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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.”

An Absorbing Errand: The Psychology of Mastery in Creative Work

“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.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

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.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis for Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

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.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

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.

Thanks, Dani


Einstein’s Message to Posterity from the 1939 World’s Fair Time-Capsule

A piercing reminder of the choice that stands between the human capacities for good and evil.

In contemplating the brightest beacon of hope for the future of humanity amid hopeless violence, the great cellist Pau Casals called on us to “make this world worthy of its children.” A generation earlier, in his contribution to the 1939 World’s Fair time-capsule, Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) considered what it would take to do this in a poignant message to posterity — part lamentation, part aspiration, true to the fusion of critical thinking and optimism that animated his spirit. The text was later included in Ideas and Opinions (public library) — the altogether indispensable collection of the great scientist and humanist’s thoughts, which also gave us his reflections on the value of kindness, the secret to his thought process, and the common language of science.

Just a few years after his correspondence with Freud about war, peace, and human nature, and mere months before the outbreak of World War II, Einstein offers his message to the future:

Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilize power also in order to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and we are able to send messages and news without any difficulty over the entire world through electric waves.

However, the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything. Furthermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason anyone who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. This is due to the fact that the intelligence and character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce something valuable for the community.

I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.

Although we live in an era succeeding Einstein’s by a few generations, which renders us “posterity” in the temporal sense, we are yet to prove ourselves worthy of his vision for posterity. And there is but one way to do that.

Complement Ideas and Opinions with Einstein on science and religion, the secret to learning anything, the privilege of old age, his breathtaking love letters, and his correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois about race and social justice.


The Parallels Between Being an Artist and Being a Parent

“…an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.”

“Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio,” Teresita Fernández asserted in her spectacular commencement address on what it means to be an artist. “The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”

Two generations earlier, the great sculptor Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) captured this dynamic dialogue between art and life with uncommon nuance and insight in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — one of my recent selections for the TED Bookstore, and the source of Truitt’s abiding wisdom on compassion, the ideal daily routine, and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist.

Like many creative luminaries for whom a single epiphany revealed the meaning and purpose of art — including Patti Smith and the swan at the lake, Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Virginia Woolf and the flower in the garden, Albert Einstein and the compass, and James Baldwin and the reflection in the puddle — Truitt traces her creative roots to an encounter with a single painting at the same Picasso retrospective that had also moved Louise Bourgeois to become an artist. Truitt, who resisted the label “artist,” writes:

I had no idea at all that I would become an artist. It was in one of those deflections that sometimes subtly predict the course of a life that I sought out, just for pleasure, the Museum of Modern Art.

On entering, I turned left and up the stairs straight into Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Shocked, my eyes clamped on it. I focused on the three towering women gazing out at me with the eyes of basilisks — their breath would be fatal — and then took in the remote shadowed faces of their companions. Suddenly I understood that I knew very little of what it is to be female. Even less of art. I had not felt its naked power before, its power to shatter the appearance of things so as to reveal behind them another order. When in 1949 I began to study art, I more or less consciously looked for what I had found in Les Demoiselles: shock, an understanding deeper than my own of what it is to be human, and a mysterious revelation of a radiant order.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Truitt, who was trained as a psychologist before she became an artist and carried this penetrating insightfulness into her meditations on art, draws a parallel between this supreme reward of creative work and the rewards of parenthood:

People sometimes ask me if I feel as if my sculptures were my children. I do not. The love I feel for my children is unique in my experience. Nothing is comparable. But it occurs to me this morning that they too are transformations of secret, silent resources similar to those out of which [my] sculptures emerged.

Elsewhere in the journal, Truitt — who considered art a “transaction between [one’s] inner world and the outer world” — revisits the subject of parenting and how it illuminates one’s creative autonomy:

I noticed that when my children reached the age of about twelve, the balance of power shifted from me to them. I have sometimes felt myself in the quandary of a chicken who has hatched duck eggs: my children took to the water, I remained on the riverbank. But I cherish my own independence too much to begrudge them theirs. I do better on the bank cheering them on. If I keep a respectful distance, they welcome me into their lives almost as wholeheartedly as I welcomed them into mine when they were born. “Almost” because even the most affectionate adult children maintain with their parents a healthy reservation that marks the boundary of their autonomy.

I am more impressed by what my children have taught me than by what I may have taught them. The physical purpose of reproduction is, obviously, the continuation and renewal of genetic continuity, human survival. Its psychological purpose seems to me to be a particularly poignant kind of mutual learning and, matters being equal, ineffable comfort.

Complement the enormously insightful Daybook with Truitt on vulnerability and the price of integrity, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s courageous open letter on merging the artist self with the parent self.


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