By Jill Chafin
I am a creative, expressive person. I always have been. I've pursued multiple dreams, careers, and artistic endeavors, trying to strike a balance between doing the work that feeds my soul and the work that pays the bills. Sometimes these two overlap, but often they don't. As I get older, I find myself wondering, what has my creativity cost me? Where would I be now if I hadn't pursued such a creative life?
As a child, I used to run freely through the Wisconsin forest, dreaming up stories, creating complex characters, disappearing into imaginary worlds. My trance would be broken with: “Jill! Dinner!” I'd sigh, pausing the current adventure, to be continued. But after dinner we had to clear the table. Then we had to wash the dishes. And then it was too dark to disappear into the woods. I tried to hold on to my ideas, the imaginative state I'd been exploring, but it slowly disappeared, like a tumble weed rolling down the hill, into someone else's mind.
There's a great scene in Jeannette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle. She is 3-years-old, complaining to her mother that she's hungry. Her mother, an eccentric, self-absorbed artist, is furiously involved in painting a masterpiece. She responds by brushing off her daughter, saying something like I can either make you a hot dog, which will be gone in minutes, or finish this painting, which will last forever.
Now, I'd never allow myself to be so wrapped up in my creative process that I'd deny my children food. However, I've been guilty of forgetting to feed myself because I was so immersed in what us creative folk call flow. The pursuit of a creative vision can blind the needs of an ordinary life. I can see myself saying, I can either clean this toilet, which no one will notice, or I can write something, which potentially hundreds, or thousands, of people will read. (This is why our toilet is often dirty).
School was like death to my imagination. I had to break my fantasy world long enough to scribble down the correct answers on a test, and then poof – I was off on another imaginative adventure. I learned to touch type at 10-years-old, dusting off my mom's old typewriter, and producing 40-page stories. I groaned when it was time to stop, because the dishes were dirty – again. I couldn't get it in my head that those dang dishes had to be washed every single day (keep in mind I grew up in a log cabin without running water, so we lacked the convenience of a dishwasher).
I struggled when I hit adulthood. In college, I paired up with another down-to-earth, like-minded, creative soul. We cooked organic, vegan meals together, laughing while we washed the dishes. We lounged under the one tree outside our dorm, daydreaming about becoming famous authors, musicians, dancers, world travelers, you name it. But the daunting task of going to class, writing tedious essays on topics we despised, studying for multiple-choice exams, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and remembering to do the laundry was death to the creative process. My soul felt trapped.
Chores always killed the creative process. In fact, I don't think I ever cleaned my first apartment. I lived there for a year, with a roommate, and I don't remember either of us ever picking up a toilet brush. Did we even own one?
It's not that I don't like things to be clean. I'm obsessed with perfection, so much to the point that if I start cleaning, I don't stop. I chase hairs around the shower for an hour, to which point I never get around to writing my next story or choreographing my next dance routine. So that's why I tend to avoid the distraction of cleaning (unless I'm trying to avoid the process of writing, which is a whole different story). But when it comes to organizing, all my tin cans are in rows, labels facing front. Clothes neatly folded. Shelves completely clear of clutter (well, before I had kids). Somehow I need order to manage the chaos in my head; too many ideas are swimming in there. I need to stay grounded in this world, and lining up cans in the cupboard helps with that.
The reason I pursued dance so fervently was because it forced me into the moment. I had to be physically present in my body, otherwise I'd smack into someone else (which happened occasionally). However, I usually failed at auditions because I was too busy studying all the other dancers – what they were wearing, their mannerisms, how they walked, the sound of their voices. I wondered what their houses looked like. I can definitely use her as a future character. I excelled with choreography because that was within the domain of harnessing my creative power. I'd hear a song, close my eyes, and the dancers would appear, right there in my head. It was my job to scribble down the moves before they disappeared: left kick, turn, leap, drop to the ground. I'd then read my chicken scratchings, teaching it to whoever was willing to learn.
I've devoted my life to creativity, a slave to my endless ideas and inspiration. I've managed to pay my bills, even saving a little here and there, but I haven't done what adults are supposed to do. I haven't saved much for retirement. I have yet to buy a house. I didn't even have health insurance until Obama came along. I tossed the concept of “benefits” aside, refusing to get a real job, choosing instead to pursue whatever passion grabbed me next. Start a non-profit dance company? Done. Full-time writing course while I lived in Wellington, New Zealand? Why not? Aerial dance teacher training? Sure. I organized, choreographed, directed, and performed in one dance production after another, often paying myself a measly couple hundred dollars after weeks, months, a year of hard work. I put in long hours on my novels, going to writing critique groups, sending off query letters to agents. One day I'll make it, I told myself.
How did I pay the bills? Certain classes were major breadwinners, like my preschool dance class. Parents were desperate for a fun and semi-structured activity for their 3-and-4-year-olds. I could make around $100 for teaching a 45-minute dance class. Even though I was jumping around like a bunny, stomping like a dinosaur, or twirling like a princess, I wasn't really being creative. I was the director of crowd control: keeping those little bodies from bouncing into each other, helping wipe runny noses, and watching for signs when someone was about to pee their pants. I didn't particularly love that class, but it paid my rent.
I managed to balance the work that fed my soul with the work that fed my bank account. I got by. I never earned more than $30,000 in a given year, but I was okay with that. I was pursuing my dreams, I was paying my rent, I was young and full of energy. If I had passion, I was happy.
And then I had kids.
Suddenly I longed for the things that my peers had. My friends with houses, 401-whatevers, college savings for their kids, and paid vacations. Wait, I don't get any of that? Yes, I know they all worked really hard for those things. But I worked hard, too. I wasn't just lounging in my PJs all day, waiting for the lottery to give me a perfect future. I was busting my butt off, dancing late into the night, rehearsing all weekend for the next show, emailing and promoting and fundraising, sewing costumes, ironing on decals, printing programs, applying for grants, sending off my manuscripts. It was just that their jobs paid well, and mine didn't.
I often think about the story of how Stephen King made it big. He was working as a high school teacher, writing his book Carrie on the side. He hated it, figured it wouldn't sell, so tossed it into the trash. His wife, Tabitha, pulled out the manuscript, dusted it off, and encouraged him to keep going. You wonder what would've happened if that first version of Carrie had been taken out to the dumpster, hauled away to the landfill? If Stephen King didn't write again, deciding that his teaching job was more secure, more predictable, the more adult thing to do? But that's not how it turned out. We don't scold Stephen King for not making more responsible decisions. His fans are glad he kept writing, against all odds (read more about his journey in his book, On Writing). And yet here I am, doubting myself for choosing artistic expression, time and time again, over a stable job that could've earned me a hefty down payment by now.
My husband is like Stephen King's wife. He's always there, digging my self-esteem out of the trash, dusting it off, and telling me to "keep writing." His voice echoes like my dad's: believe in your gift. My dad used to tell me that we should pursue careers based on what we did as kids; that our natural inclinations during childhood are indicative of where our real passions lie, and how we'll be successful.
“I always saw you writing,” my dad told me.
And now my life is fuller than ever, with two small toddlers climbing all over me. In order to carve out time for my creativity, I have to push other things aside. That means the laundry gets folded at midnight, we often run out of mustard, I forget to load the dishwasher, and the toilet rarely gets cleaned. We work hard at our paying jobs – me teaching aerial classes part-time, my husband running his own math tutoring business. We pay the bills, we save for a future house, and then we stay up late – me working on my novels, my husband working on his latest research paper.
I know that for every minute I devote to my creative process, it's costing us. It's costing us time that I could be earning money, money that could go towards our future mortgage, our kids' college funds, our retirement nest egg. There is a price to creativity, especially as the needs of our children grow. Should I be doing this, right now? Or should I be looking for a real job? Benefits, benefits, benefits. Wouldn't it be nice to take a sick day and get paid? I've never experienced that. Or to go on vacation and get paid. We do go on vacation, usually to visit family in far away places, but it never really seems like vacation. We're always working – I'm scheduling future classes for when I get back, or teaching classes at our destination. We plan our outings around my husband's Skype clients. He stays up late, typing out his endless scientific ideas, equations, formulas, and entrepreneurial designs. This is his creative work, something that may win him the Nobel Peace Prize, one day.
Whenever I talk about giving up on my creative endeavors, wanting to pursue this fabled "real job," because that's what grown adults are supposed to do, my husband responds with an emphatic no. “You're a writer. You always have been. That's what you're meant to do.”
So I compromise. I search for freelance writing jobs, various articles that I can write after the kids go to bed, some form of income that reassures me that I'm making a dent in our finances. And after that's done, I dust off those old Word documents, I keep pushing those words out of my head and onto the paper. This is my creative time, the time for me and my characters. Maybe one day I'll actually make real money from it.
If not, we're doing okay and we're figuring it out. As long as we're following our dreams, we're happy.
Jill Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist & dancer, food enthusiast, and mama. She was runner-up in the 2012 America's Next Author Competition and holds a BA in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's currently working on several novels.
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