After the Viola Awards a few weeks ago, a bunch of us traipsed over to Uptown Billiards in search of closure and whiskey. Poet and owner of Uptown, James Jay, had just won the Viola Award for Literature. Upon receiving the award he recited a beautiful poem (not even his own) that brought me to tears. Several of the acceptance speeches that night were eloquent, but his poised, elegant delivery captivated us.
James showed up at the bar just after we arrived. First thing, he started clearing tables and filling orders, wearing the rolled-up sleeves of his tuxedo shirt. Kudos aside, there was work to be done.
This is the way to be, I thought.
“Chop wood, carry water.” “After enlightenment, the laundry.” There are a million ways to say it, but the truth is that the daily work of making a life keeps us grounded in this world. Humble work keeps us humble.
Especially for those of us who spend much of our time doing creative work, this other kind of transitory, practical work matters. The uneven ebb and flow of time and creative undertakings can run away with us, leaving us breathless and tethered only by the barest thread, like a human kite.
I used to think that only open-ended studio time would allow me the luxury of a deep conversation with my materials. While at times the leap from creative inspiration to exhalation does seem to be hugely dependent on freedom, other times the structure of a deadline, arbitrary or not, can spark a giant creative bonfire.
Here’s a poem I wrote in half an hour, just before a potluck dinner party with a friend who was dying of cancer:
She waits for a telegraph from spring,
pushes aside the wadding,
finds tiny leaves infused with the hardship of winter.
Plucks one leaf at a time,
only the willing are chosen.
Finds hope in the salad,
omens in the earth.
This is what hope tastes like to her:
sweet, generous, green.
These words instantly transport me back to that moment of tasting spinach that had overwintered in my garden, its leaves like meat. In contrast with the sorrow I was feeling, the thrill of the early spring bounty left me ecstatic. The poem presented itself in just a few minutes, completely whole, as if I had plucked it out of the ground like the salad I was composing.
Creative works can be rushed, but who’s to say that the result is as good? On the other hand, who’s to say the result would be better within a pliable time frame?
I place a piece of fabric (or three or 10), and consider whether those fragments take me toward or away from my aim for the piece. The time between decisions is often fruitful and filled with grace, but sometimes the empirical process doesn’t need much time. If my decision-making cycle collapses down on the process—into action/evaluation/action, instead of action/consideration/evaluation/action—the piece can come together in a more intuitive way. On other days, a molasses-like substance coats every surface in the studio, including my hands and brain.
I’ve tried to discover what constitutes the difference between “grace” days and “molasses” days. When everything comes easily, I think I know the secret. Other times, I feel I’ve lost my way entirely.
One million media-years ago, there was the “time to make the doughnuts” commercial on television: a chubby, mustached man arose from his bed in the dark early morning to bake so he would have the freshest doughnuts to offer his customers. His daily work was ordinary, but out of that routine supposedly arose the very best doughnuts. (I wouldn’t know, having not eaten a doughnut since approximately 1978.)
Accolades like the Viola Awards are lovely affirmations from our community, but the real substance of our lives resides in the work we do, whether we bake doughnuts or write sonnets. The humility that engenders everyday work carries us along toward tangible results—a well-tended garden or a stack of clean laundry—and simultaneously serves to buoy up our creative process.
Now back to work.