When I was in high school being on stage wasn’t quite yet my version of Hades. Despite growing stage fright, I participated in a number of productions. No matter how confident I was that I had diligently learned my part, when faced with lights and the space of the stage in rehearsals, I inevitably froze and found myself unable to remember my lines.
I remember being told to repeat the words, “watermelon watermelon watermelon…,” until the adrenaline of embarrassment or the sheer muscle memory of moving my mouth brought the line back to conscious thought. And it seemed to work… almost every time.
There’s something to slugging through those moments of paralysis. Painter Chuck Close is often quoted for saying, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and work.” I remember reading something in college in which artist Faith Ringgold was quoted as saying, “Art is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Over and over again, the artists whom I admire, whose work is compelling in concept and craft—these artists talk about what we might categorize as “work ethic.” They acknowledge that when faced with a blank canvas or page, sometimes we freeze. Showing up to work, whether we have an idea or not, is like saying, “watermelon, watermelon, watermelon….”
I recently encountered a short video that animates a segment of wisdom from Ira Glass, host producer of the popular NPR show This American Life. I shared it with my students, because while he affirms the need to make as much work as possible, he also explores a slightly different motive: because working, whether we know what we’re doing or not, is the way we close the gap between what we can envision and what we’re actually able to accomplish.
Any person working in a creative discipline encounters hurdles, or perhaps the places we get stuck feel more like tar pits. But we do sometimes get stuck because we don’t know the answers, let alone the questions, when it comes to our work. When that happens, just show up and work. Thinking about work, talking about work, preparing for work—anything other than actually making work (watermelon, watermelon, watermelon…) isn’t really going to help us discover more clearly the larger narrative we are trying to convey.
So: show up. Do your part. Keep things real. And keep it what you love. So what if you freeze. As long as you don’t stay frozen, you’ll be just fine.
p.s. if you’d like to see the animation (and I think you’ll probably like it), find it here.
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My sick body is still good. She is still me. She is still wise and strong. My female body—to which others believe they are entitled—is still my home. She is still my power. Our stressed and strained bodies are waiting for us to return to them.
Teaching has saved me some days. When I didn’t want to get up but had to because there was George Saunders or Sandra Cisneros to read and discuss, I was saved from the pit of Myself Left To Myself that I remember preachers often scaring me into.