In Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “When I was about sixteen years old, I took vows to become a writer. I mean, I literally took vows… I retreated to my bedroom one night and turned off all the lights. I lit a candle, got down on my honest-to-god knees, and swore my fidelity to writing for the rest of my natural life. My vows were strangely specific and, I would still argue, pretty realistic. I didn’t make a promise that I would be a successful writer, because I sensed that success was not under my control. Nor did I promise that I would be a great writer, because I didn’t know if I could be great. Nor did I give myself any time limits for the work, like ‘if I’m not published by the time I’m thirty I’ll give up on this dream and go find another line of work.’ In fact, I didn’t put any conditions or restrictions on my path at all. My deadline was never. Instead, I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the result.”

Like Gilbert, I’ve known since I was young that writing (and in my case, also music) is my calling. I knew it, and I still know it, deep in my bones. That being said, I haven’t always played or written. The past two-and-a-half years have been especially creatively dry– I haven’t written a single song, and I’ve only written a few poems. Though I’ve gone through more prolific phases in the past, even then, I struggled to write consistently–to make time in my daily schedule, actually show up, and write.

I always assumed this was because I’m lazy. And in the spirit of honesty and accountability, yes, self-discipline is something I need to keep working on. However, I’m starting to realize that “I’m lazy” doesn’t tell the full story. My inactivity is in part due to some real mental health challenges– toxic beliefs about my creativity and myself that I need to change if I am ever to live a healthier, more fulfilled creative life. Namely, these:

1. If I’m not the best, I don’t have permission to do my work at all.
2. If my work is not good, it is worthless. If I am not talented, I am worthless.

3. If my work does not receive external recognition, it is worthless/irrelevant.
4. If writing is not my career (i.e. if I don’t make money through writing), then writing is not my vocation.

These beliefs were subconscious (until recently, I didn’t realize I had them!), yet they’ve interfered heavily in my creative endeavors. Let’s explore each one in more depth, and propose some healthier alternatives.

  1. If I’m not the best, I don’t have permission to do my work at all.

When I was about thirteen years old, I discovered songwriting. I flew to it like a moth to a flame. I knew instantly that it was my Great Love. I decided I wanted to be a musician and songwriter when I grew up. But I was quickly discouraged by the way many adults in my life reacted to kids who wanted to be artists. They’d try to dissuade those young people from following their dreams, pointing out how small the odds are of “making it.” As if “making it,” being the best of the best, was the only thing that mattered.

In some ways, they weren’t wrong: It IS hard to make a living as an artist. And I’m sure many of them had good intentions– perhaps they only wanted to protect children from their own disappointment and the harsh realities of the world. But here’s how I heard their words as a teen who struggled with depression and low self-esteem: “you’ll never make it because you’re not the best, and unless you ARE the best, there is something shameful about wanting to be musician/artist/etc.” Unaware that I was doing so, I internalized this belief and carried it forward into my life.

Even though I have a degree in music, even though I now teach music, there has always been a part of me that feels I don’t BELONG in music. To this day, I see all the musicians who are better than me and feel ashamed that I ever wanted to be a musician, that I ever tried, because I have so clearly “failed.” I feel shame on a frequent basis, whenever I realize that I am lacking in some musical knowledge or skill that the musicians around me seem to possess. It leads me to avoid asking questions of those I look up to, for fear of looking stupid, or being exposed as the fraud I believe myself to be. It makes me want to hide. It makes me want to avoid “failure” (not being the best) by not trying at all.

I would like to replace toxic belief #1 with the following, in the words of Henry Van Dyke: “Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those who sang best.”

2. If my work is not good, it is worthless. If I am not talented, I am worthless.

There are many reasons I’m grateful to have studied music in college. I learned a ton. I loved being constantly surrounded by music and other musicians. It helped me get jobs in music. That being said, some aspects of music school affected me negatively. Being in an environment in which my piano playing received a grade made me more critical of, and self-conscious about, my art. And, to speak to my earlier point, music school gave me life experience to back up my fears that I wasn’t the best: I had gone to a mediocre school (to be clear, I’m not bashing the education I received, just objectively stating that it wasn’t Julliard), and even among the musicians there, I was only mediocre in skill.

Though I wrote a lot of music before and during college, I have suffered a REAL mental block since graduating. Every time I sit down to write, I hear the cruel voices of my inner demons: “this sucks.” “You’re not that talented, so why try?” I think about all the people I met in college who were better than me. On and on. And it paralyzes me– it stops me from writing at all.

In Big Magic, Gilbert quotes one of her mother’s old adages: “done is better than good.” I want to replace toxic belief #2 with the following: My work is valuable just because I do it, not because of how good it is.

Here’s why I think the replacement belief is better: it shifts the focus to what I can control. I can’t control the amount of talent that was or was not genetically assigned to me. But I CAN control whether or not I show up and DO my work.

Imagine if a teacher berated a child in music class for not having the same natural aptitude as other students. It would be pretty egregious– the student’s lack of inborn talent is not their fault! Instead, a good teacher would notice and praise the student’s efforts. It is unjust to beat ourselves up over something we have no control over. Let’s measure ourselves not by our talent, but by our efforts– whether we show up and do what we can.

3. If my work does not receive external recognition, it is worthless/irrelevant.

See above re: focusing on things I can control. I can’t control how other people will react to my work–whether they praise, criticize, or ignore it. But again, I CAN control whether I DO my work.

As an aside, my writing has plenty of value to me, even if not many people read/listen to it. It’s gotten me through some tough times. It helps me process and put words to my difficult emotions. The act of writing alone is therapy. It makes me feel powerful and capable, like I can spin pain into gold.

Replacement for toxic belief #3: My work is valuable just because I do it, not because of how people receive it.

4. If writing is not my career (i.e. if I don’t make money through writing), then writing is not my vocation.

I always hated the common phrase, “art is a hobby, not a career.” Growing up, that sentiment hurt me tremendously. I felt like it was saying, “unless you can make money off of it, your art is destined to become some unimportant side thing.” Even though writing isn’t my main source of income, the word “hobby” does not convey the seriousness of my feelings for it.

I don’t have a problem with educating kids on the realities of money, and the limits that financial obligations place on our lives. On the contrary, I think learning about money is essential to becoming a responsible adult. But I DO have a problem with encouraging kids to abandon their art, or to view it flippantly, simply because it doesn’t have clear lucrative potential. We’ve set up a false dichotomy in our society: either our art makes us money, or it should be treated as our lowest priority.

Those of us who don’t fit into the hobby vs. career dichotomy might find solace in viewing art as our vocation. Gilbert defines vocation like this: “A vocation is a calling. A vocation is a divine invitation. A vocation is the voice of the universe in your ear saying, ‘I want you to do this thing. I want to use your talents and gifts to make this thing. I want you to participate in the story of creation in this way.'”

She continues, “Here’s the amazing thing about having a vocation: nobody can take it from you. Nobody can give it to you, and nobody can take it from you.” I’d add, “except yourself.” Only I can define how seriously I take my work. I’ve often fallen into the trap of ceasing to take it seriously when it fails to yield external rewards.

Replacement for toxic belief #4: writing is my vocation, and I will treat it as such, regardless of whether or not it becomes a career.

Inspired by Gilbert’s vows, I decided to write my own vows, to my writing and to myself. I don’t promise to do these things 100% of the time– I’m sure there will be times that I mess up and/or let the mean inner voices win. But I promise to keep trying, to keep striving toward a healthier relationship with creativity.

My Vows

-I vow to always take my work seriously, even if/when others do not.
-I vow to carve out specific time in my day/week to write, and to show up consistently at that time.
-I vow to be courageous: to keep putting my work out into the world, in spite of fear.
-I vow to measure my success as a writer by the effort and dedication I put into writing, not by my visibility or popularity.
-I vow to consider my work valuable even if/when it looks like other people’s work. I vow to place more value on authenticity than originality.
-I vow to consider my work valuable even when others’ work is “better.” It is worthy simply because it exists and comes from my heart– it doesn’t have to outshine others to earn its worth.
-I vow to consider music and writing my vocations, regardless of whether or not they ever make me money. I vow not to let the world define vocation for me, but to define it for myself.