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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I love that idea, that we are pilgrims on a journey through time. I love that we humans try so hard to find our places on that long road. And I love that you and I are ineffable, numinous pieces of some great mystery we will never fully understand.
I wake with a kind of jolt in my stomach: I know where I am, but I do not know when I am. When in time am I? Are my children both sleeping in the other room? Will I hear their small feet pattering on the floor as they come in to wake me? Will they tumble into bed with Eric and me?
As a witness of thought, it struck me deeply that I must be something much more than what had been running through my mind. I was so identified with thinking that I truly mistook thought for who I was.