"Oh, or why my artist friends are the best"
Over the years I haven’t intentionally chosen artists and writers for friends. It’s just worked out that way. Surely many accountants, insurance salespeople, and actuaries are good people, but I don’t have any for friends, and now that I think about it, I don’t know a single person that analyzes or pushes numbers around for a living.
Instead I collect artists and writers, and I like it that way. Maybe that’s snobby or selfish, but friendship is a self-interested practice. We choose our friends because what they say and do interest us; they make us feel happy, and they seem to understand and accept both the lightness and darkness of our souls.
My artist and writer friends interest and delight me and accept my crooked soul, but they possess another quality that seals the deal—their intense focus and daily rhythms align with my own.
I am a writer, which means, over the years, I have spent thousands of hours working alone. I am also a professor, so during the workweek much of my time is focused on preparing for class, teaching, and grading. When I have a writing deadline, which I frequently do, I write on weekends, holidays, birthdays, Holy days--any day I can. It’s a bit antisocial, and my family doesn’t usually understand it, but my friends always do.
My friends know that it’s complicated. Their work, like mine, requires sustained solitary focus, and in order to create, we have to protect our time and space. The problem with that is some of the people we know don’t understand or approve of our withdrawal from the world. We have become masters of the apology, routinely assuring our family and non-artist friends that we’d like nothing better than to spend time with them. And we mean it when we say it.
But it’s not a coincidence that my friends and I have chosen creative professions that require being alone. Sure, sometimes we feel lonesome and anxious, but truth be told, our solitary work brings us joy. There are many reasons for this, but none so important as the mental state of flow that we experience when fully engaged in our work.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi characterizes flow as a joyful, even rapturous, mental state that happens as a result of deep focus on a task. When I am writing and I am in the zone, I am as happy as I can possibly be. Really. Everything disappears except for my words.
Flow is pure joy and a relief from self-awareness, but here’s the thing: you have to shut out the rest of the world and work intensely before you can experience it. Not everybody is willing--or even knows it is possible--to work that hard to get to a heightened mental state. There are easier ways to get there.
Somehow my friends and I figured out that we if we managed to retreat and maintain a sustained focus, we would not only experience the blissful state of flow, we were also more likely to reap the earthly rewards of producing our creative work. We have a perfect setup; except for the fact that it requires oodles of time, unrelenting focus and social seclusion.
My friends understand this, but as I’ve mentioned, lots of people don’t. Recently I had a conversation with my father that helps to highlight the divide. For years, he has worried about the hours I spend writing—he thought the sacrifices were too many. My father was astounded when I finally thought to explain to him that the act of writing always sooths me and sometimes brings me great joy.
I guess I know why we tend to keep the pleasures of our creative process somewhat of a secret. It goes back to our well-practiced apologies. We explain how sorry we are that we must once again withdraw, but we (thoughtfully) stop short of saying that we hardly mind at all.
Maybe one of the reasons I have so many friends who are artists and writers is that when I disappear for a while, I don’t have to explain.
And when a friend must (and wants to) retreat, the only response she seeks or expects from me is oh.
Oh is a simple utterance, but is a blessing that helps to build and sustain my relationships with creative souls.
Oh is a prayer that rejoices in the transcendent and earthly recompense that lies ahead, but it also acknowledges the great arduousness and sacrifice of the creative journey.
Oh is what my friends and I need from one another, for it reassures and reminds us that though we are often solitary, we are never alone.
-Janna Jones, 1.14.14