I was struck the other day by a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The heroic Orlando—famished by the wild and in need of food for himself and his servant—Adam bursts upon the camp of the exiled Duke Frederick demanding nourishment at sword point. The sage Duke talks him down with kind words, saying, “Your gentleness shall force, more than your force move us to gentleness.”
This line resonated with me because too often I feel like I’m forcing my way through life, trying to make things happen, which often leaves me frustrated and anxious. I’m a creature of impatience, unwilling at times to plant seeds and nurture them to growth in due time. And yet this is the Nietzschean philosophy of the day. “No one will listen to you, you have to make your voice heard!” “If you want something, you have to go out and get it, take it with your own two hands!” And so it goes, with force, trying to move the world to gentleness, or at least compliance.
I’ve realized how relevant these contrasting attitudes are to the creative process. In a brilliant passage from The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers delineates these two approaches:
“Perhaps the first thing [the common man] can learn from the artist is that the only way of ‘mastering’ one’s material is to abandon the whole conception of mastery and to co-operate with it in love: whosoever will be a lord of life, let him be its servant. If he tries to wrest life out of its true nature, it will revenge itself in judgment, as the work revenges itself upon the domineering artist.”
Elsewhere in the book she says, “The business of the creator is not to escape from his material medium or to bully it, but to serve it; but to serve it, he must love it. If he does so, he will realize that its service is perfect freedom.”
This was hard for me to wrap my head around, but it made sense once I considered the nature of artistry. The word “mastery” is used a lot to talk about learning the mechanical skills of any art form, but what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that the student has taken a subject and bent it to his will. In this case, mastery is about submission—the student must learn the rules of the craft, whether it is painting or piano playing. There are notes and scales and pieces to learn. Much of the long labor of practice is about becoming proficient at these rules.
Now, once a student has achieved this proficiency, there is certainly a sense in which he has “mastered” the rules, when actually he has dedicated himself to a long process of serving the material. And in doing so, there is, as Sayers notes, a perfect freedom. The pianist can now sit down at the piano and play to his heart’s content, because he spent hours and years learning the necessary scales. The painter can set up her easel and capture the landscape with skill and realism.
Such submission usually leads to something else as well, and that is love, a love born out of intimate knowledge, fostered by time. This mature love becomes the force that gently fosters beautiful things, whereas mastery and bullying lead to nothing truly creative.
What does this love look like? Persistence and patience. It continues to show up to do the work, but allows for the material to develop at its own pace. It seeks a deep knowledge of the object of study and creation, rather than a mere superficial understanding guided only by a desire to enhance the artist’s own glory, or to simply use the material as a vehicle for the artist’s “point”. It allows itself to adapt to the natural flow of the subject, rather than rigidly trying to force it to the artist’s own vision.
As Alexander Graham Bell said, “You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth. Ideas do not reach perfection in a day, no matter how much study is put upon them. It is perseverance in the pursuit of studies that is really wanted.” This is a hard lesson to learn in our day, but a vital one.
This dance of love that emerges between the artist and the art seeks to find what Christian McEwen calls its tempo guisto, “its own right or appropriate amount of time.” Our job is to find the rhythm, and to accept it, which is hard, but can be learned. As Anne Lamott observes about the particularly trying challenge of writer’s block,
“The problem is acceptance, which we’re not taught to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.”
This, of course, challenges another dominant way of being in our culture—instant gratification. We can come up with a clever Tweet and have it posted in seconds, so why not a poem, a song, a short story? Yes, we can share these things pretty quickly, but the road up to the point of sharing can be long and slow, and that’s not a bad thing.
The cult of inspiration and energy is alive and well today, but what we need to harness and sustain the spark of inspiration and energy is a culture of patient discipline. I’m reminded of the story of Picasso, who while sketching in the park, was asked to by a woman if he could sketch her portrait. Five minutes later he handed her a sketch, and when she asked what she owed him, he said, “5,000 francs, madame.” Enraged, the women asked why she should pay him 5,000 francs for a sketch that took him only five minutes. To which Picasso calmly replied, “No madame, it took me my whole life.”
Let us become masters through the gentle art of perseverance.
 Dorothy Sayers. The Mind of the Maker. HarperOne,1979, 186.
 Ibid, 66.
 Ironically, as I was writing this section out my word processor crashed. I was forced rewrite what I thought was an otherwise “perfect” paragraph.
 Christian McEwen. World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down. Bauhan, 2011, 29.
 Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. Random House, 1995, 178.