“Your daily life is your temple and your religion. When you enter into it take with you your all.” –Khalil Gibran
“Are you a musician?” I asked the teenager across the merch table. I had been touring as an independent folk musician. He enjoyed the show and was kind enough to tell me.
“…Not really,” he responded.
“Do you play music?”
“Yeah…I mean – I guess,” he shrugged, “Guitar and piano.”
I cracked a smile when I heard. “Well then, it sounds like you’re a musician.”
Creative work is too often seen as a result of magical powers bubbling from deep within a single person. It is perceived to be a divine vocation entrusted only to a selected few like the Queen of Creativity dubbing knights. Yes, you might think, I paint, but I’m not an painter. I play music, but I wouldn’t call myself a musician. But if “the muse honors the working stiff” (Steven Pressfield, The War Of Art), then being creative is not a result of giftedness as much as it is one of hard work. Perhaps the title, artist, has become too burdensome with internal and self-evaluative pressure. Stop thinking of creativity as an inherent attribute you either have or don’t have. Stop trying to attain the impossible standards of being an artist in the romantic sense of the word. Here are five better things to be.
5 Better Things to Be Than Just An Artist
1. Be A Gardener
As a creative, think of yourself more as a gardener than as the soil. It is not your responsibility to make the plant grow. Your role is to plant seeds and tend to the soil, ensuring it is a healthy home for vegetation to thrive. You are the patient nurturer who works tirelessly in the dirt for a later reward. You create the atmosphere for miracles to enter the world. Get dirty, get involved, be patient, be humble, and have hope for the reaping. You are a gardener interacting passionately with the wonders of nature. Tend the soil for genius to grow. Set yourself up for success by implementing habits and practices that will aid in the creative process; explore different times of day to do your work, and discover what gives life to your creativity and what takes life away. Every poem, painting, writing, photograph — every result of creativity is fruit or flower in your garden. Tend the soil.
2. Be An Archeologist
Songwriter and lyrical genius, Jon Foreman said in an interview, “I equate song-writing with archeology. Every day you dig. You dig into different places within yourself—even finding places that you’ve rarely been. And buried within the soil is song. Sometimes the song is average, or derivative, or something you’re not proud of. And other times you discover a lost city, something that has always been there. You don’t feel as though you wrote it but rather as though you found it.”
The concept can be applied to any creative medium. You are an archeologist. Do the work needed to find the lost city. Dig daily holes within your mind, soul, and life, in a thrilling search for what you might discover. There are amazing treasures out there, they only need to be found.
3. Be A Batter
When you pick up your guitar, pen, pottery, or paintbrush, you are gripping the wooden slim end of a baseball bat. After dragging it in the dirt to take a position at home base, you prop it on your shoulder and take stance every time you sit down to accomplish a creative task. The world throws ideas your way, and you take a swing.
Being an artist of any kind takes swinging and missing over and over (and over and over) again. You will strike out many times before hitting a home run, and at times, you might connect, but only enough to make it to first base. Writing songs daily for my folk band, I often told others when explaining my creative process, “You have to write many bad songs to write one good one.” Any artist knows what it’s like to miss, to strike out, to not measure up. But the most successful creatives are those who recognize that swinging is the important part. Sometimes, you’ll knock out a home run. Other times, it will take more time and effort to round the bases.
4. Be A Fountain
The question, “Is my best work behind me?” can haunt creatives like a nagging fly. But the artist’s responsibility is not to top their last work. In fact, making that the aim will likely lead to burnout. An artist’s responsibility is to simply reflect the world around them like the mirror surface of a pond, and provide a constant flow of thought, questions, ideas, and conversation for the world.
Free yourself from the self-appointed pressures of competition between your present and past self. As Maya Angelou puts it, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” A stagnant pond muddies its surface, but a fountain flowing never dries up. And if creative work is reflective of life, then as long as there is life there is an opportunity. For the writer, as long as there is life, there are words to write. For the painter, there are canvasses to paint. Creative work is reflective of life and surges motion into the lives of others.
5. Be A Painter
Most every artist pines for authentic individuality. Creative people want, even need, to be unique, special, different from the rest. But finding that lone style, that voice no ear has ever heard, takes a great amount of work and effort. It takes more work than it does genius. My Aunt Susan Mains, a fantastic painter living in the West Indies, once told me with wisdom, “To find your style, you must paint a hundred paintings.” Too often, creatives want to arrive at the very moment we start, putting pressure on ourselves, and feeling entitled to wonderful works of art. But it takes time and effort to develop a style, a voice, a brand, true miraculous art. No matter your artistic means, you are a painter. Paint a hundred paintings and find your style. Have patience. Work hard.
Stop trying to be an artist. That title has been spoiled by the pressure it carries. Don’t focus internally – “am I good enough” – “am I truly an artist” – but focus on the simple work you can do to tend to your art, discover your creativity, swing for your home run, reflect the world around you, and inspire movement. “The muse honors the working stiff.” Start painting a hundred paintings, one at a time, and someday you might step back to find your masterpiece.