It is not a good time to work in a creative field, from a financial standpoint if nothing else. Despite this cold hard fact—or perhaps because of it—it is impossible to spend any time online without encountering aggressive creative encouragement. Every few days, you will encounter some meme ordering you to forge ahead with your project, which are basically 21st century versions of Hang in there! Barring that, you will receive a link to a personal essay that uses 2-3K words to broadcast the same message, usually depicting a Hero’s Journey from Unhappily Not Doing Things to Joyfully Doing Things.
As someone with writerly ambitions, my own anecdotal experience shows that literary corners of the internet are lousy with this stuff. The solitary nature of writing lends itself to a state of isolation that is susceptible to anything resembling encouragement, no matter how trite the sentiment or unrepeatable the path to success.
My pessimistic nature would cause me to chafe against these appeals regardless. But the more of it I run across, the more I believe it completely misses the boat in terms of what really ails anyone who aspires to do creative things.
Scan the internet, especially Twitter, and you will notice that these encouragement memes and essays tend to concentrate on three banes of creative work:
- Fear of failure
- The imagined judgment of a hypothetical audience
You can locate a plethora of memes warning you to do what you love right now. You can find just as many counseling you to not let fear of failure prevent you from doing the same. (There are boatloads of examples on literary Twitter, with specific warnings that early drafts of any piece of writing are always rough and should not be looked at as “failures.”) And there are almost as many warning you to not consider what other people might think and be yourself. (Again, lit Twitter is lousy with this stuff.)
While I don’t want to ascribe my own experience to every struggling creative type, I don’t believe that these factors are the true causes of most people’s artistic frustration. The biggest enemy of creative expression is time itself, and lack thereof.
Read the Forbes article linked above and you will see that virtually no one makes their living within a creative industry. The vast supermajority of people who want to Make Art of any kind must do so during their free time. If you’re an American—and hey, who isn’t—you don’t have much of that, regardless of your profession. You might work two or more service industry jobs just to make ends meet. Or you might work a decently-compensated office gig but one that expects you to work long hours at that office and to be available to field emails after hours too.
Add onto this the other obligations most of us have and there is virtually no time left for doing anything else. I don’t believe most people fail to follow their creative ambitions because they’re binge-watching Netflix or meeting friends for drinks in their free time instead. It’s because they’re caring for children and/or other loved ones in spaces that eat up any semblance of free time they have.
I will forward myself as an example. I work an office job that requires no heavy lifting or other strenuous physical activity, which means my day is less stressful than 95% of the planet’s. But my schedule does require me to get up very early to work that job, which enables me to leave that office in time to pick up my kid from school. I often take work home because that’s what’s required to get the job done. Even if I don’t have to bring work home, my “work” day isn’t really over until my kid goes to bed, at which point I have maybe an hour to myself before I have to go to bed and get enough sleep to be functional for the following day.
I can spend that hour writing, and for years I did because I believed that by doing so, I could eventually create a life for myself in which I made a living by writing—as a book writer, perhaps, or by writing for some sort of site/journal. That life did not materialize and once I realized it was unlikely to ever materialize (again, see Forbes), it seemed utterly pointless, to the point where I took off an entire year from writing anything. I staggered back eventually, because not writing certainly didn’t make me any happier. But I reentered the world with diminished expectations and a recognition of severe limitations, all of which relate back to the lack of time that I have available.
I get ideas for things to make all the time (brag). Some ideas are big and super serious. Some ideas are really dumb. I want to realize them all. I can’t, because every idea I get has to be punched into a mental calculus: How much time will be required to finish this? Based on my available time, how many actual days/months/years of work will this require? Is this idea worth concentrating on for that length of time? I also have to punch in the X factor of pain management, since writing requires sitting for hours at a time and I have a back condition that makes sitting for hours torturous.
I had an idea for a novel and it took me 8 years to complete. I’ve been working on a non-fiction book about the Mets for 6 years and counting. These are long periods of time to work on anything that’s not a canal or a marriage. I’ve worked on them anyway, even while recognizing the audience for either would be minuscule and that I’d have no one in my corner to sell these things to the world at large, no agent or publishing house beating the bushes for potential readers. I did it to have some sort of agency over my universe, over time itself. But the grind of squeezing all my creative energy into such a small space of my daily life can be exhausting, and I’m sure it’s even worse for people whose daily lives are more trying than mine.
My issue is not a predilection for procrastination. My issue is not fear of failure, as my myriad of failures will attest. My issue is not enslavement to the judgment of an imaginary audience. My issue is this: In my head there is a giant warehouse of things, and the exit that my free time allows for them to escape is the size of a pinhole
I believe that is the issue of most creative people, and all the hang in there, kitten pics won’t make it go away.