Sometimes making art is painful. It takes a while to understand that it's not always fun. In biographies of most writers you will read that they have to force themselves to do the work, that to get to the exhilarating part, they have to have a routine. Stephen King wrote about this in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, we find that Shirley Jackson did, too. You may create a routine, but what do you do with it? Susan Sontag describes the process (of writing, but it applies to all art making), as "a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall" (Darnton 225). While you are focused on your project, you are also opening yourself up. You are taking a risk and with this risk, you are vulnerable. And being vulnerable can hurt.
It's a dance with yourself. You begin. "This is great!" you say to yourself. You look at it again, "This is terrible!" You keep going. "This is great!" and then again, "This is terrible!" Push and pull, loves me/ loves me not, happy face/sad face. You hope, after pushing it as far as it needs to go, you will land on "This is great!" Sometimes you push too far. Then you start over. In John Darnton's collection Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times, Richard Ford hints at that back and forth of creative work, "writing can be complicated, exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating. And occasionally it can produce results" (68). Creative work is exciting and fun, but it is also a commitment, and that commitment comes with various conflicting emotions.
The United States Marine Corps uses the phrase, "Pain is weakness leaving the body." It sounds both funny and horrible, but only by pushing through that pain do you actually learn. I think the pain we are talking about here is the pain of self-discipline. A form of self-discipline is part of the creative process. How much or how little we want to use it is up to us. Weakness is giving up without trying. Weakness is saying "I can't" too early. Robert Frost's well-quoted line from his poem, "A Servant to Servants" (line 56) "the best way out is always through," echoes the self-discipline aspect, and is applicable when making any kind of art.
Walter Mosley recognizes a different version of the creative process in Writers on Writing, "Nothing we create is art at first." He talks about how writing a novel is like "gathering smoke…You have to brush [your ideas], reshape them, breathe into them and gather more" (Darnton 163-164). Mosley doesn't focus on the pushing through, but on the stretching and reaching out, sometimes a little further than what is within your grasp. You might find yourself a little off balance, vulnerable, as you reach. The discipline is in the continued focus as you reshape, edit, revise, reconfigure.
The flip side can also be true: if it doesn't hurt you're doing it right. This is more likely to happen after you've put in the time, put in the practice, like Malcolm Gladwell's proverbial "10,000 hours" in Outliers: The Story of Success. In my favorite children's book by Remy Charlip, Arm in Arm: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia, there is a story about a man going to an artist, asking and paying for a painting of a fish, but not receiving it. It seems the artist is procrastinating. When the patron finally goes to the artist's studio, the artist quickly paints the fish. The patron, now even angrier, demands an explanation for the delay. The artist opens a door and "thousands of paintings of fish fell out." By the end of the story, the artist is able to do it right, and it doesn't hurt to paint the fish anymore. The gesture, the motion, is already in the artist's body after years of training it. That's what makes it feel and look easy. The practice has been absorbed and incorporated.
If you are pushing yourself, it is going to feel uncomfortable. Determination and self-discipline can strengthen you. But only if you want them to! No one is making you do this but you! Maureen Howard compares this process to a marriage, that this is "not about first love…It's about passion and endurance, a combination of desire and grunt work often at odds with each other" (Darnton 99). Ask yourself: what do you want to gain?
After you have been working on your project, gone through the pain, been vulnerable, become ecstatic, and perhaps even satisfied, how do you know if the work is finished? Here are some questions that you might ask yourself. You can find a pdf for your personal use here.
The longest project I've ever worked on, the one most painful, and the most satisfying, has come to a close. We took risks. We were vulnerable. We worked hard. After two-and-a-half years of negotiations, CCA administration and the CCA Non-ranked faculty union came to an agreement around 11pm last Thursday evening. Adjunct professors and lecturers at our school are finally going to be able to ratify a union contract that provides us decent raises and protections, joining the nationwide movement toward recognizing and compensating teachers fairly as skilled, educated, and committed workers. Through this process I've met dozens of my colleagues who are talented and wonderful people, people I would not have met otherwise as we only previously passed each other in the faculty parking lot. We've built a community as well: a gift indeed.