your own creative endeavors. Dream big, friends!

Sorry, I don’t post on Creative Juicer anymore.

If you like what you see & want more, join my author email list for updates on my writing, posts about sci-fi and fantasy pop culture, and other readerly fun by clicking here.

How to Build a Routine for Creativity, According to the Greats

how to build a routine for creativity, according to the greatsIt’s always fascinating to get a glimpse into the secrets of the world’s most famous and creative minds. It’s why we read biographies, and memorize quotes, and make them into movies.

But one company took a different approach.

Cloud-based service company Podio recently released an infographic organizing information about the world’s leading artists through history, based on the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. Turns out, great minds do not think alike. They think when they think best.

I found it through a Washington Post article by Roberto A. Ferdman, and loved the insights he provided:

Picasso worked through the night.
Then he crashed and slept from about 4-11 a.m. According to Ferdman’s article, those who burn the midnight oil tend to enjoy more divergent thinking.

The infographic also recommends that at least 12 hours away from work each day for optimal thinking, including time for zzz’s.

Kant pursued his creative work a measly hour a day.

Immanuel Kant’s routine had a small window of creative work time from 6-7 a.m. only. The rest of the day he got a solid seven hours of sleep each night, did four hours of administrative/day job work, exercised and gave himself about 12 hours of time for eating and leisure activities.

Meanwhile, Voltaire busted ass on his creative work about 16 hours each day.Can’t argue with either of their results.

Dickens blocked out two hours each day for exercise.

Whoever made the anti-jock artists stereotype was sadly mistaken. Charles Dickens got physical for two hours a day as soon as his creative work was completed, and there’s plenty of research to back him up with proof that time in the gym is good for your brain too.

Then again, plenty of others (including Benjamin Franklin) didn’t bother with physical activity in their daily routine at all.

Check out the infographic and full article here.How to Build a Routine for Creativity, According to the Greats

This infographic was especially interesting to me right now, as I find the best routine to maximize my creativity and productivity in my new work-at-home freelancing life.

And I found the key takeaway to be very comforting: It doesn’t matter what your routine is, as long as you have one that optimizes your creative power.

What’s your routine?

And Now for Something Totally New

Hi there. Yes that’s right I’m still alive and all that. I know, I’ve been remiss in my posting responsibilities for a while here.

Things just got crazy for a while there. Not a very good excuse, but it’s the unfortunate reality, all the same.

transition to freelance

My new coworker, Pippi the Min Pin

The good news? I can finally tell you what’s been going on over here in Emily-land. Because it’s big.

I believe I’ve mentioned here before that my husband’s work was taking him to Florida. For over a year we did this back-and-forth thing where he was in Florida two weeks and then back home to DC, or I’d go visit him there, and so on.

Why live like this? We both loved living in DC. We loved our neighborhood and our neighbors. We loved all the options that beautiful crazy city held for us. I loved my job in DC. I was not ready to give up those thing so he could take a good job opportunity for a few years (and neither was my husband, really).

But. Well.

All that alone time leads to a lot of thinking. And we started to realize something. Going to Florida could actually be a huge career opportunity for me, too.

Because of the details of the support my husband’s work is offering during his time in Florida, I could pretty painlessly transition to freelance writing if I wanted. And as it happens, writing from home has been a dream of mine for many years.

Even so, it took me a long time to finally accept that I could do this, or that I should do this. It meant walking away from a life I was happy in, with great coworkers, and a very comfortable life.

Also, the real opportunity to freelance meant I had to take a hard look at the realities behind the dream. What if I didn’t get enough clients? Or any clients? What if I don’t have enough to show for myself at the end, and made myself unhirable when it was time to go back? What if I poured all that time into my fiction and got nothing but a pile of rejection letters for all my effort?

I’d end up staring failure right in the face, that’s what. Even the vague concept of it hurt a little bit.

But on the other hand, failure itself was pretty controlled in this situation. Financially, we’d be okay if I never made a single cent. The only risk I faced was a harsh reality check. And I really hate to let fear make my decisions for me.

So I bit the bullet, and here we are.

I have some big plans, and there’s a lot to do. But I’m pretty pumped up for it.

Among those plans, there will most definitely be some changes to the blog. Short term, that means more frequent posts. Long-term, that probably means a shift in focus for the Juicer, or perhaps even a new blog altogether.

But I hope you’ll stay with me along the way. And hey, if you’re curious about my freelance services, check out my website.