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Artists of a Large and Wholesome Vitality

I saw a quote-photo posted on Twitter the other day:

“I dread writing poetry, for, I suppose, the following reasons: a poem is a terrible journey, a painful effort of concentrating the imagination; words are an extremely difficult medium to use, and sometimes when one has spent days trying to say a thing clearly one finds that one has only said it dully; above all, the writing of a poem brings one face to face with one’s own personality with all its familiar and clumsy limitations.” — Stephen Spender, “The Making of a Poem”

This quote has a context, and the author may have meant something entirely different. But taken by itself, as posted, it annoyed me. Writing, or playing music, or any form of art certainly has its hard moments, times of frustration, disappointment, a sense of lack. But there is no faith or motivation in staying there. So I rewrote it for my own amusement.

“I love playing music, for, I suppose, the following reasons: a song is a beautiful journey, an expressive flow of focusing the imagination; music is a wonderful medium to use, and sometimes when one has spent days working on a tune one finds that there are always more and better ways to play it, because music is infinite; above all, the playing of music can be sometimes daunting because it brings one face to face with one’s own God-given, wondrous, complicated personality with all of its endless, eternal potential.” — Ron Block, “The Making of Music.”

In my life I have seen some of the creative process of varied people: T. Bone Burnett working on the O Brother soundtrack and Down From The Mountain shows, Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane arranging songs for Kate’s record, writing songs with Rebecca Reynolds. I’ve worked with Alison Krauss for nearly 26 years. And I’ve worked on my own material, my own songs, my own practice of music for nearly 40 years.

The best music I have made, and the best I’ve seen others make, has not been from a continual over-focus on “How hard this is!” I have been through hard bits in the studio, where I’m basically thinking, “What’s the name of that truck-driving school?” I’ve been stuck before. “This is hard” solidifies into “I don’t know if I can” which then brings, “I’ll muscle my way through it.” This never ends well.

If I’m stuck, it is not because I’m being lazy. It’s because of thinking, “This is so terribly, extremely difficult, and painful, and I am so clumsy and limited.” This brings stress and tension to my body, which makes it impossible to play music freely. It can bring procrastination, avoidance, and the use of various anesthetics—food, drink, television.

I went through a phase performing with Alison Krauss & Union Station where I was feeling stress and tension before the shows. The solution wasn’t to try harder, to practice more, to be even more prepared (Make no mistake. I am a preparer. That is my bottom line.).

The answer to the stress was to sit in a chair in the dressing room before the show, with the lights shut off, breathe in deeply for a few minutes until my entire body was relaxed (sitting up so as not to fall asleep), and then thank God: “Thank you that I get to play music. Thank you for this band, for this show, for these people. Thank you for putting me here, for filling my life with yourself, with filling me with sufficiency and power to do this work well.” After about 20 minutes of this meditation on reasons to be grateful, I’d get up and get dressed for the show.

This attitude of gratefulness, fullness, and sufficiency changed my entire attitude. I walked out on stage every night thinking, “This is going to be  awesome.” “Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” said G. K. Chesterton. I felt better, played better, was more relaxed, spontaneous, and present.

I see this attitude in the people I mentioned, and other high-level artists I’ve worked with. There’s an acknowledgement of the hard parts, but undergirding it all is the love of the activity and a sense of sufficiency and gratitude in doing it.

We can acknowledge the hard bits. Of course it can be hard. Anything we want to excel in is going to be tough at times. But down beneath the toughness is desire, love, pleasure, fullness, and a sense of sufficiency, even if we have to water the ground on top and till the  topsoil to find it.

Chesterton also said, “Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament.”

The lynchpin of these two views is faith—a sense of gratefulness, fullness, and sufficiency. These things are cultivated; it is the easy thing to stay on the top of the hard ground and live in the terrible, the painful, the difficult, the dull, the clumsy, the limited.

To live in gratitude, fullness, and a sense of sufficiency takes cultivation. We thank, we trust, we sit our posterior in the chair and write, or practice, or study, and by that cultivation we become “artists of a large and wholesome vitality.”


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