Invest Your Agony in Ecstasy

While reaching up to smear off an unsatisfactory cloud-form she had just swirled on, Gail voiced our mutual frustration. “Why does creative work,” she wanted to know, “always demand that you give everything?”

On this third day of practice—one more than we had planned for—we were both tired and more than a bit discouraged that it was taking so long to develop our technique. Thinking we had perfected it, we had begun the final test of rendering it on an actual piece of sky (a 4-by-8 sheet of masonite attached to the ceiling of my studio). But there we stood, the test having failed, still wondering how to get the precise effect we had envisioned so clearly in our minds.

Its not as if we were novices, though. Nor that we had not already worked hard. My partner for this job was an accomplished muralist.  both of us had successfully completed a number of sky-finishes in a variety of styles.  And between the two of us, we had a rich compliment of skills.

Then there was all our preparation. Beyond the class-time each of us had devoted to learning this finish, we had done a fair amount of research—studying cloud-forms in books (and on our various commutes!), taking pictures of actual clouds, analyzing a number of artist’s renderings, and consulting with colleagues. We had even researched and ordered a custom-made brush from a company in England! What resources could we possibly have that we had not already tapped dry?

But, of course, despite our experience and study, we had taken on a challenge. While we had each done sky finishes before, the style and scale of this project was new. The space was a great room with a 16-foot, box-beam ceiling which measured approximately 24-foot square. And we wanted the box-beam frame to seem like a skylight, as if the spaces between the beams were covered with glass. The finish, then, had to appear as realistic as possible.

“Why is it that creative work always demands that you give everything?”  This question is worth pondering.  What it highlights that is distinctive to creative work is the inevitable, frequently overwhelming struggle one finds oneself dragged into when engaged in this kind of work.  I will call it the creative struggle…though one might be tempted to call it an ordeal.  And though the terms might sound extreme, this struggle can sometimes be downright agonistic.  Invoking this word, agony, call to mind a phrase that has become something of a cliche in the art world and beyond, that is, “the agony and the ecstacy.”

The Contrast Between Agony and Ecstacy


Why does the word “agony” go so well with the word “ecstacy”?  I suggest there is something like a karmic relationship between these terms that justifies associating them together.  That is to say, it is the agony that makes possible the ecstacy.  Yes, I do seem dangerously close to invoking yet another cliche, namely, “no pain, no gain.”  But before my reader lets out a groan and throws the magazine across the room, let me explain.

Consider, first, ecstacy.  The word itself is derived from ex-, meaning out, and -stasis, meaning center, standing, or sameness.  Ecstasy is the experience of being transported away from the center, away from sameness.  When put in relation to agony, it suggests the experience of having faced a seemingly insurmountable barrier or limitation and having overcome it.  The experience is exhilirating.  To have a deeply ecstatic experience is to be renewed in one’s spirit.

Creative work can be exhilirating in this way.  When Gail and I overcame the limitations in our technique, we were rewarded with the, always surprising, experience of seeing our efforts come to life, our agony transformed into ecstacy.  As the ceiling began to look less and less like a ceiling and more like a sky, we became inspired with new energy.  As we became confident of our technique, we lost the initial stiffness with which we had applied the paint previously, and we began to play, experimenting with variations, enjoying the task, being playfully child-like.  This energy got infused into the clouds themselves, bringing them to life.  Gradually, we became separated from this work which had taken on a life of its own, even though we had created it!

Our satisfaction, in turn, was not unlike that of a mother who looks at her newborn child and mits that this life must be a gift. Even though she had endured the pains of birth, this life she is holding has a centeredness of being that is independent of her.  It is this otherness of being that any authentic act of creativity produces; it brings the work to life. Though not as emotional as the words suggest, there is an ecstatic satisfaction to this kind of work.

But how does one get to this point of satisfaction? As T.S. Eliot says in The Four Quartets, “one must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.” To achieve ecstasy, one must often go through agony. But agony is the kind of pain we associate with death. What kind of death, one might wonder, leads to ecstatic satisfaction?

In creative work, we are required to reach beyond ourselves, to do some-thing we have never done before, to do something new. But to do some-thing new, we must simultaneously let go of something old. And this letting-go, which is a kind of death-experience, is what accounts for the agony. Letting go of the familiar is agonizing because we are comfortable with old ways.  Their familiarity lends them an, albeit illusive, sense of safety and security.  And they are easy.  We know what to expect with old ways, and we know how to produce it without any chance of failure.  New ways, on the other hand, have to be discovered.  There is a lot of risk–one doesn’t know if they will work. And because everything is new, nothing can be done on auto-pilot. Depending on the depth of creativity it involved, this labor can be agonizing.

Investing Agony in Ecstacy

But not all pain is gain.  Beating one’s head against a wall, for instance, won’t make a person any less rigid in his thinking.  Nor does every kind of agony lead to ecstacy.  In order to invest our agony in ecstasy, we need to orient ourselves properly during the creative struggle.  I want to suggest several guidelines that will give direction to this investigation.

1.  Perseverance.  Simply recognizing and accepting the creative struggle as a normal part of the creative process, rather than allowing it to become an occasion for self-doubt, significantly reduces the difficulty of the struggle. And once we recognize the creative struggle as a normal part of the process, we can more easily find the resolve to persevere. There is a simple kind of genius which is accessible to almost anyone; it is the genius that comes simply from persevering. I like the way Frederick Nietzsche expressed this thought when he said “A long obedience in the same direction has rarely failed… to accomplish something of significance.”

An important point at which perseverance is most needful is when the work seems to come to a standstill. Fortunately for myself, this has happened often enough that I have come to recognize it for what it is. Precisely when I am working the hardest but seem to be making the least visible progress—that is when I am doing the deepest work. If I am working (as opposed to just spinning my wheels; admittedly, the difference is difficult to detect), work is being done, whether I can see the immediate results or not. It is at this point in any creative work that it is good to remember Winston Churchill’s advice: “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.”

2. Mindfulness.  Because the creative struggle involves the breaking down of habitual patterns so as to create something new, the mindlessness we come to rely on to sustain our habits has to be replaced by mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the state of being  fully present in the moment. But to be mindful does not mean to be focused in a mode of drivenness.  Whereas a driven form of attentive is fixed on a single goal, mindfulness is completely open-ended. In this sense, it is leisurely. Mindfulness draws on what the Zen philosopher, Suzuki, calls “beginner’s mind.” “In the beginner’s mind,” writes Suzuki, there are many possibilities. But in the mind of the expert there is only one.” It is this openness of beginner’s mind that is characteristic of the focal point for mindfulness.

Gail and I looked at a lot of clouds in the process of doing our finish. The longer we looked, the more we were able to see what is actually there. By setting aside our expert-mind—”I know what a cloud looks like!”— and taking on the child-like beginner’s mind, we were able to approach mindfulness. The infinite possibilities of creative perception opened up for us as we moved from habitual at-tentiveness to mindfulness.

3. Grab Anything…Including the Kitchen Sink! Why does creative work demand that we give everything? Well, actually, it doesn’t. It just seems that way. And it seems that way because creative work asks us to draw upon a wider sphere of resources than we are comfortable drawing upon. Because this is so exhausting, it seems like we are being asked to give everything.

When we approach any given task, we establish parameters of resources that may be relevant to this task. But we are relying mostly upon past experience of similar tasks in setting the parameters of what we consider the relevant resources. What happens, then, when our re¬sources don’t seem to be equivalent to the task?

The decorative finishing field is no stranger to this problem.  Consider, for instance, the task of applying paint to whatever surface we are decorating.  The most recognizable tool for the job, the paintbrush, just won’t do for a vast majority of the effects we hope to achieve in the field of decorative finishing.  And that is why decorative artists have thrown down their paint brushes and have picked up everything short of the kitchen sink–plastic wrap, cork, pieces of potato, chamois, sea sponges, credit cards, combs, steel wool, the palm of one’s hand.

Creative work asks us to break free of habitual expectations about how we are going to accomplish a given task. For this reason, our expectations of the skills, tools, materials, and other resources that are relevant to the job have to be called into question.  They may very well be a good place to start.  But once one finds oneself deep into the creative struggle, the best way to proceed is to engage in a mode of proactive resourcing, pulling out all the stops so as to draw upon any experience, memory, resource, tool or material that has even the faintest possibility of usefulness.

The most obvious way Gaind and I made use of this proactive resourcing was when I drew upon my love of quotations and cliches, a fascinations that is more of a part of my academic background than my work in the decorative finishes.  An explanation of the context will illuminate the importance of pulling out all the stops in the midst of the creative struggle.

“Ah, But a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp …

or what’s a heaven for?” This quote by the poet Robert Browning is printed on the wall in this picture. I believe I first learned it during a class titled “Oral Interpretation of Poetry” which I took during graduate school. Browning was one of the po-ets we studied.

How this quote made its way into this project happened this way. Our client for this job has a good sense of humor. Wanting to incorporate a bit of her own whimsy into this project, she focused her attention on this corner of the room which is conveniently framed by the bulkhead shelf and wall. It provided an appropriate canvas for her “deconstructed sky.” What she wanted was for the sky finish to extend down the wall, but to remain unfinished. The idea was to suggest that the painter had simply given up in the middle of this extended section of sky. He had left it unfinished. The illusion seemed incomplete. I didn’t think people would be able to interpret what was going on in this corner. But I didn’t know quite what to do. As I tried to expand my recollection of resources that might help me find a solution, I suddenly recollected this quote from my study of Browning.

It seemed a fitting quote, not only for the space itself, but also for the client, who is a published author and, at the time we were working with her, was considering furthering her education in poetry. Ironically, the quote also seems appropriate as a final response to Gail’s question. Why does creative work always demand that we give everything? Because, as Robert Browning would say, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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