When I was studying literature at university we came across the mythological story of Tantalus. It’s a pretty horrific tale containing many twists and turns (he steals the secrets of the gods and boils his own son for starters…). But for his misdemeanours he famously ends up condemned to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree bearing ripe fruit. When he bends to drink, the water recedes beneath him. When he reaches for the fruit, the branches lift up into the air and he can never be satisfied. Of course, his story is the source of our word ‘tantalising.’
We came across the story of Tantalus within another story, however. In the epic poem The Odyssey, the hero Odysseus journeys back to Ithaca (where he is king) following the Trojan war. It’s not a simple homecoming, though. It takes him nigh on 10 years and he must conquer evils (including an enraged cyclops…), overcome obstacles and push on through much hardship to return to his family and kingdom.
Sometimes learning your artistic craft feels excruciatingly tantalising. One more piece and surely you’ll have attained brilliance! But no… Surely the next design will be the one to blow your teacher away and establish your worthiness to create your own designs! Uh, definitely not… You dip to drink and the water eludes you, reach for the fruit but your fingers never quite touch it. It’s easy to lose heart.
But of course, I take heart from remembering that our work is actually more like The Odyssey. It might feel as though each day we are beginning from scratch, fighting battles all over again and wearily wondering if we’re closing in on home or merely whirling around in circles. But actually there IS progress, we are moving forward. And even better than for Odysseus, we are creating a new culture around us as we go. It’s not merely that we are trying to reach a destination. Actually we are discovering our voice, honing our techniques and tweaking our unique style en route. The more we travel the more we discover who we really are, what matters deeply to us and what we really care to produce. Rather than going back, we are journeying ON to a place we call home that we haven’t even been to yet. How exciting!
So on those days when the brush won’t flow as you wish and the designs don’t come to mind, grab a glass of water and take a bite of fruit as you celebrate how far you’ve come, envisage the journey ahead and remind yourself that this stuckness is only temporary and just part of your creative homecoming.