What Does It Mean to Live a Creative Life?

“What do you want to achieve in life?” a friend asks you. It’s the after-hours of a Friday night and you’ve just burned the midnight oil. White collared shirts, slacks, and blazers decorate the monochrome parlor. The sound of brogues clapping on the tiled floor dance to the jazz swelling from the JBL speakers. As you reach for the rum on the coffee table, you feel your heavy body carrying itself from the caffeine of three. Eyes droop, fixing your gaze on the person in front of you. At your periphery, another body is lolled on the linen sofa. In imbibed, unconscious haste, you mutter, “I don’t want to work a nine-to-five.”

For any creative now working in the industry, this type of inertia feels all too familiar. In toiling through life in the office, you become plagued with this parasitic drudgery while dreaming of a life broken from repetition. Artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs—what some may call the ‘creative class’—often live opposite lives to this. For them, work is defined by one’s flexibility, namely their ability to take control of their time. In doing so, creatives are blessed with a greater sense of autonomy, allowing them to “curate” their individual careers. This challenges conventional views of the professional life where work patterns are characterized by the sporadic nature of their labor—always perpetual, even during times of leisure. Inherent in this is the practice of self-determination where one is compelled to create something that has never been done, said, or seen before. After all, so central to this kind of work is its personal connection with the author where their input is unique to his or her means of creativity.

The general discourse surrounding more creative ways of living remain lacking. Indeed, how individuals transition into these lifestyles reveal how one can achieve a higher sense of moral purpose.

But what does it mean to live a creative life? After all, such a life is inevitably bound by the imperatives of a nine-to-five where one searches for the balance between intuition and intellect. As a writer myself, this question has become one of life’s greatest frustrations.

Even as I compose this sentence, I become conscious of my syntax. I feel the pressure to write something new or risk repeating myself. It was Thomas Mann in Essays of Three Decades who said that “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” In quoting that I am, in fact, citing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman who referred to Mann during a lecture on techniques for writing films. “I am a person who does this and I struggle with it,” Kaufman adds. This kind of frustration can sometimes overshadow the romanticized views of the creative life, which omit the anxieties that come from incessantly attaching yourself to the work you produce.

If such an experience is so taxing, what is it that attracts so many to this lifestyle? To Jam Acuzar, this balancing act between intellect and intuition is somewhat of an inner struggle. She founded and now directs a non-profit organization seeking to bridge the cultural exchange between international artists and the Philippine art community. Bellas Artes Projects was inspired by the work of the Sarabhai family who, between the 1950s and 1980s, brought artists such as Alexander Calder and Lynda Benglis to begin dialogues with India. By surrounding herself with individuals who, by default, defy orthodox ways of thinking, it opened up new and novel ways of solving everyday problems to Jam.

“In corporate, you cannot think too differently from others since you’re obliged by a corporate culture and its policies,” she observes. “Since I started working with artists, I’ve become more imaginative and experimental. When you’re in an industry where people don’t judge you for thinking differently, you have more confidence to freely share ideas.” It is through this lifestyle that individuals equip themselves with the arsenal to truly express themselves. This is what makes the creative life so attractive.

Nina Villanueva entered the fashion industry as a model. However, in 2011, she began pursuing her hobby in photography, later prompting the establishment of ENVY — a photography and creative design studio specializing in fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Her experience in front of the camera helped realize the realities of being behind it, preparing Nina for the often frustrating demands of the industry.

“Being a freelancer has given me more freedom over my time, allowing me to work with very little restrictions,” she remarks. “However, I sometimes hit a ceiling with my work and feel like I need to take a different direction to find creative satisfaction.” The fatigue resulting from pressure solidifies these ceilings, making it difficult for creatives to push their own boundaries. “Fear always comes stronger when you’re dealing with creative work,” Jam says. “Once the fear kicks in, your self-esteem goes down and all that magic in your head goes away. Fear can kill those good ideas and that creative momentum.”

“Doing creative work comes with a price,” says rapper and lyricist Mito Fabie. When I was 16 years old, Mito and I worked together on making a music video for a song he and a mutual friend wrote at the time. Popularly known as Curtismith, he attracts nearly 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and even garnered the attention of Richard Branson. In 2016, after Mito’s musical performance at a leadership forum, news broke out that the billionaire philanthropist instructed his personal assistant to give the budding musician his business card. Now much further into our creative careers, our exchanges not only helped us understand each other’s craft but also strengthened our friendship. During the primitive stages of one’s career, like-minded friends can help build your confidence to climb the ladder. This kind of partnership can challenge one’s existing practices where you are left with a dilemma between self-determination and compromise.

“The price comes at working with corporations and sometimes having to find consensus that diverts from the vision you had initially,” Mito recounts. “Also, being under the pressure of coming out with material consistently and having it critiqued by a lot of people you don’t know sometimes makes you afraid to try new things.”

One of the most difficult experiences as a creative is grappling with the idea that you are only as good as your last work. Delving deeper into one’s practice initiates the discovery of uncharted territories where ideas and conventions are revisited and challenged. “Sometimes, when you feel that something isn’t right, you become self-critical,” Jam reflects. “You ask yourself ‘Am I doing the right thing? What can I change?’ I find the discipline of critical thinking to be an important feature of creativity.” Through such obstacles, the individual is faced with a test of their character where their resilience will prove most valuable. In fact, these episodes can catalyze new and inspiring work.

Attaining legitimacy is another dilemma which comes from living a creative life. Creativity involves confidence in one’s ideas, however this determination must derive from finding the sincerity in one’s voice rather than achieving popularity. “While I believe it isn’t a bad thing, ‘quality’ should definitely be your main selling point,” Nina says. “This recurring pattern in the industry makes it difficult for newcomers to break through with their talents.”

At the same time, creatives must stop underestimating themselves and realize the value of their work. “There aren’t plenty of ways to maintain a sustainable lifestyle in the arts and those who are deserving of compensation aren’t necessarily the ones who are paid properly,” Mito explains. “Other than more government support, I think individuals should take responsibility of their capabilities rather than looking to other countries and, therefore, devaluing their capacities as artists.” Certainly, leading a creative life is a positive practice for anyone looking for true meaning in their lives—a problem so prevalent in an age of apathy and uncertainty.

The creative lifestyle utilizes the art of introspection in realizing one’s potential. The transmission of emotions into ideas is somewhat of an oxymoron—the irrationality of former can sometimes clash with the practicality of the latter. However, in doing so, creatives are acting on a moral good knowing that their work may one day resonate with the lives of others. It is this mutual exchange which connects individuals to the collective human experience where there exists a shared humanity and vulnerability. The awakening, the metamorphosis, the realization. This is what the creative life means.

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Anna Isabelle ‘Sai’ Villafuerte is a writer and photographer from the Philippines. Her primary medium involves analogue photography techniques complemented by an experimental approach to prose and essay writing.

At the age of fifteen, Sai was awarded the ‘Student Prize for Film Photography’ during an Oxbridge-sponsored academic programme in Lycée Notre Dame de Sion, ParisIn 2015, she received the Visual and Creative Arts award by the Council for Independent Education (CIFE) in the House of Lords, where she was acknowledged for her “imaginative ambition, stylistic control and superb sense of narrative structure.”

She studied her BSc in International Politics at City, University of London, graduating with first-class honours. Sai is now an MPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development where she is researching the limits and capabilities of digital value chain upgrading in the Philippine motion picture industry. She is also the editorial coordinator of Oxford Urbanists.

Sai regularly writes about the arts, current affairs and wherever they intersect. Her writing has been published in outlets such as VICEThe Huffington Post, and intern magazine.

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