Divine Dissatisfaction

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased.  There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” – Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille

I first came across this quote in theatre school, and it hangs on the wall in my classroom for any kid who might be ready to read it – except for that very last bit.  I don’t know that I’m any more “alive” than anybody else; I don’t think that the great highs and lows of the human experience are the sole province of artists*, and I think that creative people who think their creativity renders them superior are really just self-important jerks (sorry, Martha). 

But the rest of this quote rings true, at least for me.  Where the creative process is concerned, I don’t have to believe in myself or my work (if I did, then I’d have to stop working on the days when I don’t believe, and there are lots of those).  And if I try to compare my writing with other work (which is hard not to do), or place a value on it, then I’ll drive myself insane.  It’s not my job to be Salinger and Austen, Christie and Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling, Alcott and Barry, all wrapped up in a bow.  All I am charged with is responding to the urges that motivate me, showing up to the keyboard, and working in the best way I know how, even when I don’t feel like I’m good enough.  Good enough is for someone else to judge.

I am usually dissatisfied with what I write, even when I’m having a good time and feeling great about my progress, because I always know it can be better.  Sometimes, I have to step away from the writing for many weeks to allow it to crystallize before I come back to it.  When I was younger, I completely misunderstood this part of my process.  I thought I was stepping away out of laziness, perhaps, or out of fear, and then I stayed away from the work for too long, because I was ashamed of myself – in rather the same way that a person might neglect to e-mail a friend, say, and then a year goes by, and then it’s so terribly awkward that even though the friend would be happy to get that e-mail, one still doesn’t send it, out of fear.  Now that I’m a little older, I understand myself better: I need the think time as much as I need the writing time.  When I allow myself to have it, without beating up on myself for taking it, I come up with solutions that elevate the story.  I also get to experience the rush I’ve had, for the past four days, careening ahead with the revision and blasting through sixty pages because suddenly it all makes sense.

*Editing to add: I also don’t like the term artist very much, because it’s generally used to describe only those who belong to the few overcrowded, underpaid disciplines known as the arts.  But anything may be done creatively, with artistry.


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