As someone who notoriously attacks life in tenacious ways that inevitably end up injuring me (e.g., repetitive stress injuries in my wrists from computer work), I have always had cause to accept the idea that “the thing we love most is what kills us.” However, I’ve always skated rather tenderly around the adjoining idea that “we all kill the thing we love.”
For the last ten years, I have obsessively pursued my writing not just out of love of it, but also out of ambition. The powerful need to prove myself to myself and to others has driven me to reach my goals and to achieve success in just about every way I could ever have dreamed of. I am proud of this. I would not take back one moment of it.
But the time has come in my life when I must also face the truth that the ambition has grown beyond its purpose as a vehicle for the art and is in danger of overtaking my life.
This is, I believe, a moment almost every successful artist must eventually face.
What You Don’t Always Hear: The High Cost of Success as a Writer
Last summer was a watershed year for me, for many reasons. I experienced some things and made some choices I never saw coming. They were life-changingly difficult—in no small part because they forced me to face realities about myself, the life I have built as an artist and an entrepreneur, the successes I have gained, and the prices I have paid.
Prior to any of that, someone shared with me an “inspirational” quote along the lines of:
If you don’t get out of bed this morning and pursue your goals, you will never find success and you will never be happy.
I found myself thinking: “Yeah, but I’ve done that. I’ve been 100% committed to my goals every day of my life. I’ve gotten out of bed, I’ve pushed myself, I’ve faced my fears, and I have achieved my ideas of success. I’m a full-time writer who has won awards, sold hundreds of thousands of books, and been published in five languages. So… why am I not happy?
It was the beginning of a year of soul-searching. Most of what I found was so frightening I had a hard time looking at it, much less admitting it. The fundamental core of it all was that my pursuit of success was this close to killing my love for the very thing that had started it all in the beginning: my art.
More than that, it was taking over my life. Anxiety and stress had been gnawing away at me for years, repressed down to deep dark corners. I would get panic flashes when I had to check email in the mornings (even though 90% of it was positive), and I would get increasingly anxious when I wasn’t able to check it every hour or so (just to make sure everything was still positive).
I was stretching myself incredibly thin: saying yes to everything from course creations to speaking engagements to editing gigs. I had started out hungry and eager; now I just felt like I was clawing to keep up.
I was feeling the pressure to write my fiction faster and leaner, to publish more often, to write genre series. To make money, money, money—even though I didn’t really need more.
Once upon a time, this kind of obsessive focus came naturally. But after ten years, the grind was wearing thin. I was burnt out, my attention span was fragmented, and I was searching for answers to questions I didn’t even want to admit I was asking. Then life hit like a train—and, with it, numbness, grief, exhaustion, emotional collapse, depression, and even more anxiety.
But also clarity.
This last year has easily been the most difficult of my life. And yet I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It forced me to finally take the time to just stop. Everything but the bare essentials (this blog, previous commitments, and my outline for Dreambreaker) screeched to a halt. I finally had the time and space to evaluate my life up to that point, where it was going, where I wanted it to go, and the steps I needed to take to get there.
6 Ways to Protect Creativity
It’s taken me a long time to write this post, for two reasons:
1. I had to go through the lessons life was teaching me and process them enough to be able to look at them objectively.
2. I had to figure out how these insights—which have been very specific to my own life, experiences, and personality—could be shared in a way that would be applicable to everyone else.
A lot of what I’m about to share is totally opposite to what you hear preached from every corner of the Internet. For example, a few weeks ago, I was searching for printables I could use as artwork in my office. One sentiment I ran into frequently was “Hustle.” A year ago, I would have snatched that up, proclaimed it to be me, and probably had it tattooed on my forehead. Now, that idea just feels… wrong.
That said, I want to note a quick caveat: although I am about to encourage an awareness of cause-and-effect and advocate for a less ambitious mindset, I am not in any way discouraging big dreams and a strong work ethic. What I am wanting to share is a view from the other side of the fence, which I feel is not often talked about.
1. Count the Cost of Success
We all want success. We all want to be rich and famous. But few of us look at the big-name author or the Hollywood star and consider the downsides of their lifestyles. There are always downsides. As I like to say,
You never get nothin’ for nothin.’
The actions you take now to achieve a dream will change you forever. One thing I had to face was that the person I had always thought I would be was not the person my life had created. I had to grieve that person and embrace the reality: both the successes and the limitations.
At the end of the day, success brings many rewards, but it is also, always and ever, hard work. Sometimes that work is uplifting and empowering; but sometimes you let it suck you dry trying to give 110% until the day you wake up and realize you’ve given away more than you ever had to give.
Protect your life. Protect your health. Protect your relationships. Protect the art itself. Success isn’t worth any of them.
I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.
2. Embrace the “Starving Artist” Mindset
It’s the dream of every writer: make enough money off your writing so you can quit the pesky day job and stay home to write all day long. But when you turn your art into a business, the business has an insidious way of taking over. It starts slowly. You think: “Wow, if I could only write a little faster, put out a few more books a year, stay up a few more hours, fight through a little more back and wrist pain, make my readers a little happier, make a few dollars more, I’ll have made it.”
The problem is “making it” is never enough. There is always another mountain to scale, always another sacrifice to be made, always a little more money needed to put more bounce in the safety net of your life’s savings, always one more 5-star review to be earned before you’re finally a success.
It’s frighteningly easy to lose the forest for the trees. As author and artist Jennifer Garrett recently shared on Facebook:
I think I’m realizing how intense I’ve become about wanting to be productive in my work, which is not bad in and of itself, but I think there’s rarely a time when I truly do it just for myself anymore—it’s nearly always to either ultimately produce something or to learn more, and while those things are super important and I love doing them under normal circumstances, [I] realize that, even though I’ve set aside a lot of my workload in recent weeks, I am still approaching what little I am doing from a subtle mindset of “needing to accomplish something worthwhile with the time I have….”
We hear a lot about “prosperity for authors” these days. I think that’s great. Certainly, I have been blessed in many of the ways authors dream about. And yet, I now find myself returning with gusto to the idea of the “starving artist.” I am learning to divorce myself from the idea that my writing is fundamentally about earning money. I am learning to pare down my workload to only the things that are truly needed to either maintain my business or to achieve the goals that make me personally fulfilled.
One of the chief questions I had to face was: Would I rather be a starving artist or a successful businesswoman? I knew my answer, however frightening.
3. Stop Over-Achieving
Yeah, I admit it: I’m proud of being an obsessively organized, focused, will-powered, workaholic over-achiever. Granted, part of that is just my personality. I always loved Noel Coward’s joke that:
Work is more fun than fun.
People often ask me: “How do you do it all?” The truth is simple: no life outside work. I can’t count the times I’ve been asked, “So do you have any hobbies?” and my only answer is, “Umm…”
It’s true this kind of drive will get you places. Success absolutely requires dedication, concentration, and sacrifices. There’s a time and a place for it. But man cannot live on gasoline alone.
Overachievement—in itself—really isn’t something to be lauded. It’s an extreme, not a balance. As such, it cannot be maintained ad infinitum without major consequences.
Don’t be an overachiever. It’s kind of like being a bull rider: they look cool from afar, but they spend their lives hobbling from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment and then right back to the arena. Instead, seek balance. Choose reasonable goals and reasonable timelines and work at your own pace and in your own way. Don’t feel pressured to meet other people’s unreasonable standards.
4. Live in Your Season
One thing about living at your computer in an obsessive fog is that you don’t always notice the change of the seasons. I mean this both metaphorically and literally. Last year was the first year in maybe forever when I actually watched the seasons change. I look back on it and what I see in my mind’s eye are the vivid greens of summer, the falling gold of autumn, and the peaceful white of winter. That year, despite its struggles, is beautiful to me in ways I’ve never really experienced before.
When asked about how I’ve maintained the workload and the pace I have for the past ten years, I’ve often joked about “willpower, old boy, willpower!” But the problem with this is that it forces you into a place of tunnel vision in which you are repressing your own needs and emotions. You’re not flowing with life; you’re just stuffing it away.
I am now learning to stop focusing so relentlessly on the goal, and instead to look around me, to remain aware of the moment, grounded in my body, and attentive to my emotional needs as they’re happening. For example, so far this year, I have read only 37 books. For someone who has read over 150 books in past years, this is a shockingly low number (it puts me on pace to read just 49) . But this year, instead of sticking to a religious schedule of reading at certain times of the day, I have instead tried to listen to what my body and my emotional state really want. I made a list of things I enjoy doing and which I can do help me relax and enjoy life when reading just isn’t doing it for me:
- Go for a walk
- Watch a movie
- Sit or lie down quietly
- Take a bath or shower
- Color in an adult coloring book
- Surf the Internet
- Go shopping
- Go for a drive
- Go out for coffee
- Clean the house
I am slowly growing better at listening to myself, and, slowly, it is helping me return to a more balanced and in-tune way of living.
5. Cut Back on “Fake Life”
Can’t live with the Internet and can’t live without it.
This is especially true for authors these days. We sell our books on the Internet, we manage our publicity (via our websites and blogs) on the Internet, and we attract and interact with our readers on the Internet.
And yet, the Internet is, I believe, one of the single most destructive forces in our lives. For all its good, it also destroys our attention spans, distracts us from meaningful activities and real-life interactions, and increases stress.
My sister talks about how her “mommy brain” never shuts off until her two toddlers are asleep. It’s the same for me and the Internet. I am never at more peace than the moment when I shut down the computer for the day. When I can’t access the Internet, I am calm. The moment I know I can access it, the back of my brain starts nagging at me to check email or to make sure my website hasn’t somehow imploded on itself during my brief absence.
George Saunders commented on how writing a book allows him to access a “higher version of myself” in ways that interacting with social media does not. He said:
I just noticed the difference in how my mind was working in these two different modes…. how much more anxious and hopeless and less generous I am in [interacting with cable news and social media]. The energy is more antagonistic and defensive.
With every passing year, I make a stronger commitment to toning out the Internet’s static. I used to start my day by looking at news headlines on MSN. No more. I have shut out the mainstream media more and more adamantly every year, and I have never once regretted this. Do I feel uninformed? Absolutely not. If anything, I feel more centered and able to take responsibility for my own beliefs and choices about the social events that actually impact my life.
I am also trying to figure out the balance of maintaining a social media presence without letting it take over my life. I have large followings on both Facebook and Twitter, which is awesome. But it also means interacting on these sites could easily consume my entire day. They epitomize “Internet brain,” with their rapid-fire notifications and short status updates. The second I open Facebook in a new tab, I can almost hear that same bustle you hear in a major airport.
I haven’t found a perfect balance with this yet. I’m still committed to maintaining my social-media presence, because I still believe it’s important to what I do. But because it is also one of the biggest stress triggers for me, I’m committed to giving it a “back burner” place in my life where it can’t claim the majority of my daily focus.
6. Stop Writing
Whaaatt??? Stop writing? But isn’t the whole point to get back to the writing?
For me, yes, it definitely was. But sometimes that means stepping away. My writing is still every bit as much a priority for me. Indeed, I have focused on making the fiction more of a priority. But I have also learned to relax a little.
For all that we preach about “treating writing like a job” and “writing even when it’s hard,” writing should be, first and foremost, a pursuit of joy. If I’m not enjoying the writing on a consistent basis, then something is wrong. This gives me more space to let my writing nurture my life, rather than sacrificing my life to my writing schedule.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my current WIP has been the best writing experience of my life to date. I’m writing slower, I’m not beating myself up when I’m too distracted or stressed to write—and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
I’m looking beyond my writing. It is no longer the be-all-end-all of my life. I am seeing life itself and looking for ways to experience it more deeply and authentically, and I am trusting that my writing can only benefit as a result.
Perhaps the greatest insight I have been given through my recent experiences is that “striving” (aka working like an obsessed hamster) and “surrender” (aka embracing the beautiful order of life’s chaos) cannot live simultaneously. Indeed, they are explicitly antithetical.
The old vision of success served me well enough in the past, however short-sighted it may have been. But it is time to set that old vision aside. My new vision of success looks a whole lot more like living in harmony with the life God has given me, rather than trying to conquer it.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Do you ever feel like you have to protect creativity? What do you do? Tell me in the comments!
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