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Unselfish creativity?

By Rosalyn Eves

About a month ago, while reading Elder Eyring’s First Presidency message in the February Ensign, I was struck—and stricken—by his admonition to be less selfish: “The Lord taught us that when we are truly converted to His gospel, our hearts will be turned from selfish concerns and turned toward service to lift others as they move upward to eternal life.”

Parenthood has cured some—but not nearly all—of my selfish propensities, but I struggle with ways to be more selfless, particularly as a writer. In the intervening month, I’ve wrestled with the question: how can I be both increasingly selfless *and* creative? As a writer, I have to carve time for myself—time away from my husband, my children, from other people I could be serving. Much of my creative energy gets spent in pursuits that appear, on the surface, to be selfish.

“True creativity does not depend

We’re told repeatedly to develop our talents. My own talent for writing is one I feel prompted to pursue. And yet I still struggle with guilt, with the feeling that my creative needs are not only an indulgence, but a selfish one at that.

I’m (slowly) coming to believe that my problem is two-fold: part of my problem stems from a cultural conditioning, particularly of women. And part of it stems from a too-narrow understanding of creativity.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the Writing For Charity conference put on at the Provo Library. In a panel on balancing work and family, Shannon Hale argued that writers—women particularly—need to give themselves permission to write. While the members of the panel were unanimous in saying that their family was their most important priority, they pointed out that the societal expectation that women (particularly mothers) subsume all their own needs to those around them can be devastating and unhealthy.

In a powerful talk on “Wisdom and Order,” Elder Maxwell pointed out that even the Savior occasionally took time away to recharge before he could serve. Being unselfish is not the same thing as being self-less. If we give everything, we may have nothing left to give.

In addition, creativity is more than just the product of our labors. Part of my struggle reconciling creativity and unselfishness is, paradoxically, the dictum that we need to develop our talents in the service of God. As a writer, I might spend hundreds (even thousands) of hours on a work that very few people see. If I value creativity only by what I produce–and the service that product renders–then the time to output ratio appears selfish.

Luckily, I don’t think God expects us to develop creative talents just to share them—though sharing is part of the service to which we put our gifts.

The act of creation itself can—if we do it right—bring us closer to God. Once again, Elder Maxwell expresses it perfectly:

While true creativity is something that can be shared by those who appreciate the works of creation, true creativity does not depend entirely for its satisfactions upon ‘consumers.’ It is a highly personal experience in which we are grateful to the Lord for helping us to see beauty and truth and the order of things, for restructuring our understanding of things, if necessary, to accord with things “as they really are” (Jacob 4:13).(“Creativity”)

Not only does creativity help us appreciate the beauty of our world, but it gives us deeper insight into that world. In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle writes,

the artist who is a Christian, like any other Christian, is required to be in the world, but not of it. We are to be in this world as healers, as listeners, and as servants.

In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.

We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story, or the painting, or the composing, or singing and playing, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children. . . . An artist at work is in a condition of complete and total faith (55).

I think we forget—or at least, I do—that one of God’s defining roles was that of Creator. As children of God, that creativity is part of our birthright: “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. . . . Our birthright—and the purpose of our great voyage on this earth—is to seek and experience eternal happiness. One of the ways we find this is by creating things.” (Elder Uchtdorf, “Happiness, Your Heritage”)

Of course, creativity can be selfish, when we pursue it at the expense and exclusion of all else, when we use our creative needs as an excuse not to serve in other areas. But as C. S. Lewis argues in his essay “Learning in Wartime,” “The intellectual [I would add, and creative] life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.”

How do you reconcile your own creative pursuits with the injunction to serve others? How do you balance creativity with unselfishness?

About Rosalyn Eves

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework. Her first novel comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.

14 thoughts on “Unselfish creativity?”

  1. I also have been thinking about this a lot lately. It was only thrown into sharper focus when I recently had a friend tell me she didn't think she should be writing because she should be serving instead.

    I echo your thoughts that as women we are taught to give everything to service, and we are also taught that our creative and home endeavors don't count in that tally. This is wrong.

    I babbled on about this much more than there is room to do here on my own blog here: http://www.jamierobynwood.com/2015/03/25/the-scarce-resource-that-i-am/

    I hadn't meant to publish it yet, but when I read this post, I just wanted to add my voice to all the others saying that we are meant to be creative, and it is so much more than selfish.

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  2. This is a struggle for me as well. Our oldest child is now 20 and because we have ten kids that means there have been 20 years of continual babies and toddlers. (In those two decades there have only been four months when we have NOT had a child younger than three and/or out of diapers.) I love my children and am very grateful for their presence in my life and if I had to do it all over again (gulp) I would still choose to have them. But there is a cost. It is very difficult to write or paint (or even think) with a very small child on the premesis. How do you balance that? I SO appreciated Elder Ballard's talk (that you referenced) about mothers needing a creative outlet–that helped to take some of the guilt away for when I want to do something for me, for fun. Madeleine L'engle has also been a source of inspiration–she talks about (in a Circle of Quiet?) how she had to get away sometimes, away from her house and family, just down the road but out of earshot to think and write and how she let some things go in her housekeeping. A lot of my creative pursuits (I used to study art in college) have morfed into things like decorating cakes for my children's birthdays or decorating our house or writing in my journal. I have compartmentalized a lot–I set up times of day when I will do certain things but not others–I read to the kids at set times and then I don't feel bad for telling them no at others. Most of the time I have to settle for tradeoffs. I have friends with very beautifully decorated and clean homes. I keep mine tidy but let certain details go. If I don't then not only do I NOT get any creative things done but I feel like a crazy woman attending to details I don't really care about (my personal favorites to neglect are washing walls and mopping–thankfully they are easy tasks to delegate to children!)

    I just realized that all I have talked about is serving my family, but that is okay. At this point the biggest chunk of my service time has to go to them (there are nine kids still at home) but as for serving others, I think I have compartmentalized that as well. I think about my calling (cub scout leader) the night I do it–I go and lead a den meeting then take an hour by myself to plan the next one (my husband agreed to this) so I don't have to constantly THINK about it and use up all my brain space on it. Basically when I am "serving", I serve. When I am not "serving" I try not to think about it. It is a constant juggle though. I try and keep regular bed and naptimes for the children–those are my best times because I am less interrupted and since the kids are supposed to be sleeping, I feel less guilty for pursuing something I find deliciously satisfying. 🙂

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  3. I haven't reconciled using my creative talents! Thank you for this great post to get me thinking! I particularly appreciate the reminder: "If we give everything, we may have nothing left to give." Great quotes you've used!

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  4. I struggle with this as well; in fact I'm not sure when I last took time to be creative in any way. I recently realized that unless I feel completely overwhelmed and exhausted, that I worry I'm not serving and giving enough to other people. Like if I have any extra energy or feel rested, I am probably being selfish if I don't immediately start serving someone else. But I would bet President Eyring's remarks were not directed to those women (often mothers) who spend nearly all their time and energy taking care of other people. I agree in theory that taking time to be creative renews us and helps draw us closer to God. But it can be so hard to truly convince myself that it's ok to take that time. I really appreciated this post and will continue to mull it over for the next few days.

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  5. I wish I had something insightful, witty, and brilliant to add to this discussion, BUT I just finished another day of taking care of four little people by myself- so I'm running on empty here. I do want to say thank you for this. I've come to realize that I need time to write because it relaxes me. And I'm a much better mom when I'm relaxed.

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  6. Thank you for this post that feels like a collection of quotes and your own thoughts that offer not just permission, but priority take the time to create. You are totally right that if there is something you feel impressed to do, do it. I think God will help us as we step out to make it happen, but first we have to act on it, and reconcile the necessary sacrifices of good things for good things. My small experience is that it mostly takes dedicated scheduling on my end, and then somehow I'm able to do more than I expect. The truth is it is hard to dive in full force when you have short stretches of time and to not waste time when you have it. That is something I have to work on.

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  7. Thanks for this. So many great quotes and exquisite thoughts. One day as I was thinking about this same question I realized when I feel served the most is often through art or literature. When I read something beautiful or insightful, or stand before a beautiful work of art I feel that I am a recipient of service. The day I realized this gave me permission to pursue my creative outlets without guilt. My kids are still first but I'm on the list too.

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  8. I just wanted to thank everyone for their comments–it's nice to know I'm not alone in my struggles.

    @Jamie–thank you for the link! I will check it out.

    @Ana–I think creativity means different things for different people, but I think we have to remember (I'm including myself in this!) that creativity can be a form of service–or even just of worship and replenishment. And that's okay too.

    @kim–thank you!

    @Bea–I agree! That's why I wrote this–it IS hard to give ourselves permission. And I think women struggle with this more than men.

    @Valerie–I feel the same way. I think I'm less irritable when I have time to pursue my own talents, which makes me a better mom.

    @Sandra–yes, on the time wasting! I'm working on that too.

    @Sage–I love this idea, that we can be served through art.

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  9. That Maxwell quote is amazing–I'm so happy to see it. My youngest started school this year and I was excited for the chance to focus a little more on myself and my writing pursuits. After two months, he's homeschooling and the shift from expectation to reality hasn't been as hard as I thought. I use a lot of creative energy with him since I'm trying to find ways to do it.
    Thanks for all the comments ladies, good ideas all around.

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  10. As a writer, I find this such a compelling topic. I spent decades feeling inadequate about my talents and I think the notion that pursuing them was somehow selfish played a part in that. In the last five years, I came to understand that deep down, writing was such an integral part of who I am, that when I didn't do it, I began to die inside. I resented the people and obligations that prevented me from doing what I loved and I didn't even know it. Then I felt guilty for my resentment and turned my anger inward on myself by acting out addictive behavior.

    The process of recovery from my addiction has been a sea-change for me. A huge part of my recovery–HUGE–has been embracing who I am as a writer, taking the time to feed my soul by giving myself permission to create. The simple act of writing every day has helped return me to physical and spiritual health because as I do it, I feel connected to God and to myself. Last year a friend who is a fellow writer shared this Brené Brown quote with me: "Unused creativity is not benign." I believe this with my whole heart. The Spirit whispers to me that it is my truth. The Lord has blessed me with talent; I am not a wise steward when I fail to develop it. No one else may get that, but it's between me and Him.

    What this looks like for me on a daily basis: I homeschool, so I don't have a lot of spare time. If I want predictable, uninterrupted time to write, it has to happen before my family is awake. So I get up every weekday at 5 a.m. and write for an hour or two before everyone else is up. Sometimes I'm lucky and I'm able to carve out other chunks of time during the day, and weekends are generally easier do do this. I'm a night person, but getting up before dawn is a sacrifice I'm willing to make because when I do this for myself, my inner reserves are filled and I have the love, patience, and attention to give to my family and the others who need my service.

    If I don't take care of me, I am in no fit spiritual condition to take care of anyone else. Period.

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  11. And for those like me who are not creative? What is the application for us?
    Or is this one of those times that the essay doesn't apply to all? And I'm fine with that. Not all essays do.

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  12. I absolutely love this, Rosalyn. And congratulations on your writing successes. I constantly struggle to curtail my creative energy– there are so many projects I want to pursue and so many day to day needs at my home.

    Another thought from C.S. Lewis I've pondered over the years. Do you remember the part in The Screwtape Letters when the devil couldn't tempt the man because he'd just read a good book and gone on a nice long walk? It didn't say a religious book, or scriptures. Just a good book. I've taken solace in that thought over the years because of my need for exercise and reading. I SO enjoy a good book and I often feel protected by the spirit when reading one. That's why I'm vigilant about reading clean books and why I read a lot of YA. I can hardly wait for your novels! Think of all the joy and happy afternoons you will bring people. Think of the people who need a temporary escape from their burdens. I know your novels don't have a religious theme– but knowing you, they will have themes of courage, commitment, loyalty…

    Another thought– no talent is wasted by the Lord. Have I told you the story of the Finnish ping pong champion who used her ping pong abilities to open missionary work in Russia?

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  13. Anon–I think there are lots of ways people are creative without realizing it: a good cook, keeping a clean home, putting together puzzles, so many ways. Elder Uchtdorf's talk that I reference here is a good starting point.

    Michelle–I love these stories. I didn't remember that part of the Screwtape Letters, but it's funny you should bring that up. Just this afternoon I was composing in my head a defense of "comfort" reads–books that aren't necessarily issue-driven, but that bring readers comfort when they need it. And I'm so glad you're looking forward to my books! I am, too. 🙂

    I need to put this on my wall: "no talent is wasted by the Lord." Thank you.

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  14. Oh my friend, we ALL have creative abilities…some are just less obvious and more latent…this blog applies to all. And it is a challenge when you haven't had time to uncover and develop them. You make a list of what brings you joy to start with.

    One gal in our ward loves to organize. While that's not painting or writing, it is a beauty to bring order to chaos and it is CREATIVE for her!!! She shares it with lots of sisters and brings joy to them with her truly creative abilities. I stand in awe.

    Delight us all by finding yours and sharing. You have them, I promise!!!

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