Last week at Glen West, a conference organized by Image Journal (you can read more about it here if you’re interested), the idea or message that putting in the hours of work is the most important aspect of being an artist kept coming up. It came up directly in artist Barry Moser’s observation that “talent is as common as house dust and as useful as tits on a boar; the habit of hard work has value.” It also emerged as my own workshop instructor, poet Robert Cording, talked about how he likes to work on poems in 4-hour blocks of time, and that he doesn’t see much point in working on them for any less than 2 hours at a time because what usually comes out in the first hour is junk, and it’s not until the second hour that the good stuff starts to rise to the surface. Every afternoon and evening at the Glen, we heard talks and readings and watched presentations from extremely accomplished writers, artists, musicians, etc.–people who have dedicated their lives to pursuing their respective crafts. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been watching Olympic athletes who have trained for eight hours a day for the past decade to be where they are.
Needless to say, this is all very impressive and inspiring. Focused attention and long hours of hard work are necessary for any really worthwhile accomplishment, and there is a part of me that yearns to experience that. What would it be like to dedicate yourself so fully to a single pursuit? But the reality is that most of us don’t and/or can’t live that kind of life. We have jobs, mortgages, spouses, children needing to be shuttled to soccer practice or potty-trained, community involvement, houses that need to be cleaned and repaired, health conditions that need attending to, and dozens of other things that take up our time in very unavoidable and legitimate ways. Obviously, many of the ‘single-pursuit’ folks mentioned above have the same things in their lives, except for one–they’ve managed to carve out a life where their pursuit is their job, which tends to free up a lot of time.
So what do the rest of us do? When my school year is in full swing, I’m lucky if I can find a full hour to write on a regular basis. I can squeeze in two on the occasional weekend, but four is pretty much out of the question. The easy answer is that we can still make progress, no matter how minimal the time, as long as we are dedicating some time on a regular basis. Our progress might not be as great as those who can dedicate double or triple the amount that we can, but we still can and will make progress. The problem or tension remaining, however, is finding the will to dedicate even smaller blocks of time to pursuing a craft on a regular basis.
The ‘single-minded pursuers,’ as mentioned previously, tend to achieve some pretty impressive results: publication, awards, critical acclaim, and so on. They have something to show for all their hours. Those of us plugging along in bits and pieces at the bottom of the artistry totem pole might not have anything tangible to show for a very long time (and sometimes it feels like it will be never). If you’re intentionally carving out time to write or pursue some other craft, people around you are eventually going to find out. And then come the questions like, “Are you published?” or “Have you sold any paintings?” or “Hey, can you edit this paper/letter/whatnot for me?”
Here in the U.S., we live in a results-driven, rubric-measuring world. If you’re going to spend a significant amount of time doing something, you’d better have something to show for it, and that’s tough for any aspiring writer/painter/poet/songwriter. Not many people understand how significant it is to have figured out the most effective line breaks in a stanza or to finally arrive at just the right phrasing of a metaphor in your poem after weeks of working at it. Ted Kooser’s assurance that the poems you struggle with that never quite work are often preparing you for the one that suddenly does (and maybe even, in some rare instances, gets published) is some consolation. But mostly, there is no tangible result we can show off or point to.
At one point in our workshop, Cording said that the poems we write are “prayer work,” and that even if the poem turns out poorly, we’ve still learned something about ourselves. I like the idea of toiling away at writing and revising as prayer work, because that takes it out of the results-driven mindset. Though that mindset has tainted a certain amount of Western Christianity in current years (“Pray and you’ll prosper”, “Give money to this ministry and God will bless you”), the traditional view of prayer is that we pray to both know and become someone. Sure, there are sometimes visible results to that practice, but much of the time there are not. A state of being, a depth of love, humility, grace, and peace are all very difficult things to quantify. There’s no rubric that can even begin to adequately measure them.
In the closing night of the Glen, poet Scott Cairns said, “You do not need to seek permission to pursue your art. God gave you that permission when he made you the way that you are.”* Our work might not have tangible results, but every half hour or hour that we dedicate to it, we are becoming more and more the person we were created to be. Which seems pretty damn worthwhile.
*see correct quote in “comments”