Artists know all about refinement. This is a large part of what we do every day, constantly retooling our craft, whether it is bouncing a bow on the string just the right way or getting the lighting to work beautifully on a portrait. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of refinement for this purpose is: “the improvement or clarification of something by the making of small changes.” As important as minute, delicate changes are to perfecting a skill for artists, the kind of refinement Willa Cather suggests is far larger and more complex. I read her statement as addressing a more holistic honing, the refinement process of which helps us to become more authentically ourselves in the world.
On a daily basis artists already deal with an unusual set of demands that bring our inner realities into plain view. Setting our own schedules for practice or creative time, dealing with our own motivation (or lack of), comparing ourselves to others, reflecting on our rate of “progress,” assessing the relevance of our work, struggling with the size of our vision; these are examples of daily reckoning for an artistic person.
A healthy daily check-in is one of my very favorite parts of being a musician. I enjoy the methodical activity of making out a practice schedule, deciding between what really needs work and what is fun to play, balancing out my time between wood-shedding passages and experimenting with sound color. This literal staring at the mirror of my violinistic needs is something I’ve been doing for so long that I don’t question it. It’s an example of an artistic refinement process that furthers self-knowledge.
But in order to find our true artistic purpose in the world we must balance inner reflection with widening our world-view. We must take risks that push our comfort zones, learn how to recover from perceived failure, and develop real empathy for others. How else are we to come to a sense of truthfulness if we haven’t lived to know what it is? If we haven’t developed perspective? The life experiences outside of the practice/studio environment are the ones that make us wholly distinctive. They give us the fire to create in a uniquely personal manner.
So if refinement asks us to go small and seeking truth can ask us to go big, is the idea of “truth refinement” oxymoronic? I think not, as long as we are constantly aware of the delicate balance necessary for productive artistic growth. Because of the nature of artistic craft and refinement, many artists will be tempted to go small too often in our work, so we need the reminder to think big on a regular basis.
Being a venerate list-maker I came up with ten things I do to stay balanced in my own work, when my sense of vision gets dwarfed by single, small pursuits:
1. Keep two journals (at least): 1. For daily artistic work. Use this for planning out your time, reflecting on what you’re up to. Doesn’t have to be prose, just keep yourself thinking about your process. 2. For big ideas, creative motivations.
2. Go outside and walk, run, play once a day.
3. Read a lot. Yes, stay up on current events but also read books(!) about people and events that inspire you (biography, history) and worlds that challenge you (fantasy, poetry).
4. Seek out people whose vision is far-reaching, and keep your own vision ever-expanding (see journal #2).
5. Spend time with people who don’t do what you do, don’t speak your cultural/social/political language, and ask them about themselves.
6. Create and cherish community.
7. Keep your literal or chosen family close and dear.
8. Save all-nighters for life-changing moments or creative binges. Otherwise try to sleep.
9. Sit with challenging emotions and acknowledge them, be in them fully. Don’t try to do the work of letting go or transforming them until you are ready.
10. Have regular dance parties.
I’m always inspired to hear how certain artists have figured out how to live in the world and still push the limit of their creative vision. A lot of these people have strict and simple rules for living to protect their artistic time. Like poet Mary Oliver who in a 2015 interview said she preserves the hours of 5-9 a.m. for her best writing. Or Haruki Murakami’s novel writing regimen of extensive swimming and running to stay in peak physical condition. All of which of course are examples of refinement.
At this time when the very idea of truth is being threatened, let’s all keep in touch more about our discoveries. Refining our sense of truthfulness is not just a by-product of artistic growth, it’s also necessary for creative sustainability on global levels.