A Life's Work

Are you a short-timer or are you in it for the long haul?

I've been thinking a lot about this question in terms of creativity and craft and vocation.

It's no secret that in order to become really good at something you have to practice.  A lot.  In order to master any craft or vocation, you must commit to doing that thing every single day.

Dan and I took a trip to Abingdon, VA  a few weeks ago, and while we were there we discovered a local artist who makes the most exquisite 3-dimensional tapestries that I've ever seen.  I could look at these tapestries for hours, fascinated by the depth and the colors and the skill and pure love that must have gone into the making of this beautiful artwork.  After talking with the artist - her name is Nancy Garretson - we learned that she has been making tapestries for the better part of 30 years.  30 years!  I cannot imagine devoting that kind of time to one pursuit.  

But I'm fascinated by this kind of devotion.  This is not a hobby or a whim; this is a life's work.  This is a commitment to show up every day and create - to push through boredom and challenges and the desire to jump to something else when things aren't quite as exciting as they used to be.  This takes extreme focus, and probably more than a little sacrifice.  

As Nancy described her process to us I was equally fascinated by her complete lack of stress or urgency.  When asked how long a piece takes, she replied:  "As long as it takes."  And although she does sell her work, and is occasionally commissioned for original pieces, she seemed utterly bored with the idea of making money from her work.  For this artist, it was clear that the reward was the work itself:  the time in the chair, the communion with the yarn and the machine and her own creativity.  That was the "why".

I absolutely love this.

I watched the CMA's this week, and like everyone else, I was blown away with New Artist of the Year Chris Stapleton.  Where the heck did he come from?  Honestly, I had never heard of him before.  But he is amazing.  He appears to be this huge overnight success; I imagined him being born with this crazy good voice and then just deciding one day to go take the CMA's by storm.  But after a little research, I discovered that he has been making music for over 15 years.  He's written hundreds of songs, he's been in bands, he's been playing tiny gigs in small bars for handfuls of people at a time.  What you and I don't see are the YEARS of practice and struggle and small victories and ultimate dedication that led him to the stage this week.

I think that so many of us get caught up in wanting results and rewards and recognition for our efforts NOW, that we overlook the fact that we haven't yet earned those things.  We haven't put in the time and dedication and commitment .  We haven't surrendered to the process.  But that is the boring part of creativity.  No none wants to talk about the un-sexy aspects of living a creative life - the struggles and doubts and mundane hours of practice.  But that is just as much a part of it as the good stuff.  Elizabeth Gilbert describes this as the "shit sandwich".  Every vocation has a shit sandwich, and you just gotta be willing to eat your job's particular flavor.  She says as far as writing goes, she loves it so much that she'll eat her own and yours too if she has to.  The only thing that makes all of that effort and sandwich eating worthwhile is the simple LOVE for our craft.  I truly believe that in order to become great at something, you have to let go of seeking any kind of results, and commit to something just for the love of it.

I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert this week.  I have been waiting for this book to be released for a year, and I'm happy to say that it's every bit as good as I had hoped it would be.  In the book, Liz talks about why we engage with creativity.  What is the ultimate reason that we even try to create things anyway?  Some may say to help others, or to make a difference in the world, etc.  But Liz suggests that it's ok to create things for no other reason than that WE ENJOY IT.  That is enough!  We don't have to take everything so seriously.  We don't have to make every thing we do have some deep earth-shattering meaning to it.  Sometimes, the meaning comes purely from the love that we put into something - when we're just doing it for US.  

I've seen this at play in my life many times.  I will start doing something simply because I love it.  Then, after a small bit of success, I'll start to approach it differently, more seriously - less for myself and more for others.  I'm not saying its bad to do things for others, or to want to help others, but in terms of creativity, that is not how the creative process works.  It is informed by things and events and circumstances and other people around us, but ultimately it comes from within.

If you haven't read it yet, I HIGHLY suggest that you check out Big Magic:  Creative Living Beyond Fear.  She goes deep into what it means to create, why we do it, and my favorite part:  how to kick fear in the ass and get on with our work.  

And check out some of Nancy Garretson's amazing tapestry work here.

And of course, Chris Stapleton's duet with Justin Timberlake at the CMA's.

Happy Friday!


© Haley McManigal 2015

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