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Building Creativity into a Busy Life

I was recently asked to be on a podcast about creative women in recovery, called The Unruffled Podcast.  The hosts, Tammi and Sondra, asked me to come on to talk about how I manage a full-time job as well as many creative pursuits.  I love this podcast and was so thrilled to be asked to be part of it. Sondra and Tammi are heroes to me.  They are women my age that I look up to tremendously.  Yesterday as we talked, I had so much fun, as if I was chatting to my girlfriends.  I was anxious, and a bit jacked up on adrenaline and when Tammi prompted me to give tips on how to balance full-time work with creativity, I gave a less than complete answer.  I don’t even remember what I said, but it for sure was not the list of things I had prepared that were RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! I decided that I had to supplement that interview and that’s what this blog post is all about. 

I have always been creative, but there are many seasons to life, and the time I have had available to pursue craft has varied from minimal to abundant.  My need for creative time has varied as well.  As a person that is not making money off my creative work, I have the flexibility to do as much or as little as I like.  Creativity is a form of meditation, an opportunity to learn new skills, a source of pride, and a way to beautify my life. Right now, as a sober person, I spend a lot of my free time being creative – it’s how I want to spend that time.  Also, my children are 17 and 22, so they require less care and time from me than if they were babies.  Please take the suggestions here that make sense to you for the time you want to, and are able to, devote to creativity and leave the rest behind. 

home art area

1. A space of your own – I am fortunate that I have a large craft area that takes up about half of the lower level of my house.  When I lived in an apartment, I had my craft area in my bedroom.  A dedicated craft area makes beginning so much easier.  If you have to go down to the basement, sift through boxes in storage, haul that up to your dining room table and put it all away before you go to bed, you are unlikely to ever want to do that.  That sounds like chores.  If you have a spare room, that’s obviously a good choice, but many people don’t.  Depending on what you like to do creatively, you may be able to assemble a wardrobe to contain crafts and make them easily accessible.  Another option is a cart, like the IKEA Raskog cart shown below.  For my embroidery work, I like to keep everything in this plastic container that I can put on the couch next to me while watching tv.  Similarly, I keep knitting projects in portable bags that I can haul wherever I choose to work.  At a minimum, clear out a drawer and keep a small stash of supplies ready to use when you have some time.

apartment art area

2. Have portable projects – I have several portable projects going at all times.  Because I love to knit, I usually bring knitting wherever I go. I always have many projects in process, but some are better suited for portability because of size and need for focus.  My most common bring-along project is socks.  It’s a small project and I can do most of the sock with my eyes closed. This keeps me, a chronically early person, from losing my mind while waiting for my chronically late friends.  If you are not a knitter, you could bring a small sketch pad and pencil or pen.  You could bring a bullet journal and markers, even a small scrapbook project.  Sometimes you can just bring a small part of a project with you.  Once you are prepared for it, you will see minutes add up with all the many times you have to wait. Below are some photos of actual portable projects I have taken with me.

3. Sign up for classes, workshops, creative trips – Sometimes people struggle to fit in creativity day to day, but can easily find time for a dinner out.  There are so many options for workshops and classes.  I have been to paint nights, terrarium building, stained glass, steeking (knitting technique), yarn dying, kokedama making, and more.  I have plans to sign up for a workshop to learn how to build a table.  I have friends that have taken glassblowing and knife making.  These have all been incredibly fun, creative adventures.  Some of the work I have made in these classes is shown below.  Not all of it is worthy of display, but that’s not the point. 

Another option is a creative weekend.  I have participated in two types of these events.  My first creative weekend away was a scrapbook weekend, called a crop. These are far more fun that you can even imagine.  Some of the best friends I have I met through these weekends.  I always looked forward to them for months and was so filled with creative energy for weeks afterwards.  I have also gone on weekends away for knitting.  I host a knitter’s weekend every May at my house for my dear friends.  Maryland has a huge sheep and wool festival and some of the most beautiful yarns around are available for purchase.  I am also trying to arrange a creative weekend at my house for a few friends.  No plans, just working on whatever creative projects we desire. 

4. Schedule it – Sometimes, busy people must schedule something if they want to do it.  I know that I have to schedule when I clean out my closets and when I go to the gym or those things don’t get done.  At this point I don’t have to put creativity in my schedule because it is my default, but when my kids were little and I was in graduate school, I did have to schedule that time.  I talked with my husband and said I’d like to work on crafts on Saturday mornings until 10 am and I’d like him to watch the kids.  I was very motivated to wake up early to have my time!  Another option is to schedule at times you don’t need help, like maybe every Tuesday after the kids go to bed for an hour or two.  You’ll be surprised how quickly it becomes a routine that you wouldn’t want to miss.  I do want to stress that I don’t recommend over-scheduling yourself with this to the point you don’t get adequate sleep.  I love to wake up very early to create, but I go to sleep early too.  It’s not sustainable to be sleep deprived, nor is it going to add any value to your life.

5. Reframe how you see creativity in your life – I like to cook every day.  I am a good cook and I know how to mix flavors to make something taste good.  I don’t always make masterpieces, but approaching cooking with a creative eye influences the way I make even mundane foods.  I like to mix up colors of foods.  If I make a salad with green lettuce, and orange carrots, I’ll choose a red pepper or red onion to add more color.  I will add a unique seasoning to a food to see how that changes it.  I’ll make an “Asian inspired” coleslaw or pasta dish.  These are small ways to bring creativity into chores.  Other examples include arranging books on my dresser in a pleasing fashion, growing succulents on my window ledge in the kitchen that I care for when I do the dishes, writing my shopping list with nice lettering, and adding handmade labels to pantry items. At work, I am lucky to have a creative job designing experiments and analyzing and compiling data into a publishable format, but there are times when my mind is not engaged. I doodle and come up with creative ideas in down times or during excruciatingly boring meetings that could have been handled by email.

6. Enjoy your creative time – However you decide to fit in creativity, enjoy it.  If you enjoy this time and feel good about it, you will find more time to do it. Do not spend your time fretting over your lack of skill in a particular craft.  Do not criticize yourself or your work. We get into the habit, especially at work, of evaluating things on a purely practical level. If you paint a picture and it’s ugly (I’m not your mom, so I’m not going to tell you they are all beautiful), throw it out, but also know that the time you spent creating it still has value!  Creativity is valuable in and of itself.  No useful product needs to come out of it.  Making sand mandalas is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition that involves making and dismantling a mandala made from colored sand.  The art symbolizes the transient nature of all things.  You can practice non-attachment to your work by creating impermanent art. Another thing I do is to look at new crafts in the same way I would with doodling.  I have been trying to make a decent watercolor landscape for a while, but they all turn out juvenile.  This is okay, because luckily I have another source of income.  However, when I sit down to try one, I have no intention of keeping it.  I practice brush strokes and adding layers and getting better at subtlety. And then when I have had enough, I appreciate the time I had to play with paint and throw it away like a doodled napkin.  But I am improving.

Photo: Tibettravel.org

I hope some of these ideas will work for folks who want to be creative, but find it difficult to manage with a busy life.  I have found that creativity grounds me and allows me to be more efficient with my time all day. No matter how much time you have to spend creatively, whether it’s hours every evening or just a few minutes sketching the view from your office, you can start to satisfy that creative need in you by changing how you approach creativity in your life. 

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