Four Insights Toward Mastering Your Art

Engagement leads to mastery, so how do you get there?

Posted Oct 09, 2012

stop time
If you've been following this blog at all, you know that flow is about getting so deeply engaged in what you're doing that time seems to stop, or at least ceases to matter. How you get there and, especially, why it's worth the effort, is the subject of an elegantly conceived new book by Janna Malamud Smith. Its title: An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery.

Janna Malamud Smith is the author of three previous nonfiction titles, one of which is a memoir of her Pulitzer Prize-winning father Bernard Malamud. She has written for major newspapers and is a Massachusetts-based psychotherapist.

What I like about Smith's book is that her ideas and suggestions are placed in context, using analogies from common activities in our lives. We are not told to stick to our art or craft by "just doing it." Rather, we are shown how she pursues her own art—writing—as well as how she feels when she is doing it, how artists and craftsmen of all kinds create and achieve mastery, and how various writers and psychologists describe what's happening when such effort is being made.

The four insights I include here are only a tiny bit of the book, actually pulled from the first few pages. Smith also writes about fear, shame, creative solitude, and something she calls artistic ruthlessness. She does so beautifully, integrating with seeming effortlessness references to the words of others. I'd recommend this book as the gentlest inspirational guidance for those who, like me, sometimes get discouraged or dispirited but who truly want to get back to the work we love so well.

Four Insights

1. Taking (some) control is rewarding. "Pursuing any practice seriously is a generative, hardy way to live in the world. You are in charge (as much as we can ever pretend to be—sometimes like a sea captain hugging the rail in a hurricane); you plan; you design; you labor; you struggle. And your reward is that in some seasons you create a gratifying bounty."

2. Stay in your chair in spite of distractions. "If I mostly stay in my chair for half the morning, or several half mornings in a row, or many; if I resist enough of the temptations meant to distract me from the anxiety of the effort, then I often find my way through the soul's dreary sleet into something better...On such days, I end the morning's work feeling purposeful, grounded, even confirmed in some inchoate sense that, although I will suffer my portion of disappointment, grief, ill health, busywork, and commuter traffic, I am indeed living the life I want to live."

3. Mastery takes time. "Ten years rings true to my experience. Half a decade to begin to set your foot firmly. Yet even mastery so described is only a breather snatched at an overlook on a long hike...There is always the expanse yet to come—more to traverse, to learn, to do."

4. Naming your fears is freeing. "The effort of pushing worries and fears—such as the fear of failing—out of our conscious minds and hiding them from ourselves can also keep us overoccupied and too mentally busy to focus on the work...When we let ourselves know and name our real apprehensions, their power tends to diminish.


For context about Smith and her famous father, see this interview.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry