Savage Steve has a nice one about how people write because it provides them with a sense of being able to control something in their lives.
Many studies have been performed about the nature of volition in human life, and they all seem to point at the same things: you have to take control of what is within reach, and let things you can't control unfold as they must. People who have a sense of powerlessness about their lives can remediate that to some degree by taking back what's immediately in front of them. This is why lifestyle mags often say things like, when you're depressed, clean your sink or organize your closet.
I think the danger of this advice is in feeling like the line between what you can and can't control is set for you. All signs point to that line being set perceptually, not practically. It might have been drawn before you were born, but that doesn't mean you can't move it a few inches.
If the act of creative work in one's life is about taking control of what's within your sphere of immediate influence — your mind, your habits, what you do with your time — that to me is not the whole picture. One of the other things that seems to fall into that bucket is developing the wherewithal to find the dividing line between what you can and can't control, and move it a bit.
It's been said (I forget who by) that man is not just a problem-recognizing and -solving being, but also a problem-accepting being. I don't see this as a binary or an acyclic graph but a feedback loop. We accept that some things are outside of our control right now, but not for the sake of accepting that they are forever outside of our control. If we can move the needle, we make it a little easier for other people to also move the needle. The point of coming to terms with limitations is not to become more efficient fatalists; it's to find a way to incrementally reduce the amount of resignation in our lives. We may never turn that knob all the way down to zero, but that's not the point. The point is to grasp that knob and turn.
Creative work has a more important role in all this than it might seem. On an individual level, it's about making things, and building the discipline and habits that allow us to make things. Those things in turn become examples: maybe they suggest how things can be different, or just imagine something lovelier (the mere presence of which is a positive in our lives). They become models to follow, both in how they were made and in what they refer to. They become multi-purpose tools — they help us break out of jail, and when they can't do that, they help us learn to live with our sentences. But both support each other, both matter.
Much of what I've garnered about creative work over the last ten years has been around the way it exists as a social element and a political force. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that art and politics aren't miscible, because they come pre-mixed anyway, just in ways we're not conscious of. We might as well be conscious of it and make the best of it. The point of art is not to be just "the detergent of life" (as Jacques Barzun once described it in its most anodyne incarnations), but to be a catalyst. Not just in the sense that a more artfully executed agitprop poster will fire people up all the more, but in the sense that the mere presence of the creative fire imbues people with both aesthetic and participatory purpose. Star Trek lovers go on to become creators of real-world space missions; Doctor Who fans realize history is a living thing, not a dead snapshot.
The most powerful politics of all is that of saying yes to a full engagement with life, of not shrinking from having your work done fully in the real world with all its mess and contradiction and shortcoming. If you can't write a book that saves the world, try to write one that at least saves your own little corner of it. That corner may not be as little as you think.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind