“The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.” — Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
I’ve been working my way through The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Creativity, a book I first gave to my brother years and years ago, and then borrowed back, and then left on a shelf for about the last five years. It’s a 12-week process of focusing on creativity and trying to unblock the stuff that’s been pushed down over the years by the things we come to believe about ourselves.
I have to admit that many days, when I sat down to do my “Morning Pages,” a daily writing requirement that’s part of the book, I thought: “This is stupid. This is a waste of time. This won’t get me anywhere.” But since Cameron warns that it’s likely you’ll feel exactly that way as you begin this process, I stuck it out. Not always in a straight line from one day to the next, from one week to the next, but here I am in Week 8, which felt, at the outset, like a totally useless chapter for me. And then, lo and behold, as I sat down this morning, mumbling that the reading would be pointless, I came upon that quote at the top of this post: “The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist.”
And I felt myself open a bit. And I continued reading, and with every line more and more this chapter seemed to be just what I needed to read. Funny how that works. So back to the quote and why it stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not good at being a beginner. I want to be an expert from Day One. No matter what I’m doing. Even when I’m doing something I’ve never done before. Not sure where that mentality comes from, but, boy, is it a stumbling block. To expect perfection in everything is a surefire path to “failure,” or to not trying at all. Often times, when we expect — demand — perfection, we do nothing instead. Doing nothing rather than doing something less than perfect is really a very poor choice. But, sadly, it is a frequent choice for far too many of us.
And yet, and yet, and yet. I often will throw myself into the craziest things I have no business trying. (Of course, Cameron would say that thinking I have no business trying something new and unusual is exactly the kind of attitude that keeps us from being creative.) For example, last night was my third hip hop class, a ridiculous activity for a 48-year-old non-dancer who wants to be perfect at everything. So I guess somewhere under the facade is a willingness to be be un-perfect in order to try something new, to be a beginner. Maybe it’s the fact that hip hop is such an outrageous choice for someone like me that it’s obvious I have no chance to be perfect, so the pressure is off. Much easier, say, than something that might involve anything I actually have had lessons or classes or background in — singing, guitar, fiction writing, praying.
The grace to be a beginner….What thing have you always wanted to do that might open you up to that kind of grace?
When I read that line this morning, even though it was related to “art,” I immediately associated it with prayer. Because there, too, I need the willingness and the grace to be a beginner, not to expect too much too soon, to sit there and be open to whatever might unfold, to come back day after day even when it feels like I’m not progressing and just practice my “craft,” the craft of praying.
This week has been a good week for me in that department. I’m closing in on almost a full week of praying Morning Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is big for me. I usually get frustrated and give up for one reason or another. But this week, in the early morning hours before anyone else is awake, I work on my two MPs — Morning Pages and Morning Prayer — out on the deck or in the sun porch. And slowly, slowly I have found a rhythm there that feels right, one I hope I can keep up for good. And as soon as that thought enters my mind, I realize I’m heading right back to the quest for perfection instead of living in this moment, praying in this moment one day at a time. “Don’t worry about tomorrow…” (Mt 6:34)
The grace to be a beginner…Find one thing today and simply begin. No long-range goal in mind, no image of perfection in your mind’s eye. Just begin at the beginning and see what wonderful, unexpected places it takes you.