My friend and mentor, Pat Lowery Collins, has a fantastic blog about aging and the creative process. She’s a writer, painter, singer and actress (many of us would like to have one of those talents to a professional level). Her latest post really resonated with me. She writes about having spent years creating in a house with a husband and five children, with frequent interruptions and distractions, and often wishing for some solitude and quiet to produce her work. Now that she lives alone, she is having trouble adjusting to all that quiet and time. In particular, she says, “I didn’t realize how deeply it would affect my entire process or how hard it would be to find the support I need within myself.” That sentence compelled me because it’s the battle I fight every day as a single person living a creative life. Many might think my position enviable: no husband or kids to distract me, my time is my own (aside from work, running a coaching business, and taking care of my mother) – and it’s true, I have planned my life that way. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Many of us have difficulty using unscheduled time effectively. I find that sometimes I get more done when I know I only have an hour to work than when I have all day. I have to find it within me to do the work. I talk about internal motivation being more compelling than external motivation, but let’s face it: the power of deadlines and external support means we often get much more accomplished when we take a class, attend an MFA program, or hire a coach, than we do on our own. Ultimately, we need to care about our work enough to do it no matter what, or no amount of external reward or support will keep us going for long. But in those moments when we feel overwhelmed by self-doubt, or feel like we have nothing to say or are afraid to say it or don’t know if we can ever truly communicate, it can be tremendously helpful to have something to push against, or to push us past our self-imposed limitations. We can find excuses for not doing the work no matter what our life situation.
In my comment to Pat, I mention those things that seem to be constraints can be looked at as the “grit that forms the pearl.” We can learn to be grateful for whatever circumstances we have when we realize that if we had no conflict in our lives, no boundaries of time – in short, if we were stranded on a desert island for eternity with nothing to do but create – what would we have to write about? What would compel us then? It’s a challenge, that push-pull of solitude vs. community, of time, of overcoming our fear (which itself gives rise to endless distractions, many of which seem perfectly reasonable at the time). But that is exactly the point: in that space between the tender flesh of the oyster and the hard gritty sand is where the work lies. It’s where the pearl forms, and without being able to endure that discomfort, we’ll never know what treasure we could have created.