Being Human: A Lesson in Limitations

My mother is a visual artist. In the last few weeks, she’s returned to her studio after a couple of difficult years involving a move to a new community and two deaths in our immediate family and, subsequently, not a lot of painting. It’s been a hard go.  

What prodded her back most recently was a portrait of my late brother that she wanted to finish for an upcoming exhibition. After that, she got a commission to do a painting for a local arts organization. She faced the blank canvas, started to work, and immediately hated what was appearing. Right then, she nearly threw in the towel, she told me on the phone.

What kept her at her easel, she said, was a bit of self-coaching.

I’m just beginning, she told herself. I don’t know what it will be yet.

That was wisdom I needed to hear too. Immersed in a tricky fourth revision of my novel, I’d reached the point where my path forward was foggy and I was starting to hate what I was doing. Probably I was also starting to realize that, as always happens, this novel would never be what I’d dreamed it could be. I was hitting up against my human limitations.

Making art is tricky, isn’t it? On the one hand, we’re hungry to create the ultimate poem, painting, play and strive to replicate what we envision. Deep down, though, we know this is impossible - or we should know. I like how Dr. Eric Maisel, a psychotherapist, creativity coach and writer, puts it: “Better to think of a work of art as miraculous and not transcendent, splendid and not perfect. If you ask your work to be what it cannot be, you will have transformed it into impossible work.”

And thus, you’ll do what we do when faced with the impossible: you’ll stop trying. My mom’s words - I don’t know what it will be yet - opened the door to whatever she might create and enabled her to step forward. This nod towards the vulnerability of creating, the unknowingness of it, freed her from that overwhelming sense of potential failure. It also respected her artistic aspirations which are holy in and of themselves. It made her work possible.

This is important. It’s important at every stage - from the very beginning, with the paint brush newly wet, and deep in the trenches, while working on a fifth or sixth draft - because that sense that you simply won’t be able to replicate your original, perfect vision can stop you in your tracks, freeze you, give you that malady which we call writer’s block.

I won’t ever write the perfect book. Neither will you. You know that, right?

Like a child, my creation will end up being what it will be. I’ll aspire to my visions of perfection, and do the best I can, for as long as feels right, and then I’ll move on to the next effort at “the impossible” which writer Hermann Hesse defined as “a striving for totality, an attempt to enclose chaos in a nutshell.”  

My mom, in that little bit of artist-appropriate self-talk, acknowledged this, and accepted this, thus eliminating a whole bunch of anxiety and giving herself the freedom to begin.

And by listening to my mother (because I know she’s usually right), I was reminded of my aspirations. I felt free to daydream some more, and to move freely forward myself: rewriting scenes, tweaking, entering the trance of working, paying attention to my human-artist instincts that arose, crawling a bit closer to my vision.  

Creative Assignment: Take a piece of paper. In magic marker, write “I will never write the perfect [book, play, poem, story, whatever it is]. Nevertheless, I will aspire.” Hang this on the wall in your workspace.


Lauren Carter continues to live and breathe her writing work in The Pas, Manitoba, while also coaching writers. Check out her online course Nine Simple Steps to a Solid Writing Practice in which she shares more of her mother’s artistic wisdom.