The Problem of Input and Output

I’ll be honest, I’m not watching the news right now. I get a daily digest of headlines and that keeps me up to date as much as I can handle. I pick up a thing or two from my personal network, but otherwise I’ve closed down the media fire hose. It’s vital for me to take a break from all that because what I take in is going to greatly affect what I put out.

As a creative person, I’m doing my best to keep good, authentic work flowing, which is important to my own mind and heart. Of course others may read my stories in the days to come, but at the point of creation, I’m not thinking about an audience.

So, what do I mean when I’m talking about input and output?

I follow Austin Kleon’s newsletter, which often leads to his blog posts. He’s written on the topic of input and output multiple times (links below). It’s important to him, and it’s become important to me.

In one of his posts, he recounts that Jim Jarmusch talks a lot about “Strummer’s Law,” four simple words he learned from his friend Joe Strummer: “No input, no output.”

For most of us, our input is going to be reflected in our output. First of all that makes taking time to absorb new things important. Reading, listening to music, watching films, taking in work outside your own medium or field, whatever it is that engages your imagination, gets your mind excited (or calms it, that choice is yours!) will lead to new output.

Whatever you are taking in is going to get processed through your thoughts and experiences and come out in your work. If you’re not taking anything in, it’s going to be much harder to get anything out. Even something we perceive as crappy can be motivating in an “I can do better than that” kind of way.

Of course the problem isn’t just for traditionally creative work. I come across the same problem in my programming work. If I’m not reading articles and essays that help me think about my work differently or learning new techniques that help me improve my skills, it’s much harder to muster the inspiration to write about that work and to actually write the code itself.

We’re often evaluated on our output, how productive we are, and the quality of that work. We are held accountable for that by our bosses, audience, and others, including ourselves.

Whatever reason you are responsible some kind of output, maintaining that is not going to magically happen out of the ether. It requires input, mostly good, with a little crappy on the side for perspective (or fun, depending on your mood). However, unlike with your boss or audience, no one is going to call you out on whether you’re taking in anything useful. The question of what is useful is up to you as well.

For me, realizing that without a steady flow of input I struggle with output (if I’m not reading, I’m probably not writing) was vital to my creativity. I started paying more attention to when I went into a reading slump and how that affected my ability to write in a satisfying way. Of course, I could push through without that inspiration but it got much, much harder. It’s much easier, and more pleasurable, to read and listen to music, etc., and find inspiration in the works of others. This is not just true now, when the world has gone off the rails. This was just as true last year and the year before and will be true next year, too.

I also started paying closer attention to what I was taking in and exactly how it affected me. Reading too much of the news made me feel very negative about the world. I understand the importance of keeping up to some degree, but our brains weren’t built to process everything that’s thrown at us in the “Internet Age”. I put boundaries in place that I loosen and tighten as needed. I notice how much taking walks and checking in with the weather and the trees makes me feel open. I notice what kind of music excites me and what kind of films lift my heart. After some time taking that all in and pondering it, it all feeds back into my work. I can’t have output without input.

The next time you are struggling with trying to put some kind of work down on the page (whatever form that page takes), I encourage you to take a step back and see what you’ve been taking in lately. Despite whatever you may be going through, I hope that you all try to pay a little more attention to your input in general. I hope it helps your output, when the time comes to create something new. I also hope it helps your mind and heart to find a little bit of peace.

Your output depends on your input – Austin Kleon
Problems of output are problems of input – Austin Kleon
No input, no output – Austin Kleon
If you want to be a writer, you have to be a reader first – Austin Kleon