Each year (running from the season of Imbolc) I try to give my blogs a broad theme to explore an area of how our creative lives and the whole of our live’s journey intersect. I believe any artistic practice can be transformative—writing, sculpture, quilting, composing music, gardening, crafting herbal remedies… The list could go on. But we become new and different stories as we practice our arts only if we are permeable to these transformations, only if we are willing to reflect deeply.
To make our writing or any creative path congruent with how we live, so that the creativity nurtures our life and our life adds value to our labour of love, is a life-time’s project. There’s no quick way to having a flourishing creative life and a life in which we feel we’re living our values. It’s always a process and always demands a great deal of kindness—to ourselves with all our flaws and need to begin and again as much as to others as we all ‘stagger onward rejoicing’ (to quote from W H Auden’s ‘Atlantis’).
But in this process we have the opportunity to make extraordinary connections and to make a difference to the world with our story, however small and with both the stories we write and those we live. So this year my theme will be about ‘living kith’, or how valuing the art we create can impact on the values we live by and vice versa.
I’m hoping to take a year to explore this, but some initial thoughts on why valuing writing (or any art) and living our values are on a continuum and how we can be open to this model…
by labouring with love
Some of us might be in the position where our art and our work are one, but for many writers, painters, musicians… there’s the day job and the passion project. The poet and essayist Lewis Hyde, writing in The Gift: how the creative spirit transforms the world, divides these between ‘work’ and ‘labour’:
Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. […] Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. […] Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor.
Such labour, he goes on to suggest, is always a gift. In a utopic and wonderful sentiment he goes on to make a plea for a society that values poetry, cello playing with actual income, not because their value is quantifiable but because such activities are gifts to society and culture and so should be gifted by society in return. Of course, we are not living in times when such a gift exchange is on the horizon, but it opens up a line of thought about how we both value and gift what we create.
So many of our words to do with the ideals we live by or the way we respect everything from art to people to rainforests have been almost-wholly co-opted by the language of economics. To ask about the ‘value’ of a woodland or the ‘worth’ of a person all too easily summons up images of a balance sheet in pounds or dollars… But language can also be reclaimed.
The etymology of ‘value’ suggests it became a word about ‘price’ in the Middle Ages, but still related to ‘intrinsic worth’ and an older French word that was more redolent with moral worth and reputation. Further back is the Latin ‘valere’ which has meanings of strength and wellness as well as worth and value and the Proto-Indo-European root of the word is ‘wal’: to be strong.
Asking what is a woodland’s strength or what is the strength of a work of art is quite different. Something that is strong has vigour, focus and courage. Our values are our strengths even if some of them are aspirational and all are works in progress. The value of our art is strong, even if we feel tentative about it, because it flows from who we are and the story we are becoming. It is strong because, unlike mere currency which is only ever transactional, writing, and art of all kinds, is transformative. It leaves a handprint on Time itself, puts the maker and the receiver in touch with meaning and forges connections. It is strong because it is a gift, both inwardly and outwardly.
When we make something as a labour of love, it is valuable. And this has nothing to do with the market-place.
by making a gift of our labour
It may be wonderful when our art and such survival come together, but whether it does or not, all of us have to survive in the real world. Whatever our circumstances, though, art is always a gift. A painting or an exquisitely crafted violin might sell for an eye-watering sum of money, but it is never only a commodity. Whenever I’m in Paris I got to see Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. I have no idea what it is worth in euros, but I know it touches something in my soul.
Whether you are able to sell your art or not, whether it is a book read by a million people or a hand-made pamphlet given to friends, it’s value rests not on a price sticker but on the gift you are making of yourself to a world that is so in need of meaning and beauty.
And the thing about a gift is that it has to be given. It has to be part of an abundance mentality, rather than choked by scarcity thinking.
As Shakespeare puts it:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Romeo and Juliet 2:ii
When we share what we create, it grows rather than diminishes. And when we share what we create, we share ourselves. Whether we are writing non-fiction, fiction or poetry, there is always something of who we are in what we make. This is not to reduce writing to mere egotistical self-expression, but a recognition that in making ourselves open to creating we plunge into our unconscious and bring back both the shadows and the treasures that we find there. If we listen hard enough we are likely to be surprised by ourselves, but also to return with something of worth.
by living the values
Our life and our writing are entwined, not on a mere surface level, but deeply. And when we see our writing as a gift that is transformative rather than transactional, then our whole life looks different.
Of course, valuing our writing and living our values is not an obligatory path that all artists have to take. There are artists of all kinds who are more interested in a transactional, market-commodity model of art. I don’t believe they will be the poets, painters, film-makers… who will be remembered, even if they do have brief fame and riches, but whether they are or not, there is something hollow about taking this route.
The path we take depends on the questions we ask. And the questions we ask depend on the values we aspire to. If we are asking ourselves what we are paying attention to, what connections we are making, how deeply we are prepared to dig in order to be inspired. If we are invoking the mysteries of the unconscious rather than the cult of ego… And if we labour with love and make a gift of that labour, on whatever scale we have the opportunity to do so, then our writing and our values will intersect more and more.
Here’s to all the ways we become a different story by valuing our writing and living our values and here’s to a year of exploring the values we live and write by.