“The work itself will teach you.”
An old Estonian proverb
I once attended an crafts fair in upstate New York, where I saw this wonderful saying carved on a stone; it’s been etched in my heart ever since. I love to remind myself of it whenever I take on something new: it’s immensely reassuring to know that the act of doing and the act of learning how to do something go hand in hand. We learn by doing and when we do, we learn.
Just today at our monthly writers group meeting, my friend Nancy commented that she had no idea how one of her characters in a story was going to respond at a crucial moment; as she was writing, the character just “told” her what she wanted to say. Sound familiar? Just about every fiction writer knows this feeling: at a certain point your characters take over the story and begin telling it.
Serendipitously, I happened upon a memoir called, Shattered Love, by the actor, Richard Chamberlain, who’s played everyone from a heart-throb doctor to Hamlet. He’s also an accomplished artist who began painting again after a gap of 20 years or more; while he was short on technique the second time around, his work ethic had improved greatly. In college, if a painting wasn’t going well, he’d simply discard it and start another. When he resumed painting, however, he was willing to work for weeks if that’s what it took to paint a picture worth looking at.
In describing the artistic process, he observed: “Again I had no idea how to paint water, waves, and clouds, but I plugged away endlessly until the picture came to life and began “telling” me what to do….You fill the empty canvas with no one but yourself. However, it’s true that when a painting is going well, it takes on its own life and begins to tell you who it is and what it needs.” How simple, yet how true: When we do our work with love, the work rewards us by teaching us everything we need to know.