|…. Or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never give in! Never give in! Never, never never!” A few months ago, for no earthly reason that I can think of, I was inspired to look at the website of my friend, artist Susannah Bettag. I say “for no earthly reason” because we aren’t in constant touch. She lives in San Francisco. I live in New York. And we are both busy. So we see only each other about once a year. What I saw when I went to the website were the most amazing paintings I’ve seen in years, by anyone. They seemed to me to represent some kind of culmination of all her previous work. Here are some of them, so you can judge for yourself. Click here to see many more. And this isn’t a “hobby”. She’s actually represented by a highly respected gallery.So I was absolutely shocked when, in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, she announced, over a cup of tea (the British cure-all equivalent of chicken soup), that she was “taking a break”. Possibly even a one-year break. She’s keeping her studio, and she’s going to keep going in from time to time but she is taking the focus off painting for a while so she can hang out with her children and work on doing up a house. It turns out that she, far from seeing these recent paintings as a culmination, sees them as a new direction that she’s not sure she wants to take. Hmmm.
Now, if you want my pennyworth, I’d say, by all means see them as the beginning of something new, but for crying out loud don’t stop now! Meanwhile, it’s a very apropos illustration of the blog that’s been building up inside me over the past few months about the importance of the fallow field versus (not that anyone around here is dreaming of doing this — of course!) giving up. One of the few Geography lessons I remember, in case you’ve forgotten it, a farmer rotates his crops so that one field (a different one each year) gets the opportunity to lie fallow. If it doesn’t lie fallow it becomes infertile and can’t produce good crops (which, come to think of it, might explain what’s happened to the taste of food, of late).
It is so easy as an artist not to take a break, and I have found that during those periods where I FORCE myself to have Sundays off, I am actually more creative the rest of the week. So I am all for lying fallow. Some of our greatest talents took LONG breaks — Sonny Rollins took off years (although he practiced every day). Miles Davis also took off years (and didn’t practice, and had to catch up when he came back to it). However …. the trick is to know when you need to lie fallow — and whether a year is possibly a bit much (unless you are a field of course) — and when you need to keep going.
The other day, in Half Moon Bay to perform at the wonderful Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, I took a walk in the morning along the cliffs. There were two little surfers in the distance and I thought I’d watch them and maybe take a photo. It was fascinating to watch their progress out to sea. As the first surfer went out he kept getting pushed back by the waves. But each time he was pushed back, he was a little further out to sea than the time before. By the way, for no reason at all that I could see, the progression of the second surfer was much faster. Just sayin’.
However, if the waves had been harder to get past (which I am sure they are when you’re talking about Hawaii or somewhere), it would have taken a lot longer to get out to where the ride-able waves are. In that case, maybe a break to rest and gather your strength would make sense, right? Or maybe you just keep doing it and eventually build the muscles required to get strong enough to finally (one miraculous day!) get far enough out to catch a big one.
But here’s another analogy (which brings me to the title of today’s blog): When I gave birth to my son I remember thinking (after eleven hours in labor), my goodness, this baby is never going to come OUT! But I had three nurses on either side of me shouting “Push! Push! Push!” What must it be like to give birth alone without that encouragement? I can’t imagine! And, at this point, half the nurse’s job is to remind you that it’s not just agony for no reasons, there’s actually a baby in there! And it needs to be born! It reminds me of that period in your creative development when you are getting ready to move to the next level. Where you wonder what the hell are you doing. Where the hell you are going? What the PH you were THINKING when you started this whole thing? Where you have to have utter blind faith that there’s something in there TO come out. This is the time, second only to starting out, when you are most likely to give up.
And actually I think there is a point when you SHOULD give up and just do what you have to do at the final stages of labor, stop pushing and start panting. Oh my goodness! The panting. Yikes! I can’t remember why, but I remember them telling me to do it. And then at the very end, one final PUSH, followed by the blissful bumpity bump of legs and arms. And … Boom! Actual baby! If only we could love our creative productions as unconditionally and instantly. But, then again, perhaps creating a work of art is more like surrogacy than having your own baby. It’s not for YOU. It’s for other people.
So, I’m just saying … By all means lie fallow for a bit. Pant. Keep swimming to build those muscles, even if it’s only in the local swimming pool. But don’t stop! And, most of all, give yourself a break in that other sense.
Because wherever you are, be it near or far from your dreamed-of destination, the endeavor is so difficult, so fraught with doubts, so peppered with failures along the way, at times it feels it would be easier to give up. To keep going requires constant effort, confidence, self belief, preparation, a road map, assistance and encouragement from people around you. A plan. … As Julia Cameron points out in The Artist’s Way, “All too often it is audacity and not talent that moves an artist to center stage.” And just as often, maybe more often, it is lack of audacity, not lack of talent, which makes others give up. [From page 55 of my book]
To quote Andre Gide, “Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.” Or as Po Bronson says in his ‘What Should I Do With My Life’ (and yes, I am the tea-making Tessa referred to in the chapter on community): “The hardest thing was not learning to write. The hardest thing was to never give up.”