Saturday, March 9, 2019

Why Creativity is Critical

I thought about grabbing an online image
specifically about creativity, but then
figured, why? I have my own art to show off. 
Seven months ago I posted about a painting series I did because I lost my 18-year-old son to suicide. I haven't blogged since, and I've only posted on Facebook a few times about the situation. I think that may be surprising to some people, that it's expected that I would express myself with words during this time because I'm a writer. Yes, everyone knows I'm an artist, too, but writers have this need to put things into words. And I have done that a lot in private journal entries and the workbook that goes along with the grief support group I'm in. But my real expression has come through art, specifically painting. When emotions are too intense or all jumbled, pictures just make more sense. When it comes to things I want others to read, I write much more fiction; and the little bit of nonfiction I've had published are personal experience stories written years after the experiences they illustrate. So maybe I'll someday be able to put all this into a story or stories somehow. For now, it's about art. And that's fine. The point is, I'm creating. For those of us who are creatives--visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians, wood workers, Lego builders, game designers, and the list goes on and on--expression through creativity is vital. It's as vital as the air we breathe and the water we drink.

I've been reading a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. So much of it is about the need we have to create and how it's a part of who we are, and how we become blocked in every aspect of our lives if we don't let that creativity flow. We become cranky and irritable if we stifle out urge to create. Cameron says it's like being choked if we don't allow ourselves to create. We become depressed, we become angry. We "react as if we are fighting for our lives." Because we are smothering a part of ourselves. It's scary and makes the world seem senseless and cruel.

I keep looking back at my son's life. Nick was so smart and inquisitive as a child. He absorbed information like a sponge, particularly when it came to animals. And he was creative. He drew so many pictures of those animals he spent hours learning about. He build zoos out of Legos. He'd go around the house gathering craft materials so he could create caterpillars and lizards. He wrote stories. He played pretend all the time. He was constantly coming up with outlandish "what if" scenarios for me to consider. As he got older, I encouraged his creativity. But he became more self-conscious and refused to draw or paint or design things. He wrote reluctantly when I assigned it as part of his homeschooling, but no matter how much I encouraged, he refused to write other than that. He refused to believe me when I told him how good his writing was. And it WAS good. Not I-think-it's-good-because-I'm-your-mom good either. It was I'm-a-writer-and-I-know-good-writing-when-I-see-it good.

The more I read in The Artist's Way, and the more I connect how I am feeling during my grief with how much or little I am creating, the more I am becoming convinced that part of Nick's depression came from him stifling his own creativity. No, I will not say that is the only cause, or even the central cause, because I have no way of knowing for sure. But I believe it contributed. Strongly. We are seeing higher suicide rates among teens for so many reasons, but the root of those reasons is lack of self-acceptance and feeling unaccepted by the world. We're seeing kids buckling under the pressure to be perfect academically when their strengths lie elsewhere, denying what their true talents are, thus denying who they are. Creativity is part of our identity. Denying that is denying who we are. And denying who we are makes us feel unworthy. It's scary and makes the world seem senseless and cruel. 

It's frustrating as I see how many people around me are feeling depressed and discouraged in the creative fields. So many can't make a living at it, and it sends the message that this is not a worthy pass time. We have to have "real jobs" in order to pay the bills--which is fine, but when we're feeling like failures because of that fact, it weighs on our souls. We shouldn't need outside validation, but in the world as it is today, we're constantly told that that's exactly what defines us. How much money you make, what kind of house you have or car you drive, what your title is, what your college degree level many paintings you've sold, how much you earn in royalties, how many Amazon reviews you have...To the point where many are giving up. Not just giving up writing for publication, but giving up writing altogether.

And kids are feeling pressure more and more to be successful financially. They're watching their parents stress about money. Watching their grandparents unable to retire fully. Being pushed to finish college before they've had a chance to finish high school. And college is presented as the only option. Trades are shoved aside, seen as less-than. The arts are being trampled by math and science. Don't get me wrong--I love math and science. I have a college degree in biology! But when school is skewed so heavily toward STEM classes, it sends a message. Oh, sure, some have changed that to STEAM, but the "A for art" gets glossed over. Or it's seen as only things like web design. And we're constantly reminded what a competitive market the creative arts can be. Better have a back-up plan. Paint if you must, write if you must, but don't expect to make a living. The subtext: You won't be getting paid, so don't waste your time. Or, at the least, you better produce what the market wants, establish yourself, and then can start working on things you actually enjoy and try to make money on those. (Btw, I'm not saying those things aren't true about the competitiveness, etc,, but the truth about those things doesn't make it easier on our self-esteem.)

A lot of us take that deeply to heart. We start spending so much of our time marketing our books or artwork, we find ourselves drained and unable to feel creative. We can't finish that novel because we know it's just going to be followed by hour upon hour of marketing with very little return on investment. It begins to feel pointless. At the same time, we turn our noses up at those who say they write for themselves, or write only for God, or "if only one person is touched by my story, I've done my job." We think to ourselves that those people aren't serious writers. That words written are meant to be read, and by as many people as possible. (I posed some questions in a writers group, trying to get to the heart of how everyone would feel if they had no way of expressing their creativity, and in doing so I asked if marketing was ever discouraging of the creative process. Wow. The way writers now jump on the discussion of marketing! It is a consuming topic in the writing world--I would say these days even more so than actual writing, which shows me how powerful the pressure is. Ironically, at the same time, a blog post called "The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles" which touted the war cry, "You Don't Have to Monetize Your Joy!" was being shared virally among that same author group.)

We also feel that art is to be seen and appreciated, and sold. Selling art begets selling art--if you can say you're selling, people are more willing to buy because they see more value in your work. However, it's getting harder and harder for artists to emerge and gain traction. People are seeing art as something they should be able to get for free. Photography especially. It's "just a picture." Just pixels on a screen these days. Original art is harder to sell because mass produced "art" is everywhere--printed canvases are available in retail stores all over the place for a tiny fraction of what a similar original painting would cost. Those not in the art world themselves have no concept of the cost, both time and money, for the artist. I know from experience, it often makes us want to keep our original works and only sell prints. Or we're forced to sell original pieces that glean us below minimum wage for each hour of work put into them.

For years, I did art for just me. I mostly drew for fun. Painted holiday figurines to decorate my house or give as gifts. I scrapbooked. I even started wand-making because I wanted a one-of-a-kind wand for myself, with no intention of ever making another. But as with my writing, my art became about sales. How many original paintings could I sell? Prints? Pendants? Would people buy wands like the one I made for me? How do I get more efficient, so I can make more inventory and sell cheaper and still make money? I was overwhelmed by the stress of it all. Feeling horrible. It was great to hear people tell me how good my stories were, or how beautiful my art was, but dang it, buy them! Because lack of sales made it harder and harder for me to be motivated to keep producing. Sitting at art and craft events, having people walk up to my table and gush over how great my work is, then take a look at my prices and smile hesitantly and walk made me reluctant to participate in events anymore, sent me home frustrated and angry far too often.

And then Nick. Here one day, gone the next. Book sales suddenly don't matter. Art sales? Only so I can get rid of the stock filling up my armoire. I'm not writing stories anymore. Not now, at least. I will, soon. But art has been my go-to. Art is where I can breathe, why I can breathe. Creativity is keeping me alive. I don't care anymore whether or not it can make me a living. I would give anything to have my Nick back, but I wish I could do so with this understanding. I wish I could have him here, and have my art and writing not be a marketing obsession for him to see, but rather a way to live. I wish I could have made him understand that the need to create is not something to ignore. I wish I could have silenced the world for him.

Creativity needs to be encouraged for its own sake. Of course, we all have to make a living somehow, and wouldn't it be nice to just get paid for doing what you love? But not if the business side of that makes you hate doing what you love. Unfortunately, our world is so much about making money off everything (even playing video games on Youtube) that art is so rarely done for art's sake anymore. At least, it's not encouraged to be. We're pushed to be the next innovator, the next trend-setter, and those things don't happen as naturally as they used to. When the pressure isn't about learning how to paint or draw or write well, but rather about how to sell what you have painted/drawn/written, and success as an artist is measured in dollar signs, the soul of creativity is lost. In the process, a piece of our own soul. We end up stripping our souls instead of nourishing them. Passion wanes, or is smothered completely, and is replaced by ambition. And for some, like my son, passion is never even allowed to sprout in the first place.

I was discussing art with a couple of friends a while back, neither of whom are artists. Both have enjoyed doing those paint-and-sip classes once or twice. Both express interest in learning water color painting. Both talked about how little skill they have, and are mostly refusing to allow themselves the chance to nurture their desires. It made me so sad. I told them to just do it anyway. I explained that the only reason my art is at this level is that I've been working on it my whole life. Don't be discouraged because someone else makes it look easy and it's hard for you. It's not about making some thing beautiful on the outside, it's about making yourself beautiful and healthy on the inside. 

I don't know how to fix this. The world is a demanding place and that's not going to change. It will probably get even worse as time passes. It's harder and harder to fight. Kids are shunted off to college earlier and earlier, taught to the test in school, all shoved into the same box academically...even in the homeschool community kids are not immune because despite being schooled at home they live in the world and see what other kids their age are struggling with. And yes, some of us homeschoolers find ourselves pushing some of the same things. I'm not trying to end this post on a negative note, but the fact is words are not enough. Telling our kids we love them, encouraging them with words and actions is not always enough when the world is sending an opposing message much louder and stronger. We did everything to encourage Nick creatively, academically, personally. But it was all filtered through what he personally was seeing: the cruelty of the word at large. This doesn't mean we don't try! We do, every second of every day, and hopefully, with each little parental push, the pendulum will begin to move in the other direction. 


Keturah Lamb said...

I am so sorry about your son. But this post is very relatable. I have a hard time talking publicly about what's happened in my life and the pain and stress that continues to be a huge part of each day. Writing about it DOES help, but I, too, am just coming to the place where I can write ... even as more things continue to happen. Creating DOES help. I remember in some of my darkest moments I couldn't write at all. Sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. But somehow I'd pick up my pen one day and force myself to write ... it took all my energy, but it was like I pricking at the darkness and slowly it fled away.

I love your art. And I agree passion should be at the core of our art. I clean houses, because as you say we must work meanwhile. But that hasn't killed my passion nor my dedication to writing every day and creating stories. I do not look forward to the stress of marketing, and at the same time I've always loved business. I just hope I'm able to balance passion and marketing.

Thank you for this post! I hope your art continues to help you, and that God blesses your spirit, and that you have full peace today.

Sheila Hollinghead said...

I have read The Artist's Way twice, and I'm also reading The Vein of Gold. I also read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. The takeaway from Big Magic for me was this: Commit to your creativity and prioritize it, even if you lose money doing it. Our creativity should be protected.

And one other idea that resonated was this, a take on "What would you accomplish if you knew you could never fail?" meme. Instead, ask this "What would you accomplish if you knew you were bound to fail? What would you commit to, if it involved struggle and hardship? What would you want to accomplish, no matter the cost?

Good thoughts, Kat. Thanks for sharing.

J.M. Hackman said...

Thank you for sharing part of your heart. I'm glad you're finding healing in your art. 💜

Caprice Hokstad said...

I think this blog post proves that your writing isn't "going to happen" but is happening right now. Succinct. Poignant. Passionate. There's nothing lacking. Thank you.

Partly Dave said...

Very good thoughts. Thanks for sharing this. Sympathies on your loss.

Partly Dave said...

Also, I did The Artists Way and it was transformative to me.

Katie Robles said...

Thank you for sharing your heart. And thank you for the reminder of why I got into writing in the first place: for the fun of it. I don't want to lose sight of that.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thank you for the comments, everyone. I wasn't getting notifications and only just saw them today, so sorry for the delayed reply. I really appreciate all your kind words!