An Absorbing Errand, by Jane Malamud Smith

This book is subtitled: How artists and craftsmen make their way to mastery. What Smith does here is examine what it takes to have a meaningful life. “I posit that life is better when you possess a sustaining practice that holds your desire, demands your attention, and requires effort; a plot of ground that gratifies the wish to labor and create.” Whether your practice is gardening, painting, writing or building boats, pursuing a creative artistic effort adds a richness to your life, not just a sense of accomplishment but joy.

And frustration. Smith looks at the things that get in our way. She suggests that these undertakings, whether art or craft, call for “common mental processes of mastery. One must work hard to learn technique and form, and equally hard to learn how to bear the angst of creativity itself.” (her italics) Individual chapters look in detail at aspects of this angst, such as fear, guilt, shame, and the perils of recognition. She compares these psychological obstacles to a milling mass of sheep blocking the road. One of the pleasures of the book for me are her inventive images.

The title comes from Henry James's Roderick Hudson where the character Rowland Mallet explains that an absorbing errand is necessary if you are to get out of yourself and stay out, thus achieving true happiness. Mallet is searching for a means of expression, saying “‘I spend my days groping for the latch of a closed door.'” This line resonated with me, reminding me of my late friend Bill, a photographer who sometimes seemed on the brink of professional success but never quite getting there. He said that when he discovered photography, he felt that he had found the magic key; he just couldn't find the lock that it fit.

Smith doesn't offer pat solutions to overcoming the potential obstacles to mastering your art or craft. Instead, she explores why they affect us and gives examples of artists coping with them (or not). In the chapter on fear, she delves into John Keats's life and his great fear that he would not live long enough to write the poems that filled his mind. Indeed, he did die young from tuberculosis, but used his fear to defeat the self-doubt that paralyzes so many writers.

She mentions a conversation with Alistair MacLeod, one of my favorite authors, who writes about coal miners and fishermen in Nova Scotia. She asked him why so often the best fiction is written by the first generation not actually doing the work, and he responded, “‘There has first to be a chair. And time for someone to sit in it.'” This is a brilliant summary of the problem faced by many writers I know. Even if we succeed in securing a room of our own, we struggle to squeeze out the time to enter it.

“Whether by design or by accident, many of us seem to find enduring gratification in struggling to master and then repeatedly applying some difficult skill that allows us to at once realize and express ourselves.” I'm reminded of a scene in an early episode of the tv show Homicide: Life on the Streets when Bolander finds comfort in playing his cello with a woman he's discovered plays the violin. They don't need an audience; just playing together creates a magical moment and the conviction that life is worth living.

This book is an ideal gift for any creative person you know. It's a comfort to know that we are not alone. And it's inspiring to remember why we want—no, need!—to create.

What books about creativity have you found useful?

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