The Balance Between Authenticity and Creativity

What does it mean to live authentically? To me it means finding comfort with the choices you make in your life. But that isn’t always an easy thing to do.

As I wrote in my published essay “The Truth About Spam,” what we think of as inauthentic can actually represent its own truth. (A link to the essay can be found under the “Writing Samples” tab.)

The artists I interviewed on my cross-country road trip ranged dramatically in their level of what we might call “professional” success. Most of them were not fully supporting themselves with their art. Even among those who did, the artist was on some level chasing the market, seeking a balance between what her muse wanted to do and what she knew could sell.

What these creatives did have in common was an understanding that it is important to live authentically. With their creativity, they did so by being willing to lend their artistic talents to projects that might not have been their first choice, but were ones they were comfortable with morally and philosophically.

How do we as creatives know when we should compromise and when we should stand firm? Unfortunately that is a question that only we can answer for ourselves. But after much reflection on this subject in my own life, I believe I have come up with four principles that can guide us more broadly.

  • Know your limits. If you are a talented writer seeking freelance work and you are approached by the National Rifle Association, you would, presumably, decline the offer. That seems clear on its face, but as any freelancer knows, turning down a client means turning down money. That is not easy. But it is easier to live with our muse–and ourselves–if we don’t betray our core selves.
  • Be flexible. The example above was black and white, but life’s choices are rarely so stark. A writer who says no to any offer that doesn’t truly speak to her passion, values, and desire for creative control likely won’t receive many solicitations. The Dutch Masters produced portraits because their paying customers were the bourgeoisie. Some of the finest Renaissance works depict Christ because the paying client was the Catholic Church. Rembrandt and Michelangelo took the gigs offered to them, and produced lasting art within the confines of those gigs.
  • Go easy on yourself. It’s hard to compare ourselves to Michelangelo when we are writing a press release instead of the Great American Novel. But if we bring the same level of pride to each of those tasks, we are living authentically. That is something to celebrate.
  • Embrace selfishness. I suspect I’m not the only creative who beats himself up for not always carving out time for my muse to explore without boundaries. I do find that when I allow her to do that–to lead me in directions that are all about growing as an artist but may or may not have any marketable return–I bring more to the table to those who are paying me for my creativity. So maybe we creatives can tell ourselves that we are not cheating our clients when we steal time for our own muse. Instead, this is the creative’s version of continuing professional development.

Set clear boundaries. Demonstrate flexibility once they’re set. Embrace your choices. Embrace yourself. Those all seem pretty straightforward, even if life rarely is.

This theme of “authenticity” surfaces so many places. It is central to my career choices, to my marriage, and to my role as a father. And it is emerging as a theme in my work-in-progress, a travel memoir. I’ve viewed the book as the story of a quest for creativity, but it increasingly seems that quest is entwined with a quest for authenticity.

I welcome your thoughts.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “The Balance Between Authenticity and Creativity”

  1. This is a great post, Patrick, and timely for me as I am hip deep in a large freelance project that is, shall we say, less fun than working on my novel. It’s a great project though, and it’s such projects that give me more freedom to take time off for my novel (as you brilliantly explain in your third point). I’ll have to go out on a limb, though, and say I would take that NRA project you mention in point one — being an Arizona gal who believes in the right to bear arms. But your point of being true to ourselves and our muse is an important one, and there have definitely been projects I’ve walked away from in the past for that very reason.

    Keep up the great work and continue to embrace that authenticity of which you speak — it definitely seems to be working for you!

    • Jessica, it’s great to have you here today, and thank you for this comment. I really value your perspective, as someone who has found balance sufficient to publish a top-flight novel. It sounds like you also know the importance of walking away from the wrong project, as difficult as that can be, especially when money is tight.

      I appreciate your encouragement on my embrace with authenticity!

  2. I just wrote a blog post about money, and it fits so well with this theme, too. It’s all about knowing your boundaries and keeping to them. The balance of what’s compromise and what’s reasonable input is a tough one, and one you have to look at over and over again. Good post.

  3. Another good post. I like the topic, and I like the choice of words: authenticity. A lot of times when people talk about honor and morality, it sounds too lofty to be applicable to real life. But these are things we have to consciously choose and be aware of, so it’s important to talk about them. I try every day to live an authentic life, both in my creative field and in my personal relationships. I like the principles you’ve set out here, and think they’re well worth striving for.

    • Hey Annie, I love your contributions to this blog. You know, on the word “authenticity,” this word surfaced in a phone call I had last week with my MFA advisor. I’ve been bouncing the word around in my head and yes, it works for me on many levels, not just what I’ve blogged about here but so many other aspects of life. It really is a unifying theme of my WIP.

      I’m glad you find the principles worth striving for.

  4. This posts brings up so many thoughts. You’ve nailed some key points off the bat. I immediately thought how all of these concepts can be applied to life, itself, to relationships, etc. When my husband was laid off, I employed my fine-art photography toward family portraits I felt were cheesy. Daily, I had to tell myself that it was for the greater good — my family’s needs.

    Limits are huge for me. As I’m sure you know, creatives (seems especially true with visual artists) are regularly approached to work for free. I did an enormous amount of volunteer work “out of the gate.” Now, I say no, almost uniformly, to pro bono work. If I were in a financial position to give of my talents for free, I certainy would (I feel very deeply about access to the arts across social barriers).

    In one of my spiritual traditions, we talk about aligning with our core values. They can ebb and flow over time. Economic security is at the forefront now where, in the past, sharing my creative gifts rose to the surface. So, yes, it’s all about balance. Whew, I’m writing too much here. Suffice to say another great post. I may be linking to you in a future post on a similar subject.

    • Wow, Terri, what a great comment. Thank you for sharing your personal story and your spiritual insights. The ebb-and-flow insight really speaks to me, and I too feel the pressure of economic security.

      In my time with artists I have learned that what you say is true about visual artists and requests for “free” work. I think it speaks to a broader perspective that many have for creatives, though, that our work isn’t “real” work or of true economic value. (That’s material for another post.)

      But you remind me that at the end of the day, authenticity is truly a personal matter, where we can’t allow others’ perceptions to color our own decisions. See, your comment is bringing up many thoughts!

  5. Of course it’s possible to be as authentic writing a commissioned magazine article as writing a novel. The challenge of the restricted parameters may present an even greater opportunity for creativity. (I think you’ve covered this in a past post.) I was once hired to write a corporate video for the local power company. The video went on to win the award for “the best corporate video in the world”. I managed to work in some lines from Hamlet… had to fight with the producer to keep it… and won the battle after a focus group loved the classical touch. Ironically, the worst experience of my writing career may have been connected with my novel… during the editing of which the publisher wanted changes that in my opinion threatened to alter the essence of the story. I almost took my novel elsewhere. So, I guess I`m saying that we can be true in almost any project. I’m sure y’all agree. Great post and comments, folks.
    .

    • Thanks, PJ. I hear you on both counts! My road-trip videos had a “corporate” (well, non-profit) purpose, but I brought an artistic eye to them. And I once threatened to pull a piece, back in 2000, the first time I ever wrote something for magazine publication that was opinion, not fact, and they were editing my editorial into something I wouldn’t say (fortunately the editor-in-chief stepped in). I’d be crushed if something like that happened with a novel, something I’d spent so long with and meant so much to me. Very helpful examples, PJ.

  6. Love this discussion, which, it seems to me is all about listening to our inner voice – not a muse – but a level of integrity which I think lies at the core of every-one. Things go wrong when we ignore that inner voice, and I think by listening to it, we often do crazy things that we wouldn’t dare to do if we weren’t in touch with that essence of ourselves.
    One of the most amazing examples of hearing that inner voice is Joe Simpson. When he fell down a glacier, and broke his leg, and was abandoned in a crevasse, the ‘Voice’ drove him on starving and injured till he finally reached camp, where every-one else was packing up, knowing he’d been left for dead.
    His book was called Touching the Void,’ and I think, when we go really deep into ourselves, seeking to touch that authenticity, that’s when we’re likely to touch the void..And when we do we know that we’re doing the right thing for us…
    This seems rather long, but the ‘Voice’ seemed to be in charge!!!!

    • Thank you, Valerie, for the example of Joe Simpson. Is that the story they made the movie 127 hours out of? I’ll confess to not having seen that movie, or the book Touching the Void. But they’re great examples of someone doing something beyond themselves. We all have it in us. And we can all follow that inner voice, that, yes, is not the muse (although in an ideal creative environment they are partners).

  7. I loved this blog Patrick. As a writing team, my daughter and I have to find a balance to even be able to create in unity. My daughter tends to be the writers of ole, believing that a secluded cabin somewhere in the woods, write, then publish. Marketing…?what’s that? Why should we have too. Let the story sell itself. Whereas I’ve been trying to do more marketing even involving us in projects with our local artists, and workshops and such. It’s not the support of the arts that bothers her. She loves the arts and artists. But she loves the days when one didn’t even know what a writer/author looked like. Why should an artist have to do anything other than what they feel they were called to do. She’s growing just as I am. I think it’s important when we take this journey to remember that the arts themselves are the most important thing, and it’s a gift we pass down to our children, grandchildren. Many times when we’re querying our books, I’ll ask her, do you think it’s commercial enough to sell. It bothers her and she often uses the phrase, “I won’t sell out, just to sell a book.” And I agree with that philosophy, however, being older, I think you eventually learn a trade-off, knowing that you have kid’s to feed, mortgage to pay. I think that choosing and selecting the projects can be a difficult thing for writers to do. But all of it will end up adding to our experience and making us into the writers that we hope and pray we can be one day. Thank you for the post. loved it.

    • Hi Inion,

      What a fascinating comment! The struggle you’re having with your daughter is one nearly all writers (and creatives more broadly) have with themselves every day. In your case, there are two distinct people having the conversation, rather than an argument in one’s head! I think you’ve inspired a new blog post!

      Patrick

  8. Really great Post, hope to see more from you

  9. Hi Patrick, I count four principles, not three, but I’m grateful for all of them—the more reminders we have to hew to our integrity, the better. Glad I discovered your blog (while searching for a related post I’ve just published re finding balance in creative practice)—I was happy to be able to include a link in my post to yours.

    • Indeed you’re right, there are four! Just fixed that. How funny no one pointed that out! That’s why I’m a writer and not an engineer.

      I’m glad you found the post of value, shared it on your blog, and appreciate what I’m seeking to accomplish with this post, namely chronicle a creative journey that is at once both personal and universal. Great to have you here.

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