A case for creative gardens

This article assumes that you are fairly familiar with digital gardens already.
If you’re new to the topic, try starting with digital garden.

Most digital gardens follow a particular structure. They collect information and ideas, usually with some mechanism for drawing connections between them, with the goal being to build out a personal library and generate new ideas over time. Traditionally, they’re pretty intellectual – personal Knowledge management systems with a capital K.

Along this line, I originally started alisa.wtf with the intention of having two separate areas: an analytical space (aka the garden) and a creative space (like a portfolio). But as I organized my content, the separation between these two types of content became less and less clear – I was so drawn to the ethos of digital gardens that I couldn’t keep it from spilling into the creative half of my site, and it was quickly growing into a hydra of mixed objectives and disorganization.

I scrapped the distinction of analytical vs. creative work altogether and decided to reapproach the entire thing as a garden, since that’s where my subconscious was trying to get me to go anyway.

What counts as creative work, anyway?

I’m using creative work here in a way that basically means everything except nonfiction essays. For me, creative work usually includes taking & editing photos, making music, and drawing, but it could include any hobby.Creativity can also be a deeply spiritual or emotional experience for some people, but this essay focuses more on the casual pleasure of doing stuff that results in a new artifact or idea. My goal is to explore how we might use the tenets of a digital garden to grow non-essay projects that take the form of whatever we damn well feel like.


The anatomy of a digital garden

Maggie Appleton defines six patterns that exist across most digital gardens. Most of these fit alongside the ethos of creative work, but a few needed further defining:

  1. Always growing – bullets become outlines become drafts etc.
  2. Learning in public and being okay with imperfection
  3. Organized by contextual relationship instead of recently published

These weren’t as easily translateable, and there weren’t many examples online – but what felt like a lack of precedent turned into a pretty fun systems design problem.

1. Creative work does grow, just not in the same way

This is arguably the most straightforward of the three: just like intellectual ideas develop into essays, inspired ideas can evolve into creative work – or so I thought. Creative stuff doesn’t actually follow a linear progression: it just kinda happens, or it unfolds so organically that it almost feels disruptive to try to capture it in the same way you capture an idea for an essay thesis. Maybe some creative ideas aren’t meant to be tended to quite so closely.

To this end, instead of using the growth stages to think about the literal steps of the creative process from conception → completion, I decided to use growth stages as a measure of how much energy I intended to invest in that project moving forward.

Growth stages for creative work

is used for projects where the bulk of intention is yet to come. Maybe it’s a sentence describing an idea, or a photo yet to be edited.

is used for projects that forsee ongoing intention over a period of time – like [[ Bagheera|Bagheera’s gallery ]] where I add more photos as I take them.

is used for projects that I no longer anticipate putting intention into, other than minor edits. This could obviously change at any time.

Most creative portfolios already show projects in the state, but I like that the horticultural metaphor sets a more open-ended and forgiving tone – blossoms aren’t ever complete or archived. Similarly, a photoshoot isn’t considered done in that it could still be re-edited, inviting changes as my skills and creative eye gets better over time.

2. Learning happens through exploring and reflecting

Many gardens are a public process of the author wrapping their head around complex concepts, drawing connections between them, and maybe even eventually developing a point of view. There’s a lot of analysis happening before any synthesis occurs. On the other hand, creative projects for me are mostly just spontaneous synthesis – synthesis of stuff like technical skills (operating a camera, playing an instrument, etc.), some random inspo I saw on Pinterest or YouTube, a vague vision, and combining it in different ways til something sticks.

Once something does stick and I come back to upload my sweet new project, the garden quickly reminds me that it’s not about the final product. That implicit philosophy allows for more of a feedback loop to happen between the areas of synthesis:

  • What would be different if my technical skills were better?
  • What specifically is inspiring about a particular piece?
  • What haven’t I tried yet in my explorations?

The structure of a garden is already built for a more metacognitive approach, which – if I stuck with it – should help me level up in my creative process in theory. I can reflect on projects and inspo or collect resources on particular skills. I’ve already learned something through this: I recently wrote about [[ taking photos of pets ]] which made me realize that one of my unquestioned, go-to camera settings was objectively not a good choice for that context. It’s a small but impactful change in my technique, and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I didn’t write it out.

3. Contextual relationships means aesthetic and authentic

In a typical garden, various posts and notes are linked together through associations with each other. For me, creative projects don’t typically associate with each other, but having the reflections and resources I describe above are perfect to link to. From an information architecture standpoint, I have these clusters of pages that all interconnected and usually centrally linked by the creative project itself.

There was also a clear metaphysical difference that emerged in the project vs. the reflects and resources that support it. The latter were almost always supplementary or in support of the project: a means, rather than an ends. Making this distinction was also helpful in relieving the pressure of what should happen to growth stages for reflective posts, which seemed like they’d stay as sprouts forever by definition.

This is how the Plants and Roots categories were born. Roots provide a way for posts to exist simply as context – they’re the ideas that inform creative projects, as tools for processing and reflecting, but don’t always grow into the project itself.

This distinction is a natural way to organize content, meaning that all my Plants can be grouped together in their aesthetic forms. Projects like these usually sit aesthetically in the vacuum of a well-designed site with no other info, but the role of the Roots is to hammer those projects with so much context that they’re no longer pretty. And in the world of Web 2.0 and premium mediocre, that’s kinda nice.

What’s next

I realize I’ve defined the system but haven’t done a whole lot to stress test it too thoroughly – I was tempted to start filling out a bunch of content so I could test it, but that defeats the point of slow, nurtured growth. To that end, this article is more of a freshly installed trellis than a birds eye view of what’s happening – I’ve defined the structure of support that I think my projects will thrive on, with an expectation that I might need to revise things as my needs change.

Now, I’ll wait and see how the creative plants grow.