I’ve always been struck by the story of Penelope in Greek mythology. The story, as I remember it, is that Penelope married Odysseus, but that he was always off at war and while he was away, many tried to fix Penelope up with other men but she wanted to be faithful to her husband. So she tells the suitors that she will choose one of them as soon as she’s done weaving a special project for her father-in-law.
But she doesn’t want to be done with the weaving because she doesn't want to choose one of them. So, each night, in secret, she unravels some of the weaving.
She undoes her work so she can’t make any progress.
It’s this “undoing” to save herself, that has always struck me. How many times in the creative life have we all been guilty of “undoing” so we can't make any progress on a creative project?
This "undoing" might come in the form of not following up with a phone call, suddenly losing focus or running out of energy for a project, letting household projects get in the way of work time, deciding not to apply for a prestigious opportunity, the night before.
Penelope “undid” her progress so she could remain faithful to her husband. Is there something or someone you’re remaining faithful to? Or a way that this “undoing” is protecting you? Perhaps you’re concerned your art will offend someone? Or your success will change an important relationship? Or your success will be the proof that you’re not a victim anymore?
Or maybe it’s more subtle. You have big aspirations for your art career and you want to make more money. But you won’t get to the studio every day or you only dabble in marketing once a week. These are also forms of "undoing."
Or maybe your “undoing” looks like progress but isn’t. You might push projects into the world too soon with impatience. They're still unformed or too young so that when the rejection comes, you blame yourself or the work and those projects get tossed. There was nothing wrong with them but they were still sketches or first drafts, not fully formed yet. They needed more time stewing or they needed a smaller audience of trusted advisors.
“Undoing” is often unconscious. To make matters more complex, some projects are best abandoned. Notice what you do and remain curious. I find I can see the way I have “undone” only in retrospect. Pay attention when you suddenly lose interest in a project you once loved, notice when you help and promote other artists more than yourself.
Don’t be afraid to see your own “undoing.” I can remember feeling that I didn’t want to know how I might be undoing my own best efforts—as if my noticing would somehow make the undoing more pronounced. Not true! Every time, I’ve noticed my undoing, I turn it around. I submit the application, as planned. I decide to hire help, I send out the essay for a critique. I don't kill my art and I remain curious about what might really be stopping me.
*** PLEASE NOTE: The comments section on this post are open. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Have you ever been guilty of “undoing”? How so? What did you or can you do to let yourself be the artist you always wanted to be?
Penelope, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869, chalk, 67 x 89 cm, Private Collection.