Protecting the time

In Daphne du Maurier’s novel The Parasites, one of the sisters is an artist of great promise. Unfortunately, she never goes anywhere with her work, because when any of her family demands her attention, she gives it. She puts up a feeble resistance only once; “I really want to finish this drawing.” “Oh,” says her sister, “You can do that another time.” And the artist sister acquiesces. It’s truly infuriating to read.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been self-employed, and self-employed in the arts, for much of my working life, but I don’t have that kind of trouble protecting my creative time. Being self-employed – unless you have a storefront – is bad enough, because people assume that you can take time off whenever you want to, so there’s no legitimate reason you couldn’t drop your work on a Tuesday afternoon. Being self-employed in the arts makes you seem positively bohemian and irresponsible, at least in a conventional sense.

What I’ve always said is that when you’re self-employed, you can quit for the day whenever you want – midnight, two a.m., it’s up to you. I’ve done lots of sixteen-hour days in the pottery studio. The truth is, that being self-employed in the arts, if you’re going to make any kind of success at it, requires as much self-discipline as getting to work in the morning. Actually, it requires more, because there’s usually nobody but you watching. No co-workers already in their cubicles, no customers lined up outside the door if you’re five minutes late opening, no boss tapping a watch and saying, “Late again, Creith.”

I won’t say there isn’t a temptation to slack off, because there is. If the Muse isn’t there, art can be a slog. In any work, however, even work you love, there’s slogging. It must be done.  In fact, it’s when you have slogging to do that you must be particularly vigilant about your time. Most people have no problem protecting Muse time, for the same reason most people have no problem eating dessert. Slogging is – in my case anyway – a big spoonful of lima beans.

People will find the buttons to push, the ones that make you give up that precious art time.  It might be the family button, or the community one, or the friendship one; any of these buttons says, “We need you and only you, preferably right now.” It may be the most difficult skill you ever have to learn, to say “I can’t do that now,” or maybe, “I can’t do that,” period.

When you say it, there will be those who sulk, or pout, or coax, or try to make you feel guilty. There will be those who don’t want to – or can’t – accord your need to have that creative time the same priority for you as their needs have for them. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth trying to educate them. If it is, do it. If it’s not, remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation for what you’re doing with your time.

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