I would love to say that most of my best efforts are oriented toward others, or the common good, or world peace, or something equally admirable. But sadly, for the most part I tend to be pretty self-interested. In high school I arranged a surprise retirement party for our veteran calculus teacher smack-dab in the middle of our final exam (“Surprise!”) simply because I knew I would do better in the class if the test didn’t factor in my overall grade. He cried — he was so touched that his students would celebrate his 35-year career — and our whole class got an “A” on the final. Never mind the “A+” I earned in shameless self-service. Or, a few years ago when I had to plan a fall investor conference in California for my work: I intentionally scheduled it for the few days preceding my friend’s astronomically expensive wedding in Palm Desert to save myself the cost of an airline ticket. The conference was a success, as was the wedding, but I cannot say either arrangement was selfless.
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.
For everyone in the room, a commitment to creative work is a commitment that costs them something tangible every day or every week. The hours or dollars sacrificed, not given to other important and worthy pursuits, keep them at it despite funks or frustrations. The discipline that keeps them focused is not so much an act of will but of necessity — a sort of justification for making the gift and the sacrifice fruitful instead of wasteful. These women are clear-eyed about what their creative work is costing them and that is the very thing that forces them to work through it, to lean into it, even when it feels futile.
My friend Laurel, who has three small kids, told me about going to a gallery show in the District about a year ago where she talked to several other artists and realized that all of them — without exception — were working a job simply to feed themselves. All of them did art on the side, in the evenings, sacrificially. For Laurel, as she tells it, this turned the tide of self-pity in her own creative life in the midst of mothering. Somehow, knowing that the limitations on her time and energy were no different — perhaps even preferable — to the limitations and sacrifices every other artist was making had the effect of making her own tensions both catalytic and normative.
Last but certainly not least of many cheerful discoveries of the night came from a third question my friend Katarina posed, asking each person to speak to it as they shared their own work and practical resource: What is it about what you do, your work, that makes your heart sing? What makes your heart leap in your chest? What compels you?
The answers to these one-in-the-same questions were simply staggering. They were so unexpected, so random, so personal, so counter-intuitive, and so widely and uniquely varied in accordance to both person and craft it easily made for the most treasured and memorable part of the evening — a little peek into one intricately, intimately crafted soul, one after another. The most surprising aspect of this was hearing every person reply with such certainty, such an established, rooted sense of hope and vision for what they want their work to be about, what they are longing to communicate, share, heal, affirm. Without exception there was a quick, accessible, purposeful, missional motivation undergirding every person’s highly-individualized compulsion to do what they do.
For Nicole, an expressionist painter, this answer wasn’t about training or technique but about her longing to see people, to give them dignity. For Susan, a letterpress stationery designer, it was a window into how she sees texture and packaging and craftsmanship as a means of communicating about value, substance, relationship, and care. For Jen, a photographer, this reply conjured her desire to help families make good memories together, to capture moments that are real, substantive, and lasting. And when I listened closely to those I knew best, for most of them there is also the shadow of something beneath that motivation, the longing for healing — echoes of questions, tensions, hurt, complexity, and confusion that somehow works out in their art as both a source of creative motivation and also a salve for pain. It is where creativity and redemption meet.
I love Cormac McCarthy’s reply to an interviewer several years ago in response to the screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Road. He said, “Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don't have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything.” And while McCarthy is obviously known for his dark view of life, this observation coheres with the undertone of our show-and-tell evening. It is hard to have a discussion about a creative process without talking about fear, uncertainty, insecurity, or shame. If those things didn’t exist there wouldn’t be much of a process. Learning how to stare down fear and create anyway is the process, at least so far as I can tell if I had to summarize. No fear means no creating. And squaring up to it is often painful, even if it is rewarding in the end.
In addition — and I think McCarthy has this right — committing to create something, anything, to develop a voice or aesthetic or style, is to tap into all of the broken things we wish to fix. It is thus an exercise in excavating pain, digging it up, examining it, shining light and experience back onto it, and daring to look again and again. Depending on how deep these foundations, the creative process can be varying degrees of loneliness, terror, confusion, disorientation, and discouragement — quite a range of unpleasantness! And all nipping, nagging relentlessly right at the back of the head, driving you nuts, as McCarthy so aptly describes.
For me, this is exactly why it’s good to build a community of serious, committed creative people who can show work they are proud of, access the tools they already have in their belt, and remember and say out loud why they do what they do across all variety of disciplines and mediums. It feels especially important for me to do this as I step into more intentional efforts at creativity. Working to create, to make something beautiful, coherent, dignifying, and true . . . these are efforts that all seem to devolve into interior battles that mostly feel like a street fight in my soul — chaotic, egotistical, and pretty futile. But knowing I have companions fighting the same grueling, petty-feeling battles in their own souls, and then seeing their art — how beautiful it is, what a gift, how important and stunning and redemptive and nourishing it is — helps me believe ever so slightly more that perhaps it is not as futile as it feels.
All of us need people. People to love us, people to help keep us sane, people to tell us what we are good at and where we would benefit from amendment, people to pour us a drink or hand us sea salt caramels as needed. For those drawn to creative work this is no exception. Dr. James Houston, the founder of Regent College in Vancouver, Canada once gave a series of lectures titled “Redeeming Our Tears: Experiencing Transformation Through Suffering, Sorrow and Pain,” and one of the few things I remember from listening to him more than 10 years ago was his use of the phrase, “the loneliness of uniqueness.” It is a tender insight, giving name to this loneliness we all experience simply by being the only “me” there is. Yet while this is deeply true — I can’t fathom a day when my creating, reflecting, and working would not be wholly my own — gatherings like the one we had last spring go a long way in reminding me that I am not ever so lonely as I might think. What is more, I am always better for drawing others into my life. There is nothing magical about the way this experiment came together. It was a whim to begin with, and it still mostly feels like a whim if-and-when we reconvene every six months or so. The value of it — the point of it — is simply to acknowledge that artists need other artists. Somehow, some way, a means to deepen, expand, and flourish in our work as well as in our sense of friendship and companionship. A ready and regular reminder that despite angst or fear or loneliness there is the benefit of co-laborers journeying the craggy, thankless path of creation and redemption together with brush, pen, lens, piano, frying pan, or what have you.
Kate Harris is Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture, wife to a good man, and mother to their three young children. She resides just outside Washington, DC, in Falls Church, VA.