I’ve always been creative. I started writing poetry when I was 10, I took up the guitar when I was 13, and I went to school for journalism when I was 22. I’ve always looked up to the great creative geniuses of history to find inspiration in their works, and to find guideposts to direct my own journey. I find great satisfaction in creative endeavors, but there is one immutable problem with pursuing such goals on a professional basis: creative work is almost impossible to monetize.
This is what U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson calls “the crisis of creativity”. When you’re a creative person, you have to be creative. If you ignore your creative drive it eats you up inside and it will continue to gnaw away at you until you finally channel that impulse into some kind of meaningful work.
All my life I’m driven to do creative things; I write and play guitar. Although I may take a break from time to time, or I may grow frustrated and want to give it up, I always come back becuase without a creative outlet I feel empty. Unless I write or make music I feel as though there is something missing in my life, and that I have commited a grievous sin by ignoring this intrinsic need to create.
For the creative person, to do otherwise would be to live a life of unfulfilled passion, which leads to existential misery. But life is expensive. I have to pay rent. I have to pay the phone bill. I have to buy groceries. I have to buy a transit pass. I have to go out on the weekend. I have to save for retirement. I have to pay my debts. I need money, but can I fund my lifestyle with creative work?
Over the past six years I’ve been working as a freelance writer, full time for most of those years, so I can say that it is possible, although extremely difficult. (Freelance writing is a terrible way to make a living, but that’s a topic for another time). This is the dilemma that all creative people face. We want to practise our artful disciplines, and the only way to become truly successful and achieve greatness in your chosen craft is to put all your heart and soul into it. Full time. Every day. Year after year.
But, as Peterson points out, it is extremely difficult to monetize creative work so the vast majority of creative people do not succeed. They will not sit among the ranks of Picasso and Hemingway. Most of us toiling away in obscurity will not be remembered, although we may hold onto the dream for a long as we can. We may hold onto it until it leads of us a cliff. Or it may cause us to ascend into the heavens where we sit among the greats who changed the world with their art. The odds, however, are not favorable.
The crisis we face is that we have to be creative, but at the same time we can’t make a decent living being creative. It’s a grim reality that the ones who do succeed are a very small minority, and many of us will have to be content to carry on our creative work as a hobby, or to give it up entirely and fill the hole left in our lives with other meaningful things such as family or community. It is up to each individual how they satisfy their creative drive.
How do we solve the crisis of creativity? If you’re practical, you’ll probably do what most have done. That is to work a regular job to sustain your lifestyle while you toil away in private until you have finally perfected your craft and created that earth-shattering work of genius that will propel you into a high enough level of success that you can sustain yourself with creativity. There are so many examples of artists, musicians, and writers who have done this throughout history, there’s no point in listing them.
Unless you win the lottery, there’s no other solution. Unless, of course, you’re just extraordinarily lucky and meet the right people, in the right place, at the right time. In which case, you have my envy.