The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
That’s a quote from The Analects attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 20 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about Mentors and the idea of how Talent Borrows and Genius Steals. How mentors, even dead ones, or especially dead ones, can be a Door to inspiration by copying and learning, again and again, from those who’ve gone before us, to embrace the Imagination, and move towards creation, not away from it. As I said before, you may not find too many mentors, but when you find even one they can inspire you, enthuse you with passion and positive madness, because in the end mentors are friends – they’re there when you’re dejected and down from rejection, or whatever other Wall is stopping you from creating.
So today I want to talk about something that’s very much attached to apprenticeship to a creative practice, to the journey of learning your craft, and that’s work, because if you don’t work at what you’re into, moving the mountain, stone by stone, then you can never thrive at what you love, or strive to mastering what you love, things I talked a lot about in the last episode. Works and work become one because the works will not come without the work. When we create, when we first draft our creation it is most of the time not fully formed. It needs to be worked on, because it has come out of the enthusiastic madness and blindness of seeing inspiration. The creation comes out of the ether, unconscious, emotions, impulses, spirit, whatever you want to call it. One thing leads to another, for me it can be one word leading into another, or one phrase or sentence into another. For an artist she could be simply following the movement of the brush on the canvas. This primary flow state brings joy. It is seductive. It is oftentimes the fun part, the healing part, of our imagination. It’s mysterious. Out of nowhere the book, painting, sculpture has appeared. But when it appears then the other work starts. The work of thinking. The work of reason. The questions arrive. Do I need to work more on this, or that. Does this need to go or be expanded upon?
So, there’s something I want to clarify here: Work is work, not a job. A job is what you do in order to do your own work. A job earns money, pays the rent. Your work, your creative work, will not always pay, depending on what it is you’re into – that will not happen after a few days or weeks. Most creators only start to make money creating after years, and oftentimes decades. The contemporary myth that you can make money from your work after a degree or a few years creating is simply not true. Yes, there are those that win the literary lottery and get high six figures for a novel, or sell out their first show on Manhattan, but for most creators this is not the case. To get a living wage from the arts, from creating, will take time, a lot of it. So, your work, again, not your job, is what feeds your soul. By apprenticing yourself, as I said in the last episode, either to Gladwell’s 10,000 hours or a Guild of old’s 7 to ten years, by becoming a journeyman, then some day you will become a Master, the one that makes the money.
So, in the interim, make sure the work is the reward itself, that whole idea of the journey and the destination. If you only think of the destination then the creative journey will be lost to you, the ten to twenty years will be lost to you. Your work will test you. It has to. Otherwise, how would you be learning, getting better. Again, the work is not your job, but this doesn’t mean you can’t be creative in your job too. I love renovating old buildings. I think it’s fun. Some people love it even more than I do, that’s their primary work. The important thing is to understand the distinction between your work and your job. You can love your job, but it’s not always your work and vice versa.
We were inspired by so many of the people that came to us at our retreat in the south of France about this idea of work, and how to approach it. One former Muser, a landscape architect and photographer from Oregon, approaches his life like any of the large gardens he creates: He talks about how he turns the dirt over here and spreads compost over there. He trims the hedges on this project and spreads some seeds on that one. He does a little watering over here and weeds a bit over there. Over a period of time, he enjoys watching his projects, his works, grow. He organizes his life in the same way. He says different facets of his life are consistently tended to and allowed to take their own shape.
Stephen Pressfield, a writer I enjoy has written a book called Do the Work. I completely agree. You have to do the work. Like this podcast. I have to put in the work, over time. I have to be consistent. I have to put the research in. Plan it. Edit my thoughts. Change. Evolve. Because the work always evolves, but the time spent on it does not change. It is consistent. Pressfield would never have finished a book if he didn’t plant his posterior at his desk every day for a specific amount of time, to do the work. For myself, I wouldn’t be up to this episode, number 20, if I hadn’t planted my posterior on the seat too, entered the private space to get inspired and work on what comes to make it better.
I love the way work ends at 4 for a lot of places in Maine. Yes, they might start at 6 or 7, but they end at 3 or 4, so they have time to live. That’s a work ethic. I’m not saying you have to create for that long every day but there has to be a work ethic, otherwise the creation literally cannot come. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. The American artist Chuck Close has the same kind of understanding, what he calls his “way of operating,” equating creativity with work ethic. He says:
Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.
When my daughter was 9 years old I was listening to her play her cello, until she stopped. She surprised me by pausing for a moment to look out the window until she said this: “Dad, you know, Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was my age.” She was smiling, all excited. I was making crepes. She’s addicted to crepes. How was I to approach this? Mozart was a workaholic. When he was 28 years old his hands were deformed. He was completing works right before they had to be performed to keep his family fed. I told her, “He was a very hard worker. Sometimes you have to work very hard to get things like that created.”
Again, this might sound facile, but you’ve got to do the work. You want to be a painter. Paint. You want to be an architect. Design. You want to be a mechanic. Repair.
Do the work. Make mistakes. Repeat. Until some day, there’ll be a painting, house, car, standing in front of you you’re proud of, until you do the work again, and create another one, hopefully a better one.
Creators use inspiration but for the most part it’s Edisonian perspiration. You have to put your ass on the seat or in front of the easel. Prodigies like Mozart are rare, but even prodigies work hard. Your work ethic doesn’t have to be like Mozart’s, but there has to be one. We can be just as persistent as long as we remain balanced, allowing ourselves to daydream and play too.
Yes, we all have to work for the man, at some stage, unless we’re independently wealthy. Yes, it can be exhausting. The treadmill. But, what you create can also help you through your day job. Don’t let your day job define you. My wife, Kerry, didn’t want to be defined by her job at a style magazine. She didn’t want working until very late at night to stop her writing, so she’d get up at five in the morning, write, and then run. She chose not to go to parties, and when she did she was very selective.
You don’t have to create what you love all day long. It can simply be a couple of hours out of every week.
This does not mean you work all the time. A wise business friend of mine once told me a story. An acquaintance of his, the CEO of one of the biggest companies in France, was once asked, “How can you take the whole month of August off and still get so much work done?” He said, “I do thirteen months of work in eleven, but I could never do thirteen months in twelve.”
Our work is better if we play, if we have down time. Google and 3M, as well as many other companies understand this now. So, make sure you have down time, but do the work too when you’re supposed to be working. Be consistent.
And another thing: can you allow yourself to be joyful? Sound crazy? Think about it for a second. What are you going to lose by doing the work for you, too? It could be a laugh to respect your dreams, and value your own feelings. Thirty years from now, will you be more upset that you didn’t make the effort to at least try to create what you love? Potential is one thing, doing is another. We learn by doing. By making mistakes, and with time we get better. That’s work.
As I said so many times in the first half of this podcast, we build many Walls not to do creative work, one of the biggest being: “I can’t abandon my family, my job, etc.” It’s not about one or the other. It’s about routine and starting small.
An example: Alice Munro wrote in her laundry room in between washes, meals and raising children. These moments and minutes added up to stories, and books and a Nobel prize. She created what she could, with what she had. You don’t need a recording studio to record your songs. The Walls want a recording studio in Nashville or a writing office at the end of the garden, or a huge white studio in the garage. Creation wants consistency, to allow inspiration to appear, and to allow that inspiration to be worked on again the next day or the day after that.
A distinction: Work is a frame of mind. The carpenter or mason who goes to work as a drudge are not the same as the carpenter or mason who goes to work because they love their job. Then it’s not a day job. Then they’re being creators. When they build a house, a chair, a wall, they’re creating, not working.
There is no set amount of work that has to be done, X amount of plays or poems. Shakespeare didn’t say, I’m going to write X amount of tragedies and X amount of comedies. He just wrote what he wrote. He did the work. He wrote nearly every day. Blake didn’t think, Oh, I’m going to write “The Songs of Innocence and Experience”. He wrote the poems. They became the collection. He did his work and it became what it became.
Doing the same thing every day, over time, can be very productive. So, work every day. Be focused, something I’ll talk about in the next episode. If you’re focused on the work, and work consistently, then the book appears, the project gets done, the Imagination mysteriously steps into reality in front of you as a creation.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a Chinese philosopher, but as I always do I’m going to end this episode with an Irish proverb. This one literally means:
Work is better than talk.
Is fear blair ná caint.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.