Grave digging


Dear Artist,

Like the novel or memoir many of us feel we have lurking inside but will probably never put to paper, there is undoubtedly a painting or two that simmers in the arm and hand of all creative beings. More primal than writing, mark-making begins in early childhood, to be perverted later into a messy and inconvenient activity where the exception to do it in adulthood is made only when it serves an industry. A lawyer friend once invited me to his basement to show me an appealing, sort-of pointillist portrait in cheery colours. “Can you help me get a show?” he asked. An unfinished second one was leaning in the corner. “Was it fun?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “How much did you enjoy the second painting?” I inquired. He replied, “Not as much as the first.”


“The Abbey in the Oak Wood” 1808-10
oil on canvas
by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

In her 2001 lecture series at Cambridge University, Margaret Atwood explained the difference between writing and being a writer: “Everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave digger,” she said. “The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence. It is also, because of the nature of the activity, a deeply symbolic role. As a grave digger, you are not just a person who excavates. You carry upon your shoulders the weight of other people’s projections, of their fears and fantasies and anxieties and superstitions.”


“Wanderer above a Sea of Fog”
oil painting
by Caspar David Friedrich

I drove home from the studio visit and picked up my brush, thinking it was perhaps easier to be certifiably unemployable than to have a choice about being a painter. Enjoyable or not, the digging would continue until I became a grave digger. I remembered my parents discussing whether we, their children, should have something to fall back on, should we fail as artists. My mum insisted we all take a turn at summer jobs. I was, for three weeks, the dessert-cart-girl at the Black Forest Restaurant. Soon, the manager relegated me to drawing on the specials board. My dad, as if he knew the secret to never holding a real job, suggested we spend our summers daydreaming and sticking to independent projects.

Atwood recalled, “There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books.” She said she became a writer one day when she wrote a poem in her head, while walking across a field. “I didn’t know that this poem of mine wasn’t at all good, and if I had known, I probably wouldn’t have cared. It wasn’t the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in ‘B’ movies.”

caspar-david-friedrich_monastery graveyard in the snow-1817-19

“Monastery Graveyard in the Snow” 1817-19
oil painting
by Caspar David Friedrich



PS: “Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it. You become a writer by writing, there is no other way. So do it, do it more, do it better. Fail. Fail better.” (Margaret Atwood)

Esoterica: Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario to a forest entomologist father and a mother who had been a dietician. Because of her father’s research, Atwood spent her childhood commuting with her family between Toronto, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and the Quebec wilderness. She didn’t enroll in full-time school until she was eight and read Grimm’s fairytales and Dell pocketbook mysteries, animal stories and comic books. “I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on — no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.”

Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer on Writing, Atwood’s inquiry into the art of writing drawn from her Cambridge University lectures, is here.


The group show Emergence opens at Dimmitt Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas this Thursday, November 8 from 6-8pm. If you are in the neighbourhood, Sara and Peter will be there and would love to see you.

“I think the main thing is: Just do it. Plunge in! Being Canadian, I go swimming in icy cold lakes, and there is always that dithering moment. ‘Am I really going to do this? Won’t it hurt?’ And at some point you just have to flop in there and scream. Once you’re in, keep going. You may have to crumple and toss, but we all do that. Courage! I think that is what’s most required.” (Margaret Atwood)




  1. Thank you for this “food for thought” to begin t day.
    I have a request regarding a particular aspect of being an artist. Could you please publish some thoughts on the responsibility, of an artist, to be a good host, at their opening and what that would look like.
    I have been to openings where one has to guess, who the artist is or where the artist is comfortably in a corner with a few friends and does not engage.
    I think some education in this area, would be valuable.

  2. Sara, I always enjoy your posts. This one spoke to me deeply. I have become a grave digger and crave that electricity generated by my creativity.

    What I don’t have the spark for is promoting my work. Did your dad? Do you?

  3. Sara, I love your writing just as much as I loved your Dad’s. This column was particularly beautiful and meaningful for me. Thank you!

  4. What a great analogy, I totally agree that one must do the work and more. Also very important to give yourself permission to be the creative person you are in the deepest part of yourself!

  5. Spooky Crave Digging –Love it. It does take courage for sure! Congratulations on the group show – what fabulous art – you can see the grave digging in the work -Its Significant! Terrific Letter Sara – Thank you and happy grave digging :)

  6. This was certainly a timely post as I am now in Iceland at a residency, poised to write one of those memoirs you mentioned! I will post Margaret Atwood’s quote by my desk, “Any form of human creativity is a process of doing it and getting better at it. You become a writer by writing, there is no other way. So do it, do it more, do it better. Fail. Fail better.”

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  7. Thank You Sara,

    I echoe the previous comments… Both you and your father have done much to encourage us would be grave diggers as we learn and grow in our respective crafts. I particularly enjoyed this letter. Unfortunately, I will narrowly miss your Houston show. Would have enjoyed meeting you and Peter there, But I won’t be in Houston long, and dont arrive till early December. All the best in your show!

  8. On the money as usual…
    Over the years, particularly when I had other responsibilities that kept me from the studio, I would periodically say to my self – let it go, close it up, it’s not going anywhere, you can’t give it what it takes. But then I’d realize that it was impossible for me to do that. It was like flipping a coin, calling out heads and then when the head turned up, flipping it over… I cannot not create and so I don’t consider the alternative anymore – I go in and do the work. It’s how I breathe.

  9. “Was it fun?” –
    Ha- when I read that I knew where you were headed.
    I write, I am not a writer; I know the difference.

    . . . loved to hear that you served as a “dessert-cart-girl” –
    At 14 I was a car-hop for about 4 months; it was then I realized that good or not, I would always be a painter – and committed to failing better everyday. There is no back up plan – this is it.

    Thank you – for writing. Your words are like wings that we (as readers) can use to fly away on.

  10. Thank you. I really enjoyed this. I have been painting – have taken lessons – love painting. Also, I want to be a writer!!!! Just listened to a Hay House series of workshops.

  11. It was a special pleasure to read this letter. As a child and for many years into my adult life I used to listen to Letter from America by Alistair Cooke. There was something reassuringly comforting about his reflections on life and politics. Then one day, more than twenty years ago now, an old school friend and fellow aspiring artist sent me a link and recommendation. I subscribed to the Painters Keys newsletter without any great expectation. Since then, through some dispiriting and soul destroying times, Robert had the uncanny knack of picking the right theme at the right moment and presenting it with eloquence, in a style I found reminiscent of Alistair Cooke. These letters became a constant source of inspiration and enjoyment, helping me along the way. When Robert passed away I wondered if that source of inspiration might disappear with him, but it didn’t, the spring still provides pure clean fresh water from its source.

    Forgive the somewhat cheesy metaphor please, I’m no writer. Certifiably unemployable, however, I wear that badge with pride. As anyone should…

  12. I’m in South Africa living in a small coastal town where everyone is eccentric and arty. I paint …or I try to paint , and I often get disillusioned when I see so much talent around me…but then I go home and try harder. Is it fun ? Off course it is ! I love scolding myself for not ” getting it right ! “.

  13. Seriously, Margaret Atwood notwithstanding, I find the word ‘fail’ to be anxiety provoking and unnecessary. That ‘f’ word simply does not exist in my life. I don’t even really know what it means. I have, though, participated in activities and projects that went in a direction different from what I intended, I have gained copious experience and points for improvement along life’s highway, I have loved and loved again. But as far as I know, I have never failed. And that’s because I didn’t believe I could. Everyone should try it. It’s delicious!!

    Verna :-)

  14. Thank you for this piece. I was particularly interested in your addressing writing, as my own creative pendulum has swung back (more) to the writing side lately, with many hours digging, indeed!

  15. interesting that you chose Friedrich’s work as the illustration. As I remember my art history, he focused on the smallness of man compared to the vastness of creation. I think he was German–and therefore must have had very long gray winters–as the paintings you have selected are gray-toned. The impact of black and white with muted colors has always impressed me—color is short-lived but black and white seems solid.

  16. Sarah, thank you for this one. For all of them, really, but this one, in particular. You spoke very clearly to me. Thank you. I’m off to do some more digging.

  17. Karen Blanchet on

    I think it would have been easier for me to be certified “unemployable”. I would not have tried so hard to be someone else for so long. Love the two points of view of your parents. Having at long last given myself permission to be, I relish in the electricity and the joy of digging. So yummy.

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