Living and Sustaining a Creative Life is a collection of 40 essays by visual artists about how they are making art and life work together, and it should be required reading in any MFA program for artists of any kind. Here are a few things that really connected with me.
What does Success Look Like?
“I remember the first time someone told me that many artists with apparently thriving careers and gallery representation still had day jobs. It was the first of a very long series of realizations that the art world is at least 50% smoke and mirrors. At the time I felt an almost personal betrayal at the realization that artists I had already perceived as incredibly, unattainably successful still had to find another way to pay the bills.” – Jennifer Dalton
I loved this quote because I could feel the anger and disappointment in it. We all want to succeed at what we love in life. But I don’t think most of us know what that means until we’ve already “succeeded” which can make it hard to help others get past the goal line. In the case of writers, I feel like we’re pushing to get published in a magazine and then the next goal is the first book.
On the outside, my writing career looks very successful right now. I’m publishing two books this year, Polska, 1994 and Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide to Turning Artifacts into Art. If I was an established writer, I think that would still be cause for celebration. As a newbie, I’m ecstatic. But it doesn’t mean I can quit my day job, nor can I retire to the beach and write full time and that leaves me feeling a little disappointed. I’m sure some part of me knew I wouldn’t retire off my first book (or my 20th), but I was so excited to get past that goal line that I thought everything would be magical fairy princess unicorn land afterwards.
I’ve been wonder where my skewed vision of success comes from. I think part of it is that it’s gauche to complain when you’ve gotten the thing that you and so many people have been striving for. In that spirit, I’m doing my best to enjoy every round of edits and compiling databases and checking contracts. But I am aware, too, that by not talking about that process, I’m helping to hide how much work takes place after you get the “we’d love to publish your book” gold star.
Another part is that it’s easier to shoot for a dream than a reality. To be perfectly honest, friends have told me some of the work that goes into publishing, but I just stared at them and concentrated on the “yes, but you’ve gotten what I dream of” look in my eyes while covering my ears to the reality. I think I could only process one step at a time. If denial about the amount of work that goes in after the writing is part of what got me to this step, then I suppose I have to embrace the denial because I am happy to be here. And even knowing now that the process is a lot more time-consuming than I could have imagined, I still want to write.
It does all leave me a little shy about what happens next in the land beyond the goal posts, but I will report on it here. I have no idea if my experience is universal, but I am happy to share it in case it can help writers in the way reading Living and Sustaining a Creative Life did for me.
“These tasks also include things like packaging artworks for shipping, preparing canvases and panels for painting, writing press releases and artist’s statements, keeping records for tax purposes, and vacuuming dog hair off the rug and furniture before it has a chance to migrate to the surface of my works in progress.” – Laurie Hogan
Obviously some of the tasks visual artists have to do are different from writers. Some of the things I find I have to do to maintain a creative life are: gathering tax info, cleaning my office, maintaining my computer, social media, reorganizing my drafts and my bookshelf, editing, more editing, even more editing, compiling lists of people who might be interested in my book, writing a glossary and translation notes, research.
There is a lot of work that I do which isn’t typing my next book. I try to maintain what Laurie Hogan describes as a “conscious effort towards efficiency” and use each task as a way to learn about myself and my process. I’m surprised sometimes at the ways those little things are an important part of the process and can be nurturing if I let them. For example, as I wrote a glossary for Polska, 1994, I remembered part of what had made me excited to write the book in the first place which is information I’ll share later in an interview. Vacuuming is time away from words when I can let creativity germinate. Social media is a chance to find new inspiration. Even these book reviews are part of that process and as I find a way to communicate with you what I have learned from a book, taking initial impressions and forming them into complete thoughts, I’m teaching myself too.
The way I have found to balance art/life is to try to maintain an equilibrium between social space and solitary space. I need a lot of solitary space both to work and to just ‘be.'” – Julie Langsam
Artists need each other. Sometimes to feel sane, sometimes for honest feedback in a world that doesn’t yet understand the boundaries you’re trying to break. But the more I’ve worked on my books, the less time I have to spend with my friends and that hurts sometimes.
I’ve been worried lately that I’ve withdrawn so far into the work that when I’m ready to come back out, there will be no one to play with. Luckily I have fabulously interesting friends with full lives. By being forced to retreat just from the sheer volume of things I have to do, I am learning that sometimes when I don’t hear from those wonderful people, it’s because they are this busy (or even busier). I miss them when they retreat and I miss them now, but I am grateful for a community that understands.
Partners and Families
“Because we shared everything, we enriched one another’s education.” – Maggie Michael
I feel amazingly blessed to share my life with a creative man. My husband is a visual artist and got his BFA in painting and photography before I could even admit that I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately for him, when he graduated, neither one of us knew enough to know that the likelihood of him getting to be just an artist was slim. I pushed and prodded and I think a lot of the fun of the art went away for him. We’re in a place now where he’s starting to explore that again, but I wish I could have been as good of a creative partner to him when he graduated as he was to me when I did.
But I am grateful to share my life with someone who values aesthetics as much as I do and who can talk about art movements and big ideas. I don’t expect him to care about epistrophe, but the way he looks at the world enriches my thinking every day. And sometimes, when I’m on deadline, he takes over the cooking for weeks at a time (and does a better job at it then we do together).
“Many people seem to give us extra credit because we involve our child in our life as artists.” – Dan Steinhilber
One thing I have been very concerned about in choosing a creative life is how to support kids both emotionally and financially and still finding time to write. I’ve been very impressed by my writer friends who’ve had children and continue to write. Some say it teaches you efficiency. I think if I get any more efficient I might just crack, but I’m willing to try.
On the financial front, we’ll figure something out when the time comes, but I was very heartened to read Julie Blackmon’s essay and how she handles parenthood. She says, ” I give myself permission to be a really bad mother for a few days” and the way she describes chips for dinner and other insanity makes me realize that it’s a vacation for the kids too. We all need to let our hair down sometimes.
“Life has to be nourished first. Creativity follows sustenance.” – Justin Quinn
Today I will let my hair down. I’ve turned in final edits on two books in the last month. I’ve written that glossary and those translation notes. I’m halfway done compiling a marketing list. I’m way behind on organizing a panel for AWP, and I had to ask for an extension on a magazine writing project I care very deeply about. But it’s time to recharge so I’m off to Port Townsend for the day with my husband and his camera.
I realize I’ve told you very little about Living and Sustaining a Creative Life and rather focused on how I live and sustain mine. It’s an essential book, and I hope you’ll read it when you are feeling the pressure of deadlines or your day job or just wishing your friends could come out and discuss what it feels like to lead a creative life.
We learn from each other I’d love to hear more about how you do it all in the comments below.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.