Guilt-free creativity

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Guilt is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a feeling of having committed wrong or failed in an obligation”.

I often think that feeling guilty often goes hand in hand with being creative. Time spent on art, writing, photography and thinking can feel like time stolen from other more pressing issues.

Since the days of the Industrial Revolution, productivity and efficiency have been prized by society and organisations. ‘Human resources’ were seen as a material cost just as much as the coal, iron and wool they worked on. In 1911, Frederick Taylor set out his ‘scientific management principles’:

“Science, not rule of thumb. Harmony, not discord. Co-operation, not individualism. Maximum output, in place of restricted output. The development of each man to his greatest efficiency and prosperity.”

The unspoken assumption behind such principles was that ‘man’ was motivated solely by money. Offer people enough cash, and however crushing the work, they will do it. The wake-up call for management didn’t come along until the Hawthorne studies at GEC in the 1920s demonstrated that the immediate team played a significant role in workers’ productivity levels. Later, research in the early 1980s by Hackman & Oldham showed that workers were more motivated by meaning, autonomy and recognition than money.

I’m guessing that many creatives are equally motivated by meaning, autonomy and recognition. But we have to live too. Finding some combination which allows us to do our creative work and eat is a good plan. I believe that a mindshift is sometimes necessary to make that happen.

1) Taking yourself seriously as a creative is an important first step. That particular work has to happen. It is a priority.

2) To make it happen, creative work needs to become a habit, a daily routine. If the only time it can happen is around other work, then so be it. T S Eliot worked in a bank by day. Kafka was in insurance. Henri Rousseau was a ‘Sunday’ painter. The day job didn’t stop them creating. Early mornings or late evenings or weekends are just as useful as 9-5. The important thing is to carve out a regular slot, however short, and use it.

3) Finding work which is connected, however loosely, to your creative work might provide the necessary meaning as well as the necessary money. Work may consist of several strands which make up a portfolio way of working.

4) Shaping work to suit you might be preferable to letting work dictate your days. If your priority is to write a novel, then working freelance from home or part-time could give you the space you need to do what you need to do. The important thing is to work out how much you actually need to live on. Spending a weekend getting clear about what is essential and what is frippery in your life serves to focus the mind on Monday morning. (Note: small children are not frippery. But expensive plastic toys might be.)

5) You might not be able to afford Virginia Woolf’s recommended ‘room of your own’, but if you are to make best use of your designated creative time, you need to get organised. Having the materials at hand that you need when you need them saves an awful lot of frustration and procrastination. And Lord knows, it is already hard enough to ‘apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’ . Wherever it is that you work best, undisturbed, needs to be good to go, day or night. That place could be a cafe or a library (as long as your laptop is charged or your notebook and pen are packed in your bag). It could be the kitchen table, as long as your paints and paper are already on the shelf or in a crate). You never know when you might get a bonus half-hour.

Combining paid work and creative work is by no means mutually exclusive. There may come a point when you can make a living from your work. (Whether you want to is another decision for another day.)

So if you aspire to guilt-free creativity, take some time to plan. It could be entirely feasible and highly productive in the best sense of the word. Knowing that you have not failed in your obligation to yourself is critical.

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