Your Creative Work: Sacred or Essential?

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Jo March (Maya Hawke) in PBS’s new miniseries Little Women

Jo March, the protagonist in Little Women, has long been a sort of patron saint of writing for me. Ever since my first introduction to Little Women with a screening of the 1994 movie starring Winona Ryder as Jo when I was 10 years old, I found myself identifying with Jo: her drive to tell stories, her love of the written word, her mad passion as she stayed up late nights wearing her goofy writing cap and penning her stories. I dreamed of having my own moment of bursting through the door of my home and shouting, “I’m an author!” upon my first publication.

In fact, when I started this blog ELEVEN years ago (can you believe…?), my very first blog post opened with my confession that my fantasies of being a “real author” were a cross between Jo March scribbling stories late into the night and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, sitting cross-legged on her bed in front of a laptop, writing her musings about everyday life.

In that inaugural blog post, I shared there was “a tiny flame in me that declared with each flicker, ‘I am a writer.’”

I remember feeling gutsy yet unsure when I wrote that, weighed down by impostor syndrome and lack of experience. I’d been writing stories and poems since I could hold a pen, but did that make me a writer?

In the following decade, I wrote for a living, wrote for a master’s degree, and wrote for fun. I had my moment of joy, screaming (inside), “I’m an author!” when I had my first published piece. While I wouldn’t call myself prolifically published by any means, I’ve now seen my work published or posted in several magazines and on a handful of websites. On this blog, I’ve poured out my heart and chronicled my journey through my twenties, early marriage, and motherhood for the world (OK, pretty much just my friends and family) to read.

That tiny, flickering flame is not so tiny anymore. I don’t doubt that I’m a writer; I have no problem identifying as one, introducing myself as one, even. I don’t doubt my right to be here, in a published space. I’ve found my voice (please don’t read my posts from 10 years ago, before I found it…), sharpened my critical thinking skills, and deepened my faith. I’ve walked through really hard things and written about them all.

Lately, as I truly embrace my identity as a writer and give myself over to writing on a more regular basis, I just want more. I want more time to write, I want more assignments to write, I want more space to read and think and let connections weave together in my mind as I stare off into the middle distance.

I suppose I still have a fantasy of what it means to be a writer. Once, it was to be published, to see my name in print and know someone other than my sister had read my work and maybe even been moved by it. Now, I want to devote my life to this craft. But the thing is, writing doesn’t really pay.

Jo March knew this. She wrote popular stories that she didn’t care about in order to make the money her family needed. She had a businesslike attitude toward her writing talent, viewing it as a tool more than a calling. But those close to her saw it differently. They knew she had a rare gift.

In the recent PBS miniseries of Little Women, a scene between Jo and her father stopped me in my tracks. Jo excitedly showed her father an offer to publish her first novel, one of those popular stories that didn’t express her heart but pleased the masses.

Jo’s father was less than impressed. He told her to nurture her sacred gift, her true writing, the kind that made her come alive.

But pragmatic Jo wasn’t having it. “It isn’t sacred,” she said plainly. “It’s essential to me but it isn’t sacred. There are too many things that I have to achieve by it!”

Oh, how I can relate, now as a mother in her thirties. I can’t keep daydreaming about a beautiful writing life where I sip my tea and stare out windows and take creativity walks and spend hours playing with words and ideas. I must write, but I must do it in the pockets, in the crevices, of this life that contains a 2.5-year-old and utility bills and, frankly, the desire for financial security.

So I use my writing skills for a day job where I have a steady paycheck and health benefits. I still get to write, I get to use a skill and talent that I continue to hone and that is truly essential to me.

But the sacred part? It’s had to die on the altar a hundred times. Maybe it’s like how the apostle Paul talks about making one’s life a living sacrifice. My aunt, who was a Bible teacher, used to say, “The thing about a living sacrifice is it can still crawl off the altar.” I’m constantly hearing the siren song of the creative life, where my days would be filled with reading and writing (all the tedious work of publishing never factors into these fantasies).

But, I’m just as often laying that dream down again, and picking up my present work, where I use that essential creative flame in me to help support and maintain the family I’ve created, which truly is sacred to me.

So what about you? I’d love to know: do you see your creative work as sacred to you? Essential? Or both? How does that play out in your daily life as a creative?

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