There is a saying most of us know, practice makes perfect. Perhaps it was our Victorian ancestors that dreamed up this saying, to promote good behavior and prolong suffering. Practice makes better, more skilled, but not perfect. Perfect is a faraway, abstract and even heartless idea. There is nothing compelling or alive about perfect. Practice is full of mistakes, of plunging in, and being willing to fail and learn. As Greg Boyle once said: "Anything worth pursuing is worth failing at." And that is worth thinking about.
You can stumble and still be forgiven
– William Stafford
Everything is practice makes sense. I just discovered, while studying this last month with our American poet, Marie Howe, that Emily Dickinson did not see any of her poems as "final". She kept the handwritten versions beneath her bed, full of alternate words. They were on scraps of paper and envelopes. Another poet, Susan Howe, has written extensively on this aspect of Emily's work. The visuals of her "alternate words" at the bottom of a poem, with small "+" signs and her distinct handwriting is an exhilarating discovery.... the dance between the visual and the verbal in poetry making. But that will be another post....
That we are always in the process of practice alleviates us of the notion that one day we will finally get "there". We know that the horizon keeps retreating ahead of us, with each step. There is sanity in the paradox of not ever being fully satisfied with a painting, a class, a poem... while at the same time engaging and welcoming what is. There is continuous movement and uncertainty about outcome–
...an artist is someone who lets the material talk back. A relationship with the material is a distinction an artist has. – William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life
The material only talks back when you let go of telling it what to do, of dictating what will happen next. It happens when you are not distracted. This is the area of surprise, discovery, synchronicity. It takes time for us to get to this place of trust in the classroom, and it is where the magic happens. This year we are continuing to explore the lettering and images of Ben Shahn. I have been delighted to see the diversity of discoveries the students have made in their practice as they respond to his art. Below are only a few examples:
My published work of late comes from "practice", from in the moment experiments in my sketchbook– the image at the top, along with other sketchbook studies, are in the current issue of Type Magazine. The article, which includes calligraphers around the world, is written by Peter Fraterdeus : https://www.typemag.org/ http://www.fraterdeus.com/
I love the idea in Stafford's poem below, that through all the stumbling and rehearsals, your shadow practices.....and ... joins everything that ever failed in the world or triumphed unknown, alone,
wrapped in that secret mansion where genius lives.:
When you stop off at rehearsal you can stumble
and still be forgiven. Your shadow practices. A light
says, "Good, good," where the piano meditates
with its wide grin, maintaining order as usual
but already trembling for time to go again.
Outside the hall a monstrous Oregon night
moans with its river of wind. It stumbles. Lights
flicker, and your shadow joins everything that ever
failed in the world, or triumphed unknown, alone,
wrapped in that secret mansion where genius lives.
Maybe it is all rehearsal, even when practice
ends and performance pretends to happen in the light
that remembers more than it touches, back through all
the rows and balcony tiers. Maybe your stumbling
saves you, and that sound in the night is more than
Practice, by William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life
How do you work with the ideas of perfection, and practice? I'd love to hear from you.