The Work of Art
In her new book, author and therapist Janna Malamud Smith, M.S.W. ’79, explores the creative process and explains why innate talent is not necessarily essential
by Cheryl Dellecese
As the daughter of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Bernard Malamud, Janna Malamud Smith, M.S.W. ’79, grew up surrounded by writers, painters and musicians. Today, she is a practicing psychotherapist and a successful writer herself, having authored several books, including a memoir of her father, My Father is a Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006). This combination of experience and skill gives her a unique perspective on creativity, a topic she explores in her latest book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make their Way to Mastery (Counterpoint Press, 2012).
While examining the creative process, Smith sheds light on some of the psychological obstacles that prevent both established professionals and occasional art-makers from either beginning or completing projects. She uses personal anecdotes as well as her insight as a therapist to explore how creativity has played out in the lives and work of a wide range of well-known artists ranging from English Romantic poet John Keats to pop star Lady Gaga. Most importantly, she also suggests ways to turn these obstacles into sources of inspiration.
Here Smith talks about how failure can often lead to great art and the lessons she hopes readers will take away from her book.
Why do you think people who have a desire to create don’t?
One common problem is that people feel they lack adequate talent or creativity to create, and they are afraid they will fail. My feeling is that it often takes as much creativity to get through most days as to “create” something, so I wager that most people have more inner resources to call upon than they think. And while talent makes mastery happen more quickly, it isn’t as important as staying with the process until you gradually acquire enough skills to do good work. Starting to master an art form or craft is more about getting in touch with your real desire than whether you are perfectly endowed with either talent or creativity.
What prevents people from pursuing a project once they’ve begun?
They may think the different obstacles that get stirred up—from frustration to embarrassment to discouragement to profound loneliness—are signs that they are inadequate, when really they are just signs that they’re doing the hard work entailed in creating something. They may underestimate how much we all need to practice to really master the techniques of a craft, and how often we all fail on the way to our destinations.
Talk about the importance of disrupting defenses.
The job of our defenses is to keep us from feeling too much emotional pain, too much deep awareness and fear. And there’s the rub. In order to create—as a composer or a sculptor, a photographer or a poet—we have to invite in these deeper feelings connected to old memories or associations. And these feelings are disruptive. They stir us up. So our defenses often want us to turn away from them. And then we get most distressed if we think we’re the only person having such an experience. Part of my mission in writing this book is to show how normal such struggles are for people making art or working at a craft.
What does it take to complete a project?
Psychologically, it takes the willingness to fail, both as you go along and have to redo and redo, but also existentially: You have to be able to live with and to find satisfaction and pleasure with the real object you’ve made as opposed to the ideal one you dreamed of making.
What is the biggest obstacle to creativity?
One of the biggest obstacles is shame. Shame frequently closes in on us and inhibits our experimentation and self-expression. Shame can make us feel that whatever we want to make or do is just plain pathetic, inadequate, even disgusting. The first step in softening shame’s impact is to recognize it and to understand how it can also work for us. When we understand shame better, we can use it to give energy to our work instead of impeding it.
What do you think will surprise most people who read this book?
I think it may surprise people who work at making art or at a craft to read the book and feel so vividly that they are not alone. A number of people—from cabinetmakers to writers—have written to me to say how deeply understood they felt and how relieved.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about the creative process?
I want them to know that it can be deeply meaningful and enriching to live a life where some part of your energy is going toward mastering a craft or art form, and simply doing the daily work of it. I was just reading that in Okinawa they have an idea of ikigai or “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.” Pursuing mastery in a craft or art form, the quiet work of it, offers one wonderful and sustaining reason to wake up each day.
Janna Malamud Smith, M.S.W. ’79, is a writer and psychotherapist and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Her articles and essays have appeared nationally and internationally in newspapers, magazines and literary journals, including the New York Times, Boston Globe, American Scholar, Sun Magazine and Threepenny Review. An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make their Way to Mastery is her fourth book. She lives in Milton, Massachusetts.