It's been a long, hard week, full of dismaying world news and, here at home, a lot of work and looming deadlines. I've had my nose to the grindstone for much of it. I used to have a lot of resistance to doing my professional work; I thought that all I wanted to do was have more free time to paint or write. When I did get some free time, I often made excuses instead of actually using it well. Somewhere along the line I saw this pattern and my attitude changed. I'm really glad it did, because resisting what you need to do, and have to do, makes it ten times harder to get it done, and to do a good job besides.
Then, there are a lot of reasons why we resist what we say we want to do the most, or manage to make it into agony rather than pleasure.
Dave Bonta recently pointed me to a terrific essay by writer/philosopher Will Buckingham, "The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing." In it, Buckingham takes exception to Hemingway's famous quote about writing being nothing but "sitting down at a typewriter and bleeding." He writes:
"But difficulty is not something in itself that we should shun, and neither is difficulty something that people in general do tend to shun. The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun."
Learning to persevere in any creative pursuit is really the key, I think. In painting and writing I may get started fine, with enthusiasm and inspiration, but eventually I often find myself in a thicket -- some sort of difficulty, maybe like the middle game in chess -- and have to find my way out. I've come not to dread this, but to expect it. Sometimes it means putting the work aside for a bit, sometimes not -- but working through that sense of being lost and uncertain is actually the most satisfying part of the whole endeavor.
It can be hard to learn this on your own, and it seems to me it's where a lot of talented and enthusiastic people eventually lose their enthusiasm and may even quit. It helps a lot if students are exposed to an older mentor at some point. You can't teach patience and determination and self-motivation, but a mentor can encourage and share her experience, and model his way of working -- and maybe offer a few key words that will be remembered down the road. A focus on the "tragically struggling artist" may be romantic, or have entertainment value, or be part of someone's attempt to build an artistic identity, but as Will says, it's a pretty destructive image for talented young writers or artists of any kind, who need the tools to shape and live a whole long life, enduring the inevitable ups and downs in as healthy a way as possible.
I live with someone whose ability to keep at it, without drama or complaint, has taught me a lot. When I asked J. what taught him to persevere toward his goals in the face of difficulty, he immediately answered "sports." My dad would no doubt say the same thing: he's still playing competitive table tennis and working on his golf game at age 89, and often tells me about the subtle things he discovers and then practices in order to improve -- in spite of the aches and pains of his aging body. J.'s father, who lived to 99, was still reading and reciting Arabic poetry and discovering new insights and pleasures in it at the very end of his life. My painting mentor went to the studio every day, well into his late 80s, and told me he felt he was "just learning to paint."
For me, as a young person, it was several things: learning to play instruments; a summer course at a college when I was 16 where we had to show up and paint for four hours every single day regardless of how we were feeling; and studying ancient Greek in university -- something that was hard and demanding for three long years; I wasn't even particularly good at it but I thought it was a magical, fantastic thing to do. Forty years later I find that same passion and joy of learning in many areas of my life. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, but the more you persevere, the more you see that they're an intrinsic part of the learning process, and so you actually begin to appreciate your failures too. In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki suggested that the difficulties in contemplative practice are like weeds, and that we can grow to love them as much as the flowers: he wrote "a weed is a treasure." It shifted my perspective a lot when I was able to see that.
Do you agree that difficulty can be fun? What helped you learn that, and how do you encourage yourself to keep going when you run into difficulties in a project? Do you continue to have mentors/friends, or belong to a writers' group or other collective gathering of like-minded people? Do your online friendships figure into this equation? They (including you readers!) are certainly important for me.