In the same way, last spring when I invited all of my professionally creative friends over to talk about their creative work and creative processes I wish I could say that I had only their best interests or the interests of cultural renewal at heart, but the truth is that I needed something from them. I was, then and now, trying to figure out how I could write better and more often in the midst of a busy life with work and young children. I invited them based on my own selfish desire to better understand — and then yoke myself to — the disciplines and habits that serious, regular creative work demands. In short, I wanted to trade mint juleps and French 75s for some practical and well-seasoned creative wisdom from those who are in it, had done it, and could encourage me that the crazy-person feeling I was increasingly becoming accustomed to experiencing was mostly just a run-of-the-mill creative thing. I hoped so anyway. Otherwise, save the mint julep, I was definitely in trouble.
Despite my deep longing to be among the ranks of what I call the “true” artists, the kind who can effortlessly dress themselves in wonderfully whimsical, sophisticated clothing and decorate their homes with lovely abstract art that has deep roots in poetic allusion, I am really too poorly dressed and my home too pathetically decorated to ever count myself among their ranks. Also, I live in Washington, DC — land of navy suits, white marble buildings, and linear, deductive reasoning — so, in an effort to embrace these realities but still marry the wannabe creative part of my soul with the Capitol Hill pragmatism part of my soul, I asked each of my artist guests to come prepared to share two things:
1) A favorite sample of work they had produced and were most proud of.
2) A practical resource that helps or has helped them in the creative process — perhaps a book, an environment, an exercise, a muse, a routine, a person, etc.
The result was a wonderfully fun version of adult show-and-tell. It easily proved the single greatest self-serving idea I have ever had, mostly thanks to a room full of generous, self-giving, wildly gifted women. My friend Nicole, a portrait artist who makes her living painting commissioned portraits in the upscale neighborhoods of DC lugged a 6-foot portrait of a street surveyor into my living room and shared a bit about her love of street art, as well as her vision for what became the AS IS Urban Portrait project in DC. Jana unfurled a teeny square of silk, intricately covered in stunning gold, water-colored-looking aspen trees, a sample of her newest medium and technique. Susan brought her newest line of letterpress stationery, Katarina showed a slideshow from her photography site, and Laura showed a trailer from her new documentary. Others shared articles, paintings, and songs written and performed. It wasn’t a support group. The point here was not to focus on why art is hard to do, or why creativity is difficult to sustain, but rather how to do it, and how to stick with it despite that reality. No whiny, melancholy woe-is-me stories, just art on display, explained, shared, and lots of good practical resources, too.
Several folks referenced Twyla Tharp’s brilliantly practical book The Creative Habit, others recommended Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as a guidebook, and another loved Daybook by Anne Truitt. I am a big fan of Tolkien’s winsome, largely autobiographical short story about an anxious, visionary little artist man/elf titled “Leaf by Niggle” and the tail-kicking essay by Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop,” which is full of little jewels like this:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. . . . Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
So how do these friends spend it all?
One of the artists credits deciding to rent studio space years ago as the thing that forces her to make time and space for her art. Having a price tag attached — knowing what it costs her every month in dollars and cents — makes her budget time and money for it like she would any other priority. It also forces her to generate revenue from at least some of her work. For another, a writer, a commitment to her more creative writing is sustained by keeping a steady stream of deadlines on a wide range of written material, much of which generates the revenue she needs for childcare to protect a handful of hours of silence each week.
For at least one photographer, investing in classes at least once a year has been her way to keep her growth and creativity a priority even in the midst of a thriving business that is driven by client work. My friend who prints on an antique letterpress, a process that involves toxic chemicals and is rather time intensive, allocates an evening or evenings for printing each month or each week whenever she is in a season that requires printing large quantities. She does design work at a coffee shop during preschool hours or asks her husband to take a half day off of work to watch the kids if she needs to get caught up. Likewise, in anticipation of welcoming another new baby to their family and knowing that printing would likely be more cumbersome than she wanted to undertake for a few months, she launched a design blog to keep the platform for her business active and alive while focusing her creativity in an area that takes less physical energy and time.
For all, committing to read good books, watch good films, and be intentional about other inputs during “off” hours are disciplines that serve their work. Many also spoke about the important value of carving out time to rest and reflect.