Committing to Creativity when the Going Gets Tough

In a recent episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s character Hannah interviews a famous female author. “Childlessness,” crows the older (and very successful) woman, “is the natural state of the female author.” Hannah, a writer, has just discovered that she is pregnant. Ouch.

Well, Hannah, I’ve got good news and bad news: it’s not kids that beat the creativity out of you. It’s being an adult.

It is my opinion that some people are born writers, whether they ever acknowledge this to themselves or not. Some writers never even put a word down on the page – but they have the sensibility, the voice, the storytelling gene, the irresistible urge to put sentences together. I believe I was born a writer. And I nurtured that in myself all the way through high school and into college. I wrote terrible poems and then maybe a couple decent ones. I wrote short stories. I majored in English and minored in Creative Writing. I won a Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan (a very-long-ago award that my mother and sister still remind people of, as in, “… remember when Katie won her Hopwood?!”).

Then, I graduated and began life in the real world. This was certainly not my first time working – I had worked all the way through high school and college. But this was the first time I was pulling fifty+ hours a week, first in restaurants, then in non-profits, and then as a public high school teacher. And for almost ten years, I didn’t pick up a pen.

Ten years.

Yeah, that was harsh. Sorry, Hannah.

But back to the good news.

Having a child is what made me pick up the pen again. All those years of teaching and not writing, I longed to write, but I never did. I was always too busy, too “blocked.” But in the first three years of my son’s life, I wrote over twenty-five short stories. I joined a writing group. I started calling myself a writer again. And to be clear, this wasn’t about suddenly having more free time. There was no nanny. No housekeeper or chef. Not even a babysitter. I was still working. I was busy. And completely exhausted. But some new creative force had been birthed along with my child. Suddenly, I could write. Or rather, I felt like I had to. It was as if I needed some sense of domestic friction against which I could leverage my creativity. I rediscovered myself as an artist.

Fast forward to today. I have two children now. And though I’m no longer teaching, I fell in to a great gig as a freelance writer. Suddenly, I found myself working again – a lot. And little by little, I found that that I was writing less and less. When an entire year had gone by since I’d completed a story, I had to take a hard look at what I really wanted. If I wanted to write fiction, I knew I couldn’t rely on some spark of creativity to inspire me all over again.

So, though I hesitate to give advice, I’m offering this, Hannah:

Real artists don’t just wait around for inspiration. They practice their craft. They work. Or, as Anne Lamott so eloquently puts it, they put “butt in chair” and get down to business.

I decided to find a way to get my butt in the writing chair, even if all I could manage was ten minutes per day, barely an hour a week. That’s how my Palmetto Blog was born. The idea is simple. I post once per week, writing a 500(ish) word fictional vignette inspired by a photo taken somewhere in Durham. It’s been twelve weeks since I started the blog. And even though an hour of work per week doesn’t sound like much, it adds up to twelve little stories and thousands of words.

So, Hannah, when you land that amazing job, or find yourself at home with your kid, or whatever it is you plan to do with your one and only life, here’s a simple plan for committing to your own creativity when the going gets tough:

Pick a project and make it public. For me, it was the Palmetto Blog, and I make it public by sharing it both on social media and through a newsletter that people can choose to subscribe to. If you’re not in to social media, there are other ways to make your work public. If you’re a dancer, find a way to perform in a public space. If you’re a photographer, email your photos to other photographers or family members who appreciate your art. The point is not to show off; in fact, sometimes you may feel more embarrassed than proud about sharing your work. The point is that by making it public, you’re committing to your art and to believing in yourself as an artist. 

Give yourself deadlines. A blog comes with a built-in kick-in-the-ass to get things done, because you have to post every week on the same day. Blogs works for visual artists, too. But if you work in another medium or don’t dig the idea of a blog, just set aside a chunk of time to get your work done and commit to it every week. Put it on your calendar. Tell your family. Tell your friends. Make it work.

Create limitations. Robert Frost famously said that he’d as soon “write in free verse as play tennis with the net down.” Meaning, it is the very act of working within a form that drives the creative engine. By setting certain constraints – say, sticking to a word count, or only allowing yourself to use particular materials – you’ll be forced to make creative decisions you wouldn’t otherwise make, and the results may surprise you.

Follow through. I don’t want to sound like a Nike ad here, but … just do it. Make yourself sit in the chair and write or walk out the door to dance or into the studio to paint. You do not have to feel inspired to create art. You just have to create something. Sometimes, inspiration comes after the fact.

Finally, let it be enough, for now. For me, this is the hardest part. Writing a short vignette once a week feels like pocket change compared to the kind of work I’d like to be doing with my fiction. But with two young children and a full-time job, that’s all I can mange. And that has to be enough. For now.