When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2011 at the age of 57, his priorities suddenly shifted into very clear focus. He had always worked in publishing as an editor, but something changed after his diagnosis: with the ever present knowledge that time was running out, he wrote more in those final three years than during any other period of his life.
Many of us, like my father, have a creative dream that we keep putting off, because life is busy, and we have “day jobs” that take priority. But watching my father contend with the fact that he didn’t have much time left in this world was both heartbreaking and instructive for me.
It helped me to realize that I don’t want to get to the end of my life and wish that I had prioritized different things. It reminded me of my childhood dream to write stories and made me question why that great passion had been neglected in my adult life.
As a child, I was constantly writing stories and poems, and I even wrote a substantial part of the first book in a fantasy trilogy I had all planned out. My favorite subject at school was creative writing, and I entered poetry competitions and dreamed of one day seeing my work in bookshops. After studying literature as an undergraduate, I got my MA in journalism, and I did in fact go on to make words my trade, but my poetry and story writing slowed and then stopped completely.
Life got busy, and it felt frivolous to work on something just for the love of it, without financial reward.
We often talk vaguely about the things that we’d like to start doing in our “spare time” — learning another language, taking dance classes, doing some art, creative writing, or picking up an instrument we haven’t touched for years but used to love playing. But without making intentional room for something in our weekly schedule, these things rarely ever happen.
What’s more, it’s even easier to sideline a creative pursuit over something like exercise or home improvements, because the positive effects are often less tangible: being mental and emotional, rather than physical. However, studies show that creativity can significantly decrease stress, increase happiness, and improve cognitive function, which has long-term health implications such as protecting against Alzheimer’s. In short, we’re not doing ourselves any favors when we put off those creative aspirations until some distant point in the future when we’ll have more time.
That’s why I decided to start a little online creative writing club recently, called The Writing Habit. I wanted to make creative writing as much a part of my regular weekly routine as doing my morning Pilates, and at least as important (if not more) than scrolling Instagram or binge-watching The Crown on Netflix.
Thinking of creativity as a muscle that needs regular exercise has helped me to acknowledge the importance of making regular time for it in my life. Once a week I create a writing prompt, then schedule a two-hour writing slot into my diary at some point over the upcoming week. Sure, I won’t be writing a novel anytime soon in my two hours a week, but I have written several short stories in that time. Most importantly though, I’ve been flexing those creative muscles and giving time and attention to something that gives me great joy.
The act of learning something new and doing something creative is humbling and takes courage. Every time I sit down for my creative writing time, I have to wrestle with my insecurities — my fear that if I start trying to create something, I won’t end up liking what I’ve made.
It’s easier on our pride, as adults, to vaguely say, “If I had more time, I’d love to write a novel” than it is to actually try writing a novel; after all, if we try, there’s always the possibility that we could fail.
But when those thoughts start to come, I think of my father, and of how I’d feel at the end of my life if I let fear hold me back from doing something that I love. We’re bound to suck at first — it would be ridiculous to try and run a marathon without training for it. But isn’t that learning process part of the joy of it?
So, whether you love to write, paint, make music, dance, or something else entirely, don’t put it off. Life will always be busy, and if we want to make the most of the precious time we’ve been given in this world, we need to be intentional about making time for the things that make us feel most vibrantly alive.