Originally published April 18, 2013, at Creative Dream Journals.
Last month, I wrote about how with a creative life, you lack the provided structure and schedule that are a part of most jobs; instead, you make up your life as you go along. At the same time, you do have priorities, and you want to make sure to really prioritize them and not just drift, letting circumstances and others’ wishes take the place of bosses and job descriptions.
In my effort to give method to this madness, I find myself in a creative relationship with calendars and to-do lists. (Do they love me as much as I love them? I wonder.) I find that every few months, I feel an urge to take a step back and reflect on what my priorities have been, and more than that, what I want them to be as I move forward into the next phase. I journal about what I want or need to give time and attention to. I’m one of those people whose inner life is as organized as my outer life is disorganized, so I end up sorting through all the values and priorities that I journal about and putting them into categories. Which I color-code. And then transfer to two different calendars and multiple to-do lists, using cute bullet points and fonts that don’t make me feel trapped. (You have to do this kind of thing with time-management devices; otherwise, they think they’re in charge.)
For example, a couple of years ago, I was really struggling with the balance between my creative work—my first book—and my freelancing work, which is the work that brings in money. If I drifted too far to one side, I was all happy, except for every time I swiped my credit card to pay for basic needs that I couldn’t afford. Over too far on the other side, I was bringing in money but feeling alienated from myself and like I was watching my life recede. And like most people, I also had other priorities—family; groceries, laundry, car maintenance, paperwork, and all the ordinary chores of keeping a household going; time that I wanted to spend with friends or just at leisure, having fun; my long-postponed quest for a good man (I hear they’re hard to find); things I needed to do for my health, such as exercise and spending time in the sun (I get seasonal depression, and the sun is my very best friend in the whole world and my favorite antidepressant. Does it love me as much as I love it? I think I will judge this by whether or not I eventually get skin cancer).
It seems obvious in retrospect, but it was a big deal to figure out how to use the calendar to balance these things. I marked designated days to work on my book, and I stuck to them no matter how worried I was about money. I started with one day a week, and then that didn’t feel like enough, so I settled on two. And I had designated days for clients, and scheduled time for chores and leisure. I marked them off on my calendar in their different colors, but I also moved them around when I wanted to. Just having them there helped me make sure that I was attending in a regular way to my two big priorities of writing a book and earning a living, as well the other things that mattered.
Recently, I finished the book. (I finished the book!) Well, for the most part. The manuscript is now with my publisher’s production team, and I will have work to do—writing the index, reviewing copyedits and page proofs, and a variety of marketing-and-promotion tasks—but it feels like a whole new phase of things, Whole and New, and I found myself with that familiar urge to step back and reflect on What Next. More and more, I felt that this division that I had constructed in my work life between money work and creative work, as much as it had helped for the past two years, wasn’t the way to move forward. The categories are blending. My creative work now includes marketing and promotion, and I want my paid work to gradually move in a more creative direction. Meanwhile, the long-postponed Quest for Love needs to finally get prioritized, and so does a certain kind of self-nourishment that I’ve sidelined while I’ve been working two jobs.
So I have a new calendar, and a new to-do list, with new colors and fonts and fun bullet points. (Okay, really I have two calendars and two lists, one broader and one more detailed version of each. Have I mentioned that I also enjoy pretty office supplies?) Despite its multitude, this new organizational system is simpler, because it has only four categories: Work, Man, Self, Chores. And the simplicity helps me organize in my mind the myriad of activities included in each category, especially work: the production of my book, promoting it and myself as a writer, looking for more creative paid-work opportunities, working with current and prospective clients, updating my freelancing website, and gestating book #2, which will be about exactly this kind of thing: How do writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types balance their creative work with earning a living? I know from my own life and from listening to others, especially musicians, that it’s not something that you just figure out once and stick with forever. Circumstances change, other life priorities emerge and fall away, and the musician who’s writing songs and touring full-time this year might have been working in a factory, teaching guitar, and performing on weekends last year; might be recording and producing next year; and might be writing commercial music for hire and touring occasionally the year after that.
And so it is with creative living. Organizing a creative life is creative exercise in itself.
(And aren’t these cute?)