Last week, I had the privilege of attending an all day creativity conference led by authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, two of the most lively, original and creative people I’ve ever met. The joy and enthusiasm they bring to their work is remarkable and for me, it is their most unique and significant contributions to the arts. For too long, our culture has ascribed to one narrative about what it means to be an artist and it’s a dark one. To be an artist is to struggle – depressed, anxious, alcoholic, and anti-social. Rob and Liz blow up that stereotype, not only by their own natural tendency towards optimism, but also by their insistence that your life is your work of art, which means we are all in the game. You are the medium. What you create (externally) is secondary to how you live.
In essence, the creative journey is anything you are doing that is creating YOU – a new you, a better you, a more vibrant, powerful, lively you.
Rather than ascribing significance to some arbitrary metrics of talent, production, or economic reward, the true measure of your work as an artist, or an individual is how you choose to live.
If you want to be more creative, here are some questions you might ask yourself to see where you might step up your game.
Are you creating something new within yourself? Are you getting out of your comfort zone once in a while, mentally, emotionally, physically?
If you don’t know where to start, read a non-fiction book and apply that knowledge to your life. Get therapy; have that hard conversation with a loved one you’ve been avoiding. Go on a hike; get out in nature; head somewhere new for vacation, or even just for dinner. One of the most important habits we should be in is breaking our old habits! We’ve all heard, “Life’s too short; take chances!” My take is that life is waaaay too long to just keep doing the same old thing. Do you really want to be the same person at 50 that you were at 30, in any way? (Please, don’t even consider your physical image! Honestly, it freaks people out when someone doesn’t age and too much plastic surgery is NOT a good look!)
Are you pushing at the boundaries of what you were told your life should look like, or are you simply following all the rules handed down to you?
So many of us were taught exactly who we should be, how we should behave and what we should want. Our careers were mapped out for us, as were our aspirations in terms of relationship, material success and values. Are you still striving for those same goals, even as you’ve meet them and find them unsatisfying? Have you discovered even one new thing about who you are, or what you want that has nothing to do with what your family, or culture expects? If you are still playing by all the rules, dig deeper! You are more than just your mother’s child, the teacher’s pet, or a coach’s dream. Explore your own soul and see where it might be calling you.
Are you living with integrity and authenticity?
We all like to think we are people of integrity, living by the high standards we profess to believe in. Even the politicians who are working so hard to get our votes this election year claim personal integrity, despite the many public examples to the contrary! Even though we are loathe to admit it, we all fall short – very, very short – from time to time. For me, living with integrity has come to mean (as the root word, integer, suggests) living as a WHOLE. Am I embracing the whole of who I am? Are my head, heart and gut integrated, especially in response to difficult circumstances? Artists are not often known for their personal integrity, but if my life is my medium, I’ve got to step up.
I love these messages about creativity, even as I struggle to embrace them. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as an artist. In fact, artistry was pretty much dismissed in my Catholic, Anglo-Saxon upbringing. Artists were self-indulgent, while productivity and achievement reigned supreme. I might have been a talented writer, but I never thought of being “a writer.” I thought I would use my skills in service of my job, or a family. Even as I gravitated to a more creative way of living, I couldn’t even acknowledge the movement within myself.
Just a couple years ago, when Keara first started shaving her head and decided to pursue a theater degree, I asked my friend Jen, “Where did she come from? How did I end up with this artist?” She looked at me incredulously, like I was joking and said, “What are you talking about? Where else would she come from? She is you!” I was dumbstruck. In my mind, there was nothing creative about me. I was still a good, Catholic girl, grown up to become just a plain, old mom.
In the course of the conference, Rob Bell told a story about an ancient Jewish rabbi named Akiva. One evening, Akiva was walking home by a Roman fort and the guard on duty called out, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva walked on and again the man shouted, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” Akiva stopped and called out, “How much do they pay you to ask those questions?” The guard gave him a number. Akiva replied, “I will pay you twice that much to come to my house each morning and ask me those questions.”
Who are you? What are you doing here?
My goodness, we’d love to know the answer to those questions, but we rarely do the work to figure it out. Most often, we put our head down and keep going. And even if we want to live just a little bit differently, so many things work against us. Some of the most powerful (but really sneaky) blockages are the family histories that are embedded in our DNA – generations-worth of messages about who “we” are and what “we” do. Compound that with our actual upbringing, our cultural milieu, our own inner critic and our paths are pretty much set. We think we are free, but unless we are pushing hard enough to feel the chain at our neck, we are merely being good dogs on a long leash.
For better or for worse, I have never been a pet person – neither keeping, nor being one.
Growing up, my family went through several dogs. (I was told they went to better homes.) My kids begged for a puppy, a kitten, a fur-covered mammal, but all they ever managed to get through the front door were goldfishes won at fair games and a cold-blooded, hand-me-down snake, which I adored, but accidentally killed with kindness.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the most I can keep alive is the wild, little animal inside me and the most I can offer to my children is a big, safe yard and a leash made of the thinnest chain possible, so that when they are ready to run, the inevitable backward tug, doesn’t actually stop them from going. For all the ways I’m raising them to be good citizens of our culture – to aspire, to work hard, to have discipline, to save and to serve – I’m also trying to raise them to be creatives.
The poet Mary Oliver has given me the perfect question to ask them:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
In other words, who are you and what are you doing here?
Don’t be afraid to ask the question – of yourself, or your children. Start old if you have to, but start young if you can. Give the people you love, including yourself, permission to find the fullest expression of who they are.
Over the next couple months I plan to unpack the six words that Liz and Rob offered us at the conference to lean into our creativity and help us answer those questions. Look for the series: Fear, Enchantment, Persistence, Permission, Trust, and Divinity.