Chop Wood, Compose Your Masterpiece, Carry Water.

When do we get the time to be creative? When is the right time to be creative? Will we get enough time to be creative? These are the questions I ask myself these days. Or I should say the questions I sometimes fret over. Often times I’m busy taking care of the business of living: cleaning around the house, working the landscape, shopping for food, balancing the checkbook, preparing food for the next day, getting some exercise in, and of course working the ubiquitous 40 hours. When do I get the time to work on my artistic endeavors? My endeavors usually need a lot of, oh, how should I say…stewing time. For instance I feel a well written story needs a lot of background research. A lot of reading, note taking, reflecting, assembly in the mind first, as to how it could come together. I’m also an inveterate song writer, and again conception, editing, perfection of performance, re-editing and recording (not to mention the steep learning curve of a good recording software) takes a long time with so many details behind the scenes. A so called “spare” hour here or hour and a half there tends to anchor the projects in perpetual drag and can threaten to kill the enthusiasm. The writing can be managed a little bit better in this way, but music tends to require larger windows of time to make real, tangible progress. And of course one needs time for recreation and the chance to be a simple observer in a host of different experiences. How often do you hear music artists exclaim they need to get off the road or out of the recording studio, so they can live a little and thus have new experiences for writing fresh material?

I once had a film studies friend who hated to do the dishes or other chores, because it got in the way of script writing. He’d do them reluctantly and then quickly, haphazardly. This friend also happened to be my roommate, but as I recall he kept the communal areas fairly tidy of his stuff. But it reminded me of what Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Show me a man who lives alone and has a perpetually clean kitchen, and eight times out of nine I’ll show you a man with detestable spiritual qualities.” We might also assume he believed a writer with a clean house is not a writer at all. I’ve been fairly guilty of sharing in Bukowski and my friend’s aversion to doing the chores. I like to think I’m engaging in wabi sabi, the Japanese word expressing the beauty of incompleteness and decay within any object, which reminds us of the transience of all things. But I’m fairly certain it is just a sign of inattentiveness on my part. And is not just time and the elements aging my living space. Maybe as a result of my sitting practice or in just getting older, I’ve been decreasing the laziness that Bukowski’s sentiment can turn into. Even if I agree with Bukowski, that still doesn’t solve the problem that some mundanity will have to blot out a good portion of “spiritual” or creative time.

The poet Witter Bynner once wrote a book about his time spent with the writer D.H. Lawrence, when he accompanied Lawrence and his wife down to Mexico. Lawrence was writing The Plumed Serpent at the time, but Bynner said he never really saw him writing, sitting hard at the desk. He was always up about doing things. Still when Bynner saw him doing mundane things like washing the dishes or engaging in other activities, he did them very attentively and carefully. We can assume Lawrence would be attentive to absorbing Mexico. It was his first time in the country he was writing a book about. And that attentiveness would carry over to all the things he did in that time. Bynner’s book was called Journey with Genius. Perhaps this is how Lawrence was all the time. Perhaps this was a trait of his genius, or was symbiotic to it.

It’s all that time away from the canvas, the pen and paper, the musical instrument, where grace needs to be recognized. Just for the sake of recognition. Not because you want to perfect whacking the weeds, or using the laundromat. Take one of my weekend days, Sunday, for instance. Take this last Sunday. The day I started writing this little essay. I had first to wash my clothes in the morning. I don’t own a car. So the whole project involves a laundry basket balanced on a kid’s scooter, in order to get 3 blocks down to the laundromat.

I’ll admit there’s a wee bit of magic rolling my basket down the street. Probably the kind of magic they might appreciate more in Haiti or Ghana. Anyway, it presents plenty of opportunities to practice grace. And of course washing cloths in machines gives you plenty of down time while you wait. Bring a book and here I can engage in a little scholarly dabbling. Feed the imagination engine by gathering from other writers.

Besides what are artful endeavors but a series of small, mechanical movements done over and over. Like tiny chores. Repeat motions done endlessly, if we ever want to get truly better at them. We decide we have to do those extra gracefully, as they will be part of a story we are presenting. No matter if it’s a song, a painting or a dance. Each little stroke of the paint brush or pluck of the finger is building to tell the story. But we know doing the laundry is also part of a story. Why should it be done any less gracefully? For it’s our very own story. Of course it helps to have an iPod playing Albeniz’ Sevilla performed by John Williams, while folding cloths.

Now most of us are not in the empty space of no thought, paying attention to every breath, while we dust the furniture. Thoughts will drift in and out as we go about are day doing our duties. If we’re not upset or obsessed about something, then those thoughts can be rather pleasant or at least innocuous. Creative thinking often needs a light touch, at least with the very birth of new ideas. It’s times like these when creative gems can bubble up from the well of subconscious memories in between the stream of thoughts. That is if the chore we are doing is not too demanding. I remember the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking once wrote that with his neurologically degenerative disease, he has a long time to think about the cosmos while he is preparing for bed. It seems we can’t really, nor should we want to separate the brilliant thoughts from the mundane activities of our lives.

In a collection of vignettes about the life of the Japanese Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki, one of the early progenitors of Zen Buddhism to the West, there is a conversation recalled between an American student and Suzuki himself. The young man asked what a Zen student should do in his spare time. Suzuki looked puzzled at hearing the phrase “spare time”. After repeating it to himself and thinking about it for a few moments he began to laugh heartedly. The idea that there is a certain time in ones daily life that is extra, that is to be paid more or less attention to, that is either more valuable because it is time doing something you really want to do, or less valuable because it is a diversion or a period of less focused effort, was completely foreign to Suzuki. In Zen Buddhism there is no time that is not important and no activity that should be done with less care and attention.

In Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the master computer that controls the life support systems of the colonists on the moon (Luna), as well as just about everything else, becomes self-aware. The main hero of the book, Mannie, employs the help of Mike the computer, to over throw the colonial government on Luna and gain independence from Earth. Mannie understands that to the newly self aware Mike, learning the skill in telling a good joke is as important as planning out the details of the revolution.

And so I think it is all really just grist for the mill. Trying to separate out creativity from the work-a-day efforts is mistaken. Skillful dishwashing goes hand in hand with skillful calligraphy. Deciding to do one thing quickly and sloppily and another thing with loving attention is perhaps the problem in the first place. Attention to the task itself, no matter what the task, will improve the skill you have with all the tasks, whether they be artful or not. And in this way the time you do get with your creative endeavors burns that much more brightly. I love the Zen story of the monk who searched ardently for enlightenment for many years without success. Then one day at the market he over heard a conversation between a customer and the butcher.

“I am having a special celebration and want only your best cuts”, demanded the customer.

The butcher exclaimed, “What do you mean only my best cuts? All my cuts are the best.”

At that moment the monk was realized.

3 thoughts on “Chop Wood, Compose Your Masterpiece, Carry Water.

  1. I enjoyed reading this post very much. I needed these words today to gain some perspective. I am completely wrapped up in a whole host of creative endeavors and find myself struggling with motivation for the more everyday kind of task. Thank you for such a lovely, insightful post and for the reminder that it is all important work – so good!

    • Well thank you jillbware. A very nice comment. I’m still learning to pay attention to all the things that need to be done, as well as the things I love doing.

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