One of my favorite writers is Flannery O’Connor, a Southerner who lived and wrote for most of her life on a farm in rural Georgia. Possibly you’ve never read her, or maybe you read one of her stories once and wound up, like me, repulsed and confused.
Here’s what turned me into a Flannery O’Connor fan. Several years ago, I had to read a whole slew of her short stories in about a week’s time because so many book clubs wanted to register for the same Great Books session on “Everything that Rises Must Converge” that I was asked at the last minute to come on board as a second facilitator. When you read any writer’s work all at once like that, you start to notice little things. In O’Connor’s case, I started seeing the word “sly” quite often in her stories, shading her characters and foreshadowing events. Somehow in that one word O’Connor manages to summon up all the darkness of the human soul.
But what I want to talk about today is creativity, specifically the importance of cultivating a creative “practice” for anyone who aspires to be an artist of any kind. Flannery O’Connor deserves mention here because of her disciplined work habits. During grad school I first encountered this quote of hers:
I don’t know if the muse is going to show up or not on any given day, but by golly, I’m going to be at my desk from 8 to 12 every morning in case she does.
Don’t you love that image of O’Connor sitting at her desk, ready to greet the muse? Although no one can forcibly will creative work into being, anyone can be present and open and attentive – poised to capture any glimmer of inspiration that may reveal itself.
O’Connor called her work ethic “the habit of art,” which she explained more specifically as an artist’s worldview, or way of being: “The scientist has the habit of science; the artist, the habit of art.”
Writing is something in which the whole personality takes part – the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Art is the habit of the artist and habits have to be rooted deep in the personality.
O’Connor’s description sounds a lot like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which advocates personal growth through creative practice, as a way for “recovering” artists to find their spiritual center in a society that does not value art.
It makes me happy to think of creativity as a “habit” or “practice” – an ongoing activity continually performed – instead of a personal attribute (as in a “creative” person). Anyone can “be” creative if to be creative means engaging in creative activity.
Consider these words that come to mind when I think of creativity as daily practice:
Routine – derives from the French route, meaning “road” or “route,” with the –ine suffix indicating the diminutive. So a “routine” is a small road. I like that. If you want to go somewhere creative, a routine is a road you take to get there. But it’s not like driving a flat-out freeway, where you grip the steering wheel and concentrate on speeding along with traffic in the pneumatic tube of an interstate. Instead, it’s more of a back road, like the “blue highways” driven by William Least Heat-Moon. You drive it, but you can enjoy the scenery and meet people along the way.
Discipline – derives from the Latin roots disciplina (“instruction”), discipulus (“pupil”), and discere (“to learn”). So discipline is less about strength of will and forcing oneself to perform than it is about curiosity, teaching, and learning.
Perseverance – derives from Latin by way of French, with the original meaning coming from per (“by” or “through”) and severus (“serious,” “severe,” “strict,” “grave,” “dignified,” “earnest”). My old American Heritage Dictionary describes “perseverance” as having a favorable connotation, suggesting patience and continuing strength in withstanding difficulty or resistance, whereas “persistence” and “tenacity” imply dogged resolve that is willful, unreasonable, annoying, and perhaps aggressive. So “perseverance” is less about winning at any price or being grimly determined not to quit (grrrr . . .) than it is about just showing up every day with a calm steadfastness and doing the work.
Filmmaker Woody Allen is famous for saying that much of success in life is a matter of just showing up. (Exactly how much is a little unclear to me. Sometimes it’s quoted as 90%, sometimes as 80%. But we can safely say “much” of success, in any case.)
Showing up. That’s what it takes to have a successful creative practice. How simple is that? (And hard, at the same time.)
Allen is an excellent example, in fact, of someone who shows up and does the work. For close to fifty years he has methodically maintained an output of about a film a year. And for thirty years now (1982-2012) he has released a new film every single year. Not only does he direct, but he also often writes and acts. Plus, he is a jazz musician (clarinet) who has toured the world with a New Orleans-style band for about a half-century as well.
Routine. Discipline. Perseverance.
You show up and do the work – so if the muse appears, by golly, you’ll be there to meet her.