Recently I found myself deep in the valley of creative standstill. It began last week when, frustrated with the results of staining my current furniture project, I began scraping it back down to bare wood with a card scraper, only to realize that the scraping operation would be just as tedious and risky as applying the stain itself. Frustrated and demoralized, I avoided the project–and the shop itself–at all cost.
In short, I had allowed my frustration to become a roadblock that was preventing me from making progress.
I was so blocked, in fact, that I was blaming the materials, looking for any excuse not to work with them. This frustration came to a head when I found myself writing a new aesthetic statement to justify my feelings toward my current project. In an early draft, I reasoned that I was dissatisfied with stains and dyes because they hide the natural beauty of the wood that I fall in love with in the early stages of a project.
But as I found myself sitting on the couch watching what passes for the evening news, I realized that I couldn’t postpone this work any longer. No matter how closely my new aesthetic statement might represent my true sensibilities, I still had a project to finish, and I still needed to do it in a way that I found satisfying.
So at 10:30 PM, restless and anxious, I made my way out to the workshop to get my project back on track. After a few experiments, a bit of troubleshooting, and some analysis of the techniques I’d used, I’d finally found a path forward. For the next two hours, I sanded, wiped, and applied a first coat of finish to the project.
In retrospect, I still find truth in that aesthetic statement I’d written. It is the wood in its natural color and character that I find beautiful and exciting, and stains and dyes, can often obscure that beauty, which I find frustrating. But it also seems silly to abandon a whole class of materials on principle. I found eventually that by refining my technique, I could arrive at a result that I found pleasing and intriguing in its own right.
Were they the original surfaces and colors I’d been excited about? Of course not. Those were gone, and I learned a valuable lesson about the creative process because of that. But what I found was still exciting, still worth my time and energy.
Willing myself up off the couch and out to the workshop, I also found a deeper appreciation of Hemingway’s recollection in A Moveable Feast: “I always worked until I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”