For what feels like all of my life, there has been an inherent tension between what I have to do (school, work) and what I want to do (read, write, exercise, make things). I think that fundamentally, human beings are creative beings, if we understand creativity as discovery and exploration which is channelled according to our desires and aptitudes, but I have never figured out how to marry my creative urges with work. There just isn’t anything I want to be when I grow up.
When I was in my twenties, I solved this conundrum by working in environments I enjoyed (nightclubs, the music industry) as they were creative environments where it was okay to be not like the others. I didn’t mind so much that I felt unfulfilled professionally as at least I was supporting good times or the art/music of others. Moreover, I made sure that my personal time was rich and rewarding and full of activities and exploration. One of the reasons I loved the internet so much in the late nineties and early 2000s, was because it was a bunch of people making crazy art project websites in our free time.
By my late twenties, that approach felt wrong. Given that we spend most of our time working, I realised that I needed to find more rewarding work. So, after a year and a half out in rural France practising Silence and Zen Buddhism, I decided to get a degree. I then spent my thirties working my way towards a PhD so that I could get a job as a researcher. I love reading, writing, and learning and research work felt like the closest thing to that. However, a humanities PhD is worthless in the labour market outside of academia, so that approach also fell flat.
Now I am in my late forties and I am treading water by freelancing doing a variety of things. This in part suits me due to the novelty of the experience, the variety of the work, that I am not a part of the dreary politics of organisations, and because I can work from home which is extremely beneficial in terms of my disability.
The key though, is that I work from home. As I have said before, I love my home, indeed, that I have a home is a luxury that I wake up in gratitude for literally every single day. What freelancing from home affords me, is the ability to structure my days as I please in an environment which nurtures and inspires me. An environment full of colour, books, natural light, plants, and two purry, furry cats. The boringness of most of my work aside, having the freedom to create my day as I please in an environment I love means that, overall, I really like my life.
The decision to freelance was a gift of the pandemic. I spent the first year of the pandemic unemployed which afforded me an awful lot of time to think. Importantly, lockdowns and no money meant that I had an inability to act out any form of avoidance and this forced me to face a lot of things. I don’t think I am alone in that.
The first part of lockdown until September 2020, I think of as the time of my best life. I filled my days with the things that I love: sewing, reading, writing, exercising, and cooking and eating delicious food. That first part of lockdown enabled to me trial what I would do if I were ever rich enough not to work. It enabled me to lay down the structure and content for living a creative life, a structure that I am slowly and steadily building on.
In fact, I am also starting to have a slight hope that I might get to where I want by freelancing. For instance, one of my recent contracts has involved spending a lot of time coming up with ideas to assist in the launch of a new undergraduate degree programme. I am, and have always been, an Ideas Factory. I suffer from an abundance of ideas that I am mainly not attached to, largely because they come so freely and easily to me. The parts of this job that have involved idea generation are the first time that I have been paid to do what comes naturally and enjoyably to me; for once, there is no tension between what I have to do and what I want to do.
For the longest time, I would say that art/making is the meaning of life. I no longer believe that. I now think that discovery and exploration are the meaning of life, and art/making is a form of that. What matters is that we are able to live creative lives and I believe that living a creative life means to pay full attention, to discover, and to explore. Grasping that in toto and living out what it means has been my ongoing life project since the days of my best life.
I think that everyone should live a creative life, because I think that is the point of being human. I think life should be a voyage of exploration and discovery in whatever way that emerges for you. This simply means paying attention and nurturing curiosity and the capacity for play. It means committing yourself to that which keeps you interested, alert, and present. It means paying attention to what nourishes you intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It takes discernment, wisdom, and the willingness to fail. Mostly, it is a journey of getting to know yourself through the world around you. It is about learning to be the human version of those swifts I see swooping in the skies every late spring and summer morning as I sit and write with my coffee.
Living a creative life means to allow our very selves to reach out – to touch, taste, and explore – and then weave all that wisdom into a new pair of socks, or some wings, or a map of the stars. Living a creative life does not have to involve ‘art’ or ‘making’. The chemical engineer utterly absorbed in, and fascinated by, whatever it is that chemical engineers do is living a creative life. Living a creative life means paying attention to what you are paying attention to. Living a creative life means trying on a million hats until you find the one which says your name and then entering into a dialogue with the you it helps you become. Living a creative life means approaching life with a spirit of discovery and with that, creativity will naturally flourish and follow. Living a creative life simply means abundance.
The tension that I mentioned in the beginning of this piece is the tension of capitalism. Capitalism does not want us to be swifts. Worse, it wants us to be a half-dead thing which does not even notice that we are not swifts. It wants us to empty out ourselves onto the shop floor so it can use our blood to sustain it. Deep down I have always known a version of this truth, even when I did not know what capitalism was. I knew that school was shaving off my raggedy edges, making the tendrils of my being recoil into a box or else risk amputation. I will never forget how I was not allowed to submit my magical realism creative writing for my GCSE coursework, as the Head of English thought it ‘too weird’. That decision and judgement of his ruptured my relationship with writing, and hence with myself, for years.
For many (most?) of us, much, if not all, of our jobs are profoundly deadening. They do not offer a way through to a creative life, rather they are a way to sustain our bodies in the matrix of distraction and disillusionment which is everyday life in late capitalism. Living a creative life in the midst of that is no mean feat and it is testimony to the vice-virtue of my stubbornness that I am still now, at the age of forty-seven, pursuing it as much as I can. For the time being that means infusing as much of the day as I can with invention and discovery by cultivating the twin arts of attention and gratitude. Maybe I will never reach the point whereby the majority of what I have to do is the same thing as what I want to do, but I do know that I will keep on trying. Living your life creatively is the secret of happiness and I am blessed to have that in abundance.