Navigating the Creative Life

And building a future that helps it flourish.

Wendy Cohan
May 21, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash

A few years ago I was listening to a writer’s panel discuss the realities of a career in writing. The guest speaker, a handsome, successful writer, was asked, “What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a writing career?”

He answered, “Marry someone with a good job, someone who is NOT a writer,” and everyone laughed.

But I disagree with this advice. Based on long experience, I vote for not marrying out of your creative class. It’s important to be able to pay your bills and keep the lights on — but it’s also vital that your partner understands and supports your need to create. A failure to communicate this critical fact will come to light when the creative person makes decisions that best support his or her creative life, but which might appear unrealistic, or even unwise.

For a creative person, the act of creating is life: it’s what establishes our priorities, drives most of our decisions, and defines who we are. Partners who understand this can help each other to excel. I’ve known many couples with special relationships built on mutual respect for their partner’s creativity, and in an ideal world, this is what I hope to find. Currently, I’m single, and due to the global pandemic we’re immersed in, likely to remain so for the immediate future. But if I ever were to find the right partner, it would be someone who supported and respected my decisions and choices in how I live my life. It just wouldn’t work any other way — and to try to make it work would be to force myself into a mold that no longer fits.

For years, decades, I suppressed my creative drive in order to fulfill the role of dutiful wife, mother, and steady paycheck-earner. I might take a token watercolor class every year or so, and scribble poems on scraps of paper while my husband drove us to the beach. But my husband made all of our financial decisions and I always did what I could to support him. In the period that followed the 2008 real estate market crash, every cent I made in my nursing job went to paying interest on mortgages for properties that were vacant, weren’t returning any rental income, and were falling in value. It felt awful, like my life’s blood was draining away. My frustration was enormous, and in hindsight, completely understandable. But this was also the time when I began to feel my creativity surging to the forefront, as sometimes happens when we enter our fifties. This time, I didn’t resist it — I just tried to do it all.

During this same dark period, I researched and wrote two medical self-help books, organized and led two successful support groups for people with chronic pain, worked full time, and continued to take on all of the wifely domestic tasks in our household. These efforts, combined, stretched me — and our marriage — to the limit. The ugly tangle of our financial woes, a difficult marriage, and my desire for creative independence, led to divorce, and finally, to freedom.

Now, after the dust has settled, I’m responsible for my own financial picture. Sometimes this requires creative juggling and walking cautiously out on shaky limbs. But I am steadily carving out a life that will support my creativity in many different areas, and it feels right.

One thing I learned from my hospice patients is to live life in such a way as to avoid regrets. I think about what I might regret if I die relatively young, in my early seventies, as both of my parents did. It’s a hard realization that, at sixty, this could be ten years away. Among the things I would regret most is never writing the book, never taking the trip that will lead to a great travel article, never writing the short play which makes it into a festival. Never writing the essay that, read in a pivotal moment, helps to change a person’s life. Never writing the simple paragraph that says exactly what is in my heart. I would regret never using the gifts I have been given.

I’ve been a good mother and I’ve been a good wife — and, for nearly twenty-five years, I was a good nurse. But have I ever really given myself the chance to be a good writer? To take the workshops, and attend the retreats, and get the guidance I need to tap into my writer’s brain and create magic on paper? Well, I want to do all of these things, now. I want to learn and grow into the writer I hope I can be, and it’s not too late.

I am also learning not to ignore pivotal moments in my own life. I think back to that snowy winter of 2015 when I was newly separated from my husband of thirty years. I worked eighteen-hour days as a hospice nurse, struggling to support myself, with no time for creativity, or even much sleep. It was completely unsustainable, and I knew in my bones it was going to break me.

Taking a deep breath, and because I really couldn’t do anything else, I quit my nursing job. I opened my home to Air BnB, started writing and editing and getting a few things published. I knocked doors for my Democratic Senator for nine-hundred bucks a week. I took a series of creative writing workshops and met brilliant, like-minded friends. After a few months, I found it much easier to breathe. I stopped having chest pain. I looked and felt years younger — and my dog and I both got a lot more exercise.

Of course, there were sacrifices along the way: I lived in a thousand-square-foot house with three women, three large dogs, and one bathroom, for an entire Montana winter. I drove my 1978 Subaru Wagon into the ground, finally leaving it on the side of the road with a broken timing belt and a seized engine, on the way to a Match.com date in Butte. I painted walls and ceilings, re-floored and recarpeted, sold homes, and moved, often, with the help of friends. And, when the time was right, I rolled my real-estate profits into much-more affordable housing, a thousand miles south.

Here, the clear light of New Mexico is the perfect place for my writing to soar, and I hope it will. In December, I allowed my nursing license to lapse, forcing myself to rely on my creativity and ingenuity to support me in the approaching half-decade before I can “officially” retire. I know this is a choice I am making, and I am learning to be OK with it. Sometimes I wake up with tactile memories of the intense work I did as a nurse, and I think, it’s OK, now, to allow myself this time to be creative, and to enjoy a measure of peace. I’m a resourceful person, and, somehow, I will make it work.

I’ve never been very comfortable with trust — but for the first time in my life, I’m allowing myself to believe the Universe has my back. I am no longer able or willing to ignore the strong creative drive I was born with. Instead, all on my own, I am building a life that helps it flourish.

Wendy Cohan

Written by

Exploring relationships, travel, the arts, and entertainment. Seeking literary representation. https://www.facebook.com/WendyCohanWriter/ & https://twitter.com

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Wendy Cohan

Written by

Exploring relationships, travel, the arts, and entertainment. Seeking literary representation. https://www.facebook.com/WendyCohanWriter/ & https://twitter.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +724K followers.

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