A friend recently sent me an old photo she took of me writing. It’s a startling picture, and not just because of my 1990s Big Hair or the typewriter with reams of computer paper spitting out of it.
No, what’s shocking to me is how oblivious I am in this picture to everything beyond the words on the page. I didn’t know my friend was taking that photograph. I clearly wasn’t listening to the noisy play of our four young children. I definitely wasn’t worrying about my credit card balance or, during this particular July of 1995, the Iraq disarmament crisis and a killer heat wave in Chicago.
To write, to paint, to hear a song in your head: every creative act requires inspiration. More importantly, though, creativity requires the willpower to block out the world’s noise. That means reserving time and space for it, even if it’s just an hour of writing alone in your car, an afternoon spent painting, or a late night at your piano.
Creativity also requires believing in your art enough to grant yourself permission to make that time and space available. Too few people actually do that. We often foolishly believe that our lives will get easier tomorrow or next week or next year. We promise ourselves we’ll write a memoir once the kids start school, or that we’ll take drawing lessons after we retire. We want to pay off the car loans and the mortgage before we indulge in hours of creativity.
That’s the heart of the problem, isn’t it? We view creativity as an indulgence.
And why wouldn’t we? Why should we write a play, if nobody will perform it? Why write a book, if nobody is going to want to publish it? Why draw bad pictures or mess around with muddy watercolors? What’s the point of making lopsided pottery bowls?
A key question: Is bad art worth the effort?
Making art is expensive. Even if you’re not paying for lessons or materials, you’re using hours of time that could be devoted to something “productive,” like cleaning the house, taking a class in coding, or working out at the gym.
It’s hard to believe in your right to make art. But what would happen if none of us believed in ourselves, or in the process of creativity, enough to do it? What if none of us dared to block out the constant noise of the news, the wars and shootings and climate disasters, or the domestic tasks at home that are always calling our names? What then?
Most likely we’d end up living in a world where books are written by AI and everything we use or admire is manufactured by machines. A world where nobody pays attention to the colors of the leaves, the motion of a woman’s dress, or the dialogue overheard between strangers on a street. A world where nobody hears a melody in their minds and starts strumming a guitar.
It would be a more efficient world. But, as Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” A world where nobody found the time and space to create art would be one where we never retreat far enough into ourselves to discover what’s truly in our hearts and share it. A world where we never stayed silent long enough to understand other points of view or marvel at the beauty of raindrops on the pavement. A world where the noise and pressure of external events would win over the essence of human experience.
So do it. I dare you to find a few hours this week to create something. As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, then stands back to see if we can find them.”