What follows is a selection from Janna Malamud Smith's introduction to her new book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftmen Make Their Way to Mastery, as excerpted in The Sun. Smith's book is reviewed here in the San Francisco Chronicle. Smith is a nonfiction writer and psychotherapist, and the daughter of the fiction writer Bernard Malamud. She lives near Boston.
Indeed, one pleasure of writing is its resolute inefficiency. The necessary thought may come today, or next week while I'm at my desk, or later while I'm chopping vegetables for soup. It resists the sweep of the second hand. ... The poet Richard Wilbur writes about laundry dying on the line, "moving and staying like white water." Moving and staying. A stream rushing into and over rocks illustrates again the contradictory way the work insists you bear time: you must hold still and wait, and yet you must push forward.
And while you may complete many projects, the labor itself is never finished, the mastery never final. This incompleteness, by turns fetching and vexing, is part of its essence. Each moment of mastery is merely a breather snatched at an overlook during a long hike -- a snapshot, a sip of water, and a tightening of one's boot laces. But it is not an arrival. The point of arrival wavers like a heat mirage upon the road, always in front of us. There is always the expanse yet to come -- more to traverse, to learn, to do. It can be frustrating, yet is also offers the comfort we sometimes feel while in transit. Because you are neither here nor there, you share in a traveler's sense of liberation.
The effort to master a craft or an art form is also driven by a mental torque that I would describe as the inescapable psychological pressure created by our longing and our pain. We are, as the philosopher and psycholanalyst Jonathan Lear reminds us, "finite erotic creatures." I love this phrase because it names succinctly the haunting tension between our expansive desire and our inevitable death. Mastery and creative expression are one way to capture energy from this clash and its conundrums. Not unlike the DNA of our cells, the processes we lern well and the objects we make encapsulate, carry forward, and transmit some portion of us, of our erotic energy, into the world, as much "ours" as any breathing offspring we bear.
Perhaps this uncertainty about hitting the high note names a reason people falter or give up trying to learn a craft. They understandably lose faith in the worth of something that is invisible and elusive. Or perhaps they hope that they will somehow not have to offer the process its due -- the inevitable price that comes from living in time, from havign a single life and having each choice eliminate all the other ways we might pass that hour; of having our use of time shape us the way wind shapes a snowbank.
In his 1974 book, Working, Studs Terkel describes talking with a woman who has spent her work life pressing clothes. The woman, as I recall her, is standing between rooms, leaning slightly against the door frame. Terkel describes how, as she speaks with him, her fingers absently reach up and smooth the door frame, just the way for so many years her hands smoothed cloth before she pressed it.
We become the work to which we dedicate ourselves. I know that now but had only begun to grasp it then, while reading Terkel. Sometimes the transformation if physical -- the woman's hands, or Louis Armstrong's cheeks, over years of trumpeting, gradually stretching out like thick balloons. sometimes it's less visible but no less explicit. We cannot both give ourselves over to a process and preserve ourselves from the way our choice alters us.