The great teaching artist, Robert Henri, once wrote: “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state that makes art possible.”
Henri is talking about process versus product, a central idea in Method Writing and important to any creative work. I sometimes like to talk about “working well” versus “making good work.” This is a phrase that I learned from my painting mentor. On a regular basis, I send Carl (my mentor) pictures of my most recent canvasses, several at a time. At first, I expected that he would critique each canvas in detail, telling me what to change and what was alright. I expected advice on color choices and composition, perhaps a discussion of the thematic content. I quickly learned that such comments would not be forthcoming very often. Instead, Carl usually says something like: “You are working well. Keep going” Or, if he is displeased, he might say, “This looks unnatural You’re trying to hard. Experiment. Change directions.”
But I am a person with expectations. I want to produce a fine painting or story or essay, every time I work. So I focus on the picture or the story when I should be focusing on the paint and the words: these are the materials with which I build and they should be the focus of my attention.
I suggest that it is this child-like focus on the raw material that was in Henri’s thoughts when he wrote about “that wonderful state that makes art possible.” That wonderful state is similar to a child playing in the mud or fingerpainting. The child (especially a toddler) is not a bit concerned with building anything: she is just excited by the wet dirt on her skin and the way it oozes around her fingers or splashes when she slaps it. They don’t care about the picture they are coloring. They are excited by the way the colors appear on the paper as they scribble.
One might respond that the child doesn’t usually produce a finished work of art, and that’s fair enough. Being childlike in the way we connect to our material is necessary, but not sufficient. Adult play is different than child’s play. A child plays for the sheer natural joy of it. An adult does too, but we also have the capacity to shape our play. Working well requires that we find a balance between play and purpose.
I want to produce. I want to have a finished piece of writing, a finished painting. I want to be appreciated and admired for my work. I want to do good. I crave approval and affirmation. I am an artist. And, in some ways, to be an artist is to be very needy indeed.
So how do we arrive at this mysterious embrace between our childlike joy in play and our adult need to achieve? We must, because play without achievement is immaturity; achievement without play is hollow.
We begin by asking the question. We come to understand that our working focus must be on achieving that balance, not tellling the story or making the picture or composing the symphony. All of that wonderful stuff arises from the dance.
Dancing that dance must be the life’s work of a writer, or any other creative worker.
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