Save Point: Earthlock

I have this idea that everyone wants to make art. I take a lot of Lyft rides, and when I tell drivers I teach creative writing in addition to composition and literature—I’m often requesting transportation to and from campus, and in those cases, my job comes up in conversation right away—they almost invariably share what artistic practices they pursued when they were younger and wish they had more chances to pursue now. Sometimes they tell me they still make art of some kind. Music. Dance. Writing. Painting. But normally, it’s a story of how they played a certain instrument or excelled in a certain class when they were kids, but now the machinery of adult life keeps them bogged down with obligations, that there’s no energy left at the end of the day. These practices are so easily lost in the cracks. People tell me this with wistfulness and bitterness, with yearning and nostalgia. It’s a lot of people—the majority. It’s something I’ve observed over years.

I was privileged to grow up in a family where art was valued dearly. My parents met in theater and ran a puppet show company when I was small. In between working full-time jobs, they stitched felt costumes, scribbled out stories, and memorized songs. Even when money was tight for him, my grandfather took me to museums and asked me my thoughts on sculptures and paintings. My afternoons with him were filled with VHS musicals borrowed from the library, during which he’d well up unselfconsciously and murmur, “Listen. Isn’t that beautiful?” While cooking dinner, he’d sing showtunes. He’d pretend to play trombones and trumpets.

On the national level, it’s another story. Art is much less of a priority, at least financially. Making up just a fraction of a percent of the national budget, the NEA is inundated with grant applications from individuals and organizations every year. Hundreds of hopefuls seeking support for their next big program or project. The same is true of state commissions and private foundations dedicated to the arts. I know—I’ve written a lot of these proposals. Some I’ve written in pursuit of my own creative goals. But the bulk were on behalf of a nonprofit I worked for a few years ago. To make the strongest possible case in each application, I poured hours of research into the benefits of arts education (interestingly, there is little research on the arts’ positive impact on adult lives). My findings confirmed what I’d long suspected: that inclusion of the arts in K-12 curricula increases school attendance and enjoyment, that it correlates with higher grades, that it is linked with long-term civic engagement…the list goes on. Firsthand, I’ve seen the arts benefit children, adolescents, and yes, adults in powerful, far-reaching ways. So qualitatively and quantitatively, art enriches our lives. And most people I know and most strangers I meet harbor creative ambitions. So why is this impulse, individually and collectively, so frequently shoved to the side?

Well, art can be expensive. It can require supplies and submission fees and entry fees and space rental and travel and promotion and more. Early on, it can require exposure and nurturance or curiosity and fierce determination—I’m continually amazed by my friends who grew up being told art was a waste of money and effort and still relentlessly pursue it anyway. Certainly, depending on a person’s goals, it can require navigating gatekeeping people, settings, and expectations ranging from exhausting to downright toxic. These are all true. These are all important factors. But the one I want to focus on here is time.

A 2015 study from the NEA found that time was the #1 factor limiting adults’ attendance of arts-centered events. More than cost, more than local access. It was time. Granted, this is for attendance. But I suspect the same might be true of creation as well. You look at these charts of famous artists’ daily schedules and you notice that not a lot of them had 9-to-5s. Recently I was asked to be on a panel of judges for a grant application, and time came up over and over again. People asked for supplies. They asked for fee coverage. But more than anything, they asked for breathing room that would allow them to create. Time off from work. A month’s living expenses. These are common asks, and for good reason. Art takes time to dream up and create.

This is true for me too. I teach five classes a semester, and during the school year, I feel very much in “teacher mode.” I’ve grown away from the idea that artists only create when inspiration strikes—I think of creativity more like a muscle now. Something you can strengthen over time, yes, but regardless, a part of you that isn’t going anywhere. Nevertheless, while I like teaching a lot, I find it hard to switch into “writer mode” while doing a good job on grading, lesson planning, and committee work. It feels like turning an enormous ship. Like that artistic mindset takes breathing room to settle into, and that work is a quick jog, requiring fast thinking, adaptability, and self-discipline. The poems, especially, I’ve tried to write during the school year don’t feel as successful as those I write during summer, when I can slow my pace a little.

So how does all of this relate to a video game? Earlier this year I played Earthlock, a crowdfunded RPG from the Norwegian company Snowcastle. Like some Final Fantasy games, your characters can switch roles (sometimes called “jobs”) and gain different abilities based on these roles. Importantly, they also lose certain abilities based on which role they’re in. Unlike FFV and FFX-2, though, where all playable characters can move freely between roles as they are acquired through play—any character can become a Red Mage, for instance, or any character can become a Knight as long as you’ve gained access to those jobs—in Earthlock, each character comes with two roles uniquely assigned to them, and these never change. So Amon can be a Scout or a Blaster; he can never be a Warrior or a Veteran like Olia, who can never be a Focus or a Pestle like Gnart, and so on. Each role is useful and even essential given the strategy needed for each battle. This presents an interesting challenge, and I liked Earthlock overall. But it frustrated me that I couldn’t have access to all my characters’ cool skills at the same time, and what irked me even more was that changing between roles, or Stances, takes an entire turn. The transition was painfully slow.

This felt relatable. This idea that we can all do certain things—unique things—but that switching between those modes or roles can be a gradual process. A process that requires our patience, that we can’t necessarily speed up. That it’s true, that I’m not just imagining it when the structured mindset of lesson planning feels different from the intuitive, emotional one I occupy when I write poems, and that it’s difficult to whip back and forth between them within the same hour. Yet, right before we all went our separate ways for summer, I told some friends in my department, “I’ve been telling myself this story that I can either be a teacher or a writer but not both at the same time. I have to rewrite that somehow. I have to tell myself a new story.” I have to do this because I want writing and teaching to coexist more harmoniously. I have to do this because if both are muscles, I don’t want to let either lie dormant for months.

I don’t have easy answers for this. I think this is part of the sweeping dilemma, the reason so many strangers I meet want to make art but rarely do. The transitions from employee to family member to artist to whatever can take adjustment, can take time. And time is something we are all short on, for innumerable reasons. This isn’t always something we can just will ourselves out of; we live in a culture that encourages workaholism and sometimes demands it for survival. We live in a world where countless factors, some chosen and some not, come between us and boundless creation. There’s a reason creativity crowns the mountain of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But no model is perfect, and I’ve heard arguments against that way of thinking about art. That we need to tell a new story together, that Artist is a role we can switch into like Chef when we’re making a meal. I don’t have to navel-gaze about doing this—I just make food because I have to. I don’t see it as a role change. And maybe, with practice, I can do this with art. Make it a natural extension of life, not something separate and demanding.

I don’t have easy answers. I know this is hard. I also know these practices light a lot of us up, and I hope we can find ways to claim them in whatever ways we can. Quickly, slowly, or otherwise.