Column: Ditch the Shoulds and Take Back Your Creative Life

Last year I started a novel and a personal development blog. I started them because they seemed fun and interesting, and also because I thought I should start them. It’s what people with my background (an MFA) and interests (navel-gazing) do.

jumping angelfishBoth went well. Feedback on the novel was enthusiastic, and the blog’s subscriber list grew quickly. But something nagged. I wasn’t as inspired to do the work as I wanted to be. And after a lot of, um, navel-gazing, I realized: it was that word. Should.

Should is so tricky. In many situations it’s a good thing: you should help those in need, be true to your word, floss daily. (Okay, that last one I’m still struggling with.)

But should also means safe, status quo. You’d think creative types would have no problem ditching that kind of thing, but surprise – sometimes we do.

I spoke with a few folks about when they’ve ditched the should, taken a leap, and landed way ahead of where they’d been before. What I heard was some good advice about living a creative life.

Job security isn’t everything.

A paycheck and benefits are excellent, because who doesn’t like regular meals and health care? But are you really going to come home after a long day, or get up early and make art? There’s no shame in having a day job, we’ve all had them, but after awhile they wear you down.

Artist, musician, and filmmaker Rick Aragon spent 15 years working his way up the ranks at the Atchison Topeka Santa Fe railway, where he had good pay and benefits.

“But I was totally unfulfilled,” he said. “It started off as a summer job, and it turned into a full-time job before I knew it. I never meant to stay on that path, and from day one, I was always looking for a way out.”

Aragon thought that since he had a family to support he should stay, but then luck arrived and he was offered a job buyout. He could have taken a similar job, but instead he took an unpaid apprenticeship in graphic design. That bold move eventually led to paid work doing design and animation, and he’s worked in the arts ever since.

Writer and musician Eileen Wiard came to Taos on a Wurlitzer residency, but told herself when it was over she’d return to her teaching job in Massachusetts, where she’d get tenure. But something else was at play when she spontaneously asked the director if they ever gave extensions, and was told someone had just canceled and she could stay a few more months. She did, and never went back east.

That primed her for another bold move later, when she took a full-time job that took everything she’d give it. She quit after six months. “I left without anything to go to, violating a family rule.” Family rules are tenacious, but she got back on track and now has a job that allows her time to write.

Don’t limit yourself.

Writer Susan Carpenter Sims got a master’s in creative writing, and pursued academic writing and publishing. Which was so uninspiring she gave up writing altogether. But then she saw a movie that inspired her to try something new: Julie and Julia.

“(It) made blogging seem like a good idea, not because Julie Powell ended up getting a book and movie deal, but because of what her character says about blogging being a ‘regimen.’” So Sims started a blog.

“I had no idea what I was going to write about or who my target audience was and knew nothing of SEO. I just wanted to be writing again.” Sims said blogging has not only hugely improved her writing life, it’s improved her life in general.

Being selfish isn’t always a bad thing.

In the ‘80s Wiard won a $5,000 grant to record her original songs. Though the grant couldn’t be used for living expenses, her then-husband wanted half the money for bills.

Even though it seemed like a reasonable request, “what he didn’t realize was that I had never had money in my life that was only for me and my creative project. Always before I had scraped together pennies and, coming up short, usually said no to things that cost money that might have been an investment in myself.” So she said no to him, and has been pursuing her creativity ever since.

Last wise words, from Wiard: “Someone told me there comes a time in life when you just have to say yes to the work that only you can do.” And from Aragon: “The only ‘should’ I subscribe to (is) – you “should not” strive to meet other people’s expectations for your own life.”

Amen. I ditched the shoulds and am now pursuing my true love, travel writing. What about you?

This column first ran in The Taos News. Photo credit: designsstock.

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  1. Rob Toscano says:

    I purchased a new computer a year ago, then last week edit software to begin cutting a movie I shot 3 years ago, then a 9 dollar cable two days ago to transfer the tape to the computer to start cutting the movie, then on-line I purchased Audio conversion software to transfer all the music for the movie from AAC files to mp3 files. Transfered 20 of those, started editing and realized I now have to purchase composite software to do titles and greenscreen scenes. I have a vision…, still trying to complete a childrens book…composite software will cost a bit more money. Finishing the story I can do now, Painting in the basement will resume at some time, need to clean the basement and clean and file work desks(plural).

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