I’m currently taking part in the Creative Focus Workshop created and taught by Jessica Abel, and this post is the result of trying to summarize my thoughts and feelings regarding one of the lessons. The lesson explores how the Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be applied in creative life, challenges us to understand how our self-generated creative work is vital, and encourages us to give it the attention and priority it deserves. (This blog post explains some of it.)
Here is the bit that really did it for me:
Of course, people give lip service to Q2 all the time. They say, “This [comic, novel, blog, feature film, whatever] is the most important thing for me. This is what I truly want to do with my life.”
But when it comes down to actually choosing to spend time on it, to putting the time in the calendar, everything else comes first.
Reading this, I felt extremely called out. I’ve re-read the lesson several times, and I went back to re-read parts of Jessica’s book Growing Gills, specifically where she talks about how creating a sustainable creative practice is an existential battle. “Existential, meaning: winning the battle is pivotal to your existence.”
And here’s the thing. I agree with this. I’ve been agreeing with this for the past ten years. But more recently, my agreement has been more intellectual than emotional. It took me some soul-searching to understand why.
Short answer: I’ve been burned (out) before.
Long answer begins back in 2010. That year, because of reasons, I declared that making art was the most important thing in my life, and all other aspects of my life would have to be subordinated to it. I wasn’t in the position to quit paid work (I was and still am fortunate that between my partner and me, we can have a fairly comfortable life on 1.5 incomes), but I did sacrifice my physical and mental health, and endangered relationships, all for the Mission of Art. Five years into said mission, I had planned out a 6-book series, wrote two and a half novels in it, got one actually signed to be published by a small press; plus a handful of self-published comics, abandoned ambitions of singing-songwriting… and a case of burnout that rendered me unable to touch any creative projects without screaming. It took me a year of creative abstinence and several months of therapy to unravel that mess.
During the same period, the small press went under, and with it, my publishing opportunity. The idea of querying all over again was unthinkable, so I set out to edit my novel again, instead (no regrets: the book I ended up with is vastly better). But I would touch my creative work as lightly as possible. I would not commit emotionally. Because if I did allow myself to admit the importance of creative writing in my life, I would get paralyzed with anxiety whenever I opened a notebook or a document, because suddenly, the rest of my life hinged on my ability to produce words. (Thoughts of publishing were simply not allowed during that time.)
The upside was, I didn’t hate my creative work any more (as I came to do before I started therapy). So I would work on my writing, bit by bit, telling myself it was no big deal, no pressure, I’m just playing around, this is a hobby, much like my new interest in country walking. That was the status quo for a few years. I had settled into thinking that I could only write part time, that I only WANTED to write part-time, that even if I had the resources to quit my paid work, I would still never write for more than an hour a day. Two, tops.
That was the case until late 2018, when I went on a writing retreat. For four days, my attention wasn’t diverted to paid work or chores. And I wrote. Full-time. A good 5-6 hours of focused creativity every day. That marked a turning point for me. Maybe I did want to write “seriously” after all. Maybe writing wouldn’t always be relegated to what my friend and I jokingly called “my side ho”. Maybe I was ready for a committed relationship with it again.
So I committed to the idea of myself as a writer. I did the work as best I could: at that time, lessons in Growing Gills proved invaluable for me. But only now do I realize that I still wasn’t committing emotionally. I was afraid. A part of me felt that if I admitted that writing is important, so important, the most important for me, I would slip right back into that short-term productive but ultimately self-destructive state that had defined the first half of my 2010’s.
Well, no more.
In Growing Gills, Jessica writes:
“The decision to carve out time and attention to make your work is a breathtaking act of ego. You’re saying, ‘I don’t care what everyone else thinks I should be doing with my time. I know this is what I need to do.’”
Last week, I was able to commit that breathtaking act of ego again. And I intend to keep committing it, day after day.
My creative work is important to me.
My creative work is one of the most important things in my life and THE most important ambition.
I don’t care what everyone else thinks I should be doing with my time. I know this is what I need to do.