Living an Artist’s Life in a Workaday World

(A How-To)

A Distractions & Subtractions post for Dianne Gray

It’s hard to know whether there’s been an era more detrimental to living the life of an artist than the current one.

The temptation is certainly strong to say there hasn’t been – that the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, the Renaissance (wo)men, the Elizabethans, and the Romantics with their sculpture and architecture, their mosaics and genre scenes, their busts and paintings, their music, literature and frescos, their theatre, and their landscape-focused writing, painting, and composing that seem to burst from the pages of history texts all revered their artists.

Maybe they did.

But perhaps their artists suffered the historical equivalent to what many artists face today – that is to say, a stifling daily grind of the working world with all its attendant hassles that is the sworn enemy of creativity.

There’s the commuting, the budgets, deadlines, overtime, stagnation, trying to do more with less, spending more hours a week at work than not at work, and the constant competition for more, better, and now that exemplifies a consumer-based economy.

All of these practicalities of life leave the modern artistically-inclined especially feeling drained, de-animated, and deprived of the space, reflection, and deliberation required to let loose their imaginations and give their creative musings a tangible form.

Such is no different for national/international award winning Australian author Dianne Gray, whose writing subtraction speaks wholly to this artist/workaday dichotomy many of us struggle to reconcile.

Dianne writes, “Time is my problem. I need space and time to write. I spend more time staring out the window thinking about my stories than actually writing them.”  She then goes on to express her hope that her then-upcoming retirement from the working world would afford her “…all the time in the work to gaze out on the sugar cane and contemplate life, the universe and everything (instead of having to go to work every day and put up with creativity killing stuff).”

Despite having since followed through with giving up her day job to pursue writing and other interests full-time, Dianne’s subtraction remains a relevant one, both for everyone still punching the 9-5 time-clock, and perhaps even herself as well depending upon how her now-found free time comes to be occupied.  My mother, who is well into her retirement years, claims to be more busy now than when she was working and raising children.

Dianne’s implicit question is thus, if not one of all the ages, then surely of the age of here and now:

How does one maintain a life of creativity and inspiration in a world not inherently set up for such?

Art as a state of mind

What a difference a couple of weeks makes.  In my last blog reader Distraction & Subtraction post, I was trying to help Eric draw a firm line between his work life and his life as a creative writer.  Now, this week, I’m trying to push these two states of being back together in hopes of finding a harmonious balance somewhere in the middle.

For balance is a key component that’s often missing, both with regards to our work lives, and the way we think about the arts.  Authors Mark Bryan, Julia Cameron, and Catherine Allen, in their book The Artist’s Way at Work write the following:

Our culture tends towards extremes when describing creativity.  Most of us, much to our detriment, have soaked up stereotypes of creative people:


Crazy —————- Brilliant

Broke… ————- Genius…

Irresponsible —– Visionary

Selfish… ———— Inspired…

Loners ————– Leaders (p. 37)

Within this paradigm, art is either senseless or stunning; it’s either a waste of time or it’s profitable, at which point it becomes subsumed by the workaday world and is subjected to the same demands as any other day job.

Furthermore, these “either-or” characterizations often make it hard for people to think of themselves as artists: few people truly consider themselves to be genius or visionary, yet at the same time, no one wants to call themselves broke, irresponsible, or talentless.  There needs to be a balance; a spectrum of artistry rather than a binary.

In my opinion, actively calling oneself an artist (a writer, a painter, a singer, etc.) is one of the most important acts a person who engages in a specific art form can do.  Not only will doing so force you to hold yourself and your work to a higher standard, it will also begin to justify you dedication to your art.

Suddenly, bailing on a boring party to go home and paint, or leaving work on time to go write in a coffee shop, or driving a couple hundred kilometers to take music lessons with a master seems perfectly rational and not at all a weird thing to do.  Even when it’s totally weird, and something only someone considering him-/herself an artist would do.

Artifacts and talismans

Another strategy for introducing more creativity into the workaday life is to carry your art around with you everywhere you go.

This doesn’t necessarily mean carrying your work-in-progress in your briefcase, although it could, if your art is the portable sort.

Rather things that remind you of your art will suffice – some artifacts, if you will, to remind you of the fact that, yes, you’re still an artist even if you’re not in the full throes of inspiration at the particular moment in time.  This may also encourage you to devote some of the “gap time” that arises here and there throughout the day to being creative.

Some possible artifacts to carry include the following:

  • Inspirational photos
  • Music you listen to while engaged in your art
  • A sketchbook
  • A notebook
  • An idea
  • A trinket that you associate with your art (e.g. a special pedant, a special pen, a book by your favourite author).

See the forest or the trees

Artists need to be relaxed to work their ideas and inspiration into shape.  Not so relaxed that you’re too tired to make the magic happen, yet neither so keyed up and anxious, it becomes nearly impossible to sit still in the chair.  Neither dragging ass not running flat out.  Once again, a balance is needed – a happy medium of action and reflection.

It can be difficult to find that level of calm amidst the pressures and stresses of the workaday world.  It can be even more difficult to maintain that calm once it’s attained.

There has been much research done on the relaxation and improved attentiveness that results from time spent in nature.  “Time in nature”, in this context, could equate to a stroll in the countryside, a hike in the wilderness, a sit upon a bench in a bushy urban park, or any other similar activity that takes one away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

This is something that Dianne clearly knows all about, having not only left her job, but also literally decamped for the greener pastures of an old family farm house in the country.

However, for those still bound to the city ball and chain the majority of the time, there’s hope there as well.  Studies show that just looking at pictures of natural settings can have the exact same effects of increased calmness and control over attention as being in nature.

This means that hanging up a nature poster at your place of work can help keep you more tranquil while on the job, which can help you still be tranquil when you return home and set to work on your WIP.  Having nature photos at home in your creating area should further prolong the sense of equanimity.

Art as a state of being/doing

Finally, art may be a state of mind, but ultimately, to truly be an artist, you’ve got to pull your art out of your mind and into tangible reality.  That is to say, it’s not enough to just think about it; in the words of the Nike sportswear company, you have to just do it.

You won’t always want to.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Artists don’t live in a constant ecstasy of inspiration, regardless of how they may be portrayed in the media.

Vancouver based clinical psychologist and psychology lecturer, Dr. Randy Paterson, has the following to say regarding the notion of inspiration:

Don’t wait for inspiration; it’s not coming.

More specifically, Dr. Paterson states that, “No worthwhile goal [e.g. completing a major work of art] is attractive all the time.”  Inspiration, therefore, is not a reliable force for encouraging the sustained effort such a long-term project requires.

Similarly, Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials series, writes,

[I]f you’re going to write anything that will last[,] you have to realize that a lot of time, you’re going to be writing without inspiration….  Amateurs think if they were inspired all the time, they could be professionals.  Professionals know that if they relied on inspiration, they’d be amateurs.

Dr. Paterson offers two alternative motivators for promoting continued work on projects; two important questions you can ask yourself before each uninspired creative session:

  1. Will it take you toward your goals?
  2. How will you feel after the fact?

In other words, even though you might not always want to work on your art – even though you might take the occasional hiatus – you have to actually become the artist you’ve always wanted to be – come hell or high water – if you truly want to invite more creativity into your workaday life.

This is probably the only way it’s ever happened, in any time period.

Life imitating art

And that, my dear Dianne, is my very complicated answer to your equally difficult Question of the Modern Age.  I’d love to hear either your thoughts, and to read a companion post to this one on your blog.

Any comments from any other readers struggling with balancing work life and creative life are also welcomed.

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7 thoughts on “Living an Artist’s Life in a Workaday World

  1. Wow – I’m speechless, Janna. What a fantastic post!

    I absolutely love this “few people truly consider themselves to be genius or visionary, yet at the same time, no one wants to call themselves broke, irresponsible, or talentless” brilliant 😀

    “Time in nature” is on the top of my list at the moment. Freedom and space are my muses and I’m so glad you mentioned this here. When I was in the city and working full time in a government department my screensaver at work was the Horse head Nebula – my screensaver at home was a picture of the full moon, so I totally agree that artistic images can draw out creativity.

    I love Randy Paterson’s quotes and will be reading more of his work very soon.

    Thank you again for answering my question – I’ll be linking this post to my next post during the week 😉


  2. I’m glad you like it, Dianne. 🙂 It’s a tough topic to address, largely because it’s impossible to know whether such a balance between work life and creative life is even possible, and not us just waxing poetic about something that’ never actually existed (i.e. the days when society valued its artists).

    I too related to that Artist’s Way quote. I used to get very uncomfortable with how excited people sometimes got when I told them I’m a writer, but I didn’t know why. Now I understand it’s because I could tell they were automatically assuming I was, not just a good writer, but an exceptional one, thereby immediately prompting me to qualify myself by saying that I’m not published, and I have a problem with run-on sentences, and I’m not sure my semicolon usage is correct.

    I’d really rather just be thought of as a writer, sans adjectives, and let the strength of my written work help people decide my relative talent. As I have no formal written work out there as yet, I’d really rather just be thought of as a writer.

    Dr. Paterson’s psychology lectures have reshaped a lot of my thinking about goals and perceptions over the last couple of years. I’ll definitely be quoting him again in this blog.


  3. Another thoughtful post, Janna. Dianne already quoted my favorite line.

    Thinking back to my recent post on writing art, craft, or entertainment, you may have touched on the underlying psychology of my assertion. That is, I may not consider myself worthy of being labeled an “artist.” In fact, it was only recently that I’ve become comfortable calling myself a writer. This despite having written two full-length manuscripts, dozens of short stories, pushing words around all day at work, blogging, and writing weekly entertainment pieces for another site. Think I might be setting an impossible benchmark?

    As always, I enjoy your blog quite a bit and appreciate your knowledge on the art* of writing.

    * for you 😉


  4. Pingback: WIP it good « Dianne Gray author

  5. Love this! It’s almost a permission to be as fantastic as you are, openly. I’ve loved this one for a while: ““Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
    ― Marianne Williamson”


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