You know this: to master a craft, you need to make time for it—about 10,000 hours, if you believe Malcolm Gladwell. For creatives, this generally means pulling time from making a living and/or making a life, resulting in a gross imbalance in the tricky triumvirate. Let’s call this forcing the bloom.

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Similar to how gardeners manipulate a bulb’s environment to trick it into flowering sooner than it naturally would, we humans love finding ways to fast-track progress so that we can achieve something before all we care about is seeing the grandkids one last time. This necessary imbalance is captured in cultural archetypes such as—

  • Starving Artist
  • Crazy Artist
  • Artist Subsisting on Top Ramen
  • Frazzled and Awkwardly Intense Artist
  • Starving, Crazy, Frazzled-and-Awkwardly Intense Artist Subsisting on Top Ramen

And so on.

But how long should you try to force your bloom?

Most of the artists I know who have stayed at it long enough to earn recognizable names have had resources to lessen the divide between making art, making a living, and making a life. They worked hard and made sacrifices, yes, but they also had the luck to get financial and emotional support. Or they’ve been happy enough to keep eating actual or metaphysical Top Ramen indefinitely.

We Americans love the idea of persistence—which is indeed a powerful talisman against the vicissitudes of the world. Yet it can kill you, body and soul, to keep banging your head against a wall. It’s good to have a dream, but you also need an income stream. And there’s no shame in being like most folks, who cannot live by accomplishment alone. Sooner or later, you might want off the pogo stick to try life weighted across multiple points of contact with the earth.

I say, good for you. And also, beware.

It’s no joke, trying to transition from the sprint-like intensity of forcing the bloom to a more natural cadence. For a lot of us, easier ain’t easy. It takes a whole different range of skills. Yet if we’re playing a long game, it’s necessary.

Years ago, a former creative writing student of mine invited me to coffee. Beth (let’s call her) was luminescent, with all the grace of a ballerina trained since toddlerhood, which is precisely what she was. Now a Junior, she’d broken up with the university’s rigorous Dance program so she could afford exotic delights like hanging out with former teachers for no good reason and sampling the occasional pastry.

Contentment, however, was elusive. “I keep feeling like I’m supposed to be practicing,” she said.

I murmured words along the lines of what I’m writing in this post, even though at the time I myself was staggering through my first steps outside a creative crucible. A new mom, I was finding my baby demanded rhythms of care that were so foreign to how I operated, it took everything I had to function. There was nothing left over for art or study. Guess it was good I’d taken a leave of absence from my doctoral program to make a living. I spent much of my time with my son in a dual state: puttering along at his excruciatingly dull pace jolted by fleeting bursts of joy while simultaneously seething in terror that I’d die before attaining the state of creative transcendence I burned for. Work was the same: occasionally interesting, desperately needed, but always haunted by the sensation that I was supposed to be doing something else.

(This was, by the way, when I started thinking of making art, making a living, and making a life as the tricky triumvirate.)

After what I’m sure is more than 10,000 hours of practice, I’ve mastered how to be  mom, breadwinner, and creative. One of my biggest secrets is a hearty capacity for lowering my standards. A story published in The Gettysburg Review? Imma gonna celebrate that as if the whole collection’s in print. My teenager thanks me for insisting on family dinners? Who needs a clean floor?

You get the idea.

I still recognize the value of forcing a bloom from time to time, but if I could go back, I’d advise myself to view things a little more holistically, to rotate through projects and priorities. It’s nice to have a flower in winter and all, but it’s even nicer to have a whole life you want to inhabit.

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