Single-mindedness / by Jeannine Cook

I recently alluded to a wonderful book I am reading, The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, about the 18th century Romantic generation's discoveries and accomplishments in science, exploration, literature and many other disciplines. The account of astronomer William Herschel's sister, Caroline, interested me deeply. She must have been a pint-sized (about five foot in height) force, highly intelligent and extremely self-disciplined. She was her brother's invaluable astronomical assistant, noting down all his observations as he peered through his wonderful telescopes at outer space, night after night. During the day time, for countless years, she ran his house, kept accounts, received eminent visitors and made the necessary calculations to complete William's observations.

However, in due course, she herself became a fully fledged astronomer, with her own beautiful telescopes which her brother designed and made for her. With single-mindedness, she began to sweep the skies, looking for comets. Like her brother, she became sufficiently familiar with the patterns of the night sky that she could almost "sight read", and thus more easily spot anything different. She became famous as the first lady astronomer, discovering a number of comets and garnering respect and acclaim in the international scientific community. She was also awarded the first professional salary every paid to a woman scientist in Britain when King George III granted her an annual stipend for life. Her single-mindedness, during those long, lonely nights spent looking through her telescope, brought her not only personal satisfaction, but much deserved respect.

Single-mindedness is an ingredient that I believe every creative person needs - whether in science, literature, art, music... Take a much respected and successful author, such as Robert Coram. His non-fiction books range from Boyd to American Patriot or Nobody's Child, while his fiction writing is extensive. His remark, during a lunch we were all sharing, was that for him, ten-hour days were followed by watching a film, by way of relaxation, before bed. That takes single-mindedness - ten-hour days, working on a project that normally takes about three years from start to publication. I mentally compared that with my time spent drawing and painting, and decided I needed to juggle personal and professional life more successfully!

I also had a reminder of another form of creative single-mindedness, as I listened today to NPR's Susan Stamberg talking about the current exhibition at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, The Art of Gaman. This is apparently an exhibition of the art and crafts created by the Japanese Americans interned in camps here in the United States during World War II. Since they were simply dumped in these camps with no more for each family than four walls, lit by a light bulb, a pot-bellied stove in a corner and cots, they had to fashion anything else they needed out of any scraps they could find. But they went further than just utensils and furniture. Their single-minded courage led many of them to create art, jewellery and other pieces which are now on display. "Gaman" in Japanese means the ability to "bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience".

Bearing the Unbearable: The Art of Gaman , Iseyama teapot

Bearing the Unbearable: The Art of Gaman , Iseyama teapot

Another manifestation of such single-mindedness was the art created by Jewish children and adults sent to Theresienstadt in World War II or, indeed, the drawings and paintings created in Auschwitz or Buchenwald or elsewhere. Think too of the dedication of those who were in Theresienstadt to composing and creating music. Faced with such appalling conditions, it must have required almost superhuman single-mindedness to continue creating beauty and uplifting manifestations of the best of the human spirit.