Are You Keeping Track of Your Creative Metadata?

The Moon reveals what’s hidden.

There’s a case in front of the Supreme Court right now, Carpenter v. U.S., that’s all about cell phone location data. The eponymous Carpenter has been convicted over his role in a series of robberies around Michigan and Ohio—but it wasn’t loose lips or an overheard conversation that got him in trouble. It’s his cell phone metadata (data about other data). The prosecution’s case rests, at least partially, on background activity of Carpenter’s phone that places him around the robberies during the months they took place. Ironically, the case isn’t about whether or not Carpenter’s guilty, but whether or not the government has the right to access cell phone metadata without a warrant.

No matter whose side you take in the case, it’s an important reminder that, whether you realize it or not, you’re generating data and metadata constantly. And not just with your phone. Any activity conceivably creates metadata. If you buy a cup of coffee (the data), then the name of the coffeeshop, the barista who made the coffee, the time of day it was purchased, the cost—all metadata. And most interesting for our purposes—any creative activity you undertake creates its own valuable creative metadata.

We’re used to thinking of art (broadly defined) as a finished product—the published book, the cropped and edited photo, the final cut. But in creating that finished product, you’re making decisions and creating drafts that are works in and of themselves. Works equally worthy of sharing.

As author Kenneth Goldsmith writes in his book Uncreative Writing:

“The final product shouldn’t be judged as the artwork; instead, all the background documentation of how the work was conceived and executed might prove to be more interesting than the art itself.”

In his book, Show Your Work, Austin Kleon advises artists to share a daily dispatch of their works in progress:

“A good daily dispatch is like getting all the DVD extras before the movie comes out—you get to watch the deleted scenes and listen to director’s commentary while the movie is being made.”

People have never been more interested in how the work is made, and taking your fans on that journey allows them to appreciate the art even more. That’s why I always read the acknowledgements and it’s why I listened to the Song Exploder podcast for a while. As my friend Jay wrote in his newsletter:

“You don’t listen to how your favorite songs are made. By listening to how songs are made, they become your favorite.”

You’re the creator, so you are inclined to see the final, polished piece as the product and everything else as scraps to be swept up and thrown out after a day’s work. But your creative metadata is art too. Think about it. You spend 99% of your time penning drafts, scribbling in notebooks, taking a photo from 1000 minutely different angles and 1% of the time with the finished work. So why is the 99% any less valuable?

No matter what kind of art you do, you’re generating creative metadata. Tons of it. And as long as it won’t land you behind bars, you should be sharing it.

Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.

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