Walking on Broken Glass
Part One: An Introduction
There is a quote from Somerset Maugham that I read in Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art: “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.'” (Pressfield, 2002)
There is a beautiful myth around art making that you go into your studio and spend unstructured time in some magical space of divine creation. It’s a nice story, but it doesn’t work for most people. Even God had a deadline.
The last couple of years have been difficult art production years for me. It has been a monumentally rough go. My husband had a scary brush with cancer. Then my father died. Then my country lost its mind. Then my friend took his own life just steps from my front door. Then I shattered my ankle in a life-changing accident.
On one side, there are people who say that it is okay for my production to be a little bit low through all of that. On the other I seem to find people who are surprised that my production was low given all of these feelings that I have to take into the studio. I think both of those groups are wrong. Production is work, and we have to ensure that our muse shows up from 9 to 5. And, trauma does not lead to quality work. Working can lead to healing trauma, but that sort of work tends to lead one farther down a personal path, not an artistic one.
For the next few weeks I’m going to sort out some of these thoughts about production and pain in my studio notes. I am currently sitting on my couch with ice on my splinted ankle, recovering from surgery. It has been ten days since surgery, and I have been productive for seven of those. It helps me to not sink into pity. It has required a lot of naps. I think of it like walking on broken glass. It isn’t hard if you know what you are doing, choose the right materials, prepare, and go carefully.
While I was preparing for my convalescing time, my therapist asked me “Is being an artist directly tied to your output as an artist?” I immediately answered yes, but when I examined my feelings about artists in my community and about artists who have walked away from art, I changed my answer to no.
Especially in an academic setting, the quantity of work is very important because you have to have a lot of your own work to reflect on in order to progress down the path. This is also true in the studio, to a point. In order to move forward, you have to be making work that feeds more work. However, there are productive ways to sit with the work that you already have. You can take time to read and to look at the work of other people — and, what a privilege it is to be temporarily disengaged from your work enough to see it through a lens other than the lens of your art practice! You can flip through old sketchbooks and find forgotten ideas. You can restructure your practice to better serve the you that is waiting on the other side of your healing.
Which is to say, if you are hurting right now, and the art is not coming, you are still an artist. Your art does not stem solely from your production. It stems from all the adjustments that have gone on in your brain and your being that happened during all the production you have already done. Stay in communication with yourself as an artist. Your artist self may not serve you well while you are healing from grief and pain, but you should still stay in touch with them. Much like I have to do work to keep my unused muscles fed with blood, keep a flow moving through your practice, simply by reminding yourself that it is still there.
If we tie our self as artist to our production, then the moments when production is stymied will stall our artistic progress. Instead, take the time to know the non-producing artist in you to keep that flow going.
Be gentle with yourselves. Be diligent with your practice. Let’s talk more next week.