Patience is not a fashionable virtue. We live in a world in which delayed gratification can mean waiting 10 whole seconds for a film to load on a ‘slow’ internet connection.
But the patience needed to make art is of an altogether different quality. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke puts it clearly:
Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!
The best work needs not only a huge amount of solitude and attention but also the willingness to let the work gestate.
Incubating the work
The artist Joan Miró also makes the point that art needs a period of gestation.
If a canvas remains in progress for years in my studio, that doesn’t worry me. On the contrary, when I’m rich in canvases which have a point of departure vital enough to set off a series of rhythms, a new life, new living things, I’m happy. I consider my studio as a kitchen garden. Here, there are artichokes. There, potatoes. Leaves must be cut so that the fruit can grow. At the right moment, I must prune. I work like a gardener… Things come slowly… Things follow their natural course. They grow, they ripen. I must graft. I must water… Ripening goes on in my mind. So I’m always working at a great many things at the same time.
This is not how many of us work. We too often work more like battery-hen farmers than like gardners. Producing ‘content’ or churning out prose or poetry by the yard in the hope of Facebook ‘likes’ or Twitter ‘shares’ reduces writers to technicians rather than creatives.
Rilke’s analogy of trees and Miró’s gardening practice propose a much slower way of working. Incubation periods are long. A baby takes her own sweet time to emerge. A crocus bulb will sprout when it’s ready and not before.
And in creative work, an incubation period gives space for the unconscious to play with the work. As T.S. Eliot says in Rosamund Harding’s An Anatomy of Inspiration:
… it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.
While we wait
Waiting isn’t idle as Miró’s gardening analogy illustrates. There is always work to be done. Sometimes the work is in pruning or, as Susan Sontag puts it:
Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.
Sometimes it is in looking away entirely. Letting ourselves get less familiar with a piece of writing so that when we eventually return to reread it we will do so with fresh insight and clarity. Kafke is famously reputed to have had a one word imperative over his desk:
Waiting and congruence
Waiting is good for your writing. It will make it more honed and powerful. It will give your creative unconscious more space to work. It will make your work more ripe and beautiful. Moreover, waiting, as Jason Farman points out in Delayed Response, is a fruitful state, for social relations as well as for art:
Waiting isn’t an in-between time. Instead, this often-hated and underappreciated time has been a silent force that has shaped our social interactions. Waiting isn’t a hurdle keeping us from intimacy and from living our lives to our fullest. Instead, waiting is essential to how we connect as humans through the messages we send. Waiting shapes our social lives in many ways, and waiting is something that can benefit us. Waiting can be fruitful. If we lose it, we will lose the ways that waiting shapes vital elements of our lives like social intimacy, the production of knowledge, and the creative practices that depend on the gaps formed by waiting.
An embrace of the moments when waiting becomes visible can remind us not of the time we are losing but of the ways we can demystify the mythology of instantaneous culture and ever-accelerating paces of “real time.” Notions of instantaneous culture promise that access to what we desire can be fulfilled immediately. However, this logic … misses the power of waiting and the embedded role it plays in our daily lives.
Being patient as writers makes us more patient people. It makes us more congruent and empathic. And it makes us more aware of our writing as process over product.
Waiting and process
This is an impatient world. How do you feel if
- an elevator takes some time to arrive?
- a train is delayed by 3 minutes?
- a website takes a whole minute to load?
- you’re on a train and your phone battery runs out with no way to recharge it?
In a world that has rapidly become unused to waiting, the notion of taking slow time to produce art can jar with the cultural mythology of ‘now, now, now’.
Of course you want to finish your poem, your story, your article, your novel. But will the world end if it takes an extra day, week, year?
So often with art, it is not the being and the creating that is valued but the product. If you tell people you are a writer, do they immediately ask what your book is called and where can they buy it? But what if you write for yourself? What if you are taking your own sweet time to write something you want to put into the world, but only when you feel truly ready?
As someone who runs an independent publishing house, I know this sense of urgency. So often writers approach us not because they have honed their craft and read many great books and know what our ethos is… but only because we appear on a search engine as another possibility for publication.
Waiting for an outcome
Not all writing needs or warrants a public outcome. This isn’t a judgement about quality or any sense of gate-keeping. It’s simply the case that every publishing house is looking for something particular.
Some have an eye to books that will be commercial successes. More cynically, some have an eye to books they can use as tax write-offs to balance against their commercial successes. If it’s a smaller, indie publishing house, there will be a particular ethos. And if you have never read one of their books or subscribed to their mailing list the chances of fitting that ethos are slim to zero.
But the fact remains that the end goal of all writing is not publication. This is a tricky point to make. If someone who is not published tells you that publication is not the most imprortant thing you’d be justified in wondering if this isn’t just sour grapes. If someone who is published tells you that publication is not the most important thing, you might think, it’s all very well for someone who already has a publishing deal to be so cavalier, but what about the rest of us?
Anne Lamott tells the story of being a speaker at a writing conference. While telling the audience:
I promise, swear on my soul, that publication will not make the writer whole and joyful for any length of time, there was an outburst from a seat from halfway down the lecture theatre…
A rather drunken and not happy-looking man challenged her, shaking his fists at her and calling her a liar. She goes on:
This is not an isolated example. Many of the saddest, meanest, most jealous and destructive people I have known or dated have been highly succesful writers.
When we write with an eye to the product, we don’t change the story of who we are and want to become. We’re more likely to cheapen and harm that story, but as Lamott says:
Write because you have to. Because the process brings great satisfaction. Write because you have a story to tell, not because you think publishing will make you the person you always wanted to be.
Write because it brings you joy. Write because it’s who you are. Write for the sake of art and beauty and not because you think it will lead to a contract.
This is not to disuade you from seeking the right publisher at the right time. But take your time and, along the way, revel in the flow, in the trance, in the writing for its own sake.
- let the work gestate.
it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide.
Becoming a different story
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If you would like to explore becoming your story further, take a look at my series of mini-courses to inspire, encourage and support your writing through the seasons of 2019, Diving Deeply into Your Story. You can begin at any point in the year and the next 3-day intensive online journaling retreat, Writing the wild flowering, runs from March 20–22.