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Erin Stewart shares three ways people neglect their most creative selves, and why that needs to stop.

Years ago, I decided I was going to write a novel, get published and change the world.

Six years into this whole “hey-I-think-I’ll-be-an-author!” thing, my “books” are simply Word docs on my laptop, and all my naïve confidence has scattered. Faced with this reality, I have recently allowed myself a brief, but intense, pity party involving lots of tears, questioning of life choices and more than one declaration to my husband that, “I’ve wasted everyone’s time. I should just quit.”

And worst of all, I took a break from writing. I watched stupid TV instead of reading. I found myself picking fights with my husband simply because my mind was bored. I got crankier and crankier.

Penguin Random House
"Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear" is by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Enter “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” a book about creative living by author Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame. I read her words lately as part of a quest to reclaim my creative mojo before I self-destructed and took my whole family with me. As I read, I realized I’ve been approaching my creative endeavor incorrectly.

In fact, I’ve been downright cruel to my creativity. I’ve demanded it not only be fulfilling, exhilarating and soul-enlarging but also to earn money for my family, validate me as a person and make me wildly successful.

I asked too much. And I forgot why I started writing in the first place: I love creating.

I fell victim to what I call the three F’s: futility, fear and failure. While many creative people probably run into similar obstacles, I think mothers especially fall victim to these creativity-stealers.

First, we face the obstacle of futility. As mothers, we often forget that it’s OK to make space in our life for something simply because we love it. We already have a million demands on our time and talents. Our husbands, our kids, our friends, our bosses, the PTA all need us. How selfish would it be to take some of that time and dedicate it to something as self-indulgent as “creativity"?

Mothers are some of the most creative women I know, but they often lay their creativity on the altar of motherhood because they think if it’s not adding to the family budget or being externally successful, then it’s just a big, fat, pointless waste of everybody’s time.

Says who? Who says allowing space for our creativity has to have a high return on investment? If my “books” never see the light of day, does that mean I’ve wasted my minutes and hours and years? Or is publication just an added bonus to the joy, self-discovery and satisfaction I’ve gleaned from creating these characters?

We forget that allowing room in our lives for creative pursuits is not just a valid use of our time, but a critical one. We don’t owe anyone an explanation if we want to write, paint, scrapbook, photograph, plan elaborate toddler birthday parties or start a side business selling face cream.

I’m not saying ignore your kids or quit your day job, but make space in the reality of life for the creativity that actually makes you feel alive.

Then, we run up against fear, the constant companion of every creative person. We fear we are unqualified for the task. Maybe we don’t have the degree or the experience or even the raw talent.

We fear others will judge us. Will they think I’m ridiculous for trying this? We fear success. Will I be a one-hit wonder? Every creative person has to face the fears at some point, whether it’s starting your own company, picking up that first camera or putting words on that dauntingly blank page.

Because here’s the thing about fear: It’s not going anywhere. Fear is a big part of being creative. Actually, it’s a pretty huge part of being a human. Fear keeps us safe, but it can also keep us from diving headfirst into a creative endeavor.

Gilbert writes, “It isn’t always comfortable or easy — carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean — but it’s always worth it because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.”

Speaking of fear, perhaps the biggest one is the final F: Failure. What if no one likes me? What if I stink?

I love what Gilbert has to say about failure and the old adage, “What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?” She writes, “I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?”

So, what is it? What do you love enough to pursue even if you might never “succeed” at it?

4 comments on this story

For me, it’s writing. Of course, being published will always be my long-term goal, but in the day to day, my goal now is simply to live the best, most creative life I can because that’s what makes my life feel like mine.

Whether you consider yourself an inherently creative person or not, the truth is we’re all hard at work creating the same thing: A life. And at the end of mine, I’m sure I’ll be less concerned about the number of books I have on a library bookshelf than the number of moments I spent doing what I love and, yes, changing the world — even if it’s just my own.