An Absorbing Errand: The Psychology of Mastery in Creative Work
“Life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort.”
By Maria Popova
“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” botanist and storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her beautiful meditation on gardening and life’s largest satisfactions a century after Virginia Woolf’s unforgettable flower-garden epiphany about the meaning of life. Surely, the garden, quite apart from its tangible satisfactions, fertilizes the imagination with ample metaphors for the tilling of our interior landscape — metaphors nowhere more precise and poetic than in the opening pages of psychotherapist and writer Janna Malamud Smith’s altogether magnificent exploration of the creative life, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery (public library).
Although Malamud Smith had grown up amid artists of various stripes, it wasn’t until she watched her elderly mother’s immersive and invigorating communion with the garden that she grasped the underlying psychological pattern of creative work. She writes:
The good life is lived best by those with gardens — a truth that was already a gnarled old vine in ancient Rome, but a sturdy one that still bears fruit. I don’t mean one must garden qua garden… I mean rather the moral equivalent of a garden — the virtual garden. I posit that life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labor and create — and, by so doing, to rule over an imagined world of your own.
As with the literal act of gardening, pursuing any practice seriously is a generative, hardy way to live in the world. You are in charge (as much as we can ever pretend to be — sometimes like a sea captain hugging the rail in a hurricane); you plan; you design; you labor; you struggle. And your reward is that in some seasons you create a gratifying bounty.
But between the garden and the gardening lies the essential transmutation of intention into mastery. I’m reminded of writer and art curator Sarah Lewis’s elegant definition of mastery as “not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.” Malamud Smith considers the heart of that commitment:
One must work hard to learn technique and form, and equally hard to learn how to bear the angst of creativity itself… The effort brings with it a whole herd of psychological obstacles — rather like a wooly mass of obdurate sheep settled on the road blocking your car. For you to move forward, these creatures must be outwitted, dispersed, befriended, or herded, their impeding genius somehow overcome or co-opted.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s terrific tribute to Marie Curie — “her wounds came from the same source as her power” — Malamud Smith writes:
You may be unaware of how the necessary struggles of your own unconscious mind, if misunderstood, will bruise your heart, arrest your efforts prematurely, and prevent your staying absorbed in your errand. Yet, the same struggles, appreciated, will enable your creativity and the larger processes of mastery.
She considers why the mastery of creative work beckons us at all — how it extends its promise of making us “feel stimulated, warm, slightly elated, or otherwise moved; content; purposeful,” of aligning us with our innermost selves:
Whether by design or by accident, many of us seem to find enduring gratification in struggling to master and then repeatedly applying some difficult skill that allows us at once to realize and express ourselves.
Echoing Wendell Berry’s beautiful assertion that in true solitude “one’s inner voice becomes audible,” she adds:
The feelings and purposes around art-making … ricochet among private, public, and communal places, but the creative process often demands seclusion to germinate its seed.
She returns to the metaphor of the garden:
The work grows as our minds (conscious and unconscious) and our bodies would have it grow. Technique may require discipline and set the order of things, apprenticeships may demand periods of subordination, but the imaginative acts that propel the effort are themselves serendipitous. In your garden you may set out to clip the roses, but you notice a weed you want to pull from among the coreopsis, except that first there is a rogue branch to be snipped from the holly shrub—and on and on until dark finally settles, ending your day. An occasional task has to be done just now and just so. But mostly, you delight in meandering, allowing the work to command your attention variously — with its method inscribed by the way you encounter your plants.
Such work guards a quality of timelessness within an ever-more-time-bound world.
This timelessness is rather the astonishing elasticity of time that Virginia Woolf so memorably described — a state of suspended and infinitely extended attention partway between Gaston Bachelard’s intuition of the instant and Einstein’s eternity of truth and beauty.
Malamud Smith considers the singular temporal dimension of creative work:
One pleasure of art-making is its resolute inefficiency… The necessary thought may come today or next week. Yet it’s not the same as leisure. The struggle toward that next thought is rigorous, held within an isometric tension… You must hold still and wait, and yet you must push forward.
Still, in his 1948 manifesto for why leisure is the basis of culture, the German philosopher Joseph Pieper made an elegant case for why unrushed time and unburdened cognitive space are essential for creative work. Malamud Smith recognizes this notion, too, albeit somewhat differently:
Because the point of arrival is enigmatic, elusive, receding, because it wavers like a mirage on the road, always before us and only briefly with us, devoting oneself to mastering a practice unexpectedly leads through a time warp where past, present, and future commingle. I find the contradictory notion comforting. Contemporary life is all excerpts, fragments, reversals, and interruptions; it offends and delights us with its astounding, noisy discontinuity, but the work of mastery is very much as it was when artists thousands of years ago carved Cycladic figures or cast the Benin gold.
Our common creative labors restore older, more familiar rhythms of humanity, and by doing so they ground us and temper the particular fragmentation and disconnections that define our age.
In the remainder of the wholly invigorating An Absorbing Errand, Malamud Smith goes on to explore how identity, fear, shame, solitude, and other facets of the human experience illuminate the psychoemotional machinery of that tempering in creative work. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, Anne Truitt on the vital difference between being an artist and doing art, and Agnes Martin on cultivating the optimal atmosphere for creative work.
Published March 14, 2016