By Lauralee Farrer
There’s a popular quote from Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” that makes much of the idea that our creative work often outstrips our good taste. I admit, even though I am not a beginner, I find it soothing:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
“Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.
“And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Fear of doing work that doesn’t live up to my own standards is the thing most likely to keep me from ever getting there. I have often been so tyrannized by the idea that I will not have enough time to do the work I see in my mind that I waste time trying to get over my agitation instead of working. Glass reveals this like a long-held secret—we stop on the road of our own evolution as artists because we haven’t arrived yet.
Some are fond of saying that an artist never “arrives.” I don’t care for that idea. I think there are those who have worked assiduously for decades moving from hobbyists to craftspersons to artists, and have done work to which each can say: “That’s what I meant.” This mirrors Babette’s sentiment at the end of the movie Babette’s Feast: “An artist waits her whole life for the chance to do her very best.”
Yet there is one stop beyond even “one’s very best” on the journey. Doing work with a community of people you love, throwing your shoulders against something impossible to move and feeling it shift, standing in the back of a crowded theater and being transformed by your own film as if you’d never seen it before—this is a mystery one step beyond our control.
What we are after with Praying the Hours is the chance to do our very best, the transcendent experience of knowing that though we are making something, what it might become requires more than our combined skill. To elevate art by the comparison, perhaps it’s the way parents feel when they observe the miracle of their children from a momentary objective distance and are amazed.
In the meantime, our days are filled with not quitting, with doing a lot of work, with finishing one story and then another and another, closing the gap so that our work becomes as good as our ambitions. And then, something even more than that.