river water over rocks

I used to go tubing in mountain streams. The creative flow can be like this – exhilarating and a little scary.

As part of my creative practice, I ponder big questions from time to time. The big one on my mind of late is related to a fear I have of getting so lost in my creative work that I stop caring about all my responsibilities. It is true that when I’m in the creative flow, I forget about everything else, so a little part of me fears I’ll end up destitute because I’ll stop caring about paying my bills.

None of these fears have happened yet, and honestly, if I have anything to fear, a bigger concern is probably that I let my responsibilities unnecessarily choke out my creative side. Thus, I wonder if I’m overcompensating for an irrational fear of getting lost in art.

So, how do I balance my creative side with my responsible side?   As I pondered this question, I was reminded both of a poem penned by my late father, and of lessons learned way back in high school.

Art vs. Homework, “Green Universe” vs. Writing Desk

First my high school: my lifelong love of clay was first nurtured at my high school Tandem. The school’s “motto” was “Freedom with responsibility.” As part of that ethos, we were given free periods rather than study halls, and thus had to decide when to use that free time to play Frisbee and when to use it to go to the library. I used a lot of my free periods to go to the art room. My creative self was profoundly nurtured at Tandem, and honestly, like many typical teenagers, I was not always so great at the responsibility part. And like most teenagers, I eventually learned.

Flash forward to last month: I am working on a collection of poems for my recently deceased father, a prolific lifelong poet. I come across a poem he penned some years before I attended Tandem. In it, he writes of the pull between his work as a writer and editor, and the pull of “what is happening out there in the green universe.”  In the final stanza he considers what is happening inside of himself:

My occupied mind seeks liberation

From the breeze of being blowing

Through. I navigate the shoals

Of being and notbeing; of

Responsibility and freedom.

My father penned these words the about the balance between responsibility and freedom several years before I went to Tandem and began to “navigate the shoals” for myself. Reading his words, I became aware that he too felt the tension between his life as a person trying to make a living, and his life as an artist.

Fear of Irresponsibility, or… The Wonder of a Child?

I do have to admit, though, that some of my concern is not without merit. For most creatives, we experience a loss of the sense of time when in the creative flow. In fact, the famed psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi listed the loss of sense of time as one of the key elements of the flow state. Losing track of time is most definitely not valued in today’s hyper-connected world. Children who are prone to this characteristic may be diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, due to exhibiting a characteristic known as time blindness.

While the realities of our society necessitate that we learn to function in a time-focused world, we who value creativity are doing our flow a disservice. We are expected to always be tuned in, and always, always, always to be precisely on time. We have to set alarm clocks in our studios (if we have other responsibilities to attend to) because we can easily forget everything we have to do and everywhere we have to be when we are in the flow. But, while my fear of irresponsibility is not without some foundation, the deeper issue is we give lip service in our society to creativity, but we often value conformity, and we don’t value getting lost in something1 – whether in love, or wonder, or art.

I do value these things. A wise man once advised:

“…change and become like little children…”

Good advice. So, the big question I continue to ponder is how do I “navigate the shoals… of responsibility and freedom?” I’ve been navigating them my whole life, but I’m still learning. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

1. In reading about the loss of sense of time, I was fascinated to discover that studies show falling levels of creativity in our society precisely because of our hyper-connected world. You can click on the linked text to learn more.