When I was little, I was alone a lot.
Sure, I have lots of memories with my family, but those moments are less vivid than the hours I spent alone making things. I wrote poems and stories, choreographed dances, made music videos, and even tried to sell my creations at times, like when I charged a whole dollar for the family newsletter my mom helped me type up (in all caps, ‘90s-style).
I was often proud to show off what I created, but that wasn’t the best part – what made me happiest was the process itself, spending the hours engrossed in creation. I loved getting lost in my own little world. That’s what the buzzword “flow” is all about: becoming engrossed, in a good way.
And I realized how important flow was to me when I lost it.
Last spring, I started a new job. Although I liked the work of my previous job, where I got paid to be a jack-of-all-trades creative, I didn’t love the always-on schedule or the corporate culture, and eventually I got pretty burned out. So I started a new job, which can be overwhelming, but not necessarily in a bad way: it’s stressful to learn how to navigate a new culture and ways of working, but for me it’s also a way to refresh my creativity. Because in a new job, I have new problems to solve, and that’s not just interesting to me – it’s fascinating. I’m an endless fountain of ideas (they’re not always good, but they’re always there) and I love the chance to challenge my creativity to make a difference.
There was a big problem with my new job, though: my creativity isn’t welcome here.
Well okay, not that it’s not welcome – plenty of my kind new colleagues have listened to me blather on passionately about ideas and solutions – it’s just that my creativity can’t be realized here. After exploring and wrestling with the issues over months, I understand that my new job’s bureaucracy and systems cannot be quickly navigated or changed, and I’m just not patient enough to spend years attempting to make progress.
And that meant I felt like Octomom but I couldn’t give birth. I was walking around carrying these babies, and they kept growing, and they weren’t resting placidly either. It was uncomfortable and agitating and on more than one occasion gave me the emotions of a hormonal pregnant lady.
This realization hit me after I read The Oatmeal’s latest take on creativity. If you haven’t seen The Oatmeal yet, well, you probably have and you just don’t know it. He’s been making the internet laugh for over a decade, and most of his comics are silly, sharply satirical or just toilet humor. But sometimes he embarks on a long, thoughtful, exquisitely illustrated story that punches you right in the heart, and that’s what his “Eight Marvelous and Melancholy Things I’ve Learned About Creativity” did for me.
At one point he talks about how creating something is kind of like when your ears pop – you don’t know your hearing is muffled until suddenly they clear and the world becomes markedly loud and crisp. And like my ears clearing, this piece made the cause of my job agitation, and resulting life agitation, completely clear.
For months after I started this new role, I couldn’t stop chewing on work problems. Even after work, in the evenings and on weekends, I was mentally gnawing. I knew I shouldn’t be obsessing like that – even after I gave up on making any meaningful progress at this job – but my mind wouldn’t stop. Walking the dog, in the shower, the few occasions I got out of the house, my gnawing mind would interrupt my life and spit out some work-related insight or idea or indignity. I couldn’t stop.
I had all this creative energy, and nowhere for it to go.
My job has been my primary creative outlet for most of my adult life. Because of course! I’m a dutiful child of capitalism, of our productivity-obsessed culture, and on top of that I stumbled through young adulthood without parents or financial support. I tend to have a “work first, play later” ethos, where I reward myself with fun after all the responsibilities are taken care of. You know, after all the work is done.
The shitty thing about being an adult is that all the work is never done.
You never get to inbox zero. Or laundry zero. The house is never completely clean. You’re always either wondering what to eat for dinner or cleaning up after it. And then there’s that friend you’ve really been meaning to call. But the dog needs to be walked, you need to sign up for that thing, you’re running low on bread…
I think this is why my job has been my primary creative outlet as an adult. It’s the only space where I’ve felt like my creativity was allowed.
And then I ran headlong into the brick wall of my new job, where my creativity is not allowed. And bam: personal crisis.
Among The Oatmeal’s eight insights on creativity is that you have to do the work. You can’t birth brilliance in a vacuum. You need to read, explore the world, collect inspiration, hone your skills, challenge yourself and then sit quietly while all that marinates in your soul before you can create something unique that resonates with another human. You have to do the work.
Defining art as work – as integral and important – sparked something in me. I can do work! I thought. I always do the work. If I tell myself that doodling or reading or tooling around in Adobe Illustrator is work, then by all means, I will do it.
Because it is work. It’s the work of my life. It’s where I find my flow, that freedom and focus that is sacred in this loud, ever-pinging-beeping-updating world. When I find my flow, I actually lose track of time – something I never do during the rest of my adult life – and I get back in that safe happy headspace I had as a child. When I find my flow, I’m that kid on my bedroom floor again, fully immersed in a world of my own creation. When I find my flow, I am fundamentally me, where I like what I’m doing and I like who I am.
I purchased the domain for this website over two years ago. I’ve wanted to launch it, but I didn’t know what to put on it, I didn’t know my why, and I certainly didn’t take the time to think about it. I didn’t do the work. It was always a thing in the back of my mind, something I would get to eventually, you know, after all the other things were taken care of.
Well guess what: I still need to make dinner, the dogs need dinner too, the dishwasher is full, but I just spent over two hours writing this essay. I lost track of time.
I did it on purpose. I did the work. And I no longer feel like an overly pregnant Octomom. I feel hopeful, I feel joyous, I feel like me.
So let me ask you: what’s your flow?