How to be good at creative stuff

Back in the mid-2000s, I was an extremely acne-riddled, frizzly-fringed, gluttonous and stubborn girl. I’m still many of those things, but some of the sharper bumps of me have been planed off since, and I like myself a lot better nowadays. I’ve grown up a little.

But going back to before I grew up, there used to be this one word I’d use over and over and over again – a word that I overused so much it started to backfire on me, though I started using it as a trump-card defense tactic.

The word was ‘unique’. I had a special MP3 player when everyone started to listen to music on the schoolbus, during the iPod boom. It’s an odd experience seeing everybody within the four walls of a high school schoolbus holding the same product in their grubby hands, only to know that the one you hold in your own is different, outdated, and generally seen as inferior. It looked a little bit like this:

Creative MP3 player no longer in production
© Sum Sze Tam

It seems odd that I am spending so much time and words to describe a trivial, fleeting set of memories. But I was really, really sensitive and defensive – proudly so – of this MP3 player back as a tween. “I might not have an iPod,” I’d say. “But at least my music player is special. It’s unique.”

(And hell, would I really enunciate those italics.)

Eventually, those among my friends of a drier wit got tired of me being so adamant about this, and in their good-natured way would start to tell me that they too thought I was special. Special needs, that was.

Looking back, if I’d used all that time spent on telling people how special or unique I was on something more productive I might have gotten an extra leg up the employment pool-ladder I’m struggling to latch my ungainly feet onto right now. But I’m not not proud of the old me – it was the perfect preparation for other bits of me to get to where I am now. I’m proud that it was once a part of me, but I’m happy that it’s no longer there.

Looking back even more, I wish I’d taken a hint or two from old mid-2000s Sum Sze. Because in trying to become a better writer, a better journalist, a better everything – it’s taken me a long time to come back all the way full circle to realise that the secret to being good at creative stuff is to be unique.

Here are some examples:

  • The magazine I up until recently used to edit had great content – but amongst our best was an extended trip up to Bangor (that’s in North Wales) to interview an ex-ghost therapist. Or exorcist, as some people have called him.
  • The newspaper I help to produce has had some amazing stories this year – and amongst the best are those about our students’ union, their misbehaviours, and our students.
  • My partner has won quite a few national awards for his journalistic work, but some of his most widely recognised pieces are about his own experiences of homelessness, or mental health issues.

What all of these have in common is that they are exclusive in some way. Nobody else could have reported on any of these things better than these people, because they were in the best position to do so. Quench is the source of all things weird, wacky, and things that take a lot of words to express; that applies to the ex-ghost therapist story. Gair Rhydd is the official informant and unofficial scrutiniser of all the bodies that affect the student population. And though my partner is not the only one to have experienced such a harrowing lifestyle, he is one of the only ones who has the technical capability to make others understand how that life feels.

If you’re a social theory geek (like me), think of it as a bit like Bourdieu’s theory of capital, habitus and field, except it doesn’t necessarily apply to the individual.

So, in order for myself to become better at this stuff, I just have to be more unique. Great.

Where to start?