What The Metropolis Will Do To Your Creativity

by Elena Chen

Two months before my 13th birthday, our family moved from our long-time residence Hong Kong to Shanghai. A brief three hour flight brought us to our new apartment but I was hours away from home. I lived there for five years, picked up a few (slightly rude) Shanghainese phrases, made some wonderful friends and left for New York. As a 17 year old, somewhat Chinese, somewhat American, and mostly confused college freshman, I straddled the classes of Psychology and Photography in a bifurcated liminal space that brought me a sense of belonging. But the peace was interrupted by a string of mental health issues that I was not prepared to nor able to manage. I’m scared to think about how the same place that housed who I am could have been so dark and small, so sensitive to light; in comparison to hopes the I have now, wanting only (mostly) to be close to things that bring about lightness. Laughter, support, community, meaning.

During a frantic call, a friend living in London suggested I buy the cheapest flight and visit her there. It was springtime, the best time to see the city. So I did. She was studying at Central Saint Martins and later I applied to study Photography at its sister Media school, the London College of Communication. There I learned about process: ideation, research, execution, experimentation, feedback, critique and exhibition. It was one of the best and most fruitful years of my life. I continued to live in London for another three years, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology.

These are the years of my life. These are the years I spent journaling and writing, taking pictures and doing photography, being in group shots and modeling, learning about fashion, dabbling in video, and submerging in culture. In the same years I lived with immense self doubt, social anxiety, rumination, seeking help from counselors and psychologists, self help books, columns and videos. I practiced meditation and talked ceaselessly with friends about what it all meant. These places were the places that shaped my life, myself, and my sense of creativity.

Everything was a possible creative avenue needing to be explored and I was enthused by this quest. My creativity was this spastic, unbridled enthusiasm that felt longing for anything that could contain it. I know now that it is wonderful to be able to experience creativity in so many different mediums but without an anchored sense of self these experiences can lead to comparison, self-doubt, jealousy, emptiness, and anxiety. Perhaps there really is nothing more to my creativity than this, than the ongoing attempts to reconcile the combustible with the collected. My creative interests come to me as quickly as they leave me and more often than actually creating, I’m left questioning. What does it mean? If I’m doing this, what does it say about me? What does anyone doing this say about themselves? There really are no definitive answers, only possibilities, and that’s how I see bouts of creativity when they come to me. I welcome them, but I know they’re not here to stay. No one tells you how confusing it is to know that there are so many versions of the world out there. Versions where one thing is right and is wrong in another. No one tells you how important it is to see it as it is, different and unexpected and beautiful.

I am so proud of diversifying. Of doing a lot of different things, as they came close to me. I am also more comfortable with my limitations, personally and creatively, and I don’t fight them as hard as I used to. I tell myself there will be more time, more time for making things and doing things and learning things, and although time is always running out on us, it is knowing that I will not have enough time to do all the things I may want to do, the endless propulsion of my curiosity, that I wake up every morning feeling this is where I want to be.

*photos by Elena Chen