Sometimes I pick up a book, only half intent to read it. I carry it with me. It is now a moving body, it seems, with a mind of its own, for I leave it in places and don’t know why. I lose sight of it, become half aware of it or forget about it completely. If it travels far enough, it ends up on the bedside table, and there I wait for an artful moment to open it.
Some authors I struggle to read, they’re so good. Pages and paragraphs are long meditations. Lately it’s Annie Dillard. We have this collection of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Writing Life in one book. A few days ago I was somewhere with it reading An American Life. I relished reading about Dillard’s mom, with her childlike joy for the sounds of certain words, like “portulaca,” “poinciana,” and “Terwilliger bunts one,” as well as her artistic (and I would add adult) sense of duty toward form. Today, I thank Dillard for my meditation. Here’s how The Writing Life begins:
“When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself in new property. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
Tomorrow or next year. Like you have been digging all that time. And nothing but more cave ahead. The idea works for drawing, too. Whatever makes that possible is very interesting. She is using one medium to talk about something even larger than writing, per se (or drawing). She’s located the foundation under art and life. This, to me, is an amazing accomplishment, worthy of mention. By virtue of this multivalence, or what theologian David Tracy would call an “excess of meaning,” she’s articulated that how art works is how life works.
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” – Thomas Merton
A thousand times a year students ask me, “Is this good enough?” Their eyes gaze up at me from over a work of art that, yes probably, has hit all of the required standards, seeking some respite from the challenge set before them. Good enough? Compared to what? — I send the ball back into their court. In that moment, either they fold, laughing, and label it “good enough” for now, presumably to be improved upon someday, some other day; or a light flashes within them, a neurological bridge sparks, and they begin the journey of passing through the center of their own potential.
An essential idea that I live by and share with my students often is that a work of art must pass through a stage of imperfection, even awkwardness, on its way to something better. (Take, for example, this old caricature sketch of Carl Sagan by Zack.)
Born into a system of norms set strategically before us, it’s always surprising to be reminded that we are still ultimately at the helm of this process of what we accomplish and what we choose to bring into being.
We make sure our jobs are good enough to pay the bills, our health is good enough to get us through our days, our relationships are good enough that we can all get by without killing each other. But isn’t it true that often we don’t take the opportunities to make these things more meaningful, more able to feed our spirits and raise that bar that has been set for us? Have we any idea what’s possible?
The poetically irreverent American novelist, Tom Robbins, once wrote: “we waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love.” This is a reminder that our relationships, our jobs, our daily interactions are creative acts. We must create the world we seek or else settle for a world designed by someone else for someone else’s vision of what is possible. Our north star then is to find what moves us to raise our bars and push passed the point of “good enough” towards our definition of sublime. The brave and brilliant American writer Annie Dillard put it this way:
“There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end. It is all so self conscious, so apparently moral…But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.”
At a certain point, we have to ask: Are we aiming to settle for what the world has asked us to achieve, or do we see the potential for something radically more meaningful? The first story has already been told. The second is the story that you may have been born to tell.
The challenge of refining a work of art — and that may be the art of painting or of teaching, of building relationships or being a better or more authentic communicator — is complex to say the least. Realist painter Jacob Collins said that this process “…is torture… There’s always some newly seen flaw. But the little glimpses of beauty between the anxiety make it worth it.” You can tell when your work is definitely not done, but by working on it, you also run the risk of overworking it. And in the back of your mind, you know there is the very real possibility that your work may fail or be noticed by none. On this Thomas Merton wrote:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
Annie Dillard and Thomas Merton are two twentieth century writers, working somewhere between spiritual pilgrims and fringe revolutionists, who spent their lives conjuring and stoking this devotional fire dedicated to telling a different story of being human in our modern world. They found quickly that to do this one must abandon the temporary comforts of seeking affirmation and instead follow with steadfastness the vision of human potential that haunts their hearts like a calling.
The act of pushing passed our inherited story of “good enough” is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the task of taking the antiquated, inherited definitions of “commitment” and “devotion” and “faith” and “beauty” and reclaiming them, covering them in graffiti, in your very blood, and letting them help you bring your vision of your great works passed product straight into the heart of the process. Annie Dillard put it this way:
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”