Writers have an unfortunate habit of complaining, perpetually, about not getting enough time to write. Ask us, “How’s your project coming?” and we’ll say, “Slowly.” Read any stack of grant proposals and you’ll see us desperate not for money but for time. It’s as though artists’ real lives reside in an alternative universe and we’re eternally frustrated that we’re here in this one.
Years ago, when my daughter was an infant and my creative space had consequently been decimated, my spiritual director probed me for my deepest longings. Intimacy with God? World peace? Nope; “More time to write.” She was professional but I could tell she was annoyed. “Maybe these are exactly the conditions you need to do your best work,” she told me.
Oh, I’ve said as much to my students over the years, and recognized this phenomenon outside of creative life too: Limitations and obstacles, if they’re not completely oppressive, intensify our longing, and this pressure-cooker effect lets rip a powerful steam. When I was an exhausted new mom with barely the capacity to think much less write, I read an article by a writer-dad confessing that before kids he frittered away his hours at the keyboard, but now, with so little time, he wrote more effectively and efficiently. Obstacles magnified his creativity. Honestly, he pissed me off. A few years later, juggling parenthood and money-making and writing but with a full night’s sleep, I recognized this same focus in myself. There’s a reason people say if you want something done, ask a busy person.
A decade after my spiritual director made that comment—which stuck with me, I suspect, because she was right—I have yet to make peace with my lack of time or any of the other limitations in my life: My inability to express myself well in charged conversations, my small stores of patience, my helplessness in the face of chocolate, the way despite my best intentions I’m still governed by a white, privileged perspective. I long, intensely, for these to change. What’s different now is that, after banging my head against the wall for a bit, I occasionally see the blessings of being thwarted. Whatever tiny openings I find release in me a fierce and focused effort and creative solutions that otherwise might not have been possible.
Slowly I’m coming to trust my spiritual director’s wisdom. These are the conditions I’ve been given. While I can and perhaps should work to change them, at the same time they may also be exactly right. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew