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

My 13 Favorite Ways to Avoid a Deadline

First, let me say that I live and die by my deadlines. This isn't about missing deadlines. This is about taking entirely too long to meet them along the way. 

If I could write straight through without getting blocked and without procrastinating, I could probably manage to work about 10 hours a week. However, that would also mean I was a wizard. So instead, I work many more hours and break up the struggle to get words on the page in a number of creative ways. Here are my 13 favorite. 

  1. Social media. Obviously, right? Really, just the Internet in general. There's just so much there. It's an ever ending supply of entertainment. 
     
  2. Podcasts. Man, I love podcasts. I know that is a completely unoriginal thing to say these days, but I really do. And, in case you were wondering, no matter how much you convince yourself that you can write an article while listening to a podcast in the background, you absolutely cannot. (Current obsession: The Black Tapes Podcast)
     
  3. Looking for more work. This is completely counterintuitive - why am I looking for more work while avoiding the work I already have? - but it is also one of my main methods of procrastination, probably because I still feel productive when I do it. 
     
  4. Calling my best friend. My best friend and I talk on the phone every day around 2:30. She has a much more adult schedule than I do, so I usually wait for her to call me, but I get impatient if she doesn't and then I call her. I count on this interruption to break up my work day, no matter how busy I may be. 
     
  5. Doing the dishes. One thing no one told me about working from home was how many more dishes it would create. You wouldn't think eating just one more meal in my house would make such a difference, but it really does. Rare is the time of day when I don't have at least a few dishes I could do and it's often a good reason to get up from my desk. 
     
  6. Budgeting. I probably do and redo our budget at least twice a week. Or I go over my freelance taxes spreadsheet or check the due dates on our bills or plan out the next month of spending. Sometimes it calms me. Sometimes it does the opposite. 
     
  7. Reading. I like to tell myself that this doesn't count as avoiding work because reading makes me a better writer, so really it's just like taking a training course. 
     
  8. Walking my dog. Some days, when I'm really feeling stuck, he gets a walk every hour on the hour.  It makes us both happy. 
     
  9. Meal planning/Grocery list making. I am someone who LOVES grocery shopping. I like looking at recipes, planning out what ingredients I need, and then organizing my shopping list by the aisles in the grocery store. 
     
  10. Online window shopping. My wardrobe has become considerably minimized since I started working from home. I just can't justify buying many clothes, but I still like to look.
     
  11. Journaling. I keep a couple different types of journals for various purposes. Taking a break to do some stream of conscious writing that only I will ever see often does the trick to get my head back in the game.
     
  12. Eating. If I'm already trying to take my lunch break at 11:00, I know it's going to be a long day. 
     
  13. Blogging. Can you tell? 

Next time a client ask why I prefer not to bill hourly for specific article assignments, I think I'll just refer them to this list. It's in both of our best interests, trust me.