Creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.
[T]he bad news: You have to make time to do this.
This means you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity—cell phone, email, text, Twitter—steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement.
So Anne Lamott writes in a wonderful piece for Sunset Magazine, Time lost and found. (Thanks to Britt Bravo for pointing me to it!) It’s no accident that her article initially points to all the online activities that steal our time — though she eventually gets around to acknowledging lots of other time sinks. But the go-go, non-stop web is the distraction that so many of us notice (and resent) the most, if only because it’s the newest and fastest-growing source of interruption in our lives. And our unease with the interruption reflects the fact that what we’re interrupting, so often, are those pursuits that are most likely to make us truly happy: The time to connect with friends. The opportunity for self-expression. Simple quiet.
But our time online doesn’t have to pull us away from what really matters. The irony of Lamott’s piece is that the very joy she urges her readers to make time for — the pursuit of creative self-expression — is one that the web makes vastly more accessible. Yes, the satisfactions of writing (among other forms of expression) are available even if you never get published — as Lamott points out in her excellent book, Bird by Bird. But for a lot of us mere mortals, the possibility that someone could read your words (or see your photographs, or listen to your music) is a useful motivation, a source of sustenance during those moments when we wonder exactly why we’ve skipped the gym five days in a row in order to write.
The same online tools that can distract us from self-expression also serve as a gateway to the possibility that yes, someone will see what you’ve taken the time to create. Whether you’re a published author or a first-time writer, you can write a blog that gives you an audience not in six months (when that magazine finally hits the stands) but today. You can post your photos to Flickr and add them to a collctively-curated collection of related images. You can record your song in Garage Band and share it on Jamendo. You can make your brilliant movie and distribute it on YouTube or Vimeo. In fact, it’s hard to think of a form of creative expression that can’t be somehow produced and shared online.
And the web offers more than a distribution channel: it can be a powerful source of inspiration and support, as I described in my recent post on 9 ways social media can support your creativity. You can maintain an always-accessible inspiration file with a tool like Evernote, which lets you access your notes via computer, web or smartphone. If you can’t find another local artist to critique your work — or the time to get together — you can get support, feedback and encouragement online. You can ferret out the facts for your historical novel using YouTube and Wikipedia, or find the right palette for your next painting at ColourLovers.
But the web’s creative riches and possibilities remain elusive as long as you relate to it in the manner that Lamott describes: as the always-on, non-negotiable distraction that demands your attention and dictates how you spend your time. If you want to take her advice to “fight tooth and nail” for the time to pursue your creative expression, you’ll need to turn the web into an ally rather than an enemy in that fight. That means thinking about your top priorities before you sit down at the keyboard (or pick up that iPhone) and directing your online minutes towards the sites, activities and relationships that help you pursue what matters.
What matters most, as Lamott points out, are those creative outlets that make us feel truly alive. Before you click another link, join another network or send another text message, I highly recommend reading her excellent article. It will reinforce your resolve to make the most of your time — online and off.