Threads that Weave a Creative Practice

by cj Madigan

How do some people manage to sustain a rich creative practice while others flounder in a state of “if only” and “someday” – never actually getting to their studio or writing table?

doorbookMy book, Behind the Studio Door, is not a how-to book. It doesn’t offer formulas or grids or five easy steps to living a creative life. But perceptive readers will find threads that stand out, ideas that might be worth exploring, attitudes and practices that might be considered, tried, adapted to their own life. Here are a few of them.

commitment

The one common thread among the artists I interviewed is commitment. They do what they have to do in order to write or dance or make art, even if it’s make-shift. They don’t wait til they have more money, more time, or a separate studio. In her book On Writer’s Block Virginia Nelson distinguishes between those who want to write or make art and those who do. These artists do.

saying no

“Too many activities, and people, and things. Too many worthy activities, valuable things, and interesting people. For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives but the important as well.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote those words in Gift from the Sea almost fifty years ago. It’s not that difficult to say no to the trivial and irrelevant; the challenge is to say no to appealing and important opportunities in order to protect the time and energy needed for the most essential parts of your life.

opinions of others

The participants have many teachers, some in formal and ongoing relationships, some ad hoc. But they don’t turn these teachers into gurus. They try on various suggestions, techniques, discovering what works for them and disregarding hard-and-fast “rules”. They exhibit a strong disinterest in the opinions of others outside a carefully chosen circle of colleagues, friends and family. whose opinions they value.

solitude and community

Creative work by its nature requires a good deal of time alone so it may be self-selecting of people who relish solitude. Many in today’s culture acknowledge a need for solitude, for quiet and tranquility, for withdrawal from the hubbub of the world but what sets these artists apart is that they take pains to arrange for it.

sensitivity

These artists are sensitive to how their arrangement of time and space affects them on a physical, mental, and emotional level. They put considerable effort into harmonizing these elements of their lives with their own rhythms and preferences as much as possible.

discipline & tedium

They also respect the discipline required by their particular art form. They understand that practice is something you do no matter what’s happening, no matter how you feel. They work and study and practice to develop the skills and techniques they need. They accept and (usually) enjoy the tedium that is part of any project. They see it as a necessary part of the process, not an oppressive chore. They often welcome these tasks-washing paintbrushes, weeding the garden, cleaning and organizing the studio or office – as opportunities to let their mind just drift.

obsessions

Most of the participants are unabashedly obsessive about certain aspects of their craft. It might be finishing a seam on a garment flawlessly even though it will never be seen. It might be the willingness to go over a piece of writing ten, twenty, fifty times until it sings. It might be figuring out exactly the right system for keeping art supplies and materials organized. It might be what appears to be an obsessively complex system of notetaking. It might be an insistence on keeping certain periods of time inviolable.

consciousness

It’s not that these participants are in some way superior to other mortals or that they don’t face the same challenges as everyone else. Even the cloistered monk in this group does not feel exempted from the “busy sickness” endemic in 21st century society. Nor do their lives work seamlessly all the time. There are often moments of frenzy and overscheduling, periods when there is no time for solitude or contemplation. Sometimes they can’t even get to their creative work because of the demands of “real life.” But they believe it’s worthwhile to make the effort. The more they make these attempts, the more conscious they become of what they are doing and of the forces that are influencing them. They observe themselves and their environment, they think critically about what’s going on, and they experiment with different ways of arranging their lives.

It’s difficult to know whether these threads are the conditions for or the result of a committed creative practice – and I’m not sure that it is important to make a distinction. Establishing a creative practice – as well as creating a life –is a process more circular and recursive than linear and direct; you can begin at any point.