The Problem With Living A Creative Life

Photo: Poitin Jimmie

Being creative is hard.  Thinking up ways to connect disparate elements into a whole that not only hasn’t been seen before but also delights us with surprise, meaning, or beauty requires a great deal of energy—”executive function,” as psychologists put it.  Not to mention the time it takes to create something novel and then rework it and rework it and rework it until the original seed blossoms into a fully-formed painting or book or poem or song or blog post.  It’s said that all writing is rewriting, but creation in any medium requires a laborious chipping away at unnecessary parts and a relentless enlarging and refining of others.  And then there’s the space the children of our creativity occupy in our heads.  Even more perhaps than flesh-and-blood children, we obsess over them constantly, ever mindful that, unlike our flesh-and-blood children, we’re responsible for shaping their every aspect.  Our creative projects are in a sense even more an extension of ourselves than our flesh-and-blood children, and as a result we love them just as much.

All this is to say that, even though we’re rarely able to devote our full time to the act of creation, it is, in fact, a full-time job.  When you’re not actively doing it, you’re resting from having done it.  And thinking about doing it again.  Yes, the act of creation can be addictive.

Which means, as many creative people know, it can cause harm.  It can, for instance, pull you away from other important aspects of your life, most notably relationships with other people.  It’s certainly no coincidence that many great artists throughout history have failed at maintaining long-term relationships, often divorcing not just once but several times.  Certainly this could be explained by the over-sized egos many great artists have been said to possess, but I strongly suspect that obsession with the creative act itself played a larger role for many.

Certainly, creating something provides immense personal satisfaction.  But artists are also drawn to create art by their desire to create value for others to enjoy, to learn from, or to be inspired by.  For some, the act of creation defines the meaning of life itself and without the ability and the time to do it, no other activity of life is able to please.

But against the desire to create must be balanced other aspects of life.  For like an unrecovered alcoholic who lives only to drink and who will effortlessly toss all other parts of her life aside to do it, artists who care only for their art, who neglect important relationships, will find themselves at risk for living lives that, while pleasurable in many moments, are ultimately miserable.  I know this because I feel the tug of the solitary, creative life pulling at me every day—and have indulged in it often enough at different points in my life to know that, for me, that way lies not only misery but also diminished creativity.  (The mental energy required for creative work flows far more readily in happy people than sad ones.  And even introverts need some degree of social interaction be happy.)

And though artists who choose to live a predominantly solitary life, who never marry or have children, can certainly find happiness, they will often still have romances and friendships that require tending.  But artists who cut themselves off from others to pursue their art, or who only connect with others when it suits them, caring about others only to the extent that it satisfies their own needs, will almost certainly find themselves unable to enjoy satisfying relationships.

I find tragic those artists whose need to produce art has turned the process of art-making into a single-minded obsession.  Becoming obsessed with creating art is certainly something to which all creative people are vulnerable, but the happiest artists I’ve observed are those who’ve learned not just to walk away from whatever they’re working on regularly, but to walk toward interpersonal relationships when they do—relationships that are not only important and satisfying in and of themselves, but that often provide the grist for their creative mills when they walk back.

Because what people talk about at the very end of their lives when they’re dying has little to do with art, with work, or even with religion or God.  What they talk mostly about is other people.  Other people they loved—or failed to love enough.  People they hurt and to whom they never made amends.  People they stood by and who stood by them.  The good times they had with their families and close friends and the bad times they endured with them.  Yes, art is important.  Yes, it has the potential to create wonderful value.  But if done at the expense of those we love, we likely won’t greet our end with a deep sense of satisfaction but instead with a deep sense of regret.

Next Week Smiling At Strangers

19 comments to The Problem With Living A Creative Life

  • You can’t take it with you when you go, that’s for sure. There IS something self-absorbed about pouring yourself into *anything* at the expense of all meaningful relationships. It does imply an importance of things/work/projects over people … and like you said, your own desires above the needs of those around you. After a while, people give up trying to pull you back into the here and now.

  • joanwinnek

    I’d like to mention that we introverts need time alone. This does not mean we neglect our meaningful relationships or are not interested in forming more—although it probably means we stay away from the social whirl. Alone time can be productively used for creative pursuits, as well as for reading, meditation, personal writing. As I grow older, I discover that I value strong personal connections with others, my husband, family, good friends, people who share my interests; but I don’t need a lot of people in my life. Small acts of kindness can be satisfying, fleeting connections with other people.

  • Sandra B

    I think it is possible to lead a creative life and have time for family, friends and developing relationships. I like to think I do so, anyway. I don’t create as much art as I could, and I do get frustrated at the limited chunks of time I have to devote to it. I think your article could have been more aptly named, “The Problem With living a Life Where One Thing Obsesses You to the Exclusion of All Else.” It’s not just creativity that pulls people in that direction.

  • Many great artists have lived and died for their work. Some have had patrons, others, spouses who function as such. Who can say they did not strike the “right balance”?

    It has been argued that for some, art is an exquisite madness. It can be either all encompassing, or prone to manic-type episodes of immersion. Not all are cut out to procreate or even to have a satisfying relationship (or unsatisfying one!) While societies may demonstrate “norms”—and certainly procreation ensures the survival of the species—norms imply the tail ends of the curve.

    They are valid, too.

    Your deathbed analogy has been used by many to argue against (being compulsively tidy, a workaholic, …), but maybe for the true artist, dying in the knowledge of his creations is quite satisfying enough.

  • Shivani

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this interesting subject, Alex. I agree with you that just living on your creative instincts alone creates a imbalance in life, an expensive imbalance indeed! However, I think the personal satisfaction (aka joy/happiness) derived from creativity is of a different quality then the type of joy/happiness one seeks at the time of demise. In other words, although we use the word personal satisfaction or happiness in both instances, there is difference in context and degree of happiness.

    The former is meaningful for that moment, it looses its significance as new desires of creativity seep in and replace the joy with another desire. Not only that, the degree of personal satisfaction keeps changing depending on the end product of creativity (and how well it measures up to our expectations).

    On the other hand, at the time of demise, I think we know at a deep level that the “me in me” is going to end soon, there is no use in clinging on to the next materialistic or creative venture, because they wouldn’t matter any more. So, we cling to objects that have been a much deeper consistent source of happiness (whether we acknowledged it or not is a different story..) and that universal source of happiness for all of us, as a race is “love.” We reminisce love we received/gave/did not give enough in hopes that, it would be our saving grace.

    So, I think, the the quality or grade of personal satisfaction sought in both cases is very different, not sure if we can put them in the same basket and compare.

    Shivani: Interesting insight.

    Alex

  • molly

    Inspired. I know you’re working on your book, Alex, so I’m certain you know what you’re talking about. I have too experienced the call and what I consider the strange double consciousness of characters I create and feel their plans intermingle with my real plans. I’m not sure I like the space they take up in my real life. For instance, a character’s spouse has a business trip coming up and I have found myself preparing mentally for the character’s departure. I don’t know what to do with that… It makes me reluctant to continue because I am very needed by my people in my real life.

    Molly: I find it a constant tension I must manage. No easy short cut that I’ve found.

    Alex

  • Thank you, Alex, for another well-presented and articulated article. I really look forward to my Monday morning injection of insight to start my week on a high note. I would like to ask, and I am not sure if you take requests, for a particular subject to be “chewed on.” That is of reaching milestones. This year I am 40, and have 5 family members turning 50 and 60 respectively. I would love to hear your thoughts on these significant (or insignificant?) moments. Thank you so much.

    Shelley: I’m always looking for topics, and this sounds like a good one. I’ll chew on it and see what arises.

    Alex

  • Thanks.

    I think this is an important reminder. The key is to find the balance because without creating you will also not be the person you are and will regret and yearn for it. Making art makes my life meaningful and I cannot be without it but I know that the people in my life do mean more and my life should demonstrate that.

  • My mother forwarded me this message. She is the mother of an artist because she is one. She helped me to be one. However, her art is not her livelihood. Therein in lies the big problem; the paradox, the sick contradiction that may lead to social strife and personal misery—that commercialization and marketing behind turning art into a consumer good—merely a product to be chewed on, and spat out, and then judged by so many couch critics who haven’t the first clue about aesthetics…

    This blog was great and had many great insights, especially creativity being addictive and being an obsession, being your children, and for me, even the meaning of life itself. It even mingles with my divine sense; I was made with a purpose and the purpose is to create. Trying my best to “Be fruitful…”

    Lisa’s comments about “being satisfied know your creations get out there”—that combating of mortality to have a legacy left when you’re dust, is somehow one of the sole things that drives me while I live and breathe… and Shivani’s comments about the distinction between happinesses, with the ultimate happiness being finding and holding onto the love of another, and so much of all created is some kind of reminiscing and praying for that love.

    Not that I take Zappa to heart so much as I admire his angle as an artist, but Zappa was asked once (paraphrasing) about his obsessive nature when it came to his art, and the question was something like “aren’t you worried about what you’re missing out on in life?” And his response was something like, ” No—if you’re obsessed there is nothing else so there is nothing else to miss.”

  • To attain greatness in any field calls for great sacrifices. Attaining greatness while maintaining satisfactory, sustained and meaningful ( for both parties to the relationship ) relationships, needs great creativity, patience and discipline.

  • Hapgood

    Check out the video of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George. Part of it is an obsessive artist’s (Sondheim’s) study of an obsessive artist (Seurat). The other part is the inherent conflict between the artist and the need to attract patrons to fund the creative efforts, which demands a completely different personality and skill set.

  • Alex,

    How timely your post is as just YESTERDAY I completed my 2nd book, a magical-realism novel called JUST DANCE THE STEPS. It will launch first as an e-book on Valentine’s Day.

    Yes, you are correct creativity takes enormous time away from ones we love and it is a delicate balancing act. I think it is enormously helpful to spotlight that truth as you did.

    But certainly so it is with my daughter’s routine in her 2nd year of medical school. When we (parents) were in the audience listening to the dean talk about what it would be like for the incoming students (for her first year), the dean made sure all family, friends and loved ones in the audience understood the harsh reality of medical school: 80 percent of romantic relationships of med school students fail during their 4-year program. As you know yourself having been through that grueling path of study, the relationship failure rate is so high due to the outrageous commitment of time and focus the med students must put into being a student with little to no time left for being a lover/husband/wife/parent/partner.

    Having been told this harsh statistic, we all felt better prepared to be able to help our student to manage and deal with the incredible pressures of med school.

    From my perspective and experience working as a journalist for 16 years, surrounded in a newsroom with UBER creative people, I see creativity as really being just like anything else that comes from our essence. I do not think it is in a class all its own. Doctors, like many creative producing people, will tell you they were “called” to do what they do from a very young age. I was called to be a writer the moment I had a pencil placed in my hand learning to read. My daughter was called to be a doctor when she was about the age of 5. Tradeoffs exist for all of us, and those who are “called” have had to accept and accommodate those tradeoffs in order to be right with our destiny’s call.

    Those who are interested about JUST DANCE THE STEPS can go to gisellemassi.com

    I welcome all and I thank you, Alex, for your continuing intellectual forum of ideas. Your followers are a delightful bunch.

    Giselle
    http://www.gisellemassi.com

  • This is the first article of yours I’ve read, Alex, and I’ll be reading some of your others shortly. I came via a FB link I clicked because I’m researching a blog post about the “artistic personality.” After living well into my 6th decade, I finally have realized that I have one of those and am trying to figure out what that means. Creativity is a necessity like breathing to me. I have put myself through SO MUCH in life just so I can be creative—have creative control over my work. At the same time, I’ve kept up a steady fight to keep balance between this and the rest of my life as a single parent and now a spouse. It’s exhausting! But I can’t make myself find an easier way. Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the artistic personality—if you think there is such a thing, and if so, what its characteristics are. Thanks!

    Megan: I need to think about that one. I’ll get back to you.

    Alex

  • Hi, Alex!
    I’d rewrite the beginning of the title of your post as “A possible problem …”

    Why? Because not always it is worthwhile to compare a “normal” life with a “creative” life. In my view, if someone decides his/her own path in life and enjoys it, it means that no one else has the right to judge or criticize that decision (except for situations when that person is affecting someone else’s rights).

    Furthermore, I do not agree with “normality” as a general and mandatory standard for everyone—and I am thinking about statistics and normal distribution law (of course, it is easily to conclude that I am usually quite far away from the mean in such distributions). So, why should I accept that someone “normal”—placed in the middle of the distribution and not living a life like mine—thinks that my life is hard and that I am not able to enjoy life like others do? In fact, I’d die (figuratively) if I’d have to change my current style of living and accept an very different way of living. Obviously, I am against too much generalization and I do not accept to look at majority as at the only acceptable standard for everyone.

    Should I be sorry because I am not usually part of the majority? Or should I be striving to change myself as to be more like others? What do you think?

    Christina: I certainly don’t think anyone should deliberately strive to become more like others or be sorry because they’re not a part of the majority. I wasn’t so much interested in delineating or comparing “normal” to “creative” as I was pointing out that everyone has the capacity to be creative—and to obsess over creating.

    Alex

  • rdp

    I am troubled by blurring the line between “creativity” and being what most people call “an artist” (or writer or sculptor or any person drawn to the creation of artifacts).

    To my mind, being creative has to do with your quality of mind rather than with whether you make tangible objects or not. Being creative is exercising the capacity to engage with what you find in ways besides those you have learned or been taught before.

    This is a very different enterprise from doing something with the goal of, in Ethan’s words, “being satisfied [to] know your creations get out there.” For me, there is the quality of mind, there is the context in which you choose to exercise it, and there is the question of whether or not you want to disseminate, all leading to a wide range of outcomes. Reserving the term “creative” for people who make artifacts seems to diminish the meaning of the word (and the creative credentials of people for whom the artifact is besides the point).

  • David Hare

    Alex,
    All so true what you say. After 5 years I have just finished writing my first book and at times it was all-consuming and surreptitiously became my “object of worship” (to use the Buddhist jargon). I had to chant a lot for the book to come from my Buddhahood not my ego. When we create from ego, we separate ourselves from others, we want to feel special and different. When we create from Buddhahood, we forge a deep connection with others, we see the magnificence in everyone and we want to enrich their lives. On the surface the two types of creation can look very similar, but deep down they are fundamentally different.

    Funnily enough my book ends with this quote from Daisaku Ikeda about the creative life and I love it because it seems to resolve the dilemma of how to be creative without alienating your nearest and dearest: “The fight to create a new life is a truly wonderful thing. In it you find for the first time a wisdom that causes your intelligence to shine, the light of intuition that leads to an understanding of the universe, the compassion that enables you to take upon yourself the sorrows of others, the sense of fusion with the cosmic source of life that creates a rhythm in the lives of all men. As you polish that jewel which is life, you will learn to walk the supreme pathway of true humanity. I myself think of this flowering of the creative life as a human revolution. This human revolution is your mission now as it will be throughout your lives.”

    ‘sgoodinnit?
    All best,
    David

  • Bev

    Interesting perspective. Have you read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron?

    Bev: I haven’t. Heard of it, though.

    Alex

  • Sheryl

    Alex,

    Well said, as always.

    I imagine there is probably a spectrum of creatives and those at the extreme end don’t do relationships well, as you said.

    In thinking about what these people might think and feel as they approach their demise. I wonder if it is possible that they do not feel regret at all. I wonder if part of the reason the dying talk about people is because people are unfinished products.

    A creation has a point of being finished. A relationship does not. That relationship stays open until the moment of death. Anything can happen in those last moments.

    My father and I attended my mother’s death. Death was very near and I moved close to my father and asked him just how someone in her condition dies. What really happens in the body? It was at that point that my mother took her last breath.

    Was that because she felt that I had been completely handed off to my father? Or because she heard me accept and understand her death? The timing seemed very profound to me and still does. Did she feel a sense of completeness in having raised me and so felt free to leave?

    And again, when I attended the death of my aunt, she questioned me closely about some things. I felt interrogated. She had never done that before and I tried very hard to assure her that all had been done as she wished.

    She was in a rehabilitation center, scheduled to go home the next day and at the time of the interrogation. I had no idea she would soon be gone.

    Some time passed and the nurse came in and tried to rouse my aunt. I could clearly see that she was still breathing. I went to her bedside and talked to her as well. As we talked to her, she stopped breathing.

    There was no “cause” to her death. She was in rehabilitation and scheduled to go home the next day. Apparently, she decided she didn’t want to go home and she was done with life. Everything was complete and it was time to go.

    So, I pose the theory that when people, including creative people, talk mostly about people, it may have more to do with not having a sense of completion about their relationships than that people are more important than their creative life. My aunt was certainly the opposite, wanting reassurance about details and saying nothing about the people in her life.

  • Lisa

    Ethan,

    Thanks for sharing the great Zappa quote!

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