Several years ago, I conducted an experiment. I decided I would write at least one sentence every day and post it to a blog. It served two purposes: 1) It got me to write something daily, even if it was only one sentence, and that helped me establish a writing habit, and 2) it forced me to put my writing out into the world, even if no one actually read it—at least I was no longer hiding.
That experiment turned into a journey of sorts. At first it was wondrous, because people not only read what I wrote, some of them actually liked it and came back for more. That lead me to create another blog which developed a moderate but loyal following, one where I wrote poems, other odd things, and reflections on the act of being creative. I also drew pictures though I could barely draw a stick figure, but that was kind of the point. Creativity, I kept saying, shouldn’t be reserved for professionals. It was a message that connected, I found, with amateurs and professionals alike.
I thought for a while I was in heaven. Writing is something I’d often done and always found myself wanting to do even when I wasn’t, even when I thought I couldn’t.
“Do what you know you can’t do,” became one of my mottos.
People sent me emails telling me my work (my what?) meant something to them, in some cases that it changed their lives, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it felt good to hear that.
But I made the mistake of believing I’d discovered the secret to happiness, and when life did what it often does and showed me I hadn’t, I thought all the things I’d written were foolish. “You’re a fraud, Ken Robert,” said the little ugly voices in my head. “You’re divorced, you’re practically broke, you’re riddled with ADHD, and you’re a loud mouthed jackass who has no business dispensing your shoddy pearls of wisdom about the creative life. Please shut up and go find something normal to do.”
And that is what I tried to do. I shut up, I shut down, I went blank.
Every now and then I’d get a wild hair and make a half-hearted attempt at writing again or drawing again or doing anything—anything at all, Universe, please—that was remotely creative. But what was I going to write about while the voices in my head kept screaming, “Good God, are you at it again? Will you ever learn? For fuck’s sake, asshole, put it to sleep, will ya?”
My foul-mouthed little voices raised a good question. Would I ever learn?
The answer at this point, I think, is yes, and I hope I’ll continue to do so. Here are some of the things I’ve learned thus far:
1. It’s not about being happy; it’s about being whole.
Happiness is a thing that seems to come and go, unless you’re one of those genetic freaks who’s just naturally happy all of the time. For the rest of us mere mortals, it’s not that simple.
Maybe you wake up feeling chipper and think, “Now this is what I’m talking about. Hellloooo, joy!”
Then you get cut off in traffic on the way to work, and you’re not so happy. But then you get three green lights in a row and wham, bam, you’re happy as a clam. Then you spill coffee all over your crotch and the expletives fly out of your mouth like a swarm of angry hornets.
Even when you’re working on a project that has deep personal meaning to you, there will be times when the sky turns black and the clouds pour buckets of acid rain all over your bright and shiny enthusiasm.
“This is terrible,” you’ll tell yourself. “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” But you’ll press ahead and learn what you need to learn in order to do what you came to do because of, well, that whole deep personal meaning thing.
And therein lies a secret. Life isn’t about being constantly happy. There are some things in this world that do not warrant waves of ecstatic celebration. They may warrant gritting your teeth and going to work, instead.
But if that teeth grinding work is tied to something that truly matters to you, happiness is irrelevant. When you’re engaged in something meaningful, you feel whole, purposeful, and alive.
And that, I’ve come to believe, is what it’s really all about: being whole. More on that another day.
2. There are two kinds of narcissism.
For a while, I came to believe that sharing what you create is kind of narcissistic. Where I got that idea is unimportant, but the belief did trip me up for a while.
It’s just the kind of thing my little voices love to hear and echo. “Yeah, yeah. That’s what we’ve being say all along, you doofus!”
So the question rolled around in my head. Am I being self absorbed when I share my writing and other creative endeavors with others?
I mean, after all, I’m not a paid professional at this point. If you’re screaming at this page and asking how else a person could ever become one, you’re already way ahead of me in the wisdom department. But hey, I’m learning.
Of course, it runs deeper than that. The idea that only professionals should engage in a creative endeavor or any endeavor that doesn’t have an impact on life and limb is complete and utter hogwash to begin with.
And coming to understand that is what lead me to realize that narcissism doesn’t just express itself as something demanding attention. It also attempts to control one’s image by going into hiding.
The person who refuses to dance or paint or share any aspect of themselves is being just as narcissistic as the person who demands that everyone watch and applaud them when they do. Both are attempts to control an image. Both are attempts at being cool, and cool, my friends, is for fools.
As long as you’re sharing something that means something to you, then it’s worth sharing because it’s going to mean something to someone else as well. Not everyone. Not always. If you expect that, I’ll refer you back to Narcissism 101. But someone sometimes is all you really need to make the whole thing worthwhile.
3. If you’re willing to explore the darkness, you’ll discover sparks of light.
We’re told never to dwell on the past, and to a large extent I agree. To dwell can be hell.
But dwelling is different than delving, and delving into your past can actually be a positive thing.
To delve, sayeth Google, means to “reach inside a receptacle and search for something.” Quite often we avoid reaching inside the receptacle of the past because it’s murky and dark and contains elements of pain. Screw that noise, we say, and march headlong into the future.
And this works until we find ourselves stepping into the same traps we found ourselves in before and wondering why the heck why. If we’d only reach inside that receptacle and search around a bit, we just might find the answer.
For example, when we think about past relationships that didn’t pan out, we often remember only the pain of them crumbling. When we think of that pain, we often do one of two things: 1) we place all the blame for the crumbling on the other person, or 2) we heap all the blame on ourselves.
People can get really hung up on the division of blame, and some spend the rest of their lives trying to prove their case.
But if they would just reach down into that receptacle and search, they might be surprised what they find. They might find they really did love that person once upon a time, or even discover they still do. And they might be surprised to find out it’s okay to admit it. It’s okay to have loved or still love that person. It’s okay to acknowledge there were both good times and bad. It’s okay to look at what went wrong and learn from it without falling into rage or self loathing. It’s okay to remember what went right and why it worked for as long as it did. And maybe most important of all, it’s okay that it ended.
And the same goes for creative endeavors. It’s okay that everything was great and easy for a while, and it’s okay that things got hard. It’s okay that it all turned to crap one day. It’s okay that you fell off the artistic wagon. It’s okay that you wandered about and felt the misery of not creating for a time. And it’s okay if you want to begin again or try something completely different.
But you have to be willing to go into the dark parts of your past to discover all the light that still remains there. That’s the stuff you can collect and bring back with you into the present. It’s okay to allow yourself to experience that pain when there’s healing or redemption to be found.
4. There’s power in the practice of doing something daily.
I know from past experience that doing something that has meaning to you each and every day, even on a very small scale, has the power to create something bigger than those small daily actions seem to indicate on their own. It creates momentum. It adds up. It builds. It restores. It improves.
I also know from experience what can happen when you skip it. The little voices take over and start convincing you not to bother at all. They’ll tell you it was all a fluke. They’ll praise your critics for their wisdom. They’ll get stronger and toss you about, pull you under, knock you out.
Don’t let them do that.
Something to Take With You
I don’t know what your something is. Mine is putting words on a page and sharing them. Yours may be taking a short walk and simply noticing the world around you. It might be dipping a brush in paint and making marks on a canvas. Perhaps it’s performing one act, no matter how small, of kindness.
Whatever it is and however small it may seem, give it a chance to become something larger. Give it a chance to make a difference to yourself and possibly to others. Give it the attention it deserves and do it every day. Then, if you don’t mind, tell me what you learned.
Until then, feel free to stop and visit. I’ll be here every day.