Not long ago, I surveyed my subscribers to my newsletter about creativity. I asked, “What roadblocks keep you from doing the creative things you enjoy?”
It wasn’t even a contest. Forty percent of those surveyed said “time.”
Which is understandable: there are limited seconds each day, and many creative activities—for instance, the intricate crochet figurines of Avatar: The Last Airbender characters I’m making my kids—do not serve a discernible purpose. The figures are for joy, for fun, and for—well, for eventually cluttering a shelf.
Poems, watercolors, and six-legged, flying water buffalos do not pay the bills or do laundry. Justifying the time it takes to make them is a real problem.
The Myth of Free Time
But I have also lived in the land of abundant time many of us call “before children.” And while I lived in that mythical land, I still struggled to do my creative work—even though I had all day to write for the master’s degree I was completing. Far from blessing me, the completely free days felt like being dropped into the middle of a lake and told to tread water.
The fact that I knew having so much free time was a giant water-buffalo-sized gift didn’t help me focus at all.
Back then, I’d get up in the morning and wander around in my pajamas, increasingly cold, yet unable to force myself to get dressed. I dawdled at dishes and fussed over laundry, and finally brushed my teeth at eleven.
Eleven. If that hour doesn’t convict you out of your procrastination, nothing will.
Finally, an hour or two before my husband, who is tremendously disciplined and productive, would arrive home, I’d start working in a panic and complete assignments, hating myself all the while.
A few years later, when I had two young children and fifteen minutes once a week to write, I occasionally wondered if I should just spend my time allotment inventing time travel. Why settle for meager minutes when, with a little research, I could hop in a DeLorean and get back unlimited hours?
I would be rich with the time I frittered away.
Except looking back, I’m not sure I frittered it. No: Productive or not, I did my very best. Learning since then that I have ADHD and autism, that I spent my childhood terrified, that, like many people, skills like “getting dressed” did not come naturally to me at all—it changes how I see my struggles back then.
Sometimes, “doing your best” doesn’t look very impressive, much less productive.
It’s tempting to be impatient with my old self. Impatient that I did not use abundant time more wisely or efficiently. Impatient that I wasn’t braver back then, or a bigger risk-taker.
Easier still to be frustrated right now: that I am not as versatile a writer as I wish, that I’m not braver about submitting my work to bigger markets, or networking more intentionally, that I haven’t yet signed a traditional publishing contract, or even with self-publishing, not yet published a book that really gets at who I am creatively.
An Avalanche of Shame
So easy to look at the opportunities that pass by, the hours, the skills, the chances—and tell myself a better writer would seize them. A better human.
That’s how I thought of myself back when I was frittering away my time. Shamefully.
I have no scientific proof (should I poll myself?) but I suspect that shame-filled attitude was exactly why I struggled to get anything done.
If you’re a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad person, there’s no hope things will get better. If you’re a procrastinator, a hapless schmuck, then good luck becoming someone you can respect.
Having kids—and then homeschooling them—flushed all that extra time down the toilet. But the loss birthed creative contentment for me. That’s because I feared that post-kids, I would not be able to keep writing in any serious way. When I proved myself wrong, I was thrilled with my creativity for the first time ever.
I became content with the little I could do, and learned that contentment is a creativity factory.
While I homeschooled, people would often ask me, wide-eyed, how I got anything done with kids at home. And look, I understand the question. But the biggest hurdle to creative work is never time.
The biggest hurdle to creativity is thinking you’re a piece of sh*t.
If you read any good creativity books—Anne Lamott, Anne Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Stephen King—they say this over and over. Do the work. Do the work. Do the work.
Not try hard. Not aim high. Not compare yourself to other people.
Do the Work
Stop thinking so much. Stop worrying. Stop shaming yourself. Just sit down and do the work.
Doggedly doing your work frees up a ton of energy you once spent shaming and judging and comparing yourself with other people. The energy released will breathe freedom into you. Will make your brittle creativity resilient. Will straighten your shoulders and spine.
Doing the work doggedly gives you kindness toward your fitful efforts. The discipline moves your attention away from your fragile ego toward beauty and hope. It develops a spirit of faithfulness.
Doing the work humbly, regularly, patiently, teaches you that the only joy given to any person, “creative” or not, is the joy of showing up in your own life—over and over and over again.
Doing the work teaches you that making things is a wonderful way to live.
Indeed: nurturing creativity alongside my kids taught me that creative work is just a side-effect of the biggest healing of all: finally being freed from the prison of hating myself, shaming myself, and thinking I was not enough as I was.
An earlier version originally published at The Mudroom.