“No satisfaction whatever at any time”

“The work wasn’t good enough. All changed, all passed. There was no way of ensuring lasting beauty. Verily, I wrote in water and judging my work with a dreadful dispassionate vision, perhaps it was as well. I spoke to Martha Graham on the pavement outside of Schrafft’s restaurant. She bowed her head and looked burningly into my face. She spoke from a life’s effort. I went home and wrote down what she said:

‘There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open….’

‘But,’ I said, ‘when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.’

‘No artist is pleased.’

‘But then there is no satisfaction?’

‘No satisfaction whatever at any time,’ she cried passionately. ‘There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.’”

-Agnes de Mille, from Dance to the Piper


It comes as a feeling of heat, a catch in the moment inside of a thought, telling me to write this down. I must remember this, I think. I will remember when I get out of the shower, or stop driving, or wake up in the morning. I think, I can’t stop now to write this down. Don’t you tell me what to do.

But I will not remember if I do not get out of bed, stop the car, jump out of the shower, start writing. If I do not write it down, it is lost forever. It is endlessly frustrating. I have spent evenings and days enslaved to these hot thoughts, writing and writing endlessly, because I had to get it out. But it is never good enough, and I never put it out into the world. Then, I have spent nights dreaming and turning restlessly, refusing to write it down, burned by the frustration of the gap between what I see in my mind’s eye and my ability to execute what I see. And these nights are just as frustrating.

I think art might be something that some people have to do, even if it isn’t any good. I think I’ve misunderstood that in the past. I always thought art was something that people did because they wanted something out of it – a living, recognition, awards – and I never quite thought I could get anything out of the things I created, or it would never be enough, or maybe it just wouldn’t be right. Most will never get anything at all out of their art. The reason has to be because your sanity depends on getting it out and releasing it into the world so that you can be free of it. It will never be good enough, but you will not be tormented by it any longer.

In high school, I took art class every year, and I remember that keen dissatisfaction. I never felt finished with any piece. My art teacher admonished us to spray our drawings with fixative, to call it finished, and to turn it in. It was an agonizing process to learn, to let go of something that would never be finished. But it was essential. Be delivered of that particular demon. Start again. Maybe get closer next time.

When I look at old journals and unformatted Word documents, hundreds of pages of words, I am dissatisfied. When I look at my first three blog posts on this site, I am dissatisfied. I am dissatisfied even as I write this post. I would have been dissatisfied, in a different, sharper, more intense way, if I had not written at all. Martha Graham’s take on this – that this drive makes some people “more alive” than others – well, I think that’s an optimistic view. She took ownership of that feeling, exalted it, made it sacred. My approach has been to try to balance it. As a younger woman, I tried to numb it, to no avail. Today, I sit with it and wake up to the moment as much as I can, whenever I can. Sometimes, I have moments where I am truly here. In those moments, I can touch contentedness. Remembering that the present moment is there, however fleetingly accessible to my eternally dissatisfied mind, is solace. Perhaps, rather than the dissatisfaction itself, it is the ability to stay with the moment that is truly sacred. Then again, they may each honor different aspects of the divine.

Ultimately, I do not expect to receive any benefit from posting my writing on the capricious walls of the internet, aside from a sense of momentary relief, and perhaps a deeper practice of vulnerability. Ursula LeGuin says, “The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art.” I have always believed this. It’s why I didn’t go to art school or try to earn my living by writing or drawing. I do not necessarily think that what is true for me is universally true for everyone. But I cannot expect anything out of what I create. I write because there is something in me that boils over, and ignoring it scalds my insides. I cannot (I do not oppose, but literally am not able to) just write a thing because someone else wants it. Not well, anyway. I’ve tried. It’s a no go.

It feels a bit pretentious to call it art, this scrawling down of thoughts that won’t stay in my head, but it certainly isn’t anything else. This blog is unlikely to be monetized. It doesn’t have a theme. I doubt it will even be the same form of writing in each post.

But if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. So I will have to consider this art. It is what it is, no more, no less.


One thought on ““No satisfaction whatever at any time”

  1. It IS art. 100%. Sara Bareilles’ feels ya:

    “The Holywood Reporter: The title (of her newest album), The Blessed Unrest, suggests gratitude for turmoil.

    Bareilles: Yeah. It comes from a quote from Martha Graham. She talks about the role of dissatisfaction in an artist’s life, and how it’s actually a sort of divinely appointed message to keep moving forward into your next creation. So it’s been an interesting time. Last year was rough for me personally. I went through a big breakup, and separating from my band of 10 years. It was really tumultuous emotionally, but I guess it was comforting when I read that quote to think of that time as something that was divinely given, that there could be some sort of method in the madness of feeling so scattered and dissatisfied. “


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