The Secret to Your Next Creative Breakthrough

We all want a breakthrough. We want to be epic, to leave a dent in the universe. But there’s always a cost to success, something gained and something lost.

Breakthrough Photo
Photo credit: Marc Falardeau (Creative Commons)

I hate to state the obvious, but in order for a breakthrough to happen, something has to break:

  • Maybe it’s you.
  • Maybe it’s your job.
  • Maybe it’s Resistance.

But. Something. Has. To. Give.

This is the real secret to success, the stuff of outliers. It’s what nobody wants to talk about, because it sounds so scary. And it is.

Want to know the ugly truth? Sometimes, the breakthrough’s worth it, and sometimes it’s not. Every time, it’s up to you.

Mortgaging your life for your dream

There has to be a life behind the writing. I’ve lived and struggled through this. Still am, in fact. I understand the natural tension between dreaming and living.

I recognize in myself the desire to go to any lengths to pursue my art, even at the cost of the things that inspire it: family, friends, and work.

This is an important topic, one we often neglect. If I have a dream, what is it worth? Can I shirk all responsibility to pursue it? Maybe not.

Recently, I wrote an article about this topic of pursuing your dream without quitting your commitments. In it, I shared my own struggle with chasing a dream and hanging on to my marriage and job through the process.

Embracing this tension is not easy, but it’s worth it. Otherwise, you end up with something special and no one to share it with.

You end up going to a lot of conferences, writing a lot of books, and doing a lot of great things — completely alone. And who wants that?

What writing is really about

I think about this a lot. Living in a city full of performers, I regularly bump into people whose lives have been sacrificed for the sake of their art.

Sometimes, it’s divorce. Other times, drugs. Eventually, though, the art destroys the life. And something about that just seems wrong.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The thought I keep coming back to is a wonderful quote by Stephen King from On Writing:

Life is not a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

If we are going to pursue our callings as writers, artists, and entrepreneurs, we are going to have to make a decision.

Will this career support a life? Or will this life support a career?

Think about it. Dwell on it. Measure it against how you’re living today. Then answer the question honestly (there’s a lot riding on this). After you do that, it’s time to decide.

The challenge ever artist faces

[T]his business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, ‘How alive am I willing to be?’
—Anne Lamott

Go. Live. And write from that. There’s no other healthy way to do this, no other way to be an artist.

A writer can write a life he longs to live, or he can live one he longs to write. I’ve tried former; it doesn’t work (trust me on this). Be brave: opt for the latter.

It’s easier to find a way to write while you live than to find a life while you write.

Art and life are meant to go together. They’re supposed to be complements, not competitors. If one has to steal from the other, I hope it’s the life that steals from the art.

Want to live to see your next creative breakthrough? You’re going to have to start living. And when I say you, I mean me.

What’s an example of a time when your art stole from your life? Share in the comments.

63 thoughts on “The Secret to Your Next Creative Breakthrough

  1. Great post, Jeff.  This has been one of the most difficult juggling acts I’ve had to figure out how to manage.   I still haven’t figured it out.  God time, family time, job time, leading bible study time, exercise time, cleaning house time, etc…  And, I try to keep all these balls going and write too without feeling like I’ve shortchanged someone or something else.  But, like you said, art and life are meant to go together.  Still not sure how to make all the pieces fit yet.

    1.  Me neither, Eileen. One thing I know for sure, though is that there is a cost for everything. In other words, you can’t do it all. Not well, anyway.

  2. I took mandolin lessons for about three years. What I realized was that I was spending more time than I needed to with everything else in my life, but not enough time to get good enough to move on without it. It was a somewhat frustrating experience.

  3. A friend begged me to
    work with her at the junior high school. She said I’d be great at it. She said
    they needed someone like me.

    I said I was to busy.
    About a year later when the begging started again and stronger than the first
    time, I gave in, with conditions.

    It became one of the most
    blest times of my life and somehow adding this ten to twenty hour a week job to
    my schedule gave me enough inspiration and insights to lighten my load. My
    preparation time for speaking engagements and writing engagements decreased. I
    had stories; real and good stories. These were good stories about people I
    worked with and got to know.

    So it does work.  At least it worked for me.

  4. As always very nicely put. Especially relevant for me at the moment, so always good to read something like this.

    Good luck with the art, and of course, the life 🙂

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  5. “A writer can write a life he longs to live, or he can live one he longs to write.”

    Best line of the whole post! I think we tend to write a life we long to have because it’s easier. It’s easier to write about what we want, rather than making the changes and pursuing life. But in the end, we are here to live, not just to write. Great post, Jeff!

  6. I struggle with this all of the time, reducing my art to stats and recognition or by sitting down and trying to force writing the way we try to force a baby to eat creamed peas.  Nothing seems to come, and if I do write something, it is dead and lifeless.  However, if I go and take the dog for a walk, talk to my teenager and bring muffins to the neighbor?  I have myriads of ideas to choose from.  A truer post has never been written on writing. 

  7. Love it  Jeff! Good distinctions, and yet it doesn’t need to be an either or. It can be a both and…  Priorities of the heart and balancing the fire.
    Love you man!

  8. I struggle with this a lot, Jeff. It’s VERY difficult to play the role of dad, husband, friend, employee and artist. There is NO such thing as perfect balance. Once you accept that, then you can kind of move on from there and do your best. 

    1.  Jim, I remember hoping to get a summer off between serving a church as pastor and starting a job as factory worker. When that didn’t happen, I felt somehow robbed of a dream, but I knew I needed to live my commitments first. Within a year, the factory laid off lots of folks including my wife and me. That happened five years ago. My wife now has a job she loves and her paycheck supports both of us which has released me to write. Every part of life has both a sense of timing and a particular season to it. I believe your passions and dreams may be in a holding pattern for a time but the season will pass.

  9. Jeff,

    When I asked my friend Colin Wright what the key is to writing amazing content, he said “live a life worth writing about.” On that I’m note I’m off to catch some waves 🙂

  10. Maslow has said that “the creative person . . .loses his
    past and his future and lives only in the moment.” To create one must be able
    to “become timeless, selfless, outside of space, of society, of history.”  That’s hard to do when it’s human nature to feel
    anxious or worried or scared or intimidated or insecure or bitter or angry or
    jealous of other people.   And bills come due every month.  For me, the key is consistent flexibility. I’m
    writing a memoir so art steals from my life every day.  Great post, Jeff.

  11. In addition to “living,” which I agree is essential, I think it’s equally important for writers to spend a LOT of time reading. And I don’t mean reading dreck. I mean reading really good, high quality work AND thinking about how the other writer achieved that. 

    You are right: You can’t write if your “well” is empty. Fill that well by living (seeing friends, getting exercise, being in nature, doing fun stuff) and by reading. Then writing will come so much more easily! 

    1.  I believe it was Stephen King who suggested we do read the dreck. Why? Because you come away saying, “If that guy can get published, then …” I think the fact my wife edits both exceptional writing and stuff that shouldn’t be published but is helps me a great deal. I just released a novel and her constant statement throughout the process has been, “I don’t know why publishers aren’t picking this up.” Her confidence has been contagious and the results have shown up in the courage to publish and the readers’ positive responses.

  12. “You end up . . . doing a lot of great things — completely alone. And who wants that?”

    That’s something I find I have to keep reminding myself. I sometimes lament how life and relationships are always getting in the way of my writing. But then I have to remind myself that if I sacrifice relationships for my writing, life isn’t worth living. What’s the point of having an amazing artistic life all alone?

    Thanks for the reminder!

  13. And today’s post is why I’m thankful to see Goins, Writer in my inbox. I can now Twitter (not like a fiend but I can put it out there for my 2 followers–for some reason, I think of Nathan’s little talk with David about the Bathsheba thing when I write that). My first Tweet was a Jeff Goin’s line (which is also my only Tweet thus far). This article is full of quotable stuff. Exceptional, Jeff. Thanks.

  14. I started blogging thinking it was about the writing and then I discovered its really about relationships, the ones on-line and in real life. Without them, the writing is mute, without purpose.  It’s a balancing act every day. Just read It’s All Grace by Manning . . because you recommended it. Awesome!

  15. I love that you’ve been coming back to this thought… it’s so big, and a tension we all must manage.  But the tension is good, and produces great art so it must be embraced.  
    I don’t want anything stealing from my life, but I know of many times where it has happened, most likely as a result of being too lazy to be intentional. 

    As always, thanks for your words and encouragement Jeff.

  16. Jeff, I totally endorse your very strong point here that our writing makes the rest of our life worth the living!  I have been totally renewed and invigorated and restored to former joys decades ago when I started writing again last September!  And this wonderful blogging community just keeps on building me up and up!

  17. I participated in the NaNoWriMo, and my wife was sick of my spending time writing by the end, and I’ve hardly written since.  Cultivate a healthy writing habit FAIL!

  18. I love your post – thank you. One of the greatest things about getting older is I can juggle things I love to do without them taking over my life. The truth is I don’t have much of a life to upset now that I don’t have to work or raise children. I do babysit my grandchildren (they all live on the same block) but even when I do  I can still write, read “how to write books, study Japanese, watercolor or lay it all down and fly a kite when the grandkids say “it’s getting windy Grandma. 

  19. Is what I’m doing worth the cost? Thanks Jeff. This really forces me to focus my powers. Every victory costs something. Am I competing in the right games? Healthy questions.

    Good stuff Jeff. I’ve been thinking about your post since 7 this morning.


  20. Wow, I like this Jeff.

    Art complements life, not the other way round. Not an easy balance to keep, since the artist in us hopes that our “other life” would understand.
    But it’s truly about priorities. I agree that if something has to suffer, let it be my art, not my husband, my marriage, my family. 

    It’s your closest and dearest that make life precious. It makes sense that they should receive our best. 

    Art can be re-done, picked up again tomorrow but not precious moments lost with our loved ones.

    Great thoughts here.

    Loved the post on Prodigal Magazine by the way.

  21. I remember wanting to be a writer when I was seven. In high school and later in college I was very clear that I wanted to live my life so that I would have a life to write about. Boy, did I live a life. Now, at 46, I have more than enough material to write about the rest of my life-including the last 9 years of being a mom and doing that married life thing. Marriage is a whole other chapter of life from which plenty of material can emerge. Plus, I’m pretty social and need that stimulation of interaction with others in a physical realm. IM and such just doesn’t do it for me. It’s taken living in a small town with few exciting things to do and see to get me to sit down and write.  No complaints. Now is my writing chapter of life along with being Mom, Honey, and English instructor. It all feeds the muse.

  22. Life is too short to NOT follow your dreams. As I was growing up, my family strongly encouraged me to select a “safe” profession, so I’d always have a job. After 20 (unhappy)years of working as a Nurse, I was earning “a living”, but definately not LIVING. 
    I’m a SAHM now and I’m finally pursuing my first passion…writing. 

    Thanks Jeff for reminding me that it’s OK to follow your dreams. The bills get paid and everything does work out in the end.  

  23. ‘Art and life are meant to go together. They are supposed to be complements, not competitors.’ A thought-provoking line. 
    Thanks, Jeff, for this wonderful post. In a world that may sometimes forget this truth, it is nice to have someone remind us. It is important to remember that as much as one can be passionate about art, nothing is more important and beautiful than living a balanced and happy life. 
    Somewhere, I feel that this thought, coming from someone as passionate about art as you, can inspire a change in the perspective the rest of us have about life and art, in which one seems to dominate the other for the most part. Keep up the good work! Congrats! 

  24. This reminds me of a line from Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” that relates to a dying man’s regrets:

    “Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting.”

    The “life behind my writing” is in the form of two young boys currently destroying the living room while I try to steal a few moments and hone my craft. (Now I can post this after making sure my youngest didn’t just put his head all the way through the glass door. Gotta love boys!)

  25. Great words to ponder. I never figured out how to balance life (wife, mother, career) and art, so my art suffered. Only now as a divorcee and a mother of young adults can I resume living, dreaming, and writing.

  26. Great post, Jeff.

    It brings to mind a lot – particularly the “Creative’s Struggle” that we all go through. When we live lives full of social interaction, activity, and adventure, that struggle lessens. Not much, but enough that it doesn’t seem completely futile to battle against it. It’s something we need to remember as writers, or as people, really. 

  27. When I was working on a documentary (shameless plug: I got the balance completely wrong! I was a nightmare to my friends and family, holed up in my room, editing all weekend, cell phone turned off. It was a beautiful project but also a very stressful time in my life. 

    I was so focused on this story that was happening so far away from me that I neglected what was unfolding right in front of me. I definitely learned a lesson. Although I have yet to attempt a second feature length documentary project…

  28. I remember  that day back in 1999 when I had that mind-numbing decision, to take that leap-of-faith.  I started a part-time business in 1998, that brought in 1/4 of my job’s income; I couldn’t grow it anymore because of my current job. I wanted to take that leap-of-faith so bad, I even lost sleep some nights because, in order to match my full-time job, I really needed 12 clients at the time I had only 4 on my roster.

    I was single at the time so the decision would only affect me – the problem was that, I may not get my old job back if I took-that-leap.  One morning I just told myself, go ahead.  It took me 2 scary-months until I finally matched my old job’s income.  I did it by asking for referrals from clients – there are several books out there on how to do it.  I looked back over those past few months and laughed at it – After the fact though.  Now I want to be a full-time self-publishing novelist.  Sorry to sound like a gambler, but I look forward to making that decision this time.  My strategy again is to network hard-and-daily just like the last time, but now I have the internet as a channel to generate interest also.  It’s a scary decision, but can be a worthwhile decision if you “Work It.”
    Anyone with a family should take your time though, and have other people around you pitch-in and do some of the foot work for you like the promotional stuff, so you don’t have to take a big risk or take time from the family or job.  It can be done, but you need a Plan-of-Action.

  29. Thank you Jeff, for this post. I am neither writing nor living, but existing to get through each day. I’m always tired and find myself in this vaguely disinterested space in my life. I’m married with a 3-year-old which makes carving writing time difficult. It seems I’ve given up my art just to do the mundane things around the house and not for the sake of truly living. You’ve given me something to think about. Thanks.

  30. “A writer can write a life he longs to live, or he can live one he longs to write.” Wow. That’s convicting. I guess it’s time to sell the house and buy that motorhome: the West awaits and so does my story. (Now to convince the family!)  Thanks for reminding us to be alive and to lean into our art fully, but to do so from a posture of contribution and not of dependence. 

Comments are closed.