Five Keys to Living an Art-Committed Life

His story is simultaneously inspiring and horrifying. After ten years in the rat-race of London, James Rhodes returned to his true passion, the piano. He dedicated himself to achieving the mastery he had dreamed of as a youth. And now, after years of dedication and hard work, James is a concert pianist. In his essay in The Guardian, he writes that as hard as his new life is–and it is very hard indeed–he has no regrets.

A key theme of this post is balance. These lily pads I saw in North Carolina on my cross-country road trip appear to have found balance with the water and surrounding flora.

A key theme of this post is balance. These lily pads I saw in North Carolina on my cross-country road trip appear to have found balance with the water and surrounding flora.

I am happy for him. I am also spooked by the similarities of the beginning of our stories. I too put aside, for years, my passion for creative writing, instead surrendering all of that passion to my employers. A summer driving across the U.S. interviewing artists reawakened my creative passion and set me on this path to an art-committed life. It led me to launch this blog and to start the travel memoir I am about to complete.

But I am not prepared to make some of the choices James did for his art:

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35lbs in weight.

The Artist’s Road blog chronicles both the rewards and the challenges of living an art-committed life. Let me outline five lessons I’ve learned that have allowed me to hold on to what I consider a balanced life filled with creativity, professional pursuits and loved ones:

  • Identify your passion: For James, it wasn’t just music. It wasn’t just playing the piano. It was being a concert performer, “able to perform something that some mad, genius, lunatic of a composer 300 years ago heard in his head while out of his mind with grief or love or syphilis.” For me it wasn’t just writing, or creative writing. I realized I loved to read creative nonfiction–biographies, memoirs, essays–and so for the last three years I have focused my efforts on growing in that genre. A narrowed field of vision focuses the mind.
  • Manage your time. James argues we have more time in our day than we admit. For instance, he says, we only need six hours of sleep. I have learned that for me, anyway, his observation is correct. So every morning I rise before dawn to give two hours to my muse while the rest of the house is asleep. My pages get a fresh, distraction-free mind, and my muse gains the comfort of knowing I’ll be back the next day. Other successful creatives I know work out their own routines.
  • Allow avenues of release. James, as he admits, prefers extreme approaches to reinvention. And, in his passage on time management, he insists you stop wasting time with television. I know creatives who have walked away from the shiny box and have felt reborn. For me, after a full day of creative writing followed by a salaried job, about the only thing my brain can do in the evening is watch TV. We only have one in our house, however, so it is a shared activity with my wife, son and daughter. Which leads to the next point.
  • Win buy-in from loved ones.  I had every intention on Saturday of taking the wife and kids to a new museum exhibit. But it became clear to me that I needed that time to finish the lecture I’m giving soon at my MFA graduation residency. We have now scheduled to go to the exhibit two weeks from now. Before starting on this life, I had serious conversations with my wife and with my kids. My sacrifices would be theirs as well. I told them they would see less of me, but I would still put them first when it really mattered. So I still make the kids breakfast. I still take my wife out on the occasional date. And I continually remind them of how grateful I am for their role in my art-committed life.
  • Accept the inevitable losses. You may lose a friend who resents you for spending less time with her. You may lose the opportunity for career advancement when you turn down a job that will require too much of your spare time and creativity. You may lose the joy that comes from living spontaneously, because that life doesn’t always marry well with a structured calendar designed to maximize creative output. James believes his sacrifices are worth it. If you feel the same way, you have made the right choices.
There is the path to enlightenment; the path to an art-committed life; and the path to Forsyth Fountain in Savannah, Georgia. I enjoyed this last path on my cross-country U.S. road trip.

There is the path to enlightenment; the path to an art-committed life; and the path to Forsyth Fountain in Savannah, Georgia. I enjoyed this last path on my cross-country U.S. road trip.

Extremism in the pursuit of life change would certainly seem a possible path. The 2,500-year-old legend of Siddhartha is that he walked away from a wife, a son and a life as a wealthy prince to live as a hermit and seek enlightenment. That was an extreme act, but he achieved his goal, and is known to us as Buddha–the Enlightened One–as a result. This legend also tells us that at one point Siddhartha reduced his diet to such an extreme in his rejection of things of this world that he almost died. We would expect someone on the path to enlightenment to learn from that experience, and he did. From that point on he recognized that not all things of this world are to be rejected.

I know very little of the path to enlightenment. I know a little bit about the path to an art-committed life. It requires sacrifice. It also requires reason, and flexibility. For me, the path  is best maintained when art is in balance with the other aspects of my life. I am thrilled for James Rhodes. He is living his dream, the life of a composer. He has his own sense of balance, believing all of his sacrifices were worth it. That is perhaps the ultimate lesson: Own the results of your choices.

If you’re reading this post, you likely are also seeking to live a more art-committed life. What choices have you made, or do you intend to make, to pursue your passion while maintaining life balance?

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About Patrick Ross

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

36 Responses to “Five Keys to Living an Art-Committed Life”

  1. Is it ever too late to live an art committed life? How old was Rhodes when he gave over his life to his dream, sacrificing his health and his marriage? I think that there must be an option of an “art involved” life where the pleasure of immersing yourself in your art may be limited, but the sacrifices to home, family and paying the bills are not too great. Once you’re in the vicious cycle of work, mortgage, and raising kids, becoming “art committed” seems daunting, if not impossible.

    • Yes, it is all a matter of degrees, Kathryn. I borrow the phrase “art-committed life” from Eric Maisel, to refer to someone who has focused on allocating a portion of his or her routine to practicing an artistic pursuit. You can live an artful life–simply appreciating art around you–or an art-filled life, where you seek out concerts and theater and good books, making time to enjoy others’ art. So perhaps art-involved could fit between art-filled and art-committed.

  2. I was top in my English class all through grade school. I would even write stories in make-shift books. I wanted to be an English teacher and a writer. I came from a poor family so I was encouraged to pursue a profession that makes me a lot of money. I got degrees in Computer Science and International Business and still don’t have a lot of money. I thought I would take charge of my life and pursue writing. It’s hard. I can’t afford to go back to school. First there’s the fact that I have no education in creative writing and second, I would get many ideas for stories that I start but can’t seem to finish. Mostly, it’s about getting what it takes, whatever that is, to plant myself in front of the computer and write! I’m 33, people have became writers at 20 and younger. I’m feeling like my chance has gone because I’m starting late. I dream of being published and even when I block out the excuses and reasons, I don’t see a way. Another problem is that I want to be a writer and I want to be a writer now! Maybe I need to go on a path to enlightenment. Thank you for sharing this post🙂

    • First of all, kudos for choosing to focus on your passion. I’m showing my age here, but I think you’re still getting a head start at 33! One thing about writers–and any writing instructor will tell you this–is that writing is a craft that lends itself to life experience, so that is an advantage you have over the 20-year-old. As for “wanting to be a writer,” as I wrote a week or two ago, you need to simply declare yourself as one. Now you are not a “published” writer yet, but if you keep writing and growing those opportunities will come.

    • CL–
      Thanks for sharing. You have a huge head start on me, as I did not start writing books until well into my 40s. I was able to publish three books and then hit a dry spell, ten years went by and my next book isn’t coming out until next year, so I will let you do the math as to how old I am now and how long I have been on the art-committed path. With this newest book, it’s like I’m starting over at the beginning, which is part of what it means to commit to art. No matter how old you are, and how much or who little success you have, you are always starting new. Which is sort of the beauty of it.

    • At 33 you are still young, with PLENTY of time ahead of you to fulfill your dream. The best education for creative writing is to read the writing of others; authors you admire, authors you hate, books you love, books you despise and books that offer you no idea how you’ll feel about them until you open them up and start reading them.😉

      Don’t compare yourself to the successful young bucks; there’s no point, because, for even the most creative people, sometimes there’s this thing called Life that gets in the way. I’m almost a decade ahead of you and, like you, I showed promise as a child, but then kind of lost my way in my late teens. Sleepwalking through a series of sucky jobs to pay the bills and suffering a mental breakdown in my mid-twenties were just a couple of my stumbling blocks (and the second one took a LONG time to come back from) but in my mid-thirties I got back on track and I’m now walking the Artist’s Road again.

      Maybe write yourself a big list of all the amazing, exciting and just pure crazy things you want to achieve with your writing, including pictures too if that helps. Dream as big as you want; if that means sticking in a photo of that tropical island you want to buy with the royalties of your best-selling novel then go for it – who cares, no-one else needs to know.😉 Then keep it somewhere handy, where you can always reach for it at a moment’s notice – so that whenever you need something to give you that motivational kick up the pants, it’s ready for you.

      And, above everything else, don’t give up. You’re not ‘over the hill’ – you’re just coming up to the interesting bit of the roller-coaster ride!

  3. This post comes at the perfect time. I’ve been following a more art-committed life for a few years now, but still get tangled up in doing things that take me away from the creative work that feeds me. The balance that we all struggle with continually shifts and challenges us to make choices about our priorities as writers, as artists, as people who get our sustenance from creative work. Your point about accepting the inevitable losses is the one I struggle with the most, especially when friends ask me to do something for them as a favor (like volunteer time working on a newsletter because they’ve confused editing with graphic design – my current thing that needs some problem-solving) or when some group I’m part of doesn’t fit anymore and I don’t have the heart to make a break (a Sunday salon group I’m part of that consistently feels more like an intrusion even though the people are lovely). Accept inevitable loss – that’s going on the wall in front of my computer.
    On another note, my family has been absolutely wonderful. We all have figured out ways to honor each others’ work and art in ways that feel pretty well balanced most of the time. And that’s an amazing gift, well worth the time it took us to figure it out.

    • Kathleen, we are definitely walking the same path. The losses you cite echo ones I’ve wrestled with as well. But how delightful that your family is all in; there’s nothing more important than that. And it sounds like you’re not the only artist, so that is great too. You get to give someone else time and space just like they are giving that to you.

  4. I am just beginning on this path (the art-committed one, not the one to Forsyth Fountain though I’m sure it’s lovely) and am having a lot of challenges come up. Am I too old? Always a question, but I’ve struggled with that for a long time and I just keep getting older. This is the youngest I will ever be so I’d better get started now!

    Finding structure has been difficult. I was running a business before and was overly busy, always working for others while yearning for more time and freedom to create. Now that I’ve opened up time for myself I find that I am often at a loss of what to do and how to spend it productively. I write for a while, or play music, but without that built in structure end up spinning my wheels and feeling guilty.

    I’d love to hear more about ways you’ve found to stay motivated and create some healthy structure along the creative path while maintaining balance.

    Thanks for this post, I just discovered your blog and will be reading more!

    • Yup, we all keep getting older. I love thinking of me as my youngest of all possible future selves; wow I feel young now!

      Andy, after my road trip I chose to leave the job I was doing because it was all-consuming both of time and energy. I will confess I took the “easy” way to structure by enrolling in a low-residency MFA in writing program. For the last two years I have had monthly deadlines requiring me to produce. But I am on my very last packet, and when I graduate in a couple of months I’ll have to impose my own deadlines. I hear a lot of MFA grads stop writing for awhile, in part because they’re burned out but also because they came to rely too heavily on external deadlines. So check back with me in six months and see if I’m still producing once I am my own time boss!

      Glad you’re here, Andy.

  5. I worked as a counselor with addicted/mentally ill clients for 25 years–had started workingfull-time when my five children were older. My husband has always travelled for his work and still does, so that meant little time to myself then. I gave up music and art due to time/energy being used up, but somehow kept writing. I could not NOT write, it seemed, and my spouse posted a sign on my bedroom door to write whenever I could “Do Not Disturb Unless Bleeding: Writer at Work.” Still, I was much older before I published just a little, and edging toward retirement when I finally quit working outside of home. Now I write daily, hours at a time, and have many projects going. I just published a new poem in The Blue Hour. I have a lot less money now but I have writing and so much more. It is NEVER too late to be true to one’s calling(s).
    Good post, by the way!

    • What an inspiring story, Cynthia! Congrats on the poem publication. And I love this: “I have a lot less money now but I have writing and so much more.” I mentioned to Andy above how I left a job in order to write more. I have a new job but it doesn’t pay nearly as much, so I too have a lot less money now! But I do have so many other things.

      Thank you for the kind words as well!

  6. Darn! That needed editing: “…my spouse posted a sign on the bedroom door so I could write when possible. It said: Do Not Disturb…” etc. So it goes!🙂

  7. I’m wondering how one goes on living for five years *without income*? Who was paying the rent? Who bought the food?

    I like that you went to Siddhartha for an example of going to extremes. What he took away from the experience is that the ‘middle way’ is best, i.e. moderation. The more of my life I put behind me, the more I see the wisdom in everything in moderation.
    Really good post, Patrick.

    • Thank you, Cynthia! Yes, I believe I all but exhausted my knowledge of Buddha, but you summarized my choice of inclusion of him perfectly: “moderation.”

      Thanks again for your great guest post last week! It clearly generated a lot of interest.

  8. Life becomes different with responsibilities of children. It’s one a parent cannot walk away from. Otherwise it will bite the parent.

    I also believe it can be unfair in the 21st century to ask a spouse to give up their passions, need self-growth for partner to lead an art-committed life. History has shown some temptuous marriages, love liaisons etc. ie. Rodin is an excellent one. It costed the true self-growth of his artist partner, ….Claudette I believe was her first name?

    • Thanks for this comment. You know, I framed it from the perspective of being grateful that my wife supports my pursuit of creativity. But you could reverse it and say that part of being a partner is to support such efforts, at least to the extent the partner isn’t neglecting his/her familial obligations (like the children). As with so many things in life, marriage and parenting require balance.

  9. Yes! I love this post so much.

    Over the past five years (as I’ve explored creativity) I’ve found that people are always coming up with excuses and other silly reasons for why they can’t commit to their art. Those are all excuses though!

    I’ve found that the first step is committing yourself to doing what you love, with whatever time you can dedicate to it. Getting support from friends, family, and even co-workers (if you have a day job that doesn’t involve your art) are all super beneficial.

  10. Great post, Patrick, and wonderful discussion. I think the most difficult part for me in following my passion for writing and desire to be published is how it forces me to look at myself honestly. Honestly? I don’t always like what I see.

    When I don’t have the courage to face what is true, the sacrifices seem too much, the distractions too tempting, and the focus and effort required simply too hard.

    • Well, we are our own worst critics, right? If what you see and don’t like is a perception that your writing doesn’t cut it, well, I am hardly the first person to say this, but developing a routine shuts out the inner critic a fair amount. She may say your writing sucks, but she can’t keep you from doing it anyway if you stick to your routine. If the concerns about what you see are deeper, then a creative pursuit (journaling/writing, painting, songwriting, what have you) could very well be the best way to come to terms with what you see and learn to accept it or better understand it.

  11. Hello Patrick. I am 22 yrs old from Philippines. I find your posts really interesting and helpful. You enlightened me with this one. It is my ultimate dream to be a writer. I have been writing since I was 12. I write just anything I thought about. All I knew since then was, I wanted to write. I want to write until I become old. I want to dedicate my whole life in writing. Patrick, I’m glad I came across this post. It will surely help me directing my path towards my passion. God bless you. I am looking forward to your next posts. God bless you.

    • Thank you for this encouraging comment! I’m very glad you found it inspiring. I see you have a blog. That’s a good way to keep writing. And yes, write until you’re old, and then keep writing!

  12. Funny thing, I can’t even see the sacrifices as such, 13 years in. I am in a very good place in my life, have tons of support from my fiancee, and a different outlook on life overall. I have also had a change of heart regarding what I see as success – I no longer NEED that shiny possibility of a retrospective at the Guggenheim – I see myself as fulfilled and happy painting pet portraits, connecting to people and helping them immortalize a valued friend and (fuzzy) family member on canvas, or another surface. I used to think that was for someone else – for ME, I was somewhat LESS THAN if I didn’t produce some masterworks along the way.

    Funny thing is, now I can see the possibility of producing masterworks – in the genre of animal art. But if they never come, so long as I make a living making people happy, I am happy.

    So this isn’t answering your question at all, I know. You have already cataloged some of my challenges in living an art committed life here and on video. But I can’t even think of them right now. All I see is the happiness, and the joy of doing what I love.

    (Now, talk to me in 5 years, who knows where I will be then! 😉 )

    • Amy, I think you’ve reached that point on your path–which you’ve been on far longer than me, and I’m on it in part because of being inspired by you–where they are no longer challenges but simply part of the existence you’ve chosen. When you get to a point that you can’t imagine any alternative, then your perspective changes. I’m getting there, but I think for many of us it’s easy to fall out of the creative habit if we haven’t been living it long enough.

      And yes, things seem to be going great for you in so many ways, and that makes me really happy!

      • I’m reminded of the song in the animated Christmas classic (is it Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”?) . . . “put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floo-oo-oor! Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walkin’ out the door!”

        You’ll get there too, my friend, just keep putting that one foot in front of the other! 🙂

  13. Reblogged this on Artist Think and commented:
    This week I was hoping to share what I have as a constant resource of inspiration… this post is one of many worth your time and consideration!

  14. Thought-provoking post as usual, Patrick. I really have nothing to add. You know much of my “creativity story” and I love that you pointed out Buddha’s revelation about the “middle way.” I also love that you make your kids breakfast each morning! (I, too, wonder when I read tales of “no income.” I’ve met many an artist for whom that translated to trust fund.)

    • Well, if I didn’t make them breakfast it’s unlikely they would make it for themselves. Who knows what they do at lunch, so at least I get something helpful in them, a bit of protein to carry them awhile.

      And your parenthetical is on point in many cases!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Five Keys to Living an Art-Committed Life | cre... - May 11, 2013

    […] His story is simultaneously inspiring and horrifying. After ten years in the rat-race of London, James Rhodes returned to his true passion, the piano. He dedicated himself to achieving the mastery …  […]

  2. Five Keys to Living an Art-Committed Life | Stan Stewart's Blog - May 11, 2013

    […] See on artistsroad.wordpress.com […]

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