Q: My friend and her husband travel all the time. They’ve been married for two years, don’t have any kids, (and won’t be having any) he has a very flexible job, and she has a lot of school breaks as a teacher. I meet her once a week for a drink while my daughter is at karate. My husband and I are both writers and every week this friend makes a comment about how we “never” travel. It’s getting to the point where I don’t even want to see her anymore because I know she’s going to judge me about this. Sigh. And it’s such a stupid thing, right? Why does she even care?
A: Oof, death by a thousand little comments. The image of the globe-trotting life contribute heavily to FOMO because how could it not? We’re sitting here, chained to our desks, watching other people literally explore the world we can’t. Travel is about adventure and experience, we are told, which is supposed to enrich you and make you a wiser, more interesting person, even if it’s at the expense of the people struggling to live where you’re visiting. (For more on that, read Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place). There’s also the issue of how much flying on planes increases your carbon footprint, or how much waste hotels produce. In other words, travel may be great only for the traveler, while it’s a morally complicated, economy-controlling and environmentally hazardous practice for the rest. I say this not to denigrate travelers or argue for an end to tourism, (I love to travel!) but to counter the popular narrative that visiting other places makes you a better person. Maybe it does make you a more interesting person if you have good stories to tell at parties that you can deliver well, instead of just repeating the same anecdotes endlessly, but it doesn’t make you good. So right off the bat, we can reject the narrative this friend is trying to get you to buy into.
Next, you gotta wonder why your friend feels the need to make belittling comparisons about your rate of travel. Maybe the travel narrative has proven false for her. Maybe these jaunts aren’t making her feel as alive and enriched as she wishes. Maybe she is insecure about something in her own life, like her status in a child-free couple, causing her behave competitively with you. Or maybe she’s really just that oblivious.
Whatever the real reason, she is making you feel judged, and judged unfairly on top of that, to the degree that you’re considering cancelling your weekly friend date with her. Is this the only comment she’s made that gets under your skin? How often do you find yourself feeling angry or put-down because of this friend? If your interactions makes you feel bad about yourself regularly, then I agree you should reconsider how much time you spend with her and maybe read a book during your daughter's class instead. Life is too short to spend time with people you don’t like.
Whatever you decide about the fate of this friendship, a graceful pivot is an easy way to deal with the situation in the moment. If you do keep hanging out with this seasoned trip-taker, next time she makes a comment about your rate of travel, just say, “Yeah, we really wish we could get away more. I envy you!” — which is the truth! — then redirect the conversation to another, safer topic like a movie just saw or a new bar you’d like to take her to next time you hang out. The Art of Changing the Subject was invented for just this reason, so don’t shy away from using it; there’s no reason you have to endure a line of questioning that makes you uncomfortable. This is dinner, not an interrogation. And if this friend is trying to get your goat, your graceful, nonplussed response will prove her efforts fruitless.
One of the biggest challenges for creatives is finding the time to actually create. Between day jobs, kids, chores, social obligations, family gatherings, their accompanying drama, and all the other stuff of life, it’s hard to keep a consistent practice going. During the holiday season, most of us just shake our heads, sigh, and decide we’ll get to it next year. But it is possible to enjoy the holiday hubbub and still maintain your creative practice. If you don’t have one yet, starting during the holidays may seem insane, but it could actually save your sanity to purposefully carve out time for creative expression.
Make a Plan
You know the holidays are coming. In case your calendar isn’t enough to remind you, every mall and chain store was hosed down with glittering red and green as of midnight on Halloween. The pressure is definitely on. But don’t be fooled, Thanksgiving is weeks away and Christmas isn’t here for over a month! You still have time to plan around the yearly rituals you know are coming, like that annual shopping day with your mom or your kids’ school pageant. If you keep a consistent creative practice, now’s the time to begin playing Jenga with your entire schedule to free up some creative time to keep going. And when I say “time,” I mean anywhere from 5 minutes to 5 hours. Every second does indeed count towards achieving your goals; being an artist is a marathon, not a sprint. Maybe 5 minutes is all you’re going to get each day between now and New Year’s. That’s ok, that still counts as maintaining your practice! If 5 focused minutes a day is actually more than you currently get, then carving that out now will make you feel great and ready for the new year, with all its pressure to improve yourself. (More on that in a post to come).
While you Jenga your schedule, consider reducing some of the other demands you make on yourself. If exercise is your thing, maybe drop down from 5 gym sessions a week to 3 so you can use that remaining time for your artistic work. You can cut corners at home, too. A little more laundry and a slightly dirtier house might be worth it so you can still make art and feel like yourself during this joyfully hectic time. Remember everyone else is stressed out, too. Cancelling book club this month might just result in a collective sigh of relief.
So there are the holiday needs you know are coming, like cooking and shopping and decorating your ice-covered roof with lights, but then there’s all the inevitably last minute stuff that pops up without warning, like snow days, and throws your whole schedule out the window. Now is the time to be flexible and forgiving. Take the time you’d spend beating yourself up over not keeping perfectly to your schedule to instead make some notes, or just close your eyes for a minute and meditate on your work. Remember that the work of an artist is largely invisible: all the time you spend dreaming, plotting, planning, and feeling your way through your creations still does indeed count towards your goals, even if you are actively engaged in another activity. In fact, the distraction of the mundane is a great way to stimulate the subconscious, so be mindful of that as you sip nog and deck the halls.
Ask for Help
The holidays often mean more mouths to feed (and listen to) but it can also mean more hands. Maybe the college kids home for break or a visiting relative can handle dinner while you go hide in the garage with some bourbon and work on your sculpture. Consider hiring babysitters to watch the little ones or using apps like Postmates and Task Rabbit so someone else can go pick up milk or a wreath from Home Depot. Free yourself from the fallacy that being efficient and productive means you do every single thing yourself. It’s all about creatively delegating. Speaking of, maybe those little Santa fanatics in your house could start walking the dog or vacuuming to show Santa how good they are, giving you a much-needed break and some additional free time.
You don’t have to attend every holiday party you’ve been invited to. You don’t have to attend any, in fact. If you’ve already accepted invites and are now breaking out into a cold sweat thinking about it, you can admit to a scheduling snafu and opt out. You can admit you have a lot going on and have a feeling you won’t be able to make it. Telling the honest truth now means way fewer hurt feelings later when you claim to have a cold at the last minute. (Don’t do that). Instead, assess your calendar honestly. Consider your priorities: is this event important to you? Where does your art practice rank in relation to it? If your practice is above that afternoon of cookie decorating, then be true to that. You can still show all your love and caring for your near and dear regardless of whether or not you show up to every single thing. You can also opt out of the drama surrounding these decisions.
One of the biggest drains on your energy during the holidays can be the emotional labor struggling friends and family members expect you to perform. It doesn’t make you a bad supporter if you acknowledge you hear your sister’s concerns about Uncle Frank’s drinking or that you sympathize with your friend’s anger at her mother for putting oysters in the stuffing, then disengage. Most of these conversations don’t need to be taken further than that, as the drama will play out anyway, with or without your participation, and you are likely not the only one getting the play-by-play. It is ok to safeguard your time and sanity by stepping back from the drama, unless you’re using it for research for your next book, in which case, have at it.
You can also decline to spend lots of time and money shopping. You don’t have to get a gift for every single person you think might give you one. (My mother used to keep some lovely but generic gifts around, already wrapped, with a blank card, just in case she got a present she didn’t expect. I strongly recommend this strategy if you can afford it). If shopping is more of a budgetary issue and you feel the pressure to make a gift for everyone instead to save money, I’m here to tell you now not to do that. Making gifts can actually end up costing you just as much in materials, especially when the value of your time is added to the total. Send cards, give hugs, but don’t exhaust your body and your bank account on consumerism.
You don’t have to make all the food yourself, either, nor do you have to make anything from scratch. Everyone is still going to have a great, memorable season if you buy pre-made pie crust. That will in no way negatively affect their memory of the holiday but could positively impact the rock opera you’re writing.
If you’re feeling pretty organized and maybe a tad sneaky, try scheduling fun things for everyone else to do, like holiday word games and crafts, or tree lightings, then slip off while they’re all distracted for some “you and your art” time. It’s also ok to tell your boss or your partner you’ve got a flu shot to get or an urgent holiday errand to run, then go sit in your car and sing, write, draw, etc. You don’t need to explain or justify to anyone exactly how you spend every moment of your day, even if others make you feel that you do. You are entitled to privacy.
Part of surviving the holidays is recognizing the demands the season makes on your time and sanity can be continually renegotiated. The holiday machine doesn’t want us to know that. We’re supposed to feel obligated, guilty, and stressed. Otherwise, we’re selfish, right? But there’s nothing selfish about maintaining your sanity. The art you endeavor to create will also benefit the world far more in the long-run than any single present you can buy or casserole you can bake. Art is eternal!
By now you’ve realized that when I say “selfish,” what I really mean is self-protective. Launching and keeping a creative practice is in part about ninja-level scheduling and finding a rhythm that works for you, but it’s also about knowing your worth. You deserve time to make art. It is ok to view that as more important than other events or obligations in your life, including the emotional ones. That doesn’t make you a Picasso-esque ego monster, just an artist with priorities.