Recently I have been reading the exquisite prose of Janna Malamud Smith, in her book-length meditation on creativity: An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make their Way to Mastery.

She has arranged the book thematically in chapters with open-ended titles such as ‘Fears’, ‘Shame’, ‘Recognition’ and ‘Creative Solitude’. Each one proceeds to analyse the practices, outputs and influences of figures as diverse as Michael Jackson, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Chaplin, Picasso and Keats. Barely a page has gone by without some of it going into my notebook, or dazzled marginalia. I don’t think I have read anything like it, ever.

Here is a passage that I have taken the liberty of rendering into a found poem, from her chapter on ‘Ruthlessness’. For me it is the centre of the book’s main argument.



(and here is one of the places it separates

from simpler forms of craft)

requires great courage.

Sometimes it is the courage to keep going

in the face of doubt

and psychological conundrum;

sometimes it is to “say”

what many others do not want to hear.

Or it can be the courage to show frankly what is before you,

to defy current convention,

to push the limits of a form,

to risk foolishness,

to challenge the past,

or simply to reveal

bald difference.

And, perhaps most of all, it requires courage

because failure is assured.

Even the greatest, most fully realized artists

can see beyond their work,

to what their work might have been.


from An Absorbing Errand (167)

If you enjoyed this, you may also like the following pieces, on Seth Godin, Mark Strand and Octavio Paz