Thursday, May 19, 2016

Finding Motivation in Blessed Unrest

Last weekend I went with some friends up to the Art Institute of Chicago, aka, my shelter from the storm.

(This photo was taken at Christmastime, not last weekend)
While in the gallery full of Monet's works (and a couple of Rodin's sculptures) I noticed a pattern on several of the placards discussing the paintings, and I've been thinking about it off and on ever since. I took pictures, so I can give you examples of what I'm talking about. First there was this placard describing Bordighera

Then this one describing Water Lilies

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but I want to focus on one sentence in each of these descriptions. In Water Lilies:

"It is beyond my power as an old man, and yet I want to manage to render what I feel. I have destroyed some....Some I've begun again...and I hope that out of so many efforts, something will emerge."

In Bordighera:

In a letter to the sculptor Auguste Rodin describing his efforts to translate into paint the brilliant Mediterranean light, Monet declared he was 'fencing, wrestling, with the sun.'"

Elsewhere, on a placard for the painting Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect (of which I unfortunately took no photo) it read:

"The Art Institute's two Waterloo Bridge paintings are dated 1900 and 1903, but both were likely begun in 1900 and dated only when Monet felt that they were finished."

I love that in each of these three small excerpts that I've quoted there is some sort of struggle narrated. Either's he's wrestling and fencing with the sun (a very fun image), or he's dissatisfied with his work so he's destroying it and starting again, or he's taking 3 years to finish two paintings.

These kinds of acknowledgements of struggle and revision have always appealed to me. It seems that we (and by "we" I mean "I") sometimes look at those whose work we revere, and we/I assume that doing that work came easily to them. They just have a way of having success in their work descend as the dews from heaven, while the rest of us poor schlubs toil away and have little to show for it. While I think there is something to the idea of natural genius (a subject I'm not going to get into right now), I also think that there is something significant to be said of nose-to-the-grindstone effort. With Gordon B. Hinckley, "I believe in the gospel of work." And it's comforting to me to see that even those who were likely blessed with a preternatural abilities have to struggle and work and destroy and start over. It's heartening and motivating to know that hard work may be an intrinsic part of what makes great things great. 

While the direct context of these musings was the world of art and artistic achievement, my thoughts were naturally drawn to my composition classes where my students at all levels are often satisfied with fair to middling. They don't jump into the writing enterprise as something to wrestle or fence, but rather a big hoop-jumping exercise on the way to something else. In fact, if they see themselves wrestling or fencing they see their opponent being me, their teacher, and not the struggle to write. There is often no intrinsic drive to create quality work, but rather to fulfill some vaguely understood "requirements."

I am definitely painting with much too broad of a brush here, as I have had many students over the past few years who are driven by an inward desire to produce quality work for the work's sake rather than just hoping to produce something that's "meh, good enough for government work." And I'm not saying I want all of my students to see their writing as art, and to become artists. I don't even believe they necessarily need to be making their imagined readers feel something. But even if they aren't viewing writing in that way, I wish they could view their writing as important enough to do the very best they can, and to not be satisfied with a second draft that was cleaned up a bit from the first go 'round. I want them to feel the drive that Monet expressed to work and struggle and revise in order to get it right.

Over the past couple of days these thoughts have moved past art and teaching writing to basically any and all enterprises we engage in throughout life. Which has lead me to having several conversations with various people about this subject, basically trying to tease out this question:

How how do we motivate that drive to desire better from the work we do in any and all contexts? 

In these conversations there have been several ideas come up:
  •  The motivation to work harder, to revise, to continue to work and improve something even when it's hard requires an expanded vision of what is possible.
  • That vision often comes when people feel like they are actually contributing something real to the world, that they are engaged in a project that makes some kind of difference.
  • Good leaders, teachers, friends, family, etc. can help to inspire and expand that vision.
  • Good leaders, teachers, etc. aren't enough. Ultimately at some point the individual has to decide  for her/himself to do it.
  • There is a fine line between motivating and despairing dissatisfaction. 
I think the need for that vision that kept coming up in these conversations is encapsulated nicely by Monet when he expressed this hope:

I hope that out of so many efforts, something will emerge.

That last bullet point, that there is a fine line between motivating and despairing dissatisfaction is an interesting one for me. y friend Robert shared a lovely quote with me from modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. It's a little long, but I don't include it just to pad my word count (a practice used to be my bread and butter when writing term papers, but one that I've long-since abandoned), I include it because it's fantastic and well worth your time:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not yours to determine how good it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly, to keep the channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

I love that. I especially love viewing that dissatisfaction as "blessed unrest." What a lovely turn of phrase. But how do we get to that point? How do we get to that point where unrest is motivating rather than discouraging? That's a question that I often struggle with. A lot of times with the various activities I engage in, when things get difficult and I'm dissatisfied it can be very easy to disengage rather than buckle down and work harder. There are many people in my life who seem to have wills made of iron that allow them to just get things done. In fact there are and have been flashes of that in my own life. But it happens all to infrequently for my liking.

All of this leads me to two questions:

1. How can we expand our vision in whatever work we are engaged in?

2. How do we push ourselves and others to see that there is more, that we can do more, and that we can expect more from ourselves and others?

3. How can those of us like myself shift away from seeing difficulty and struggle as discouraging to seeing it as motivating?

Okay so there ended up being three questions. So sue me.

I have some thoughts on how these questions can be answered, but I'm curious to hear what others think about it. I'd greatly appreciate any comments, questions, or advice anyone who reads this might have on the subject. 


  1. This is a fascinating topic and love how it related to teaching. Some of those quotes I'm going to use in my upper level courses. Own thing that came to my mind is that of success as a motivator, whether you have tasted it and want more or just yearn for it can be a great motivator. It is a struggle, but I agree that hard work makes great things great! I may have to call you to chat more about this.

  2. Possible answers/thoughts: We can believe that we brought with us certain already-developed gifts and talents from a previous existence, that it is our opportunity and responsibility to make progress in adding upon them in this mortal life, that it is our mission and blessing to share them wherever life leads us, and that eventually we will live in a more perfect realm where genius will thrive and unbelievable magnificence can be achieved. Right now we can believe that mortal difficulty and struggle is the perfect laboratory for grooming and cultivating our gifts and talents to a fuller bloom, with the hope that eventually we will reach our full, perfected potential.