In a results-driven culture, we're often so fixated on the next goal or milestone that we forget to appreciate the process. We neglect our families and friends in the rush to finish a project at work, telling ourselves, Just one more late night, then I'll clear my calendar for the weekend. We give more attention to our ever-evolving to-do lists than we give to our bodies, in need of some idle time on the porch swing or a float in the river.
The truth is, we can never keep up with our to-do lists. If we're even a tiny bit ambitious and altruistic, there will always be more tasks, household repairs, and people in need than we can ever tend to in this lifetime.
That's why the vocation of artist is, in some ways, inherently countercultural. The artist willingly pushes out the noise of to-do in an attempt to listen to a deeper, wilder voice inside. This voice is unintimidated by the anxious press toward completion--sometimes frustratingly so. If you've ever tried to hurry along a poem, a story, a ceramic bowl or even a cheese souffle, you know that craft and inspiration are immune to any agenda-based pressure. Sure, a looming deadline or customer order can quickly cure a case of procrastination. But the muse is not a workhorse. If you demand a specific outcome or shape, and you're not willing to move with the creative process, you kill the spirit of creation.
This is both exhilarating and exhausting.
Any artist who makes a living from their art is familiar with this balance. On the one hand, there's the very unpredictable nature of creating. On the other, there's the very real need to sustain and support creativity in practical ways, grounded in good business sense. Most of the time the two needs are at odds, though sometimes the tension itself can be creative fodder.
That's why it's essential to return to process itself. Process is the still point, the neutral ground between the two sides. It takes a kind of meditation to acknowledge both the fear of not knowing the outcome of the piece in front of you, and the need to pay bills and do the laundry, and then put both aside as you focus on the present moment.
There's an interview with visual artist Ian Boyden in the most recent issue of basalt, an art and literature journal put out by Eastern Oregon University. In it, the interviewer talks about his teacher's apprenticeship in Iran, studying Islamic calligraphy. At first, the artist was told to study the overly elaborate examples of text and illumination that most of us are familiar with. But as he improved, he was shown more and more refined examples, with less decoration. Finally,
"he was taken to a secret room, where he was shown what his master considered the finest expression of the calligrapher's art. He presented my teacher with blank sheets of paper. But as he moved in for closer scrutiny, the text revealed itself as the marks of writing with pure water on the surface of the sheet. The greatest statement had nothing to do with legibility. It had to do with process."
(Quoted from "With Forces Older than our Sun," by T.C. Ely. basalt, volume 9, no 1, pp 22.)