What does it mean to live a creative life? Is it vocational bliss or just endless suffering? Is already the term “creative life” just one of these horrible catch-phrases like “living your dream” (meaning you turn them into nightmares) or does it denote something real? The writer Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) has talked and written extensively on the topic and has many interesting things to say about it, like “Frustration is not an interruption of the process, it is the process”. It is, however, a different statement of hers that caught my ear. In a TED-talk from 2014 she describes her creative work as her “home”, as “the place where I live”. I think this description hits home (pun intended). Let me explain.
When watching children creating it seems quickly obvious that every single one of us started out life with the gift and need to create. But relatively few of us end up to make creativity a place to live.
One reason for this is, of course, the need (and expectation by society) to make a living and to contribute. But making a living through a creative life is quite difficult and only few succeed in that sense. Children are therefore often encouraged or discouraged on their creative path implicitly based on an estimate how likely they will succeed. And again, success here is meant as income, which might require recognition but ultimately means to create marketable goods.
In such a context, the decision to pursue a creative life is not only a defiant act against reasonable odds, it is also from the start burdened by a conflict. Creating is a deeply autonomous act in which we reveal ourselves to the world. In order to be meaningful the revelation also has to be truthful. But marketability means there has to be a market, a demand that has to be met. If an artist therefore wants to stay truthful and be recognized there is not much more to do than to hope that creation and market match and find each other. No wonder then that a creative life is often associated with anxiety and despair.
Still, Gilbert describes not only the desperation of rejection, but equally the heights of success as straying from “home”, from the center of the creative experience. And I think she is right. Of course, all art is also a way of communicating. And if persistently nobody is listening one might have to ask oneself hard questions. But creativity is not only about communication. It is also a mode of existence, a way to approach and meet the world. And if that mode is where we are most and at the deepest ourselves then it is our “home”.
This might explain why there seems sometimes to be an element of compulsion in statements by artists, some kind of “Here I stand. I can do no other.” That statement then also could read: “This is me. I can be no different.” And if creative life is your home you can’t forever avoid it. As Gilbert again aptly puts it: “Creativity is a crushing chore and a glorious mystery. The work wants to be made and it wants to be made through you.”
If all of this sounds like gloom and doom to you: it isn’t. Creative life has its strong rewards. In my case photography gave me a new set of eyes and a different and deeper connection to the natural world. But most importantly, it is what I am and what I do. It is my home.