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.
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.
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?