The Creative Life

The other day, Erika posted about her decision to be an artist, and it made me think about my own creative life. People seem to have very strong reactions, negative and positive, to those who decide follow their creativity. My family has always been whole-heartedly supportive of my creative pursuits –from ballet recitals to violin recitals to performances in plays and performances of my own play to photo exhibits– probably because being creative is the only thing I’ve ever shown any aptitude for. It’s not like I’m a math whiz (I’ll pause here for those of you who know how long it takes me to calculate tip at a restaurant to have a laugh) who abandoned it all to try my hand at writing. Growing up, there was of course an emphasis on the importance of financial security, but it was thankfully never drilled into my head to get a degree in something that would guarantee me immediate, well-paying employment (or employment at all, for that matter). What mattered was that I was doing —am doing something that made me happy, something I was good at.

But it got me thinking, because while my own family gave me such a positive foundation, and while 99% of the people I tell I’m writing a novel are really encouraging and supportive, there have been several hesitant, “Oh”s along the way. “Well…what are you planning on doing with it when you finish?” as if to say, “This isn’t going to be a full-time habit, is it?” And none of it has been intentionally mean-spirited; I just never realized some could view my decision to give in and be a writer as unconventional or risky, something to be met with confusion.

All of this reflection reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. Have you seen it? Spare 18 minutes and watch it.

This quote in particular really stuck out to me:

Is it rational, is it logical, that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work they feel they were put on this earth to do? And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers don’t?…And not just writers, but creative people across all genres it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable…Somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

Why is it, do you think, that people worry about those who choose to have a creative life, but never question why someone would want to become, say, a urologist? Is it purely the lack of a steady income that makes people nervous for creatives? There’s a reason, after all, that the term is “starving artist”, not “starving scientist.” As a society we seem to place a large importance on the money that can be earned from a job, but we also definitely value literature and art, so it’s not like we’re entirely discouraging people from being creative or living a creative life. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

25 thoughts on “The Creative Life

  1. I really like your view point here; this is a conversation I’ve brought up in the past but never quite knew how to properly put into words my thoughts on the whole idea. In my various lines of work I’ve often encountered people who asked me why I never finished college, as though I’d be in a better place in my life had I not dropped out after 2.5 years. The truth is, I’d probably be making more money if I had a degree, but to me money has never equated happiness. My parents have always instilled in me that ultimately they want me to be happy (not rich, or successful, although they wish those things too, but happiness is the ultimate goal). I’ve had a lot of people (mostly strangers!) question the paths I’ve followed in life… it seems as though people don’t know how to respond when it becomes clear that money isn’t your ultimate goal. It’s as though most people are wired to go after money, and when they encounter someone with a different motivation, their system doesn’t know how to interpret it. There are greater satisfactions in life than money, I think most people just haven’t been shown how to appreciate them fully.

    I wrote a post at the end of last year about happiness and doing what feels right for you, it’s here if you’re interested in readin it:

    1. Hey Marine! A fellow Philadelphian :) happy to meet you! I’m a native Philly girl, and it’s been interesting to see the city change and grow and become so populated with like-minded creatives and a really diverse art scene. It’s been beautiful, and I’ve been looking at joining a writing group — something that probably wasn’t available as an outlet for creatives even 15-20 years ago in the city. I read your post about being a baker and choosing your own happiness, and you really put into words a lot of what I was thinking. I’m so impressed that you took risks and went for it, and even more for knowing when to say “no.”

      People really do generally assume everyone wants to make as much money as possible, isn’t that strange? I’d be happy living in a tiny studio apartment, forgoing a big mortgage if it meant I didn’t have to slave away at a job that wasn’t fulfilling. But that’s considered “bohemian” these days! Thank you for your thoughtful comments!

      PS. Are you working at the Anthro on Walnut? I’m there ALL the time, haha. xo

      1. I actually work at the Anthro in Wayne – I live in the suburbs west of Philly so it’s less of a trek for me. The one on Walnut is awesome, but there are so many stairs! Every time I go there I’m happy not to be working at that location :)

        Philly really is a beautiful city; everyone says New York has more creative people but I beg to differ. New York may be filled with ‘beautiful people’ but Philly is filled with artists and a whole lot more inner beauty. I’m really happy to have moved out here and found a community of like-minded people. I only wish the baking scene were… different. More reason to aspire to open my own place one day though!

        Also, as a side-note, I only stumbled upon your blog recently and thought, “This girl is awesome!”. I loved your post a ways back about why you love Philly. And I am French! If you ever want to get together and speak French, drink gin, and talk about books…. I’m only a train ride away! :)

  2. Bohemia

    Authors and actors and artists and such
    Never know nothing, and never know much.
    Sculptors and singers and those of their kidney
    Tell their affairs from Seattle to Sydney.
    Playwrights and poets and such horses’ necks
    Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.
    Diarists, critics, and similar roe
    Never say nothing, and never say no.
    People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
    God, for a man that solicits insurance!

    Dorothy Parker

    My wish for you has always been for you to be happy. Follow your dream for it will lead to other dreams.

    1. Thanks, moo! It’s always been comforting to know I could take a huge leap and have somewhere safe to land if it didn’t pan out. Related question: can I come live in the guest room if this whole “writer” thing leaves me destitute and alone? ;) xo

  3. well i really believe it’s because of the lack of steady income and the choice many creatives make to live with less income (potentially, in all likelihood). i also think because peoples’ talent seems so apparent, so it’s natural for people to look at them and say “geez, you are so talented, why don’t you . . . do something else.” i think, in general, people don’t like to live within their means let alone like a little church mouse, nor are most people risk takers, so you know, it seems “crazy” to others i suppose.

    though, i do tell fisher to just get a degree that he can fall back on at anytime in his life, after that he can be homeless if he so chooses. or he could work for a few years and a travel for 5, or he could use his income to buy art equipment, etc., etc.. so i guess as a mom i see starting with a backup career as a good option. my mom still sends me job postings all the time. and i still think of getting that back-up career plan too (my first degree proved to be in the same salary range as a creatives). thus my pursuit in the creative arena. much more fun. xoxo

    1. My parents were the same way. My dad didn’t go to college (he was of a different generation where college wasn’t the necessity it is now), but it was always understood I absolutely would. Heck, my mom would have loved it if I’d pursued a masters degree, but I knew when to stop ;) You’re doing Fisher a really good favor by insisting he have a “fall back” plan. Even if my degree was virtually unemployable when I graduated (yay dying photojournalism industry!) having a degree at all allowed me to get a steady job. With health insurance and a 401k. And enough free time to focus on my creative pursuits. So there is that.

      I recently saw friend I hadn’t seen since high school and found out he’d saved up a huge sum of money to float for a while and had just quit his job to focus on becoming a poet and working with inner-city students teaching them the craft. How amazing is that? I’m sure people were concerned about his decision for reasons you said, but it never would have occurred to me to be anything other than wildly impressed and awed. xo

  4. Just found your blog today. I’ve been happily clicking around for the last twenty minutes. You love art and Paris. Sign me up! Great combo! I am going for my first time this summer. I am excited. Ps. Good for you sticking to writing. I love to read. I have secretly outlined two books. They are stashed away. I think I’ll stick to drawing and painting.

    1. Hey thanks!! Click away :) And yes, art and Paris are my two greatest loves (well, after cake and sleeping. And Gary Oldman). Welcome! I’d love to hear what your book outlines are about. It’s always so interesting talking to other aspiring writers. xo

  5. OMG! that’s me!

    I have done a lot of thinking about how creativity is important to my soul.. and because we as humans are programed to please our parents we want to do what they say. You are so right in the sense that people view creative work as maybe not real work even though it it a million times harder then a standard 9 to 5. I think the best part of being a creative other than the art of making, its meeting other creative souls that are making something and see what is going to happen with their project.

    You are a beautiful writer, Erin.- and I can’t wait to see your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and millionth book come out.

    1. That’s you!! Your post was really so good and had been on my mind all weekend! You’re so right that it’s harder than a 9 to 5 job. At the end of my work day, I can shut my computer down and leave, and not take it home with me. Writing, though? It’s 24 hours a day. It’s midnight in bed scribbling something down before falling back to sleep and losing it. It’s constant. Ah, the creative soul! ;) You are so kind and such a darling. Your art is beautiful and I am always so impressed by your dedication to it, Erika. xo

  6. No matter how much I try and plot a logical and rational path, my mind always veers to the creative side. It’s my outlet and my escape and maybe even that much better because I choose to do it. It balances me out. That being said, I’m glad I’ve never been pressured into picking one side and I know I’m lucky to have had the choice of doing what I wanted.

    1. I totally hear you, Ruth. While part of me wishes I could never work a normal 9 to 5 job and spend all of my time toiling away being a full-time writer, I’m terrified that it would burn me out. That I’d lose part of the drive to write because I’d have all the time in the world, rather than feeling like I have to consciously make time for it now, and that I’d procrastinate. Does that make sense? xo

      1. It totally makes sense. What if it became something you dreaded instead of something you looked forward to? Then you would lose your job AND your hobby at the same time. I’m all about diversification.

  7. Erin this post came at a time when I truly needed it. I agree in that I think money plays a huge factor. People worry about whether other people are going to “make” it, however happiness cannot be gauged on that alone. In fact most people who have decided to go a more creative route in their careers are much happier.

    1. Money really isn’t the key to happiness, but people always treat it like it is. It’s the ultimate status symbol though, and if shows like Rich Kids of Beverly Hills are any indication, the ultra-wealthy aren’t even using their brains or following any creative pursuits. What a sad life! To not have to worry about money because you have so much and still not even unshackle yourself from it and do something you love. Crazy. xo

  8. I was only able to hop on late last night and brain = mushy, so I took the evening to think over what you wrote. This is very compelling (and I probably have more thinking to do!). I think people don’t equate creativity with security, and for most, financial security is “the” security. And truthfully, if you look at the creatives we hold up in high regard, they have scattered, live-large lives that are writ upon a big stage. They careen, they create, they FEEL. What we tend not to see are the dogged day-to-day moments of just showing up in front of the page or the canvass or behind the lens. There’s a security in that kind of dedication, one that isn’t monetary.

    And then, what IS creativity? I always argue that Neel is one of the most creative thinkers I know, working in a field that would not be necessarily considered so.

    Funny, I tend to be more pragmatic than I’d thought I’d be. I was raised by an artist, but one who also worked hard at another job, and excelled there, in order to help raise his family. So sometimes I don’t think you get a choice, but have to find your creative moments in the pockets of time that belong to you and you alone and hope that the one can enrich the other.

    Great conversation to have started. I’ll be thinking about it a lot today.

    1. I’m with you on the dad front: my dad was a full-time architect to make a living. He absolutely was proof was you have to make your creativity a priority even if it’s not your main source of income. Do what you love. It was a really good role model to grow up with.

      Why is it, do you think, that financial security is synonymous with security? It’s probably socialist of me to suggest that maybe money is really the root of all problems. Sure, I need a roof over my head, but I feel much more “secure” when I’m with my notebook and pen than thinking about how much money I have in the bank. It’s interesting.

      And I don’t think there’s a definitive answer to any of this, but I love hearing your thoughts and just hashing it out. xo

  9. oh, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this post. my parents are the complete opposite of yours. they are deeply suspicious of anything artistic/creative and anything vaguely intellectual, the two things that describe me best. I’m not saying I’m a genius or anything, but I live firmly in my head. I’m an introvert, so long and deep conversations are what I live on. my parents also don’t do happy. I’ve been struggling with this my whole life.

    I just had another big fall-out with my mum over Christmas and haven’t spoken to her since. we simply can’t connect. her reactions to my life range from disapproval to hostility. she often makes it look like I’m me on purpose with the sole reason to make her life miserable. I think deep down there is a lot of insecurity but also envy. growing up in East Germany, my parents never had much access to education or happiness. they weren’t unhappy, but decisions were made for them and they had to function within very strict parameters. but that doesn’t explain it all. parents of friends that have the same background are totally different to my parents.

    that said, I do believe that judgment – and worry is nothing but a different and seemingly kinder form of judgement – stems from people judging themselves. they react to something they are either lacking or disapprove of for a number of reasons that have most likely nothing to do with you and what you chose to do.

    fabulous posts. thanks a lot xoxo

    1. First off, I’m so sorry you have had such a struggle with your parents (of all people!) in terms of living the life you were destined to live, creative or not. I think you are resilient beyond words for living your life despite such openly hostile opposition. A lot of people wouldn’t have the strength to do that. It’s hard enough forging your own path even when you have support, let alone when you don’t. Regardless of how your mom feels about it, you should be infinitely proud of yourself!
      You make a really interesting point about worry being a form of judgment, and I suppose I always knew it was but you said it more clearly than I’d been able to articulate. There’s the old adage, “Hurt people hurt people,” which is along the same lines, and with some really negative reactions to others’ creative lives you really have to wonder if there isn’t an underlying jealousy fueling it. It generally has nothing to do with you, you’re right, and it says more about the person judging than it does you. Thank you for the really thoughtful response, Petra! xo

  10. I wonder whether the issue and fear is really so much about creativity, but more about being self-employed? So Richard, for example, has a highly creative job but because he works for a huge multinational company he’s never encountered the ‘oooh be careful’ thing. Nor does anyone in advertising really. I think it’s more about going your own way, which would be equally scary if it wasn’t even something creative, like people who do start ups xx

    1. It might be the self-employed aspect, but then it all comes back to the financial security concerns. You’re right, no one looks at a movie director or ad executive and expresses concern. Good point, bird! I think there should be a healthy dose of fear in what we choose to do; it’s easier to be complacent and bored but “safe” financially in a job you don’t like (you know all about that) than take a big risk and go out on your own. Interesting point! xo

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