What if you never created anything? Ask yourself—seriously.
No one would know you never finished that novel or painting. No one would miss the songs you never brought to open mic night. Or would they?
The short answer is yes, they will. If you find that you’re gifted artistically, that others are drawn to or moved by what you can do, then you must cultivate your art. That’s your responsibility, your calling, your real work. Your one obligation is to be brave and get started. Chances are, your job is not your work. It might even be a distraction.
Dramatic? Maybe. But if you’re like me and you’ve been torn about how seriously to take your creativity, then I recommend you read two books, because they lit the oil in my soul when I read them.
THE WAR OF ART
The first is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Pressfield is a marine-turned-screenwriter who takes art as seriously as an order. I’m going to break a few rules and take you (spoiler!) right to the last page of his book. The creative has an obligation, he says:
If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
[ … ]
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.
It’s a scary thought. And I don’t believe Pressfield is being dramatic or hyperbolic. I believe he’s right.
The second book is Mastery by Robert Greene. Greene tells one story (among many others) of renowned architect Buckminster Fuller. One evening, Fuller was walking along Lake Michigan, looking at the icy water, listening to the winter wind—planning suicide. He was a failure: at business, at relationships, at life. If he killed himself, his insurance and wife’s family would take good care of her and their child.
But something like a voice stopped Fuller in the cold. It said:
From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth. You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experience to the highest advantage of others.
None of us has the right to eliminate ourselves; we don’t belong to ourselves. This includes our creative gifts—if we were given art, we don’t have the right to sideline it as a hobby or push it under the bed. Instead we are called to cultivate that art so that we and others might flourish. We’re supposed to paint, to write, to make. How powerful is that? Howbinding is that?
Now stand with your audience for a second. How tepid would life would be if you never heard your favorite song or never read that life-changing book? On the one hand, you can’t imagine life otherwise. Even if you could, you know it would be different. And not in the FOMO sense, but in the formational sense. Your life would look like someone else’s. Art makes us who we are. Art makes us who we are meant to be.
What would have happened if F. Scott Fitzgerald never wrote The Great Gatsby? We never would have received one of the greatest American novels, or the Baz Luhrman film that brought it to the screen. Personally: I never would have stood on a pier longing after a green light, knowing all the while that the longings symbolized by that light can’t be fulfilled in this life. The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited, My Name Is Asher Lev…all have lodged themselves inextricably in my psyche. I wouldn’t be who I am without them. I owe pieces of my soul to their authors.
IT’S NOT ABOUT US
So our creative work isn’t about us. It’s not even about our limitations, our emotions, our fears. It’s a gift intended for others. If we were actually to work, who could anticipate the lives that would change? The deepest longings that might stir? The catharsis of emotion and experience, the healing, that our art could facilitate?
Life is risky. That goes without saying. So it shouldn’t surprise us to find that art is risky, too. Art will demand everything from us: our time, our effort, our nakedness.
Many of us have experienced the feeling of encountering art at the right time in our livesas though it were speaking to us. If you don’t cultivate your creative gift, you might be divesting someone of the very thing they need most.
So take your art seriously. Like Pressfield said, we owe our work to the world and to every being in it. If you have a creative gift, don’t bury it. Don’t be afraid of it. Take the time you need to develop it, to make it as beautiful as you can, and then give it to the people around you.