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The 3 Ds of Being Creative for a Living

Earlier today, I received an email from a friend and colleague in which she lamented the latest obnoxious attention-grab of another writer.

Last week, I spent a good hour or so with a different writer parsing out all the reasons why still another “writer” could possibly be so popular. His writing is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, his observations and advice are obvious, and his descriptions are so boring that I’d almost rather read the obituaries.

This–the tendency to lose time and energy by devoting it to someone else who is really only a peripheral figure in my life–is a little frightening.

Before I continue, let me make something clear: What I’m talking about here is not jealousy or any sort of professional envy. I have nothing but respect for people who have reached their goals and attained success by exerting the kind of effort that involves putting your ass on a chair in front of a computer screen or a pad of paper every single day (or almost) and really committing all of their powers of observation and skill to their craft. People like Liz Eslami, who published her first novel, Bone Worship, earlier this year. Or Sarah Menkedick, who was just accepted to an MFA program. Or George Singleton, one of my former creative writing teachers, who has been published in Oxford American, has published a few books since the old days, and who has generally done well for himself. Or  my college poetry professor, Ha Jin, who has become a literary darling in this country. Or … I could go on and on.

No. What I’m talking about is a frustration with what may seem to be comparably slow progress. But as the very wise Lola Akinmade told me once over lunch, “They’re not doing what you want to be doing anyway, so why devote your energy to thinking about them?”



The way I see it, there are three skills you need to master apart from your actual craft if you intend to be creative for a living (these apply equally to any type of artist):

1. Discerning.

2. Defining.

3. Developing the ability to remain undistracted.

These aren’t skills you necessarily pick up in nice, neat, progressive stages; they overlap. They’re messy. You think you’ve got them down and then, kerplut. And then… up again.

Discerning simply means deciding who you are, what you’re meant to do, and why. I am a writer. I am meant to write. I am meant to use my writing primarily to tell the stories that other people can’t, to tell stories that are overlooked, that are complicated.

Defining means determining how you’re going to direct all of your efforts as a creative person who has discerned her/his vocation. That sounds pretty easy, but it’s surprisingly torturous for many creatives, especially those of us who rightfully resist being pigeonholed. Here’s the important caveat: You can have many definitions, and they can change. You can even have discrete definitions for each of your projects. For example, I have a friend who’s an exceptional writer, whose writing is of such originality and such quality that she should have a massive print audience. But that’s just my opinion. She prefers digital outlets, one reason being that she retains more creative and editorial control. That’s how she has defined herself and it is absolutely the right decision for her.

Finally, there’s the don’t get distracted part, and this may be the toughest of all. You know who you are and what your goals are, but every single day there’s stuff happening around you that could just flatten you and send you straight back to bed because it makes you nutty.

But why? All that does is siphon off your energy, and I don’t know about you, but I just value my energy way too much to keep giving it away.


I could spend a bunch of hours monetizing my blogs, focused more on SEO than on subjects that actually interest me. But when I look at my definition of myself and what I want to be doing, that’s not who I am… not even if it means making more money (which, by the way, I’m not convinced it does).

Hype is hype and eventually fizzles out. And even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. The world’s really big enough for all of us, we each bring something unique to bear on it, and ultimately life is just way too short to give yourself away.


28 responses »

  1. this is all straight-up, julie.

    right there with you.

  2. Fantastic, fantastic piece Julie!

    And something we all must strive to be cognizant about every single day. Our life paths are extremely different, and getting fixated on someone else’s path only derails us from ours.

    Of course, it’s human to compare and assess one’s progress with others but you’ve certainly hit it spot on with the 3 Ds.

    You have to define who you are at your deepest level and stay true to that.

    Love it!

    PS: I’m so far from “wise” you have no idea. Still learning and growing as I go.

  3. this piece could be changed to the ‘3 Ds of living’! avoiding distractions from others is tricky in writing AND life – it’s definitely draining!

    ps: the longer I follow your blog the more your posts seem to relate to whatever I’m thinking about at the time… freaky but thank you!

  4. Great post, Julie. I know we’ve talked about just focusing on what works for us before, too, but it really is easier said than done – thanks for the articulate reminder!

  5. This was articulated so well, Julie. I feel like when I decided to make the plunge into full-time writing and not take a teaching job, I spent the first six months just sorting out number 2. What kind of things do I want to write? For what audience? In what kinds of places? On what themes? And it took me a long time to realize that I’m not really passionate about accumulating clips and working on SEO and whatever else and I would rather just focus on what I care about writing, what I feel like I have to get out of myself. Few people talk about those kinds of decisions but they are so integral to growing as a writer.

    Thanks for the shoutout about the MFA! Soon enough we’ll be able to meet up and discuss these things in person.

  6. Right on, Julie. So true, direct, to the point. All three are absolutely essential but difficult. The most difficult aspects of being a writer that aren’t talked about enough.

    I think I’m still finding my way. In my stressful decision process about whether or not to attend Columbia, these have been the three most important points I’ve thought about, turning them around and over in my mind again and again. And I’ve realized that to know what I want I have to define who/what I am, what I do, and how I want to do it, no matter what anyone else says. It’s actually not the easiest thing in the world.

    • Simone-
      I think we’re all always finding our way. At least, I hope so; I think it’s a sign that we’re constantly growing and evolving. But it’s precisely because, as you noted, that we don’t talk about this enough, that we often feel totally alone or weird in/about our own struggles with these issues.

  7. Great perspective and advice to stay focused! Although what we do is different than so many other people, it’s sometimes hard not to make comparisons and get distracted. Thanks for the 3D reminder!

  8. All good points. I have a hard time with the defining part because I’m working on so many projects with so many radically different focuses. They are all writing related, but the topics are drastically different, and switching from one to the other takes time because I have to put myself in an entirely new mindset.

    • JoAnna-
      Just based on the little bit I know about you, I think you actually define exceptionally well. It’s those transitional moments that can be challenging, because they do require a shift in your thinking and your approach. I can absolutely relate.

  9. I was discussing some similar travel writing topics with a friend this weekend. It’s a scene that can often be pretty perplexing. When I feel that way, I think it’s good to remember the second D you mentioned. Knowing who I am and writing what I am passionate about is the most fulfilling (and probably the most sustainable) way to go, regardless of the immediate results.

    • Ekua-
      Yes, it’s totally freeing in those moments when you have all the D’s down. (Though in my case, at least, they’re fleeting…. I’m constantly working on them).

  10. Well thats just where I have arrived at this week! the discerning and defining and refining stage, this is giving me such focus that distraction ( my playmate) can go to hell for now!

    • Dianne- I think you just filled in a huge blank for me, so thank you. It seems that distraction is most likely to seize me when my own defining and refining processes are undergoing a shift. It’s as if I’m vulnerable in my own process and so I have to go bitch about other people in order to feel better. The awareness that that’s the underlying dynamic is pretty helpful!

  11. Wicked post, Julie – and a great reminder for us all.

    And I think you and Lola should have a Wise-Off…!

  12. Everybody’s running a big fat race, and oftentimes people who are more resourceful than talented/creative: who seem to “get” how to go about “winning” do “win” in that sense of the term. But where’s the soul in that? and where’s the substance?

    thank you for this piece Julie, I’ve just personally had the longest paranoid-blocked-writer time of my life coupled with major distractions. Sometimes distractions are bigger: bigger than envying fellow writers or heartbreak or regular everyday woes. What do you do then, to stay in track? (for example, with a major illness or death in the family or of someone very close to you, or daily stressful situations such as domestic abuse? That’s a big question that I’m still struggling with.

    Thank you for your insight, and for not forgetting the soul.

    • Shreya-

      You’re welcome… and thank you for your question because I think it’s really important. I almost feel petty about having written about something so trivial compared to the bigger issues you’ve mentioned. So how do you stay on track in a truly soul-shaking stressful situation? First, I think you really have to focus on your survival, right? You have to decide that your life–not your professional life, but your very life–is more important than anything or anyone else and you have to take care of yourself. Though those stressful moments can be some of the most powerful sources of our creativity, that’s not much comfort if you’re quite literally flattened by disease or violence. So first: survival. And second, I think you keep telling yourself that it really *doesn’t* matter if you have to disappear for a week or a month or however long it takes to be safe and be well before you get back in the “game.” The editors and publications that really value your work will still be there for you and will welcome you back.

  13. Absolutely, Julie. Here’s what I figure, too: in the long run, your survival and safety are more important than the work you might lose in the short term. Someone healthy and alive and hopefully stable has to do the work: more work will always be there, but if you aren’t there then what’s the point? But, of course, these situations can lead to a lot of additional stress: like fearing that you’ll be seen as unprofessional or actually being fired. In many ways, this is a daily struggle too, like it is a daily struggle to write every day or wrestle with deadline: on a different magnitude, of course, but we’re wired to survival, I think, and always seem to adapt somehow.

    • Shreya-

      Yes on all counts. But if I put on my editor hat (and I’m willing to admit I may be an anomaly), I care about the writers I work with and want to know if they’re facing a really tough situation. Not just because of our professional relationship, but because if there’s some resource or support I can provide to help them get through it, then I want to do that because I believe their lives and their writing are important and need to be protected.

      I think the piece you just submitted for Matador Change is somehow related to all this…. In addition to being that cognizant of our “subjects,” we should also be that cognizant of our writers.

  14. Thank you so much for that 🙂

  15. I agree and disagree with the 3rd D. (Can I do that?)

    I think getting distracted too long is definitely a bad thing, but minor distractions here and there are healthy and a good way to keep the mind open. If you are too focused on one goal, sometimes its a bit like looking through a tunnel, where you only see one way to the end, when there are many pathways to get there.

    Also, from a tech guy, I can say that any SEO stuff is pure snake oil.

    • Kyle- Ha! Of course you can agree and disagree (I myself do it all the time). Distractions are fine, I agree. But the kinds of distractions I was talking about were related to being bitchy. 🙂 And those aren’t really healthy.


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