Showing Up, Flaws and All

I had the most eerily auspicious experience today.

I listened to a TED Talk playlist called “Kickstart Your Creativity” while I walked. Although I’d heard most of the talks before, they resonated just as much the second time around. The playlist ended before I got home, but a final lesson waited for me on the sidewalk a few steps ahead.

Elizabeth Gilbert gave the first talk on the playlist and spoke persuasively about the necessity for artists to show up every day to do their work—no matter what the results.

Maybe your performance last night inspired the crowd to chant your name and call you a god.  The next day, you wake up as the same-old-you and go practice your craft. Maybe yesterday, your latest work failed so miserably critics didn’t even bother writing about it. Today, you show up to practice your craft.

Extreme successes and failures aside, I think practicing a craft every day is difficult.

It’s not just finding the time. It’s finding the motivation. How do you keep showing up when your daily work seems to be going nowhere? Why keep walking in circles?

Phil Hansen, a visual artist, spoke at TED about embracing limitations. When Hansen developed a nerve disorder that caused his hand to shake, he abandoned his intricate stipple art and used everything from hamburger grease to Starbucks cups as material for his masterworks. His physical limitation inspired him so much that he manufactures further limitations, like not letting himself spend more than one dollar on supplies for a sculpture, or giving himself only a banana and a push-pin to create a piece of art.

He, too, concluded his talk by affirming that artists must show up every day to engage in the creative process, no matter how well or terribly the current project seems to be going.

I’ve never been able to write every-single-day-without-fail. I’ve tried numerous times but have never lasted for long. Years ago, I decided the daily effort simply didn’t work for me; however, I recently looked over some of my old writing and drawings, and I discovered two things.

First, deeming what I worked on as “good” or “bad” proved either meaningless or relative. Some essays I’d thought were pretty good at the time, grate on my nerves now. Some other pieces I’d thought drab and pointless, contain a whimsical image I want to illustrate now or an insight I couldn’t see initially.

Second, I noticed a trend. When I quit working steadily on writing or art, either because I got busy, used that as an excuse, or got frustrated, I was sometimes on the verge of good work.  I can see it years later.  What I thought was failing was actually emerging, not terrible at all, and in some cases, better than what I can do now that I’m less “in shape.”

The TED Talks concluded, and as I finished my walk, I thought about what flaws I could embrace the way Hansen described. Listing flaws came easily, but seeing them as a creative asset proved harder.

Just minutes later, I passed a house with a poetry pole in the yard. Instead of a poem, the page displayed three thick paragraphs of prose which made me curious enough to back up and read the story, which proved to be serendipitous timing to put it lightly:

Every day, a man carried two pots to the river to fill with water for his master. One pot was perfect and stayed full of water. The other had a crack that leaked and left the pot only half full by the time the man returned to the master’s house.

After two years, the flawed pot felt so ashamed by its failure to hold all of the water that it managed to speak to the man. It apologized, but the man asked, “What for?” After the pot explained, the man told the pot to look around on the walk back to the master’s house. The pot noticed the landscape and flowers along its side of the path. “So?” asks the pot. The man asked, “Did you notice there are no flowers on the other side of the path?”

The man had planted seeds and let the flawed pot water them on the way back from the river every day. Without the pot’s flaw, the flowers would not have existed.

The pot thought it had only one purpose, at which it had failed. Instead, the pot’s flaw made beauty possible. The flaw created art, and the pot achieved more than it had imagined for itself.

And now I get it. I get why I’m supposed to practice my craft every day. I may or may not achieve beauty, but the only way to find out is to slog along one day after the next, accepting my flaws and embracing my limitations.

Maybe whatever we practice in our daily lives—showing up to work every day without a scowl, raising kids or gardens or pets, tending to neighbors and friends—will yield something even better than what we’ve imagined, if only we can stick with it every day and trust that our efforts add up over time, whether or not we notice the results.

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5 Responses to Showing Up, Flaws and All

  1. Rose L. says:

    I love that cracked pot story!
    Many of my writer friends are dedicated and spend at least a couple hours a day writing. I sometimes feel like a failure as I find it difficult at times to find the words and make them flow into something wonderful. I have a huge list of “jump starts” to try to help me create a poem, and sometimes it works, sometimes not. There are days when, no matter what I do–try jump starts, try story starters, try a springboard (as Paulann Petersen does)– I feel as if I am empty of anything (even a drop of water!) close to being creative. Often the stresses of every day seem to monopolize my time or fill my mind so the writing does not happen. When I am weighed down with worries, I know that writing is impossible.
    When something does happen, I feel elated, and it makes me feel less a failure.

  2. tristac says:

    You’re absolutely right about the stresses of the day zapping the writing muscles. All the more reason to consider ourselves quite successful if we manage to practice writing most/every day, no matter what the outcome. For now, I’ve told myself that even 10 minutes earns a pat on the back.

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