"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: Commitment to the Creative Life True mastery requires 10,000 hours of consistent effort by Dennis Palumbo

Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

As a psychotherapist, one of the themes that often emerges in my work with patients is commitment. In dealing with relationship issues, for example, the depth of a commitment is tested by fears about the future, questions about trust and fidelity, and concerns about the tension between dependence and independence.

Likewise, patients with children struggle daily with the commitment to the rigors of parenthood: the emotional and financial responsibilties, the sharp changes in life-style, the balancing of one's needs with those of one's child.

For my creative patients, this same level of commitment is required. I believe the relationship a writer, director or actor has with his or her work is analogous to that of any committed relationship, with the same joys and frustrations, pleasures and demands. And, like all relationships, a commitment to one's creative endeavors needs to be nurtured, tended.

What does a commitment to your creative self entail? The same things as a commitment to a mate, a partner, or a child. The following come to mind:

Constancy. You've got to be in it for the long haul. You're not going anywhere. If you're a screenwriter, you'll be at the keyboard tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. If you're an actor, you'll be auditioning, taking classes, constantly building your of craft. This same level of commitment is necessary for directors, composers, designers. As Malcolm Gladwell reported in his recent book Outliers, true mastery requires 10,000 hours of consistent effort.

Resilience. Things aren't always going to go well. There'll be good days and bad ones, great creative experiences and awful ones. The test of any committed relationship is your willingness to accept (and endure) the up's and down's, the disappointments as well as the triumphs. A commitment to the creative life has the same requirement.

Fluidity. "The best laid plans," etc., etc. If something isn't working, you try something else. A long-term commitment to anything requires the ability to learn from mistakes, and to give up cherished notions about the way things "should" be. So too a creative person committed to
his or her craft is both its student and master, learning from wrong turns and stale ideas, trying new approaches; coaxing the work along, yet at the same time following where it leads. This keeps the endeavor fresh, alive, even dangerous sometimes. Which, for someone pursuing a career in Hollywood, is both exciting and nerve-wracking. (The parallels to marriage and parenting are self-explanatory!)

Openness to surprise. A corrolary to fluidity, this aspect of commitment challenges us to be open to surprises: if you're a writer, a sudden twist to a script you've been working on; if you're an actor, an unexpected nuance to a character you thought you "knew." As one of my film director patients described it, it's "Doing all the prep and then waiting for the surprises." (Or, in famed cellist Pablo Casals' words, "Learn the notes and forget about ‘em.") For the real artist, this involves a willingness to welcome a dark, dangerous or comic notion that seems to come to us like a devil's whisper, urging us to pursue it.

An openness to surprise reminds us why we made the commitment in the first place--because the task of creating something from nothing acts upon us as much as we upon it, and the surprise of our own humor, rage, eros and empathy thrills us, fulfills us. A composer friend of mine once said, "We create so that we won't die." An openness to surprise keeps our commitment to the creative act alive.

Patience. A crucial element of commitment. The waiting, with or even without expectation, for the next moment to arrive. Hopeful, watchful, the testing of faith in ourselves and that to which we're committed. A trait as valuable as a good work ethic, an artist's patience is aided by curiosity about what's coming next, and a conviction that it will probably be worth the wait. Because the real test of an artist's commitment is that he or she would rather be there, waiting, working, fretting, than anywhere else.

(On a personal note, this journey of waiting, working and fretting more or less describes the writing, re-writing, and then, ultimately, publication of my first crime novel, Mirror Image. Creating a mystery series character had been a life-long dream of mine, and though at times it seemed as though my protagonist, psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, would never make it into print, my patience finally paid off. Not because I'm that patient by nature, I assure you. But rather because the writing of that novel was itself an experience I treasured, even when unsure about the eventual outcome of the project.)

Which brings me, finally, to love. The foundation of commitment. Having the faith, endurance or just plain stubborness to stay committed against all odds is meaningless without love. An artist who doesn't love his or her art can't make a real commitment to it; all the struggles, the blocks, the high's and low's, become merely a test of one's will, or ego.

Without love, one can perhaps survive the creative life--maybe even garner some success in the marketplace--but what you're committed to lies elsewhere. Without love, the true joy of creation--that mysterious kinship with your craft, that transcendance of yourself whenever what you've created has literally captured your heart--is rarely felt.

A commitment to the creative life, in the end, means that you accept, with as much grace as you can muster on any given day, its myriad demands and delights, failures and triumphs. Of course, like in any committed relationship, sometimes it seems like you're doing all the giving.

But then, when you least expect it, it gives something back, and you remember again why you love it, its meaning in your life. And, over and above this, you have the sublime experience of allegiance to something other than, and perhaps greater than, yourself.

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