The Value of Frustration
First published May 31 2019
When making art, moments of grace sometimes occur, little shots of the miraculous when something ineffable opens up, and in those moments it feels like this is what it’s all about. A day of trudging through dull and disappointing attempts to create can be transformed by a numinous moment at the end of the day that somehow takes us beyond our limitations. Those who are creatively blocked have told me that this is what they miss, that sense of magic. Some have given up on making even dull work; they’re waiting for the moment of grace to come to them. Attempts to get started again flounder because the practice feels mundane, the results disappoint, and the ‘in love’ feeling hasn’t turned up.
I watch and reflect on this aspect of my own process, observe how students I teach work it, and discuss it with coaching clients. One person who has inspired me recently – I’ll call her Matilda - has a great work ethic, but her work was unexciting and she knew it. She’d recently moved into a new studio where the other artists around her were more experienced, more daring and innovative. She kept going with her daily working schedule, but a feeling of crisis, when she experienced external ‘failure’, brought her to a point of knowing that she wanted to do more than plod on daily. She widened her references, made the decision to take some risks in her work, and tried a new approach; something she’d always believed she couldn’t do. She saw evidence that she was capable of more; this provided the breakthrough and she pushed her next piece of work further, and further again – and then she knew she’d found the sweet spot. Recognition from others wasn’t necessary by that point– but she got it anyway.
Meanwhile Simon knew that he wanted to create, and was already networking with some accomplished artists and involved in stimulating discussions about future possibilities, but struggling to make anything. Something wasn’t joining up. He spoke of having an inner critic that wouldn’t countenance failure. Not long after a conversation about the value of time alone and pottering, he spoke about the way he’d perceived the world as a dreamy child, and wondered about making some images relating this open and wondering way of seeing to his adult life. He lit up during this conversation. He spent a few days alone just roaming, walking, travelling on trains, and a flood of extraordinary images followed, some meditative, some playful and witty, all revealing a unique way of looking at the world.
Both had underestimated themselves. As I admire hard workers, it was easy to cheer Matilda on; she just needed encouragement to make a shift from plodding along to skipping, in order to see that moments of flight might be possible. But with Simon, I saw the value of allowance and holding faith; artists who talk ambitiously but don’t create can be on the receiving end of a lot of negative judgement, but he needed to connect with his own vision and recognise its value before he could bring it down to earth. He’d had a disconnect between his idea of success as an external thing defined by others and his own creative imagination, an inner resource that is his best potential route to success. Seeing him creatively unblocked – and radiant - is a delight.
Like Simon, I can get caught in certain received ideas of success; the most recent trap I’ve been caught in has involved keeping a lot of balls in the air. Like Matilda, I keep turning up, but my desire for a well organised life that packs a lot in and gets everything done can mean arriving in the studio tired, and more likely to fall into a ‘plodding’ approach. Frustration is a good motivator to do things differently. So for now, some areas of my life are a little chaotic, as I let them go, acknowledging that I needed a binge of studio time, book-ended by rest, to allow momentum to develop. And bizarrely, although things subsequently got very messy at home, frustration with that led to a big clean up, and a bit of a clear out too, resulting in things looking considerably better than they had for a while. Meanwhile the momentum in the studio has continued despite starting to catch up on the backlogs elsewhere. Formulas aren’t tremendously compatible with either creativity or life itself. My inner control freak doesn’t like it – but I do.