Focusing on Doing and Not on NamingDecember 21, 2018
Several people wrote to me after my last post When Drawing Isn’t Fun. Most said that they found it helpful in starting an internal dialog with themselves about their creative practice.
But one of my Urban Sketcher friends Tina Koyama wrote a very important point in her comment on that post: Grief. The grief of letting go.
This is something that I’ve written about at various times on the blog, because in 10 years if you’re living your life, there are going to be things that you have to let go of and move forward from.
Adding it in my already lengthy post wasn’t something I considered while writing.
However, since the response to that post has been so strong I wanted to put Tina’s words into a separate post and devote some time to the issue of grief, letting go, and the practicing of focusing on the doing and not the naming of an activity.
Decades ago, I was a poet, or I wanted to “be a poet,” but writing poetry actually brought me no pleasure. I wrote and published for years, some of it quite good, but it took me a while to acknowledge to myself that writing wasn’t fun. Once I did acknowledge it and let myself stop, I was relieved, but I also grieved for a long time because although I wanted to stop writing, I didn’t want to give up “being a poet.” Anyway, fast forward to now (or 7 years ago when I started drawing), and I don’t care about calling myself an “artist” or anything like that — all I care about is drawing and getting better at drawing. I have never enjoyed anything in my life as much as I enjoy drawing, even when it’s hard (which it always is). I feel really sad for anyone who is drawing but who isn’t enjoying it most of the time. But if they are where I was when I was writing, then they do need to let go so that they have room in their lives to find the thing that will give them the kind of pleasure that creative activities bring. We are both lucky to have found the thing.
I love that Tina could articulate her connection with poetry and the craft of poetry so clearly. I loved that she could share so honestly with us that she did not have fun writing. She made a healthy choice to stop writing poetry.
What happened after that—that she was relieved but also grieving—is very important for all of us to stop and consider.
The fact that giving up something, even something that wasn’t fun for Tina, meant that she had really gone all in. She was showing up and trying to make it work. But sometimes things don’t feed us in ways that are sustainable.
Another key point that I hope you take away from her assessment is the realization that when you show up and put the effort into doing something, whether it works out or not, when you stop and let go of that effort expect that there will be a grieving process.
We identify ourselves with the activities that we do.
For decades I was a long distance runner until a non-running related accident ended those efforts.
I was used to the daily dose of endorphins. My young metabolism was used to the need for extra calories, consumed and used up guilt free. But running also defined how I thought about myself in the world, moving in the world, and being out in the world. It defined the types of shoes I wore, the clothing I chose, the people I hung out with.
When we have to give up something that we love, or that we are invested in, something which has come to define us and our sense of self, the grief can be tremendous.
I had my accident shortly before my High School mentor died. I spent the next 8 months or so grieving not only my lack of mobility and the freedom running brought to my life, but the loss of someone who supported me intellectually and simply “got me.”
Those months of regrouping pushed me to the realization that I wanted to get a dog and track with that dog. Emma came into my life because of those two events. And then because of Emma, Dottie came into my life. Both Dick and I agree that we had the two best dogs we have ever known, both different, totally individual, and a blast to be with.
The accident put me at a crossroads where I had to make decisions about going forward. Thom’s death propelled me further into uncertain direction. In time, those events prepared me to let go of another part of myself—the tracker, the dog handler, the beloved of Emma. (Dottie was always a puppy her entire life, but to be with Emma who was so intelligent and so moral was the struggle and reward of a lifetime learning to deal with other species and understand “other.”)
How we think of ourselves, how we name what we are based on activities and our expectations will change us. And as we evolve further we may find that we also have to grieve the loss of additional aspects of ourselves.
I wanted to bring this up today because I wanted to make sure after reading my last post you all understood that grief is part of the growing process.
But I also wanted to write about Tina’s comments today so that you would take a moment to read them and think about them, and then think hard about how the labels you apply to your activities, the labels you create to identify your self image will have an impact on your life and the balance you find in life.
It’s good to acknowledge when things matter to us. It’s good to acknowledge honestly when things aren’t working for us (or aren’t fun). Those realizations help us to make choices.
But it is also important to realize that sometimes what we don’t want to give up is a construct that doesn’t work for us any longer. There is something better and more balanced waiting for us if we take a step forward.
What Tina realized was that she didn’t want to give up “being a poet.” It was part of her definition of self. But it came to the point where that definition didn’t work for her.
By giving up that definition of herself she was able to open herself to the “doing” of art—to drawing and getting better at drawing, and not stopping to worry about labels.
The important lesson in all this is complex. We change, we grieve, bits of ourselves are left along the way, but the one thing that can give us joy in life is to find the skill to keep enjoying our creativity—through any means we can find.
It’s going to be different for each of us.
I cop to being the fool who’ll walk out in a field, the freezing horizontal rain stinging my face so smartly that I can hardly open my eyes, unable to stop laughing because my tracking dog has survived surgery and is working ahead of me, pulling us towards our goal. That’s not for everyone!
And neither is drawing.
We need to always remember to let go. To let go of the naming that identifies us, and instead embrace the doing. It’s in the doing that the true joy can be found.
We need to also remember that the naming of a thing, and the identifying of the self with an action is not the only thing that can catch us up. Cathy Isner wrote to me and said that she loved the exploration of art materials and the possibilities inherent in each new art supply. Then she realized that she’d lost the love of drawing and painting.
That realization brought a sense of loss because it created what she called a void.
She even understood that she put off the realization by continuing to go through the motions by picking up new supplies.
It’s really common. So many creative people I know dig themselves deeper and deeper into a creative ditch by doing what they have always done to get by creatively, by relying on an unquestioned habit or action.
And in the process they stop and wonder where all the joy is going.
You can still find a way back to your creativity. But you have to be honest with yourself like Tina and Cathy have been.
You do this by looking at your situation assessing what is going on. You know whether you are happy or not. You know whether or not you are doing something for healthy reasons. You do know. You just need to sit for a short while and listen to yourself, undistracted by the world and the definitions you use in the world to define yourself.
And from there it’s a matter of choosing a way to express yourself, and exploring that way, and not gumming it up by naming it. Just wallow in it. See what happens.
I believe that when we embrace the doing we actually find what gives us balance.
Remember, that’s what Ruskin insisted in that quotation I included last time! You have to learn to do a thing, for the pure joy of doing it.
Sometimes we end up connecting two or more things together to give us balance, sometimes we pare things away.
But the route to fun and joy in our creative lives is to embrace our creativity in whatever way we feel moved to express it, and to not spend time naming it.
Expect things in life to change. Expect to lose bits of yourself. Allow yourself to grieve over those bits. Celebrate that you had those bits to begin with and were sensible enough to exercise them.
And now be sensible some more and do that which brings you great joy, just in the doing.
If you can do that you’ll be exercising your creativity to its fullest. You might even find yourself giggling in the freezing rain.
Postscript 12.21.18, 7:30 a.m. I was looking for something on the blog and found this post on Momentum and it deals with expectations and doing. So if you’re wondering how to fit things into your day and do them and not name them it might be helpful to read that post as well.