Isn’t it a great title? I stole it from Henry James. But the concept is wonderful. One of James’s characters claims that the only way to have true happiness is to have an absorbing errand – something that takes you outside of yourself and keeps you there. I think James means that your life is made much better if you’re engaged in something purposeful – like an art form or serious craft – that gives you a lens through which to approach the world. So, if you’re a wood worker, you have a reason to look closely at the work of all the other wood workers who came before you. You might decide you need to visit lots of houses, or workshops, or other countries, just to see different pieces of furniture. And you’ll need to learn about and acquire various tools, and you might have to take classes or apprentice yourself, and befriend other woodworkers. Before long, trees will have huge new meaning to you. You suddenly have a rich way to enjoy life. And more than that, you have a reason to engage the world – to go outside yourself.
But aren’t artists and craftsmen kind of self-absorbed and inside themselves?
Yes. Sometimes. But it’s kind of a paradox. People go inside and outside at once. Creativity certainly demands some periods of self-absorption. Certain kinds of art-making require solitude. But participating in a creative process also gives you a way to become part of a larger world. Once you start painting, you have a reason to examine the way light falls everywhere around you. If you compose music, suddenly all the sounds in the world “belong” to you! So you’re outside as well as inside. You have a reason to leave home!
There are so many books about creativity, why did you write another?
My book isn’t so much about creativity as about the feelings many people have that interfere with creative mastery – the feelings that keep people from pursuing their particular “errand.” Creativity is a constant in our lives. You can’t get through an hour without being creative: when you figure out the right way to say no to your mother’s dinner invitation without hurting her feelings. Or when you decide to poach pears with candied ginger because you’re out of cinnamon. (It was creative when, during Prohibition, folks who couldn’t get rum started drinking vanilla, but it probably wasn’t wise.) And, of course, every time you dream at night, your dreams are filled with deeply creative expressions of your wishes and fears.
So what do you mean by creative mastery?
I mean getting good at some craft or art form – maybe really good at it. Lots of people dream of painting or writing or making music or quilting, and they get excited and hopeful and they start to try to do it, and then they stop. They get disappointed and decide they’re not talented. Down the road they might try again, but somehow they don’t find a way to stay with it long enough to get good at whatever they’re trying. This book is about how you can learn to stay with your effort in the face of all kinds of discouragement and “stop now” feelings that come up inside you. I tell a lot of stories about artists and craftspeople of all sorts, and I use the stories to draw a map so the territory feels less alien.
What makes you think you know enough to draw a map?
You wouldn’t want me with you when your car slides into a ditch, and I probably wouldn’t be much help on color-coordinating your outfit, either. But I’ve been a psychotherapist for 35 years — a job that demands a fair amount of creativity — and a writer for about as long. So this book brings together the two creative processes to which I’ve devoted much of my life. I use my therapy knowledge to help readers understand something about the psychology of the creative process, and how to survive the road bumps.
What do you mean by your “therapy knowledge”?
A whole lot of what goes on in our minds at any time is not in our conscious awareness. But it seems that at every moment our minds need to have a story about why we do what we do. So we just keep making up stories – whether or not they really make sense. Sometimes they more or less account for the way we actually feel. Other times they cover up the important unconscious feelings that are driving us. So you might say, “I stopped working on the stained glass window I was making because I just didn’t have time.” Okay, time is hard to find in most of our lives, so that’s likely true as far as it goes. But maybe what you didn’t notice is that the day you stopped was also the day your sister-in-law glanced at your half-finished project and said, “That’s different,” in that particular tone of voice she has. And without even noticing how bad the comment made you feel, you just lost interest in working on the window.
Are you saying I’m neurotic and an easy mark?
Not at all. The problem is that mastering an artistic process can make you feel way more exposed than you’d ordinarily feel. The heightened sensitivity that’s a part of most art-making also makes you feel vulnerable. And there are moments in the process of making something when your project feels as fragile as a soap bubble. Someone pokes with a finger, and POP, you feel like it’s over. The book helps you learn about how normal these feelings are, and shows you how other people have learned to survive them. I wrote the book to help people feel less alone in the hard moments.
So what kind of stories do you tell?
All kinds. I talk about people as famous as Julia Child, Michael Jackson, and Charlie Chaplin, and as relatively unknown as the photographer Abe Frajndlich, and many in between – like the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and the painter, Philip Guston. I even write about Lady Gaga.
What makes it worth my time to read this book?
Often times, whether our day jobs are really satisfying – as mine is – or really frustrating, as many people tell me theirs can be, there’s still an after – hours longing to be able to play an instrument, or write something that amuses or moves other people, or paint in a way that expresses your soul – or simply shows others what your eyes see. So, if you’re feeling those feelings, or, if you’ve started down the path of mastery but want some company as you go, then this book’s for you. I hope you read it and enjoy it and tell other people to read it, too!
JANNA MALAMUD SMITH is the author of three books, My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, and Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life. Her titles have been New York Times Notable Books, and A Potent Spell was a Barnes & Noble “Discover New Writers” pick. She has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Threepenny Review, among other publications. A practicing psychotherapist, she lives with her husband and two children in Massachusetts. Her new book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, explores the psychological obstacles and emotions that prevent aspiring as well as established artists from staying with, and relishing, the process of art-making.