To the Artist Work Is Not an Obstacle, but a Gift
Artists have about fifty qualities that fit perfectly together to make them best suited to be artists rather than engaging in other occupations. One of those qualities is their love of and attachment to work. The majority of people do not like to work, consider work a burden, and would rather not work, but seek leisure and rest. But most writers, painters, actors, and ballet dancers who will become known vary from that norm.
Creative people do not avoid work, but absorb themselves in it, even though the work of a recognizably accomplished artist is difficult, extremely hard to master, and taxing. What drives them to the easel or keyboard every possible day is the joy of working and a desire for creative fulfillment, a special state of being that lies at the far end of hard work that evades most people.
In The Creative Process Brewster Ghiselin states that artists and thinkers create the structure of their mental lives by means of their works. C. G. Jung said, “The work in process becomes the poet’s fate.” The work–the painting, novel, or musical composition–must be finished [half-finished doesn’t count] if the artist is to be satisfied because “it is only as the creative work is done that the meaning of the creative effort can appear and the development of the artist brought about by it is attained.”
William Faulkner, author of thirteen novels and scores of short stories, said that “the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours; he can’t drink for eight hours; he can’t make love for eight hours. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work. ” To the artist work isn’t an obstacle, but a gift, a challenge not to be avoided, but to be embraced happily.
Faulkner’s secret was to stop looking at the clock. He wrote, “Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Staring at the clock never gets the artist’s work done.
Vincent van Gogh talks about the agonies artists feel when they are unable to perform artists’ work, his feelings then of being imprisoned in “an …utterly horrible, horrible cage.” Work is so essential to artists’ sense of wholeness that not being able to work at an artist’s role in van Gogh’s judgment reduces artists to a state of “nothingness” and uselessness.
When men and women commit to a serious artist’s life they introduce into their existence the most demanding effort and emotional upheavals generally they will have ever known. They might have been stevedore longshoremen on the docks of New York, but will never know days of exhaustion like this: “Work every day till your [sic] so pooped about all the exercise you can face is reading the papers” (Ernest Hemingway). Poet Emily Dickinson said that if she felt physically as if the top of her head was taken off, she knew that was poetry
Artists begin each day with the goal of working hard. I have been laid up with bad colds for weeks, unable to work, and it has been frustrating and truly painful for me when all I want is to get back to writing my book.
Artists are almost always bent on working hard: “Work is the law. Like iron that lying idle degenerates into a mass of useless rust, like water that in an unruffled pool sickens stagnates into a stagnant and corrupt state, so without action the spirit of men turns to a dead thing, loses its force, ceases prompting us to leave some trace of ourselves on this earth” (Leonardo da Vinci).
Even striving to sew together an artist’s life is daunting: “The sheer labor of preparing technically for creative work, consciously acquiring the requisite knowledge of medium and skill in its use is extensive and arduous enough to repel many from achievement” (Brewster Ghiselin). “From the hard work of men are born…the fidelity to right practice which makes great craftsmen…[and] the devotion to a calling” (Joseph Conrad).
Every serious writer can identify with Flaubert’s “I have written no more than 25 pages in all in six weeks…I have gone over them so much, recopied them, changed them, handled them, that for the time being I can’t make head or tail of them.”
To persist like that takes drive and commitment that’s extraordinary. While you might be able to do that because you’re a writer and you know what’s needed, almost no one you know, from your brother-in-law to your auto mechanic, can imagine doing it voluntarily because they’re not artists–those individuals who think nothing of it.
The “Big Two” of Focus and Energy Lead to Artistic Success
Artists are exceptionally complex thinking and feeling beings who by the grace of nature possess the two main qualities leading to success whatever the field: intense focus and accompanying extraordinary quantities of physical and spiritual energy–Focus and Energy.
Many of the greatest artists and writers have an overpowering urge to produce specific works and have labored astronomically long hours for many years, frequently with no vacations to speak of because there was nothing they would rather do than their work—an unheard of 60 hours, 70 hours, 80 hours every week.
Twentieth century inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller worked in a frenzy, concluding his work days only when overwhelmed by exhaustion. Honore de Balzac wrote fifteen hours a day for twenty years, and to fuel his energy was in the habit of drinking at least fifty cups of strong coffee every day—so much so that coffee poisoning was one of the causes of his death. Focus and energy are why artists can produce tremendous amounts of work, often four, six, ten times what less focused and energetic people produce.
Poet John Milton said that some people “scorn delights for more laborious lives” and asked, “What hath night to do with sleep?” The tremendous number of hours high achieving writers, sculptors, and ballet dancers are able to work may account for their ability to produce work after work at breakneck speed.
Another reason for such speed is because after a certain number of years of constant practice, producing works becomes automatic for artists. All the skills they need are intact and functioning at extremely high levels, and inspiration comes to them spontaneously and involuntarily immediately and without strain, like wine flowing out of a cask, when they sit down to type at their computer or stand facing an easel with brush in hand,
The pace you work at is as individual as DNA. John Irving says, “I write all my drafts by hand. It’s the right speed for me—slow.” Erle Stanley Gardner was different. He once worked on seven novels simultaneously, dictating 10,000 words in a day, and was the world’s fastest writer. And he was also a lawyer.
Why is it that producing a creative work is often so much more painful than the envious non-creator can imagine? French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote a friend, “You have no notion what it is to sit out an entire day with your head between your hands beating your unfortunate brains for a word.”
At times the novelist, essayist, poet, or dramatist writes night and day, then executes revision upon revision. Kurt Vonnegut said that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent if only they write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little each time. Although writing is sometimes grueling, tedious, boring, and very difficult, few other things matter as much to writers.
The act of producing art–so liberating to the artist–may also involve emotional suffering. Julian Green wrote, “if only people knew what lies at the heart of my novels. What a tumult of desires these carefully written pages conceal! I sometimes have a loathing for the furious cravings that give me no peace except when I am writing.”
If you are to succeed in a noteworthy way as an artist you must have the ability to focus intensely for extended periods of time. Creative people often learn at an early age that they will achieve more if they focus their efforts on one area rather than dividing them among a variety of pursuits. They may not be good at math, may not care for games, may never go dancing. As a child all Pablo Picasso wanted was to draw or paint and was such extremely poor student in every other subject that people thought him stupid.
The Most Distinguishing Quality of Creatives
Persistent and enthusiastic absorption in their work is the most distinguishing quality of creatives in spite of Flaubert’s and Green’s kind of suffering, or your own very real suffering. Creative talent is indistinguishable from passion and intensity. You can hardly call yourself creative if you lack them.
One reason writers and painters who are experts are more accomplished than writers and painters who are very good but not experts is that experts are more passionate about their work and spend more hours at it. The only way you could keep some artists from writing or painting would be to dislocate their fingers. Even before their fingers were fully mended, the artists would be back at work.
What makes writers and painters, actors and composers so persistent? It is their thrilling, hard-to-contain joy in the act of creation itself: “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning [of a new work] quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything” (Virginia Woolf).
When they are creating, artists are capable of losing all sense of time and place, conscious only of the work before them. They will let nothing divert them from accomplishing their creative goals, working night and day if need be. Flaubert said that only writing mattered to him, and that he kept all his other passions locked up in a cage, visiting them now and then for diversion.
The artist’s sometimes astonishing work production is aided by flow, a state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In flow you’re fully absorbed in the act of writing, painting, acting, composing–more fully absorbed than you have been in anything else. Your concentration and positive emotions are strong and alert, and you know exactly what needs to be done. You put aside personal problems. You lose your sense of being in time and of having a body or a mind. Art comes out of you effortlessly.
You’re relaxed, “psyched,” focused, and yet detached at the same time—in a state of harmony with your surroundings. You’re as confident and feel as competent as you’ll ever be. When artists are in flow they are functioning at their most potent ability.
The main qualities of flow are the following ten:
- Your goals are clear and not muddled. (When you work at your craft, your goals must be so clear that you can state them in a single sentence.)
- There’s unambiguous, immediate feedback on performance so that adjustments can be made. It’s hard to become immersed in your art if you’re not certain about how well you’re doing, what’s feasible and what isn’t, and whether you’re wasting your time or are accomplishing something that’s worth accomplishing.
- Your skills are well-matched with the goal you’re trying to achieve: whatever the skill the art calls for, you possess. You’re very confident that you have every skill you’ll need to reach the goals of the project at hand. To attempt something you lack the skills for will only frustrate you.
- Your concentration is highly focused.
- You’re not worried about failing.
- There’s no sense of “self” separated from the work at hand. You do the work, but don’t think, “I am doing this work.” There is no “I” involved. You are non-attached.
- Your sense of time is distorted. An hour seems like a minute or a minute seems like an hour.
- The activity is so enjoyable in itself that you need no external reward. But pay and other external motivations can also lead to you being in the zone such as when after years of trying unsuccessfully, you have a great financial success and public recognition.
- You don’t feel tiredness.
- You lose your appetite or don’t notice it and you skip meals.
Being In the Groove
Very much like being in flow is being in the groove. In The Creative Habit dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about “finding your groove.” Grooves can last minutes, hours, or weeks or months, and are usually preceded by a breakthrough idea. What does it feel like when you’re in a groove?
“When you’re in a groove, you’re not spinning your wheels, you’re moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches. You’re unwavering, undeviating, unparalleled in your purpose. A GROOVE IS THE BEST PLACE IN THE WORLD. It’s where I strive to be, because when you’re in it you have the freedom to explore, where everything you question leads you to new avenues and new routes as everything you touch miraculously touches something else and transforms it for the better…And then it’s over…There’s no point in analyzing it. If you could figure out how you get into a groove you could figure out how to maintain it. That’s not going to happen. The best you can hope for is the wisdom and good fortune to occasionally fall into a groove.”
The beautiful paintings included in this post are by one of my favorite artists, Janet Weight Reed. The images shown here are a tiny example of some of the work she has completed during a career which has spanned 45 years.The hummingbird, symbolizing the “unseen magic” of the world is her signature image.
Janet says, “Waking each day filled with anticipation, excitement and sometimes trepidation is I believe one of the many reasons that keeps an artist/creative going. To be in the flow and rhythm of creative work is a wonderful state of being. No matter what else is going on in one’s life a deep sense of fulfilment takes over.”
I won’t ask if you have ever been in flow or in the groove or have known the bliss of creation because if you are an artist working every day with seriousness, living the life of a creator, I know you have, possibly many times.
Instead, I’ll ask, “Were you in the groove today? How did your work go?”
© 2019 David J. Rogers
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