Worldbuilding is creative resilience
How to prioritize the figurative over the rational in a creative practice
“Artists excel at creating worlds. They do this first for themselves and then, when they share their work, for others… World-building means creating everything — not only making things inside the world but also the surrounding world itself — the language, style, rules, and architecture.”
— Laurel Schwulst in “My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?”
In 1967, the Beatles did two extraordinary things: they released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, widely regarded as a monumental work in culture then and now, and they pretended to be somebody else. These accomplishments were simultaneous. The very first song on Sgt. Pepper’s boldly asked listeners to suspend disbelief and go along with the four most famous musicians in the world pretending to be a band who’d been playing together for twenty years and were now backing a crooner named Billy Shears (played/sung by Ringo Starr).
That Sgt. Pepper’s was a universe different from the shared universe of 1967 was evident right from the famous album art: a photo shoot where figures from across cultural and historical eras – including an earlier version of the Beatles themselves – have come together for an extraordinary moment.
This record is famously called the first “concept album,” meaning it wasn’t simply the best thirteen songs the Beatles were ready to release, but a specially designed collection of tracks that, taken as a whole, added up to something bigger.
What inspired the Beatles to do this? Were they on drugs?
Well, yes, but it was more than that. As documented in the book Beatles ‘66, Sgt Pepper’s began after Paul McCartney experimented with wearing a disguise during a six-week vacation. By wearing glasses, a mustache, and combing his hair back, he became anonymous. For one of the most famous people in the world, the experience was understandably liberating. After the trip he called the other Beatles and told them, paraphrasing, “We can’t make another Beatles record. We need the freedom of being somebody else.” This is how Sgt Pepper’s was born.
The record and its concept album form are legendary artistic achievements. The work is extraordinary, yet the structure and journey behind Sgt. Pepper’s is available to all creative people, and might even be necessary for consistently making great work while preserving your mental health.
Sgt. Pepper’s has historically been known as a concept album. But these days we might classify it as a kind of creative act very much in the zeitgeist: worldbuilding. In the hands of an artist, worldbuilding is more than a tool for creating fictional worlds. It creates:
A safe creative space separate from the earthly realm
A connection to the larger entity you channel to create art
The empowerment of the symbolic over the rational
Visibility into the tensions and boundaries of what makes it into your work and what doesn’t
New personifications and embodiments
A new source of confidence and strength
This post explores worldbuilding as a form of creative resilience.
Worldbuilding is the act of designing a self-contained universe: “creating everything — not only making things inside the world but also the surrounding world itself — the language, style, rules, and architecture,” to quote Laurel again.
Worldbuilding is most common in fantasy, sci-fi, and fiction where authors and auteurs use vivid visions of worlds to tell immersive stories (think Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Dune). Worldbuilding grounds the story in a universe where the work’s characters and plot points make a self-contained logical sense while providing escapist fantasy.
In recent years worldbuilding has evolved in multiple directions: corporate creators like Marvel and Disney have used the internal logic and characters of their worlds to build larger stories and, most importantly, new IP cashflows; and through fanfiction, where online communities have collaboratively expanded existing universes with new ideas and directions.
What planet are you from?
This piece is focused on another kind of worldbuilding: where an artist expresses themselves from a world, but where that world may not be explicitly or fully explained to the audience. A world that exists in the mind of the artist, that’s felt more than spoken, that lingers in the shadows and air, the source of life and truth from which everything emanates. Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the most famous examples of this form, but it’s far from the only one.
One of the most literal examples of this type of worldbuilding is the jazz musician Sun Ra, who famously claimed to be born on Saturn and denied any Earthly origins. Sun Ra and his Arkestra made music that sounded like it came from another planet, eventually establishing a wider free jazz scene – effectively creating an otherworldly world that other artists came to co-inhabit.
We now know that Sun Ra grew up in Alabama in the Jim Crow Era and his life was changed with a transformative moment when, as he told an interviewer:
“My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up... I wasn't in human form... I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn... they teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me... The world was going into complete chaos... I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That's what they told me.”
As a Black man growing up in the racist American South, creating an alternative universe for himself and his work feels like a tool of sanity and survival in the spirit of a long line of African-American self-care, from slavery to the Reconstruction to the Black Panthers (see Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s excellent Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice). But Sun Ra’s world is also a source of inspiration, figurative exploration, and a safe space to go deep into otherwise outrageous ideas. The world he created gives his work its own creative logic.
Artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is another extreme and evocative worldbuilding example, a dazzling universe with strange intersections between the familiar (high school football players) and the mythical (creatures and movements from an alternate reality). The Cremaster universe was realized through a series of five feature-length films and countless photographs, drawings, and sculptures released across nearly a decade of exhibitions in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that the Guggenheim called “a self-enclosed aesthetic system.” In other words, a world.
Like the sci-fi and fantasy examples of worldbuilding, there’s a narrative-like world expressed through the art. But Barney uses this world as a text to explore his own ideals, creating a work that feels less like another world than art that comes from another world. We might think of the Cremaster universe as a place to be inspired from, just as Sun Ra’s origins as a native Saturnian inspired and informed his choices about his music, performances, and identity.
Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce persona, which debuted for her 2008 album I Am… Sasha Fierce, is another example. She explained the new persona to People by saying: “I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.”
This isn’t dissimilar from Paul McCartney’s revelation. In both cases two of the great artists of the modern age saw an opportunity to derive a new source of confidence by creating an alternate persona. This gave them permission to override their rational fears and concerns, and to instead prioritize symbolic logic and artistic freedom when they entered their creative space (another evocative example of this: the band KISS).
Discovering your world
I have my own personal example inspired by Paul McCartney’s story that I’ve told in this newsletter once before. I was struggling with anxiety at the start of writing This Could Be Our Future, worrying what people would think, whether my ideas were too out there, doubting I had “permission” to say what I believed needed to be said.
While struggling with these feelings, I read about Paul’s realizations that led to Sgt Pepper’s, and I too decided to change my appearance. For the first six months of writing the book I grew a mustache to feel less like myself. Normal Yancey was worried that his ideas were too out there, but Mustached Yancey didn’t care what anyone thought. Every time I looked in a mirror or touched my face I was reminded and empowered by my decision to become somebody else.
This Could Be Our Future doesn’t include any mention of the mustache or this search for confidence. Creating from your world doesn’t mean you have to describe what your private world looks and feels like. It means creating work inspired and strengthened by an intentional inner world. Creating from that place means being able to immerse ourselves in our own universes and lose conscious touch with the shared one.
Creating work from your world takes conscious and unconscious practice. One way to do this through rules. A great example are the Rules for the Bill Nye the Science Guy TV show, a document that lays out how their world works.
The show guide reads in part:
“All the science we see has to be real science. No fictional ‘molecular resynthesizer’ machines that perform magic tricks, for example.
“The science being explored provides the drama. For example, there is no time spent looking for someone's stolen lab coat.
“Science Guy's reality is television. He can jump from place to place the way a viewer would expect anyone on television to be able to do. There is no need for something like the ‘Way-Back’ machine or the ‘Transporter’ or the ‘Door to Anywhere.’”
These rules create constraints and underlying assumptions that effectively pre-make how the show will work going forward. This helps establish the reality the project lives within and that viewers must implicitly accept when watching.
A similar example is the Dogme ‘95 school of filmmaking, which follows a rigid set of rules to manifest a specific creative style and vision. Those rules include things like:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
10. The director must not be credited.
Rule-based worldbuilding can feel similar to a values discovery exercise, in that both involve digging beneath the surface to identify the underlying causes, motivations, and structures to how you work. But worldbuilding and values-setting are fundamentally different processes. Values setting is a search for the ephemeral beliefs that will hold you together and guide future decisions. Worldbuilding is imagining and creating the distinct universe that you speak from where your way of seeing things is the norm.
By imagining and immersing yourself in your world, it becomes more alive in your awareness. Its environment speaks to and through you, generating ideas and directions that reflect where and how your work naturally exists. Worldbuilding isn’t a way to make decisions. It’s psychic infrastructure and environmental design for where your work lives.
Once you’ve imagined your world, what do you do with that vision? How do you create from that place?
I recently applied a basic worldbuilding lens to our work with Metalabel, giving myself a series of prompts to brainstorm on. The experience brought immediate clarity to what we were doing, including our key differences from the wider world and why and how we speak.
I started from a big picture perspective:
Why does our world exist? How is it different from the shared world? Why do we need our own world at all?
Wider world: Creative people who pursue similar visions or goals compete against each other for attention and status.
Our world: Creative people pursuing similar visions or goals cooperate with each other to grow the attention and status of what they care about.
Wider world: Organizations are vehicles for pursuing financial goals.
Our world: Organizations are vehicles for pursuing creative and cultural goals.
Wider world: Success means constantly winning in the battle to be the star of attention.
Our world: Success means making and expressing work that reflects your intentions.
These questions identified key places of separation and points of difference between the place we come from and where others come from.
Is the standard of time in our world the same as the wider world?
In exploring this I realized that within Planet Metalabel, time works not on a natural clock but in release cycles:
A period of quiet while new ideas are explored and percolating
A period of initial creation where ideas start to be executed
A period of anticipation as the release takes shape and external excitement starts to grow
A release day when the drop goes live, sometimes with press and supporting moments
A following month(s)-long release window where the release bounces around culture
This realization immediately shifted our internal energy about how, where, and why we communicate. This allowed us to let go of the expectations of our shared world (where we’re supposed to clout-chase alongside everyone else) and to stay true to our own.
Who are you in this world?
We are participants. We’re one of the first to consciously begin this journey and our journey is ongoing.
We are designers of the metalabel structure, recognizers of the form, users of the form, and teachers of the form.
We are fans, curators, and consumers of all the great work made possible by the metalabel form and the people who use it.
How do you and others communicate in this world? In what mediums, in what languages, and in what frequencies?
Releases are our most powerful forms of speech. Our releases express and manifest our world in the wider shared one.
We speak about groups of people contributing to shared creative and cultural visions (both our own and others).
We speak with a sense of optimism, a belief in cooperation, and a respect for the worlds of others.
We communicate as a group in longer form every two weeks. We speak as individuals whenever we like.
What does your world feel like? What does it smell like? How does it feel to walk around?
Like a scene that has yet to be discovered
Full of life, energy, positivity, people banding together
Not perfect or spotless, not without problems
A future you’d be happy to live in
The group vacation you hope never ends
Identifying these and a much longer list of questions created a material feel to the Metalabel world that the seven of us reside in. This brought us closer to our ultimate source of inspiration, and gave us permission to follow the internal logic and instincts of our own world rather than the expectations of the wider one. Our output needs to reflect and inspire these same feelings in others for the Metalabel world to grow beyond the seven of us.
Creating without a world
Without the grounding of a place of origin for your work, holding onto your distinct voice and way of seeing is more difficult. It’s logical to be swayed by the overpowering rationality of the wider world. It’s human to be affected by the judgments and critiques of others. It’s seductive to be drawn in by market influences and the slavish devotion to attention that dominates creative culture.
Creating with your feet firmly set in the shared world ties your work, its spirit, and its meaning to the dominant strands of the cultures that surround you. Rather than creating a path of escape as the best creative work does (whether that escape is internal or external), your work will reflect whatever you’re consuming, is currently popular, or what everyone else is doing. If you want to pinpoint the difference between art and content (or art and critique), this might be it.
To make work grounded in the shared world is to be haunted by “shoulds” – Should I be more commercial? Should I do what my peers are doing? Should I chase financial opportunities? These questions are not the friends of great art.
Identifying the place where this comes from and the rules that hold it together is what enables creative rather than rational ideas to flourish. It puts these “shoulds” in their place. Worldbuilding prioritizes the symbolic and inspirational over the practical and rational. This is critical to making art! Here’s the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi:
“The thing about making something is the tickling of the imagination. The possibility of making it, or the experience of making it, creates the imagination or invites the imagination. There is no end to art. There is no beginning, no better. It can be different, but it cannot be better art.”
Noguchi accepts a kind of truth to art – that its possibility, the experience of making it, and the imagination it sparks in the artist and others are objective truths about art that the artist should not overthink or doubt. Art is a truth that originates somewhere else. Alan Moore’s concept of the “ideaspace,” the inspiration for this publication’s name, is a similar theory about the other world where art and ideas are born.
The dangers of worldbuilding
“an excuse or alibi for the act of making things up, as if to legitimise an otherwise questionable activity. This kind of worldbuilding actually undercuts the best and most exciting aspects of fantastic fiction, subordinating the uncontrolled, the intuitive & the authentically imaginative to the explicable; and replacing psychological, poetic & emotional logic with the rationality of the fake.”
If we think about the worldbuilding that underpins gaming and NFT projects, we can see the danger that Harrison speaks to. Those worlds can be explicitly designed to justify behaviors that benefit the owners of the world at the expense of its audience, like paid upgrades and add-ons that give players special abilities as rationalized by the imagined world but have no value beyond it. Worldbuilding can be a powerful tool for financial exploitation.
The path from worldbuilding as creative resilience to worldbuilding as exploitation is not a winding one. It’s quite easy to see how worldbuilding taken to an extreme rationalizes these steps. As Robin Sloan put it to me after reading an early draft of this post, “I think a few voices of ‘be careful!’ might be useful & welcome as you encourage folks to consider this tool.” Agreed!
Worldbuilding is creative resilience
Last year the artist Laurel Schwulst (quoted at the start of this piece) wrote in an essay called “To write, I first must world”:
“For those of us who feel different, who don’t easily fit into structures of this society or this world, we have to make our own structures, definitions, and taxonomies to feel at home — that is, to build our own world. And while others might be confused why we spend so much energy inventing new names and containers seemingly constantly, it’s important to remember doing this helps us simply exist … so that we can connect in this one world we share.”
Artists like Sun Ra and Beyonce and projects like The Cremaster Cycle and Sgt Pepper’s rank among our greatest artists and works of art in part because of how “self-enclosed” and self-defined they are, and their confidence in their state of being. The confidence with which they express their world encourages the audience to accept their truths as self-evident. They convince us to hand over our imaginations like a Hollywood exec tossing car keys to a valet. We accept and respond to worlds without thinking.
This is what building an internal world as an artist achieves: it creates a space where your non-rational, non-Earthly desires and beliefs and instincts have permission to roam free, and their logic (or anti-logic!) pile up on each other, making something bigger, sturdier, more true. That world becomes a source of inner confidence and light that doesn’t dull, that sees beyond the rational and the normal, that’s ignorant of the reactions of the “normal world.” It’s a spirit and light that can endure hardship and doubt. A place of strength and resilience we can return to.
For those of us struggling and aching to say something different, to be distinctly our own, to reject the stifling rationality of the world around us in favor of the symbolic, the creative, and the divine, creating a world is our path. And that path is only the start. As more people come to view and appreciate that world, the unthinkable happens: it transforms. What started in one mind makes its way to many. The world, once only an internal creation, breaks free. The world comes alive.
“My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?” by Laurel Schwulst – A beautiful meditation on how even a website can be a world.
“To write, I first must world,” by Laurel Schwulst — An expansion of a conversation she and I had on worldbuilding as a form of self-care.
“Very Afraid” by Mike Harrison – Critical and knowledgeable piece about worldbuilding from 15 years ago.
Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard — An inspiring overview of self-care and mutual aid from the historical lens of the African-American experience.
Chaos, Magic, and the Band That Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs — A masterful book about the band the KLF, who are worldbuilders almost beyond compare. This is a dazzling book about where ideas come from, and how they flow around us.
Planet Metalabel by me – My first first draft worldbuilding the Metalabel universe.
Other fun examples of worldbuilding from early readers of this piece:
The musician greydient of Songcamp writes: “Donald Glover/Childish Gambino's Because the Internet album was a whole world. There's the album, there's a script, he had art exhibits which recreated "the boy's" room which is the main subject of the album. If you want to learn in depth, the Dissect podcast goes into deep detail about it.”
Brandon Stosuy of The Creative Independent, who suggested including KISS in this piece, writes: “Heavy metal/hard rock and worldbuilding is such a cool zone. I remember this old interview in The Believer re: black metal where the guy basically said, ‘we created this dark, 'satanic' world because our everyday was actually so bland.’”
Gonsher, a member of the Metalabel community, shares a quote from Brendan Gillen aka BMG from Ectomorph and Interdimensional Transmissions, which says: “Drexciya is like a music project from the thought plane of existence and it doesn’t matter who is involved and when... Drexciya should be mysterious, like the creation myth of the Dogon. It shouldn’t be a butterfly pinned to a board – it should be a butterfly that you never actually catch.” What a beautiful image.
Thanks to my wife Jamie Kim, whose ideas, references, suggestions, and personal experiences as an artist and producer make her a shared author on this essay. Thanks to Austin Robey, Brandon Stosuy, Laurel Schwulst, Robin Sloan, Kevin Strasburger, gonsher, Anna Bulbrook, Brandon Valosek, and Severin Matusek for reading early drafts of this piece. Thanks to John Higgs for all the conversations we’ve had about creativity and the ideaspace over the years.
Much love from my world to yours,