Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ever feel shame, desperation or despair about your art? Janna Malamud Smith talks about how to process it and move on in her new book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way to Mastery

Writer and psychotherapist Janna Malamud Smith seems to have tunneled inside my psyche. Her new book An Absorbing Errand brilliant dissects what happens in the creative mind, and how fear and shame can sometimes cripple our art. But Smith also, and more importantly, shows us how we can actually use those emotions to fuel our work, instead. This particular book was a revelation to me and I'm keeping it by my desk. I can't thank you enough, Janna, for coming on the blog.

Why call art an errand? Can you talk about that?

Actually, it's not simply an errand, but an absorbing errand. isn't that a great phrase? It's from an early Henry James novel. Here's the quotation: "True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one's self, but the point is not only to get out - you must stay out and to stay out you must have some absorbing errand”  In my book I suggest  that life is more meaningful for many of us when we pursue an absorbing errand – like writing, painting, playing an instrument, or mastering some complex craft; and I explore the emotions that interfere with people’s ability to stay with the process long enough to get good at what they do. While we think of art making as introspective, and it certainly is, it also pulls us outside ourselves toward the world. It gives us a way to possess the world – thus it becomes an absorbing errand. 

Why do you think creative work can be so much more frustrating and shame-filled than any other kind of profession? 

I’m not positive we have the corner on frustration and shame. People from other professions might want to weigh in – sex workers,  candidates for elected office, clerks at convenience stores?  That said, I think the reason shame is so at the heart of art-making is that it requires us to reveal ourselves without assuring us first that we’ll be safe in the process. We take what is most private and meaningful to us, and we put it before a public. It’s a big risk. Part of that risk is finding out that something  closely identified with us evokes derision or disgust in someone else – like a reviewer, or an audience.  At such moments it’s hard not to feel intense shame. 

The great frustration many art-makers experience is often simply part of the process of mastery.  In order to push a work of art so that it has a shot at being fully realized, you have to endure a lot of frustration as you try over and over to get it right. And the mind doesn’t just produce on demand. You have to sit with yourself and coax it along.  And you have to tolerate the uncertainty of investing yourself deeply - and investing time - into something that might never come right. After working on it for a year or two, my father burned the only copy of an early novel. He then sat down and began to write another.

I love the whole idea that what keeps us from our work (shame, fear, going public, etc.) can actually nurture our art and ourselves. I've often thought that what separates someone who dabbles with someone who makes a career out of their art is being able to handle these emotions and move forward anyway. Would you agree? 

Mostly.  It’s certainly part of the story. I think that other elements include your urgency to express yourself, whether you can find a way to support yourself and a family while you labor, and whether any market does exist for the things you are passionate about making. But yes, coming to understand the way that these emotional obstacles are part of a normal work process is very important to learning how to stay with the effort long enough to get good, and to produce work that satisfies you and interests others.

Given these negative emotions, how can artists get out there in the world to promote their work and seem as if they believe in themselves--when many don't?  

Many times people who are very gifted artists aren’t good salesmen/women.  Sometimes they have the good fortune to get taken up by colleagues or patrons who will advocate for them. Most of us just have to overcome our reluctance and shyness and make the difficult effort ourselves.  Tom Waits calls the promotion work “washng the dishes.” You’ve enjoyed the meal, and now … the inevitable.  Sometimes, talentless folks who are great self-promoters have dazzling careers. Occasionally, the knack for self-promotion and the talent to do outstanding work show up in the same person. Walt Whitman is one example. 

While there is a dark side to creativity, there is also profound joy, which really makes it all worthwhile. Yes, the joy is in the effort. Stay at your desk, your loom, your potter’s wheel, or your easel through the tough times, and you discover within yourself capacities you never knew you had. These discoveries -  as well as the feeling of a work coming together, or of your  utter surprise sometimes at what emerges from your mind, or of the satisfaction of constructing a whole piece from your own fancy, or of the pleasure you give to others -  are some of the reasons that many of us are drawn to spend some of our time in these pastures.

What's obsessing you now? 

I’m researching a book about the fishing life on an island off the coast of Maine. I’m trying to understand what it felt like to live and work there when fish were abundant; and what it felt like to be part of a tight, interdependent community of independent folks. I learned yesterday that female lobsters can only get pregnant during the brief time their hard shells have molted off. Amazing, no?  Though psychotherapy is my major focus in my work life, I am, in my writing life, something of a dilettante. I get curious about anything I feel deeply about. We’ve been going to this island every summer for almost 30 years, and I’ve become really curious to understand better the people there and their experiences. I’ve been interviewing fishermen for the past few summers. Really fun.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?  

I’d like readers of your blog to understand that I wrote An Absorbing Errand  to offer companionship to people in their own labors. I have learned in my life, and as a psychotherapist, how deeply helpful it can be to have someone sitting beside you looking out on the world with you as you make your way through a large project.  As well as providing a route through some of the major obstacles of art-making, I want the book to help readers feel less alone with their work. 

And thank you for inviting me to answer these questions! 


Sara said...

Wow! Does this ever speak to me. My project is six years in the making, have really begun to bring it out in the last year, knowing there's a market, but feeling sometimes that I'm the only one who treasures my work. Sometimes I want to quit, but I know I can't. Not just because of the time and money already invested, but because the inspiration and the ideas continue to come. I know it will be of use to someone, just have to get it out there in an authentic way. This book is definitely written for me.

Susan said...

What a great interview. And now I need to get that book!!

Anonymous said...

Inspiring quest there. What happened after? Take care!

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