take a vow

Vows are powerful things,” he said. “They set things in motion.
— john c. wright, orphans of chaos

In Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, she writes:

when I was about sixteen years old, I took vows to become a writer.

I mean, I literally took vows — the way a young woman of an entirely different nature might take vows to become a nun. Of course, I had to invent my own ceremony around these vows, because there is no official holy Sacrament for a teenager who longs to become a writer, but I used my imagination and my passion and I made it happen. I retreated to my bedroom one night and turned off all the lights. I lit a candle, got down on my honest-to God knees, and swore my fidelity to writing for the rest of my natural life.

My vows were strangely specific and, I would still argue, pretty realistic. I didn’t make a promise that I would be a successful writer, because I sensed that success was not under my control. Nor did I promise that I would be a great writer, because I didn’t know if I could be great. Nor did I give myself any time limits for the work, like, “If I’m not published by the time I’m thirty, I’ll give up on this dream and go find another line of work.” In fact, I didn’t put any conditions or restrictions on my path at all. My deadline was: never.

Instead, I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the result. I promised that I would try to be brave about it, and grateful, and as uncomplaining as I could possibly be. I also promised that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially, but yhat I would always take care of it — meaning that I would always support us both, by any means necessary . I did not ask for any external rewards for my devotion; I just wanted to spend my life as near to writing as possible — forever close to that source of all my curiosity and contentment — and so I was willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.”

I listened to the Big Magic audiobook last month during my flights out west and back. This week, while writing some morning pages and trying to carve out a creative practice routine, I remembered this notion of taking a vow. 

I wondered what my life would be like today had I taken a vow at age sixteen. I am not one hundred percent sure what would have received a vow of devotion. I certainly didn't know myself clearly enough then to know what I wanted. It took me to the age of forty-two to take the first steps in discovering myself as an artist. Ten years later, I still cannot say that I am devoted to that pursuit. I've let a lot of things continue to knock me off track. 

On that morning, a few days ago, more questions flowed from my heart, from my pen. What if I had known at age sixteen to take a vow, to be devoted to being an artist, to creativity, to painting? What if I had known myself so well then that my time, my energy, my resources, from then until now, would have been directed toward making art? How would my life be different?

Oh, but I consider these somewhat futile questions. I don't like imagining different scenarios for my life. I don't like considering even the butterfly effect of one small thing being different. I wouldn't want my life to anything other than what it is today. 

Instead, I ask myself,

  • What if you took a vow today?
  • What if today, a few days before turning fifty-two, you took a vow of devotion to your art-making, in all its forms?
  • What would that look like?
  • What would have to change?
  • What would you add to your life? 
  • What would you subtract from your life?
  • What if all of these questions don't have to be answered in order to take the vow? 
  • What if the questions and the search for answers become a distraction to making the art?
  • What if if all you have to do is show up and make the art and let the rest sort itself out?
  • What if it could be easy?

I'm going to do it. I'm going to take a vow. I'm going to create my own ceremony, get down on my honest-to-goddess knees, and take a vow. 

What about you?
To what would you devote your time, your energy, your life? 
Tell me about it.