On Making Art Work
I do not control the creative process
Here are some things I tell myself when creating starts to hurt.
The work does not care about your aspirations, or your schedule, or the people you want to impress. The work will not fit neatly into the squares on your calendar.
The work spills over, it goes on too long, it makes your muscles burn. The work is not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious, boring; it drags and you dread it. But when you’re really working, the work is something like play.
When the work will not cooperate, step away from it. When the work feels wrong, put it down. A walk, a sleep, a shower — sometimes these small things will solve the problem of the work. Sometimes the work needs more time.
Not time as in: days, weeks, or months.
Time as in: the river you never step in twice.
“Impatience is an argument with reality,” writes record producer Rick Rubin. “If there is a rule to creativity that’s less breakable than the others, it’s that the need for patience is ever-present.”
Lately I find myself bargaining with the work. Please, hurry up! I just want to get to the end, to line up all my trophies on the shelf. But the work is ambivalent to my desire for accomplishment. The work takes the time that it needs.
This spring I embarked on the very ambitious project of replacing my front lawn with native plants. I want to feed the creatures who share this neighborhood with me, give them somewhere to rest. Building a habitat that will last is perhaps the most long-term art project I have ever attempted.
I know it will take years, but every time I walk past the early stages, out there by the sidewalk where all my human neighbors can see, I find myself cringing in shame.
The seedlings I planted are awkward and small. I must look ridiculous out there, tending to a few little leaves in a pile of mulch. Why can’t they just burst into an impressive display already? Everyone else is blooming without us!
But the seedlings don’t care about my silly human shame. They are not comparing themselves to the grown, established perennials across the street. They’re busy doing crucial work beneath the soil, and I am trying to learn from them.
Last summer, having never gardened before in my life, a friend gave me a bee balm seedling. I planted her in the backyard, but in that first summer for Judith1 and me, she didn’t grow to full height, and only made a few blooms. I was confused, and figured I must have done something wrong.
Over the winter, Judith became a few twigs sticking out of the ground, and I didn’t know if she’d come back. But in March, I noticed her shooting out tiny runners in all directions. There were so many, I snipped off cuttings and helped Judith spread around.
Now, Mother Judith is massive, with thick stalks and big, soft leaves soaking up light. I hadn’t done anything wrong after all. Judith just needed time.
You do not control time like you do not control the work. These things move through you, alter your insides, spit you back out changed. You can try to plan the work, but again, it will spill over. You can fertilize and mulch and water and prune, but still, some things will die.
The best work hits with no warning, like a hail storm in April. I love these happy accidents — a mistake that turns out beautiful, a candid shot from the hip half-drunk. These creations emerge from my playing, reveal themselves to me only when I open myself up to the work.
I don’t really make them, like I don’t make plants from seed. I just create the right conditions. Over and over again, I show up, put my dirt and water and light together, and watch for something to emerge.
It’s small at first, but all creations will eventually need bigger pots. Sometimes, to keep a thing alive, you have to pull it apart and put it back together a different way. In a year or two, when Mother Judith outgrows her space, I will have to dig her up and cut her in half.
Don’t be scared to dismantle the work. Destruction is a part of the creative process. You won’t know how to make the work until you fail to make it in a hundred different ways, until you put it together and pull it apart and build it again, until you trip and fall over a mistake into something great.
The work will be awkward and small for years. Put it out in front of your house anyway. Arguing with reality will not make anything grow faster, and the work is not about you, not really. The work is a gift that grows when you give it to the world. We all need to see it.
For more on creative lessons from plants, see also: I Do Not Control The Seasons