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Durga Keyser : Surviving a Day Job with Your Creativity Intact

11 Tips to Surviving a Day Job with Your Creativity Intact

By Durga (Jori) Keyser

There's no doubt about it — maintaining a day job while all your instincts are roaring in another direction is one of the toughest things a creative soul can endure. If you're keeping body and soul together for hourly wages and then find yourself too tired or distracted or frustrated to be creative after work, you're not alone. It's sometimes a superhuman challenge to sustain creative energy so that the switch to art or writing is as easy as possible once you get home.

Here are a few of the many things you can do to stay connected to your inner creative thread when circumstances make it impossible for you to be in your studio or at your writing desk.

1. Name your vision.

If you're in love with working in a particular medium, you're heads above the crowd because you know what you love to do. And once you know what you love to do, you can create a vision of how you will express that in your life. If you love to dance, your vision may be to choreograph your own dances or have a dance troupe. If you love to work with color, your vision may be to paint lots of canvases or illustrate children's books. Your vision functions much like the keel on a sailboat, cutting invisibly through the sea to keep the boat upright. If you're working a day job and feel the urge to make art but have no larger vision, you probably find yourself scraping through the day with annoyance gnawing holes in your belly, saddled with a general sense of dissatisfaction and malaise. This isn't surprising, as you have nothing to carry you through the everyday and your feet soon start to drag in the sand. Visions are buoyant bubbles that lift the heart and make it sing. What's your vision for your art? What do you really want to do?

2. Set a creative goal that will keep you moving.

Once you know what your vision is, you can bring it to life by setting a goal and working towards it. While we're very familiar with setting goals within the scope of individual projects, we may not have thought much about setting goals for the larger context within which we're working. Many artists feel uncomfortable with speaking about their art in terms of goals, preferring to "make art for art's sake." But goals can be applied creatively to even the most process-oriented methods. While it may appear that creative souls require absolute freedom from restrictions in order to thrive, this is one of the many myths surrounding productive artists and their work. Productive artists do set goals and work toward them with consistency and persistence, and it is exactly this that fosters the growth and advancement for which the human spirit yearns. A goal that serves your vision will give your everyday activities meaning and clarity.

3. Begin the night before.

What are your three most important goals for the next day? Now it's time to break the big goal down into do-able steps. Before you go to bed, think about the three most important things to do the next day to bring you closer to your goal and write them down. If you know that you want to publish a novel or exhibit your paintings, your daily goals can comprise small but consistent concrete steps toward that end. If your aim is to explore your medium without worrying too much about a product, decide what you want out of that exploration (fun, challenge, greater self-knowledge) and then think of small things you can do each day to make it happen. By writing down your goals the night before, you're already ahead of the game when you wake up in the morning. Choose your goals realistically, keeping in mind the time and energy required for your job. Don't be too hard on yourself; you're learning to balance.

4. Get up early.

Don't laugh — those extra moments or hours can be the most productive of your day. Just one extra half-hour in the morning can result in a chapter outline or five more woven inches on the loom. The stillness of the early hours is a fine time to concentrate. If you use the time wisely, you'll be miles ahead of the rest of your time zone. Not everyone functions well in the morning and you may resist this idea. But please don't discount it until you give it a fair try. The body can adjust to almost anything, and it takes a good three weeks to assume a new habit. Give yourself a month of early rising before you go back to burning the midnight oil. Just remember to set your goals the night before so you're clear in the morning about why you got out of bed — don't give yourself an excuse to crawl back under the covers. If you're still too tired when the alarm goes off, consider going to bed earlier. If the early morning hours turn out to be the best practical time for you to make progress on your work, it's a small price to pay. And you may be pleasantly surprised!

5. Design a morning ritual and do it every day.

Ritual is like the steady tick-tock of the minute hand through our lives. It keeps us on track and moving forward. A ritual is a reverent and purposeful act designed to focus energy and concentration. Rituals are intensely intimate and private acts, so there are as many possibilities as there are individuals. Yours may involve writing or painting for a certain time each day, meditating, dancing, walking to a special tree, reciting a poem. A fifteen-minute ritual in the morning is all it takes to start your day with a creative act that will reverberate through all your subsequent movements and activities. Make it small and keep it simple, something easily hold-able in your heart for the rest of the day. Consecrate that act to your art and do it every morning. Watch it take root and secure the soil in which it grows.

6. Learn to do the Lifeboat Exercise.

In his marvelous little Creativity Book, Eric Maisel suggests doing the Lifeboat Exercise once a day for three days in a row, but I find it works well as a life raft all year long. Find yourself a raucous bell, he says. Ring your bell loudly and shout, "Create!" Go to your workspace, set a timer for ten minutes, and work. When the timer goes off, shout, "All clear!" You've just made ten minutes progress on your creative work and fed the connection to your heart. Now, it may be that your day job is located in such a place that you are not able to ring a raucous bell and yell, "Create!" without jarring your neighbors. That's alright. Set your computer timer to alert you silently and perhaps at random, or simply stop for your ten minutes when you can. Take a ten-minute break in a quiet spot and scribble some notes on your novel or carry water-soluble colored pencils and a small sketchbook. Outline the next act of your play. A lot can happen during a ten-minute break. Just do it the best way you can. But it might be wise to practice ringing bells and yelling when you get home. Stopping whatever you're doing to create for ten minutes is an invaluable survival skill, and practicing drills at home can save your life out in the world.

7. Set a theme for the day.

Just as you would identify the underlying theme of a story or a sculpture, you can name a theme and give your day the characteristics of a work of art, allowing the parts to inform one another with more intent. You might choose to heighten your experience by looking at the day through the filter of a project you're working on, or you may decide to play with a new theme, such as gentleness or rapture, that speaks to current states of your heart and that just may become the theme of an actual project. The point is to see the day (and the day job) as a work of art rather than a series of drudgeries keeping you from your true vocation. Your art is everywhere in your life — it is your life and your life is your art. Practice holding this truth in your awareness and you will never be bored.

8. Practice relevance.

This is the practical extension of setting a theme for the day. It's easy to see our day jobs as intrusions on our valuable time and basically irrelevant to the important things in our lives. Practicing relevance can enhance the productivity of those hours by influencing both the day job tasks and our own art. For many years, I was a day-job translator. I'd sit at my computer, sometimes falling asleep as I slogged through other people's texts while dreaming of my own unfinished work and feeling the frustration rise — until I learned to look for the relevance. I suddenly began gleaning all sorts of marketing tips from promotional texts, examples of style from annual reports (including what not to do), and interesting topics from just about everything else. Staying awake to what the work we're being paid for has to offer our own creative work makes the moment richer, the time go faster, and both kinds of work qualitatively better.

9. Put on the headphones and crank up the volume.

Don't underestimate the power of fun to jog the energy and get it moving in a more creative direction. Listen to music, if you can. If you work at home, pet your dog. Open a window and breathe in some fresh air. Walk around the hallways and do a little dance when no one's looking. Tell a joke and make someone smile. Pack yourself an unusual lunch. Have a cappuccino instead of tea. Fun is everywhere in this wonderful universe, just there for the picking. Plan a reward for yourself when you get home — a hot bath, a good meal, a comedy on DVD. Laugh. Relaxing into laughter or contentment renews the connection with your creative self. It can also be as refreshing as a nap. Clear the fuzz, blast through the cement ceiling in your head, welcome in some sunshine, and let the energy flow. As artists our media may appear to be stone or words or movement or music, but as creative souls our medium is energy. You cannot use energy creatively if you stop it from flowing; you won't have any material to work with. Be its friend, invite it in, learn to dance.

10. Surround yourself with who you are.

Everyone in every job has at least two inches of workspace they can call their own. You may have a desk or a locker or an entire office to yourself. Bring your inspiration to work and don't be shy. Decorate your office, select a motivational screen saver, dress the part (if you can). Surround yourself as much as possible with what you do and what you love. It will bolster your spirits, remind you of who you are and what's important to you. Do not be afraid of using props — be a stage designer. My painting teacher was fond of hanging plastic wrap from the ceiling across the width of a room to demonstrate the light that was traveling through the space we occupied and how it was affecting the colors of the objects we saw. For years I would drape plastic wrap from whatever ceiling I could, wherever I worked, wherever it was tolerated, to remind myself of what I wanted to remember. Be creative in designing your stage. See working with the limitations of your workspace as an artistic challenge. Learn to see yourself and your vision for yourself reflected in your environment, wherever you are.

11. Be grateful.

Gratitude is a prosperous and productive state of mind, and absolutely essential to true creativity. Remembering to be grateful for the fact that we're earning money at all and putting food on the table keeps us open to the positive things that come our way throughout the day. Gratitude for what we do have, not resentment about what we don't have, is what makes it possible for the Universe to send us what we want. It keeps a smile close to our lips and makes us much more pleasant to be around. Gratitude is a miraculous blessing, because while we're being grateful for the gifts that have been given us, the very act of being grateful benefits us in ways we cannot count. Practice being grateful, deeply grateful, for a short period of time and see how you feel. If you're having trouble giving thanks because you can't see past your lack of money or time or the necessities of life, try starting with air, sunshine (or rainfall), blades of grass, leaves on trees, roofs over heads. Abundance is everywhere. Once you start naming the blessings that surround you, you may not be able to stop.

Each of these points deserves a book of its own, and there are many more tiles in the ever-surprising mosaic of creative process. For now, start where you are. Look upon your day job as the blessing it is while you set your formidable creativity to the joyful task of honoring your art every day and growing from the challenge.

In the meantime, examine your big vision, select a goal or two, and watch everything in your life align in that direction as you move steadily and surely toward your heart's desire. •

© Durga (Jori) Keyser, 2005. All rights reserved.

Durga Walker (Keyser) is a writer and creative soul currently living somewhere off Highway 1. More »

8/21/05