Five women personal finance bloggers — all of whom have worked in creative professions — have joined to write this series of ‘letters to our younger selves.’ Please see the end of this post for links to others in the series.
For years, I confused struggling with “living an interesting life.” When I first started to identify as an artist, way back before my loan-funded college days, I looked at my favorite artists and writers and saw that they had one thing in common: struggle. Some of them struggled with money. Many of them struggled with drugs. A few struggled with disadvantages, social injustice, and the high personal price of real rebellion. I saw that there was no shortage of ways to struggle.
I chose to pursue the easier ways to struggle. I chose self-deprecation, alcohol, underearning, and isolation. I fielded the disapproval of people who thought they were invested in my well-being, when really they were invested in keeping the status quo. Being aware of that motive doesn’t always make it easier to digest, especially if the people disapproving of your actions are from the only place that you ever felt you belonged.
In the face of that disapproval, I searched for other places to belong. I wandered, sometimes lost and sometimes not. I tried always to stay interested in my own life…mostly as a way of generating material to write about. Although, I was often too busy generating the material to reflect upon it.
I searched for my tribe. I was drawn to others who chose to struggle. When I thought about what we all had in common, I said it was, “Struggle and pursuit.” The two were married in my mind. If I were pursuing my art, it meant I needed to struggle. The pursuit WAS a struggle. If I kept struggling, then it meant I was still pursuing.
I do not recommend this cycle of thinking.
It’s toxic. It slows the wheels of your creative process. It clouds your thinking – so much so that you can’t always see real opportunity when it comes your way.
I’ve found that self-sabotage is a good way to keep struggling. Don’t finish projects. Miss deadlines. Fall of the face of the planet. Flake out. At least you’ll still be struggling, which means you’ll still be pursuing.
Except, it really doesn’t.
It just makes you look bad.
Once, many many years ago, I had a particularly wild night out. Although it was fun while it was happening, the day after was hard, and I called my childhood best friend for comfort. During that call, he said, “You know, at some point, this behavior is just unbecoming.” I could have chalked that statement up to stone cold disapproval, but instead, I saw it for what it was. I didn’t call him to recount the good time I’d had. I called him because I had a throbbing headache and I couldn’t eat anything and I wanted to hear a familiar, loving voice. We both knew that nights like that weren’t ADDING anything to my life. And there wasn’t anything original or novel in my antics.
As a matter of fact, it was disturbingly boring behavior. I modified it.
I replaced it with a different struggle, because I had to be struggling. It was a part of my identity.
The struggle became my art. When I wasn’t writing, I was at least struggling – to write, to make ends meet, to find a place to belong. Pursuing the struggle is how I pursued my art.
You can live your life that way for a lot of years. But, you won’t get a lot out of it. Mostly, you’ll manufacture misery.
Here’s what misery does for the creative process: it makes it miserable.
Nothing is worse for your work than misery. Don’t be fooled by the millions of stories of brooding artists. There’s really nothing original or delightful about brooding.
The art that speaks to me has always done so through delight. To connect to it, I need to be delighted by it. To be delighted, I need to be intrigued, surprised, amazed by a turn of phrase or depth of light.
Is there something that delights you about struggle?
Even when reading about the struggles of others, the thing that always interested me was the resourcefulness or integrity or determination inherent in the people doing the struggling. I couldn’t see that in my own struggle, because it was mostly of my own design. I was committed to it. Commitment is not the same as integrity. It is not determination.
It is not pursuit.
At some point, it’s unbecoming.
Once you recognize that moment, start to turn things around.
I examined my story and looked for what was most interesting – to me. If I saw something in my life that was no longer interesting, I eliminated it. I stopped drinking altogether. I stopped shopping as a hobby and filled that time with more reading and writing. I saved money. I worked through the exercises in Overcoming Underearning. I unraveled the connection between struggle and pursuit in my mind.
I defined my dream and started to pursue it. Without struggle, which is also an art.
In the last few months, I finally read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. I think she says it best when she suggests that you get a day job. I’m paraphrasing here, but the message was something like this: Don’t make your creativity support you. It’s really kind of cruel to do so. Support your creativity, and it will serve you. It will work for you.
For a lot of years, I struggled, and it wasn’t real. I didn’t have to. I didn’t know that at the time. Since I stopped, I’ve been more productive, created deeper relationships, and carved out a place for myself where I truly feel I belong. It wasn’t the struggle that defined me after all. It wasn’t even the struggle that was interesting. It was the journey away from the struggle that garners the most attention in my life. That’s the story that others want to hear.
That’s the story that I want to live.
I hope you will, too.