How Long Did It Take You?

We are so curious about time and process that, "how long did it take you?" is the everpresent question that creative work inspires. The answer itself, in relation to the work we are interested in, doesn't mean much: "a week" or "two years" or "twenty years, on and off." If we like the work, the art, the book, the story, whatever, we nod and say, "Oh" or  "I see." But something also happens that we may or may not notice: we may be comparing ourselves and our own processes with the answer. 

A week. You wonder how to work this fast. You wonder if it would take longer if you've never done it before. A week. Wow. Eight hours a day? How lucky to have that much time to devote to it. It is so detailed. Or, in your opinion, do you think it might have been better if it had been made more slowly?

Two years. You might think you couldn't do it in a million years. You might wonder why it took so long. You might ask, how could anyone possibly spend that much time on one project? You might decide this person is a master and it took time to be one.

Twenty years, on and off. You might think it is interesting that the project still engages the creator. You might be curious if the maker is nearing completion, or still just enjoying the process. Perhaps something happened that made her/him put it aside: obligations, health issues, business problems. Well, it depends how big and complicated it is, I suppose. A 700-page biography? An art installation? A poem? A perfect poem? Aha.

There's a wonderful, related story in a favorite children's book, Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia by Remy Charlip. (As an aside, in an early edition, the artist is a man, in later editions, the artist is a woman.) Basically, a man pays an artist for a painting of a fish, but after years and years, the painting is not done. Finally, the man demands the painting. The artist quickly paints a beautiful fish as he watches, which makes the man even angrier. Why didn't she do it before? The artist opens a door and "thousands of paintings of fish fell out." How long did it take her? It didn't take five minutes to make the painting. It took many years.

We consider complexity, mastery (and practice), incubation time, and general life issues as we absorb the answer. If one poem takes twenty years, on and off, perhaps it is a perfect poem, arrived at after thousands of attempts.

Some artists do not like to answer the question, "how long did it take you?" They may say they are not wage slaves, that if the work is good it doesn't matter, or that the question detracts from the work. But the curiosity is valid. If the answer matches our perception of our own working style, we may silently wonder the real question, "Could I do this, too?"

detail from new work, Shadows of Language

Search for "how long did it take you?" today and you will get 17,300,000 results that are led by questions about weight and women's issues, followed by jobs and housing. A popular question, indeed!


Anonymous said…
good post. Some things take me longer and some things move faster. Like the hooked rug that took me several years to finish as I would put it aside to do something else.
Velma said…
maybe artists should always answer that one: "all my life".
Lizzie said…
Ah such an interesting way to look at this. You're so right, that the answer to this (seemingly innocuous) little question can colour our perception of a piece of work.
"She spent all that time on my birthday present, wow!" - implying that "she" cares a great deal for the recipient of the gift? Or, of course, the answer risks the suggestion that the reverse may be true!
"It shouldn't take two days to make that!" -hmmmm.... How would you know? Why should you think so? Should it matter? (Perhaps it should - at least, if the person is paying by the hour?)

Thought provoking, Alisa (as always)!

And I have just, this week, sent off a framed embroidered sampler, to my friend. It records the birth of her third child, almost 12 years ago. The sister samplers have been hanging on her house for years.... Yet this one took so long. "Life" got in the way - mainly in the form of my own small person - and the sampler has spent long periods languishing in a drawer. Finally I determined to complete it. Her delight was humbling and also made me so happy. She said that her daughter "is now officially part of the family"!

Only just got back to your recent posts - had an embroidery to complete - and " Life" to deal with! Thanks for more thought provoking ideas again!