writer + artist

The Winding Path of a Creative Life

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In February, I worked on a project with Subaru and She Explores. This post is brought to you in partnership with Subaru, all opinions are my own.

“I don’t really think that I’m creative.”

I was road tripping from Taos, New Mexico to Marfa, Texas in a 2018 Crosstrek with my good friend and filmmaker Sarah Menzies. We were headed to a storytelling experience hosted by She Explores and sponsored by Subaru. I was driving and she was sitting next to me, and I had just asked her if she had some kind of a daily creative practice.

Sarah makes a variety of films, all focused on interesting characters and important issues, like my recent favorite, “The Mirnavator.” For the last couple of years, I have been working with her on “Afghan Cycles,” a film about women cyclists in Afghanistan and challenging gender stereotypes from the seat of a bicycle. I would certainly consider her a creative and passionate individual, and she’s one of my friends that continually keeps me creatively inspired.

“You don’t think you’re creative?” I responded back to her, not hiding my shock at her statement. This is a woman who always has interesting ideas for how to tell a story, is always drumming up new ideas.

This launched us into a conversation about creativity, what it is and whether or not we “have it” or not. The idea that some of us are creative and that some us aren’t, based on the idea that creativity is some kind of talent, simply isn’t true. Creative thinking is a skill, one that takes work and practice. You don’t get off the couch and run a marathon in record time, and you don’t go from zero creative practice to coming up with a masterpiece. We have to work at creativity, work at doing the things that make our brains better able to think creatively, better able to make connections between ideas, and come up with new ones.

Our conversation about creativity continued, and we began talking about some of the difficulties that come with working in a creative profession. Creative work can be exhausting. There’s a privilege to being able to say that. I am well aware that I don’t have to go work in a mine every day, and I am thankful that I have a profession where I get to do things that I love. But one of the big fears that I often have is that eventually, the creative ideas will cease to come. When your income is tied to your creativity, there is a real fear in wondering whether or not one day you’ll run out of ideas. What happens if you don’t have another idea for a new project? Then what?

I often look at other creative professionals and wonder what their secret is. Others seem so prolific, so talented, so sure of themselves. On the outside, it doesn’t seem like they experience any fear at all. I on the other hand regularly experience impostor syndrome, the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I don’t know what’s next, that I don’t have the skills/ability/expertise to do what I do. I worry about what’s next, and whether or not another idea will come to me.

As we drove into Marfa, I had this in mind, and while I was meeting a group of mostly strangers, I didn’t hold back from sharing what I was thinking. There is a freeing feeling that comes with vulnerability and expressing your fears.

Over the days we spent in Marfa, I quickly came to realize that everyone felt some version of the same feeling. Everyone was scared, everyone questioned their abilities. But the one thing that we all had in common? We did our best to push forward, dealing with those fears by pushing through them. We embraced the fear, the messiness and the imperfections.

It makes me think of a section from Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

I think that perfectionism and fear can go hand in hand. We are afraid of producing work that isn’t perfect. But if we want to be creative, want to live lives filled with creativity, then we must get past that fear, push perfectionism to the side.

As a culture, we demand perfection and we demand it immediately. But work takes time, and it is worse to be paralyzed by wondering whether or not we’ll be able to make something exactly the way we want to than just doing it.

Cyanotype workshop with Kelly Dewitt Norman

That’s the thing about creative work, you have to make the time for it, and you have to stick with it. Get the juices flowing. Stop thinking and just start. Genius does not strike automatically (and our culture perception of “genius” is fodder for a whole other discussion) and we have to keep our creative selves in shape. Start small and keep at it. Don’t dwell on what you have done or will do, just keep moving and creating, no matter what it is.

A large part of this means being true to yourself in the present moment, getting rid of expectation of finding satisfaction in the work and in the process. During the course of the few days in Marfa, we discussed the importance of acknowledging our present selves. So often in life we focus who we were in the past, or who we hope to be in the future. We tie our happiness and wellbeing to the accomplishment of future goals, of the person who we hope we will become. But doing so creates a life of “I should.” I should write more, I should own a house, I should have a family, I should have a savings account, I should spend more time with my friends, I should be better at what I do.

A papercut inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, turned into a cyanotype, photo by Jules Davies

But what if we focused on our present selves instead? What if instead of focusing on “I should” we focused on “I am”? Present day affirmations: I am a writer. I am an artist. I am doing what I want to be doing. I am working towards my goals. I am pursuing the life that I want. I am able to change if I want to.

Who you are today is enough. Goals matter, dreams matter, but today matters even more. A large part of moving through life is accepting who we are in the moment, instead of focusing on an unknown that’s further down the line.

Think of the creative process. If we merely concentrate on the end product, we lose track of the journey to get there. Yet our one opportunity in life is to enjoy the process. The end result is always an unknown. The best that we can do is to show up everyday, and actively engage with what we are doing. We must find enjoyment in the process.

“Enough Compass,” papercut 2018. Anna Brones

The experiences behind us are messy, the ones in front of us are unknown. The trick is to find a path in between the two. Our paths, like our pasts and our futures, are different. But they are ours, and only we get to decide how to move along them.

It has been a few weeks since I was in Marfa, and I feel that these topics and questions are still with me. I’m still working on what my own path is, on what I can do to cultivate my creative strength. But I am embracing a few truths.

Show up.

Be present.

Take time with a community who loves, supports and inspires you.

Take time for a personal creative practice.

Get rid of “I should” and focus on “I am.”

No matter who you are or what you do, remember this: You. Are. Enough.

Want more? I have a piece with tips about planning your own restorative/rejuvenating creative retreat over on She Explores. Read it here.

Lead image: “I Am,” papercut & watercolor, 2018. Collaborative artwork by Sarah Uhl and Anna Brones // Photo by Jules Davies

Written by Anna Brones

March 1, 2018 at 10:47

One Response

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  1. Great post

    Island Traveler

    March 12, 2018 at 19:42

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