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.
"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