On Living a Creative Life

I recently finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear and have been thinking a lot about what it means to me to live a creative life. I furiously underlined at least half of it, but there was one particular line that read like a punch to the gut: 

"It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind)."

I have never thought of my own creativity in this way. In fact, for the past several years, every time I would sit down to work on my creative work, it felt like a battle. It felt like waging a war with what I thought I was "supposed" to do because I "wanted" to be a writer. Because I had this novel draft just collecting dust and this master's degree that was supposed to mean something in the real world. I talked the talk and pretended I was walking the walk - when really, writing was making me pretty miserable. 

I rationalized it in a thousand ways. I was a newlywed. I was moving again. My husband's job situation was too stressful. I was spending all day writing freelance blog posts and couldn't spend another minute at my computer. I still had two seasons left in my Gilmore Girls re-watching. My house wasn't clean. I was too unhappy to write. 

When I was younger, I would spend hours sprawled out on my bed with my looseleaf notebooks, writing page after page of character descriptions and dialogue scenes. I kept list of all the stories I wanted to write because I had more ideas than I could possibly remember. I loved when it was cold outside, because that meant I could zip my notebook up inside my coat and hide in the slide during recess, just writing. I loved it. It was my favorite thing to do. 

Somewhere along the line, I lost the enjoyment for making up characters and stories and worlds. Writing became something I studied and pursued, not something I loved. Having a creative life felt like a charade I had to keep up because I had a degree and student loans constantly reminding me that I was supposed to live up to expectations - both mine and others. 

But the whole point of Big Magic is that your creative life shouldn't come with any expectations except for one: to live a "life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear." It's about creating for the sake of creating because you're a creator who wants to create. It's not about getting published or gaining recognition. It's just about doing what fills you up. Honestly, this was a little scary to read. Most of the creative work I've done in the last few years had done the opposite - leaving me drained, frustrated, and questioning. 

So, okay. I decided it was time to figure out once and for all what kind of writer I was. I decided that for one week I would try waking up two hours earlier than normal and work creatively for at least 90 minutes. I set very little boundaries for what this would mean: I could write in my journal, I could work on my novel revisions, I could write something new - but I couldn't work on any freelance work, check my email, or browse social media. Mainly, I just wanted to know if it was possible to like writing again. 

The first day was honestly so startlingly amazing that I surprised even myself. I had more energy, my work day was more productive, I was in a better mood. Hell, I even ate more nutritiously and spent an hour cleaning my house, just because (subtext: and not because we had company coming over). I wish I had a better word for it, but honestly the only way I can describe it was invigorating. 

I'm now on Day 15 of writing every day and I look forward to that quiet morning time more than I look forward to any other part of my day. The novel revisions I have dragged out for almost four years now are shockingly close to being...done? I feel genuinely happier and more like *me* than I have in ages. And it turns out creativity is possibly a little infectious. Two of my dearest writing friends have been meeting me for Skype "check-ins" as we report our progress. Another friend (who has been generously reading my revised pages) told me she's been more productive with her own writing than she has in months. We're living creative lives and we're doing it together and it feels wonderful. 

Maybe something will come from these morning hours spent with my novel. Maybe it won't. But at least now I know for sure: I am happier doing the work than I am not doing it. 

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"Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you." - Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

What It Was Like Being Back at My Alma Mater for a Career Conference

Just over a week ago, I spent a day surrounded by the electric energy of smart, confident women at my favorite place in the entire world. And I haven't been able to stop thinking about the experience ever since. 

You see, I went to college in a magical place. And you could tell me you feel the same way about your college, but I wouldn't believe you. I'm convinced Hollins University is special in a way that is wholly unique and - yes - magical. I'm not entirely sure how to describe it to outsiders except to say that this place is my exhale. It is where I am not only most myself, but where I'm also my best self. The second I drive onto campus, I begin thinking clearer. When I am there, I am simultaneously more energized and relaxed. Tension leaves my shoulders. Everything I haven't done or wished I could do suddenly seems completely possible. 

So, when I was asked to return to campus as a featured alum for a career conference, I think it took me all of 30 seconds to accept. A day talking to successful career women and driven, doe-eyed students? Sign me up.  

Of course, there's nothing like being back at one of the most formative locations of your younger days to bring about a little reflection. 

When I graduated college in 2009, I didn't even know that my current profession existed. Well, obviously I knew being a freelance writer existed, but content marketing? Nope. It wasn't even remotely on my radar. I had spent most of my life telling people that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but really had no concept of what that would look like. But now I'm doing it. I'm making a living as a writer. Box checked. 

And yet. During one of the "speed connection" sessions (think speed dating, but with alums and students networking instead), I found myself feeling incredibly...small? These young women, these students, these dreamers - they kept coming up to my table and sitting across from me and telling me all of the big things they hoped to do with their life. They had pie-in-the-sky dreams. They had make-a-difference dreams. Didn't I used to be just like that? So hopeful, so inspired, so sure I would be who I wanted to be?

Because yes: I am making a living writing. But 2009 Cortney wanted to be a writer with a capital Creative. She wanted to write novels and short stories and essays that people would read and think, "Yes, I feel this exact same way sometimes. Thank you." And it's not that I've given up on those goals, because I haven't. I'm still taking small steps to pursue them, but they are just that: small. Somehow, bafflingly, six and a half years have passed. I can do more. 

I went back to Hollins expecting to inspire current students to pursue their goals. I didn't quite expect that they would instead have the same effect on me. That I would feel more inspired than I have in months. That I would want to act, want to do, want to be...better. 

And really, I should have known. If there's any place that can reconnect me with who I am and who I want to be, it's Hollins. It's a good reminder to my fellow sisters: if you're feeling lost, if you aren't quite sure you're on track, or if you just need to remember how it felt - go back. Step on to campus. Take a deep breath. Exhale.