A friend of mine posted a video of Jake Gyllenhaal singing “Finishing a Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George, which is one of my favorite shows and is on Broadway for a short run right now.
One of the reasons I love this show is it’s about the process of making art as shown through the work of Georges Seurat. Of course the music is gorgeous and the lyrics brilliant because it’s by Stephen Sondheim. This song from the show, “Finishing a Hat,” means more to me now than it did the first time I heard it twenty-some-odd years ago because it speaks to what I’ve personally experienced as a writer.
If you don’t know it (and even if you do) take a moment to watch the video below. And once you get over the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal can sing (!!) listen closely to the lyrics.
This is perhaps the best song about making art that I know of, and it absolutely applies to writers and the writing life.
Why? Because it’s about how, at times, your art takes over your life. That you can spend so much of your day with your mind on your story, no matter what else you’re doing, regardless of who is around. You’re thinking about characters, back stories, story lines, trying to figure out plot twists or solve plot problems. You hear your characters talking (sometimes instead of the people around you) and you often have to “just finish this part—please wait, don’t talk to me, I gotta get this down.”
How you miss out on life when you’re really ensconced in a story of your own making, choosing to stay in and write rather than go out to dinner with friends or go for a hike with your family. How you weigh those things—I really want to write, but I’d also like to go—and then have to make a choice. And you don’t always choose the people, very often you choose the writing.
When you recognize that you’re choosing work over relationships, that’s a hard thing to swallow. And the impulse to choose writing first is something you’ve got to tame in yourself if you want to keep those relationships healthy—if you want to stay happily married, want to actually be present in your children’s childhoods, want to keep your friendships. Which, in turn, means less writing gets done. That’s a hard thing to swallow, as well.
Balance—it doesn’t exist in an artist’s life. At least not in my experience. Instead, you’re maintaining a juggling act in which you keep dropping balls. Choosing not to keep dropping the same ball every time (or even most of the time) is the real trick.
When you’re in the thick of writing, there’s truly “nothing but sky.” Nothing but your world, your characters, your imaginary friends speaking to each other in whispers and shouts, images flashing through your mind, ideas and phrases coming in a rush or a dribble, and you can do nothing but pay attention and write it all down as quickly as you can so you don’t lose it. Your thoughts are consumed by all the little things that make up the whole, every detail, every turn of phrase, every word. That even while you’re spending time in the company of others (your spouse, children, friends), your mind is often wandering the lands of your imaginary world.
And even though sometimes you’re watching life through a window as you write, it feels amazing to create something from nothing—stories about people who feel real enough to be, well, REAL. You create worlds—things, places, events, people who have never existed before—that are fully unique to you. No one else could have imagined or told the story in the exact same way.
And I guess that’s what keeps me coming back to the page—juggling the things I love most in this world—for the chance to create. It’s what keeps all artists coming back to their work, to finish the hat or plan a sky, and get lost in their art again and again.
*This post originally appeared on Thinking Through Our Fingers, a writing blog I joined a few months ago. For more great posts about writing and the writing life, please go check it out!