I have been a self-employed artist my entire life. That means I’ve been making a living from various aspects of my creative interests since I was 22 years old, and I’ve done things like dancing professionally in a touring ensemble, doing thousands of residencies in music, dance, and Appalachian culture, hitting the road with several folk music groups, having my songs featured in film and cover versions, creating lessons and curricula in the arts for our local PBS station, leading tons of workshops on journaling and songwriting, recording 7 full-length albums of original and traditional music, directing and co-creating a bilingual folk opera called Cornbread & Tortillas, and most recently creating a digital course in Appalachian Flatfooting & Clogging.
Up until very recently, I’ve had stories playing in the back of my mind that go like this:
Scenario: After dancing professionally and touring the world for two years, I return back home to Kentucky to hit the road as part of a folk duo, playing hundreds of shows each year.
Inner voice: “Huh. I thought you were a professional dancer. You’re really out of practice. Your chops are not what they should be. Guess you didn’t have what it takes.”
or maybe this…
Scenario: after a few years of intensively writing songs and focusing on music, I back off for a few months here and there to focus on arts residencies and homeschooling my kids.
Inner voice: “Wow. You haven’t written any songs for quite some time. You were just a flash in the pan. You don’t have much discipline. Real songwriters write several songs a week.”
or possibly this one…
Scenario: I spend a few years when my third child is small getting a master’s degree and then doing some contract work creating awesome educational and arts resources for KET, our local PBS television station.
Inner voice: “It was inevitable. You’re really not creating art at all. You’re not like those real artists, who dedicate their whole lives and souls and mojo to honing their art to the nth degree. You’re all washed up. You’re not going to create anything else that’s relevant.”
Now, there’s a whole lotta unspoken stinkin’ thinkin’ woven through some of my erstwhile self-talk, including flawed ideas about how artists always do their best work when they’re young, how you can’t combine art and motherhood, and how if you’re teaching, you must not be a real artist.
But there’s another flaw that I specifically want to address here, which is the failure to acknowledge that creativity can have SEASONS, and that often, creatives are multi-passionate and have various deep interests that come and go in cycles throughout their lives. The point is, instead of congratulating myself for having a LIFELONG UNWAVERING CREATIVE PRACTICE, albeit one that varied by season, I was focusing on the fact that I didn’t do ONE PARTICULAR creative thing over and over forever. (Note: I do admire artists who choose that path, as well.)
Instead of noticing the ways in which my art forms were feeding and inspiring each other, I dismissed myself as a hack in each discipline.
Instead of seeing the ways I could put all the various passions I’ve had over the years into practice in even bigger and better ways (such as creating a folk opera with music, dance, and theater, as I recently did) I tried to force myself to choose. “You should pick one thing and stick with it. Songwriting? Dance? Old-Time Music? You’re going to be a jack of all trades and master of none.”
Once there was a young woman named Fatima who worked in her family business, spinning thread in beautiful colors. One day, her father announced that they were going on a ship, on a business trip to sell their wares. But off the shore of Crete, a storm arose and their ship was wrecked. Fatima was the only survivor, and was washed up on the shores of Alexandria.
A family of cloth makers took her in, and after a couple of years with them, she had learned that trade as well, and was happy. But one day, while near the shore, a band of slave traders took her captive and sold her in Istanbul. A mast-maker bought her and took her home to work in his business with his wife, and Fatima worked so hard making ship’s masts with them that after two years, they granted her freedom.
The mast-maker said, Fatima, I want you to sail to Java as my agent, and sell my masts at a good price there. So she set forth, but her ship once again encountered troubled waters and was wrecked off the coast of China. At this point, she cursed her fate and asked the gods, “Why me? Why do all of these bad, difficult things keep happening to me?”
But Fatima did not realize that in China there was a legend that one day an extraordinary woman would appear and create a marvelous kind of building that no one had ever seen before. So the Emperor would periodically send scouts along the shore looking for this woman. And one scout happened to be there when a soaked and angry Fatima was shaking her fist at the heavens. He told her that she had to come with him to the Emperor’s Palace, and she complied.
When she arrived, they asked if she could construct this marvelous structure they’d heard about, and since Fatima had seen many tents during her travels, she said, “Of course.” But when she asked for some stout cloth, they did not have any. Remembering her time with the weavers, she wove some. Next, she asked for some sturdy rope, but there was none to be found. So, remembering her time with her father, she wove some. Finally, she asked for some long, smooth, poles, but was told that none were available. So, remembering her time with the mast-makers, she made them.
Having seen so many tents over the years, she assembled the most wondrous tent that anyone had ever imagined. And then the Emperor said, “Name your reward.” So she chose to marry a handsome prince, and remained in happiness, surrounded by her children until the end of her days.
For whatever reason, this story struck a deep chord within me when I read it. Perhaps it’s because I have such a strong belief that we all come here with a gift that is uniquely ours, to do something that ONLY WE CAN DO. And the idea that our lives, even the parts that make us fall down, weep, rail at the heavens, and wonder how we can keep going for one more day—maybe even especially those parts—are actually the perfect curriculum for that, culminating in our ability to give the gift we have to the world that no other could give. Since reading this, I’ve had a different outlook when I look back over the past decades. And it’s easier for me to feel grateful for it all, even the crummy parts.
What about you? What is your rope? What is your cloth? What is your stake? What are you ready to do now that you couldn’t have done until you’d gone through the things you’ve gone through?
Send me a message if you feel like sharing your story. I’d love to hear how you put it all together. Even better, I’d love to see your “tent”! I’ve also put together a free CREATIVITY GUIDE for you to help deepen your creative practice, with tips from some of the most creative folks I know! I also talk about creativity on the regular on my WHAT DREAMERS DO podcast, so give it a listen and get inspired today!
Carla is currently based in Lexington, KY, ancestral lands of the Adena, Hopewell, S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee), ᏣᎳᎫᏪᏘᏱ Tsalaguwetiyi (Cherokee, East), and Wazhazhe Maⁿzhaⁿ (Osage) nations.
A hearty helping of Appalachian goodness with lots of tools to help you stay happy and sane, including Kentucky songs and tunes, a Flatfooting & Clogging Video Class, our guide to making your own herbal tinctures, a creativity handbook, mountain recipes, and more!
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