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Painting by Marley Ward

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream…So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another. — Mary Oliver


I’ve always been better at dreaming than managing the details of living, so I’m interested in Mary Oliver’s reflections on the different mindsets that separate artists from those who are masters of the mechanics of living. I have wished I could aim for the kind of money and status those people acquire so easily, but that’s not me. I’m not made that way. I’m made to build beauty. I have no control over whether the world takes an interest in it or not.

I can only offer it and go on to the next project.

Those countries that support their artists without judging the quality of their art encourage a lot of mediocre art, but there is a good bit of excellent work mixed in all the same.

It will come out in the wash, I believe. The good stuff rises to the top. Giving an artist a chance to develop is a practice that rests on a belief in the value of art and those who create it. Those societies have an admiration for creation of culture and the arts. I instinctively drew close to France because I loved their artists and writers.

But I soon discovered the same divide between the artistic and the practical worlds. Artists have to struggle there too, the only difference being they aren’t so blatantly crushed or commercialized as American artists are.

The question everywhere is, “can you make a living doing that?” My father wanted to be a writer but he had a solid business sense, which took over his life after he had six kids and a bankruptcy. There must be a million variations on that story. Most young people who aspire to create some kind of art give up at some point, usually after marriage and children.

Our society doesn’t value the creative arts enough to create a system to support those who would create it.

Europeans often remark that America is young, that we’ll have to wait several hundred years before it will have the maturity to value culture and those who create it.

Of course that doesn’t help those of us alive at this time.

Keeping your self respect in a culture that views art as superfluous is work. Not being one of the practical minded majority comes with a sense of not being normal, not being smart. The brilliance that you do have is invisible, even to yourself sometimes.

Someone like Mary Oliver can do you the favor of shedding light on just what the difference is and how one is not superior to the other. One of our tasks as creative types, especially in America, is to affirm who we are and to follow our natural path.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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