The Central Commitment Of The Creative Life

Mary Oliver

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Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always -- these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Of this there can be no question -- creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this -- who does not swallow this -- is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.

[…]

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Mary Oliver is one of our era's most beloved and prolific poets -- an American poet who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Above is from a piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in her collection, Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).

Seed questions for reflection: What does the 'roofless place eternity' mean to you? Can you share an experience of a time you were able to honor your creative force with both power and time? What helps you reconcile having integrity in your commitments with your loyalty to your inner vision?

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7 Previous Reflections:

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    On Aug 18, 2020 Dianne wrote:
    The meaning for me involves human motivation having no reason, placement, boundaries, or time constraints. It is forever, with no culturally-acknowledged protection whatsoever.

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    On Aug 15, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    Mary Oliver's 'roofless place eternity' means to me awareness without boundaries, being wide open to listen to what comes from inside and out and responding from one's authentic self. I'm always able to honor the creative force within -- it's only sometimes that I do. I am honoring my creative force right now. I have honored it sometimes in speaking or writing my truth creatively. Many times I've been duplicitous and not reconciled commitments with loyalty to my inner vision, and sacrificed my integrity. Sometimes I've broken commitments in favor of loyalty to my inner vision. Sometimes I see commitment made as having room for loyalty to my inner vision. Sometimes I'm tricky and find a way to be loyal to my inner vision in and around a commitment that disagrees with it. Sometimes I'm careful as to commitments I make so that I can honor the commitment and be loyal to my inner vision. More often than not over the years I've been duplicitous -- ... [View Full Comment] Mary Oliver's 'roofless place eternity' means to me awareness without boundaries, being wide open to listen to what comes from inside and out and responding from one's authentic self. I'm always able to honor the creative force within -- it's only sometimes that I do. I am honoring my creative force right now. I have honored it sometimes in speaking or writing my truth creatively. Many times I've been duplicitous and not reconciled commitments with loyalty to my inner vision, and sacrificed my integrity. Sometimes I've broken commitments in favor of loyalty to my inner vision. Sometimes I see commitment made as having room for loyalty to my inner vision. Sometimes I'm tricky and find a way to be loyal to my inner vision in and around a commitment that disagrees with it. Sometimes I'm careful as to commitments I make so that I can honor the commitment and be loyal to my inner vision. More often than not over the years I've been duplicitous -- aren't we all? -- and usually felt sad and regretful for my lack of courage and integrity. When I have placed loyalty to my inner vision above commitment that stifles it, actual or imagined, I have felt satisfaction in holding onto my integrity.[Hide Full Comment]

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    On Aug 14, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    Knocking At The Door?
    It is late at night and time to sleep.
    As I am going to close my tired eyes
    I hear a soundless sound.
    I wonder who is knocking at the door?
    I open the door of my heart
    And lo and behold my heartdancing with ecstasy.
    I am swimming in the river with no banks
    And flying in the sky with no boundaries.
    A flute is playing with no player.
    I'm Radhamerging with Krishna!

    3 replies: Shyam, Rose, Me | Post Your Reply
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    On Aug 14, 2020 susan schaller wrote:
    This is exactly the medicine I need. I am facing a huge writing project that is not a huge project. It is my opportunity today to write from my heart and be prepared for an adventure, an inner journey, not any one outcome. I started writing about bells, and ended up with Herodotus. Thank you, Mary Oliver, for reminding me the future is none of my business, including the next sentence!

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