The Artist’s Journey, #14
Continuing this serialization of The Artist’s Journey. For the past few weeks we’ve been talking about the professional skills the writer, the painter, the actor, the filmmaker develop on her journey. Pretty soon we’ll be getting into my favorite part, the deep stuff, the crazy stuff, the stuff you can’t prove but that you know is true. If you’ve missed any of the prior posts in this series, catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13.
62. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO HANDLE PRAISE
Before, she would have been seduced by that rave in The New York Times. It would’ve gone to her head. She would have become insufferable.
The ordeal of her real-life hero’s journey, however, has taught her humility. “Yeah yeah,” she thinks as she assesses the critic’s over-the-moon adulation. “And what’ll you write next time?”
She accepts the plaudits with gratitude, then goes back to work.
63. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO HANDLE PANIC
I interviewed a test pilot once. He told me that over the course of his career he had put more than two hundred and fifty airplanes into deliberate tailspins to test the crafts’ physical limits.
“Of course you are scared,” he said. “But you understand what causes a tailspin. And you know how to pull out of it.”
The artist learns that panic strikes at that point in a project when a creative breakthrough is imminent. Panic is Resistance pulling out the stops to keep us from ascending to the next level.
The artist, like the test pilot, learns to stay cool and keep flying the plane.
64. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO GIVE UP
In Eugen Herrigel’s 1953 classic, Zen in the Art of Archery, the author, a deeply serious student of Zen Buddhism, travels to Japan and enrolls in an academy of archery.
In this school the physical act of drawing the bow and loosing the arrow (as also in other schools with meditation, martial arts, the study of calligraphy or flower arrangement or mastery of the tea ceremony) is not undertaken for its own sake but as a portal to insight, to enlightenment.
For Herrigel, the process came down to one challenge: the simple act of releasing the bowstring.
Herrigel could not get it right.
He would draw the bow with the fingers of his right hand (in Japan this act is performed with the thumb and forefinger) pulling the string back to its full stretch. Then he would release the string, shooting the arrow toward the target.
Hundreds, thousands of times Herrigel attempted to do this, but always his instructor found fault with his technique.
“The bowstring,” declared Herrigel’s teacher, “must release itself without your will or consciousness. You are thinking too much. You are trying too hard.”
Herrigel was instructed to hold the stretch until the string escaped from his fingers by itself, so that the release came to him as a surprise.
The setting for the student of an unsolvable riddle, a koan, is at the heart of the teaching of Zen.
The idea is to exhaust the aspirant’s will, to extinguish his ego, to break down his stubborn, prideful mind and his compulsion to control the event. The moment of breakdown is the moment of breakthrough.
But how do you do it?
How do you try and not-try?
How do you do and not-do?
How do you find your subject?
How do you find your voice?
How do you find your point of view?
65. THE ARTIST LEARNS TO GO BEYOND WHAT SHE KNOWS
The artist can feel it when she’s working beyond her limits. Her blood thrills. She loves it.
This is the rush of working in the arts. It’s why she came to this dance.
We can sense it, you and I, when we’re playing it safe. And we know, too, when we’ve stepped out beyond the light of the campfire.
Out there is where all good things happen.
66. THE ARTIST LEARNS TO BE BRAVE
Elite warriors are trained to “run toward the sound of the guns.”
The artist lives by that principle too.
What project terrifies her most? What work is she certain she can never pull off? What role will push her past her limits, take her into places she has never gone? What journey will carry her off the map entirely?
The artist hears the guns. She feels the battle lines inside her and she senses which quarter of the field terrifies her most.
She goes there.
She runs there.
67. THE ARTIST LEARNS TO KEEP THE PRESSURE ON
Every work resists you. It wrestles against you like an alligator. It kicks and bucks you like a bronc.
The artist learns to “sit chilly,” as the renowned equestrienne Sue Sally Hale used to say.
He answers the bell every round. He refuses to go down. He will keep the pressure on week after week, month after month, year after year.
He knows the oak will fall.
The enemy will tire.
The gator will roll over and quit.
68. THE ARTIST LEARNS HOW TO KILL
The struggle between the artist and her work is a duel to the death.
One of them is going to surrender.
One of them will go belly up.