55. Your True Work
Nothing tires you out quite so much as a chore you don’t want to be doing, and nothing gives you strength so much as doing something you love. Some artists will describe it as, “getting on a roll,” or, “being in the zone.” It’s a magical state of being that justifies every sacrifice you’ve ever made, every wound you’ve ever suffered, in the pursuit of your creative ambitions. It’s when you finally look up at the clock and hours have passed, effortlessly and without notice.
In Bernard Leach’s 1975 book, Hamada, Potter, Leach’s wife tells a story quoting Hamada as saying, “Your true work makes you stronger.” It seems that he needed to decorate some 400 pots on a day when he was also expected in Tokyo in the evening and would have to catch a particular train to get there. The long and the short of it is that the ease and gracefulness of his decorating steadily improved throughout the day until his helpers ran out of undecorated pieces twenty minutes before his self-imposed deadline. Though the level of activity nearly exhausted his audience, Hamada himself seemed to display no fatigue.
People working in “normal” careers for reasons of finance or stability may never experience the energizing benefits of work. For them work is always simply drudgery and obligation. On good days the work flows smoothly and without difficulty, or problems down the line interrupt the pattern and the employee sits idle, happy to have nothing to do at all. But every day going to work is simply something that must be done and retirement is nothing but a distant dream, a chance to finally live as one would choose to live.
I, like most artists, have had a few, scattered moments of practicality where I wondered if indeed life might be much simpler if I just closed up the shop. Wouldn’t life be better, more enjoyable, without the chores and disappointments of a ceramics studio? Couldn’t I support my family more successfully as a regular citizen in a more conventional career? Shouldn’t I be heroic in the way that everyone else is being heroic, going for the steady paycheck, being a cog in the machine?
And then I’ll have a session where I’ve dragged myself down to the studio, merely to check on how things are drying, and end up spending hours trimming and pulling handles just because “the pots are ready now.” In a mundane world whose many demands exhaust me I have often been reinvigorated by the work of being a potter. It hardly seems like work at all. How could any other work be better?
Only that kind of love and that kind of energy will get you through the difficult times of your education and career. Only your true work will make you strong enough to succeed, strong enough to put in the hours, the repetitions it takes to achieve true mastery.
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