We live in a noisy culture -- deliciously, horribly, overwhelmingly, fascinatingly noisy. The kind of work we do as writers and artists both arises from our lives and has to resist those circumstances, in order to happen at all. How is it possible to write poetry or fiction, to create a performance, to make a song, painting, sculpture, or collage? All day long, our email dings, our friends invite us to Facebook parties and causes, and the newsstand and TV push an image of “success” that has to do with maximum visibility and popularity, a version of junior high gone wild.I talk all the time to writers and artists who reach the end of their day without having managed to do much, if any, of their real work. Furthermore, in the midst of all the noise, it can be hard to name for ourselves what exactly that work is, what makes it valuable (to us or others), why we do it.
Fortunately, there are solutions. For me, it's about making commitments to people whose opinions I value, and about having the structure, support, and sense of discovery that comes from community. This helps us to develop productive work habits and to keep to them even when something else seems more enticing or the work is difficult. Knowing this answers for me that perennial question: how do you choose an MFA program? A good MFA program will teach art, craft, literature or art/performance history (and related studies -- critical theory, consciousness, creative inquiry), and ways of navigating the professional world. Just as important, though, a strong MFA program will build community and trust, cooperation rather than competition, as students learn how to name their own artistic lineages, develop strong work habits, and find their ability to make their own particular art, not conforming to anyone else’s aesthetic, but making work that’s unique in the world.
Here are two of my favorite quotes on the thorny questions of talent and habit, because regular, habitual work is one of the surest ways of keeping our inner compass on track:
First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.
Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.
Marilyn Monroe once said, “I wasn’t the prettiest. I wasn’t the most talented. I simply wanted it more than anyone else.” And I sometimes think that I’m just one of the people who comes here every day and does it, even though I don’t feel like it, even though it’s difficult and I feel stupid and brain-dead and unequal to the task. I have days that are complete losses. It’s awful. I just sit and stare at the screen and nothing happens; hours go by and I write down a line and delete it, then write down another line and save it to delete tomorrow. And that’s it. That was the writing day. It happens, with a degree of frequency...I have known writers over the years, enormously talented, who are so self-conscious about it, who are so terrified of ever writing a bad sentence, that they can’t write anything at all. I think a certain fearlessness in the face of your own ineptitude is a useful tool.
(A piece that I wrote for the California Institute of Integral Studies blog -- http://blog.ciis.edu/ -- which I'm posting here for any writers who wrestle with these questions.)