The Artist Begins Again and Again

As artists and creative people we are filled with the best of intentions. We are inspired with big visions and a longing to express ourselves freely and fully. We begin a project – whether writing a book, painting a canvas, or composing a song – with enthusiasm and full of confidence. Then somewhere along the way we find our energy waning, and the artwork we once felt such delight in has now become a source of vexation. It hangs over our head as a symbol of our failure as an artist.

Perhaps we encounter what the desert monks called acedia, which is a kind of restlessness and has been called the “noonday demon.” Halfway through the journey of the day, ancient monks would find themselves bored and distracted. Their spiritual practice would wane, perhaps because they held high expectations about how they should already have achieved transformation or enlightenment, and the contrasting realities of daily life would dull their commitment.

This is why we call it practice. The monks knew that the only response to acedia was to continue to practice. When we feel full of judgment for ourselves, the only response is to continue to show up and face our resistance. We can construct all kinds of ways to abandon the creative journey and return to a life where we settle for less. These are the temptations of the heart, written about by mystics for centuries, so why should we be surprised that we confront these same struggles as well?

Monastic spirituality calls us to return again and again to the practice of showing up, of being still, of opening our hearts to an encounter with the holy. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers we hear this story: Abba Moses asked Abba Silvanus, “Can a man lay a new foundation every day?” The old man said, “If he works hard he can lay a new foundation at every moment.”

St. Benedict in his Rule writes four of my favorite words: “Always we begin again.” No matter how far I stray from my practice, there is always an invitation to begin again. Not just each day, but each moment offers us the chance to lay a new foundation.

There will be days when we don’t feel like coming to blank page or canvas or the meditation cushion. There will be days when life seems to conspire actively against this, and we begin to believe that the creative life just isn’t possible for us or that our lives are too full to cultivate this kind of free expression. This is acedia talking, a kind of dialogue with the inner critic that haunts most artists and sabotages our sincerest efforts. When this happens—and it will happen—our invitation is to gently notice this and begin yet again.

The next time you find yourself resisting time spent with your creative passion, draw on the wisdom of monks and make a commitment to start anew right now. Hold yourself lightly, perhaps even seeing humor in your patterns. Humor is rooted in the word humus, which means earthiness and is also the root of the word humility.  Acknowledge that you are human and to be human means to forget sometimes our deeper desires. Embrace your imperfections as the landscape of your journey.

Each morning ask where you need to begin and start there with humility, compassion, and with holy anticipation. Everything else follows this.

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE is the online Abbess of www.AbbeyoftheArts.com, a virtual monastery offering resources and classes for integration contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is a Benedictine oblate, living as a monk in the world, and the author of six books on monasticism and art including The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom.

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Image credit: Amazon.com

10 Comments

  • Jonathan Evens says:

    Thank you for an excellent post which which I fully identify and which seems to have some resonance with my poem ‘The Mark’ below:

    The Mark

    Begin, begin,
    let something be.
    Make a blot,
    a dash, a stroke.
    Make your mark.
    Obliterate the anonymity
    of the white-blank page.
    Intervene
    in the seeming
    infinite abyss
    of nothingness.
    From nothing
    to something
    by means of
    mark-making.
    Creation waits
    to be discovered,
    uncovered,
    never fully conceived,
    growing through
    relating.
    Follow the trail,
    the sign,
    one mark
    at a time
    to a novel,
    a poem,
    a painting.
    Begin, begin,
    in the beginning
    is the word,
    the mark,
    the world.

    • Christine Valters Paintner says:

      Jonathan, thank you for sharing this beautiful offering. These lines especially shimmer for me today: “From nothing / to something / by means of / mark-making. / Creation waits / to be discovered. . .”

  • David Bunce says:

    Thanks for the post – I definitely recognise this pattern from my own writing and website designing processes (and one a wider level, in my own life). The gap between the vision of where I want to get to with a project and where I currently am often seems insurmountable.

    Sometimes I think the only thing that marks a successful artist from a non successful one is a dogged determination and gritted teeth that, in the face of yet another set back, defeat or loss of inspiration, says “I’ll have another go tomorrow”.

  • Christine Valters Paintner says:

    David, so true that beginning again applies to all of life. As I often remind myself, what makes a writer is someone who actually writes, that is all that is needed, and sometimes most challenging.

  • Caran says:

    Thank you for reminding me that art is not something outside of myself that only exists to frustrate me when I cannot achieve the vision. You have shown me that art is actually a part of my spiritual practice. “Practice” is truly the operative word here.

  • Imogen says:

    Thank you for the description of acedia. Now I can understand what is happening as I am finding it so hard to start the artists life I feel called to.
    Thank you also for introducing me to this website,Christine, I live in St Andrews and did not know about it!

    • Cole Matson says:

      Imogen,

      If you’d like to meet anyone involved with Transpositions, I’m available! I coordinated the Art & Monasticism week. I also have a copy of Christine’s book The Artist’s Rule which you may borrow if you don’t have yours yet! (Though I highly recommend purchasing one – we’ll have a review up of the book later in the year.) I’m also a working artist (in the theatre) and would be happy to converse about the artist’s life.

      Cole

      • Imogen says:

        Cole, I would love to meet up and discuss your work on the week. Imogen

        • Cole Matson says:

          Imogen,

          Shoot me an email at ccem (at) st-andrews.ac.uk with a place and time that’s good for you.

          Cole

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