Knowing It When You See It

Knowing It When You See It

What’s bad writing? It came up after I saw quite a lot of comments about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I said at the time to a couple other Generation X geek friends that I was liking the book, but also that I felt it impossible to separate my assessment of its quality from the onslaught of nostalgia porn. Every reference didn’t resonate with good memories, but enough of them did that the rest just helped keep me in the time period. Which, as those who lived through it (specifically, the 1980s) can attest, was often a scary, chaotic whirl, musically, fashion-wise, and politically. I was at least half-sure we’d immolated in a fiery holocaust of hastily-lobbed ICBMs at any moment. My feeling didn’t change after I’d finished, either—I liked it, but was it good, or just pushing my vanished adolescent buttons?

And it’s very, very hard to define “bad writing” objectively, without using specific works upon which one has ground one’s axe in the definition. As a friend said, “maybe it’s like obscenity.” You just know it when you see it. It’s necessarily vague and subjective, because we like such different things about various mediums. Beyond the obvious, like grammar and typos/spelling, there’s a lot of room for style and being idiosyncratic. Analysis ranges widely. Some think abstract painting is abominable trash, others think it’s more essentially artistic than any other style.

Applied to our own work, sometimes we worry about people trashing it, dismissing it. If we’ve worked honestly, with a goal of being our most essential selves, I believe it’s our truest expression, and what we should strive for. If what you’re offering is different than most or all others, there’s an audience for it who likes the thing you’re doing and  possibly you, as well. It’s just a matter of finding the right means of exposure, having persistence, and some luck after that. Or, sometimes if you’re doing a thing lots of others are, if you’re a different enough personality, you draw them by being who you are.

What do you get out of the artists, writers, and musicians you follow? How much is really cool evaluation of its worth and how much because you just like the way their things are made? Or, simply, the people doing it?

Rejecting the Coast, Pt. 2: Yellow

Rejecting the Coast, Pt. 2: Yellow

“And the bulk of it was pretty easy, even though it was basically no advance warning,” she said. She made her way down the sidewalk outside the park-and-ride lot, still on the phone, but listening now rather than talking. She felt out of breath, not just from having to move quickly, but also explaining herself in a tumble over the last several minutes.

It was the call she’d put off making—her mother, always supportive in principle, but worried and questioning in practice. She wasn’t ever sure how to convey the finality of her decisions once she’d made them. To Mom, every choice was just a possibility, no matter how crossed-tee, dotted-aye, copied and filed away for reference it was.

“I’m not doing this because it’s a sure thing, Mom,” she said, “I’m doing it because it isn’t . . . No, I’m not throwing anything away, I’m making something new. Opportunity isn’t always the way forward . . . No, I don’t think it’s cryptic.”

The sun was halfway to its zenith now. The asphalt beside her was ash-colored in the light, the sidewalk pale as sand. The airport she was walking into reflected dozens of fractured shards of glare from as many steel embellishments. Her plane was fueling, taking on food and pillows and in-flight magazines, soon to rise into the searing sky on its way to Albany and the house in the woods.

Rejecting the Coast, Pt. 3: Red

Rejecting the Coast, Pt. 3: Red

She was still sitting on the porch of the house when the day ended. She wondered if it had been the best way, leaving everyone and just about everything she’d known for the last eleven years behind to follow a new path and make this work. Wondering—that was another method of avoiding things she had to do, in the end.

There was room for Hakim, room for his guitar. She missed him already. But she needed to claim the house for herself, first. Get some life worked into its corners before she could share it. She wanted to understand herself again so she could write in her most open way. This feeling of being lost, when her goal had been the opposite, was typical. Her fears were calmed first, as they always were, by questioning what she was doing, and only later by working.

Maybe there are always questions, she thought. Always us telling ourselves we’re doing it wrong, the timing isn’t good, we should hold on a bit longer. Wait, wait, wait.

The sunset, filtered through the trees, was turning everything a light crimson. For Lynn, it wasn’t ominous or anything. It felt like a signal, an alert. She left the quilt on the porch and went to find her laptop. It felt like the moment to finally get on with things. She did.

Signifying Nothing

Signifying Nothing

I’m a big fan of Song Exploder, which gives us a partial behind-the-scenes sausage production view of a specific song, as related by the artists. The mechanics of creativity are endlessly fascinating, even if they don’t add up to much on their own.

But still, it’s useful for artists to examine others’ processes. It can inform our own, give us ideas, offer new possibilities. Even when the medium is not your own, a glimpse at raw creativity in motion is inspiring, and we can make connections to our work we didn’t even think about before.

I associate Nine Inch Nails with fury, and obviously they are mostly concerned with sound. The band Grizzly Bear is similarly concerned, and they offer a counterpart: sometimes touching the sublime. But there’s little anger in the SE episode below. Here are two episodes of SE, examining each band and the details of creation in making a song apiece, each approaching sublimity. They signify nothing, but out of nothing everything was born.

Episode 124: Nine Inch Nails

Episode 113: Grizzly Bear

When Heroes Disappoint

When Heroes Disappoint

Just as we’re sometimes disappointed in our work, we often find ourselves disappointed in the artists we look to for inspiration, either in their own art or for the way they carry it and themselves forward through the world. They make something we don’t like, or even that we think is categorically bad. Or worse, act in an inappropriate or appalling way to other people. It can happen for anyone we admire or want to emulate, our heroes and idols, public servants and officials. It’s often called “becoming disillusioned.”

Disillusion’s counterpart is illusion, often a key component of art itself. Paintings and drawings have from the beginning embodied that quality, and film & video carry it even further. The cinema phenomenon, sitting in what is basically a glorified cave watching flickering images on a wall, is a well-advanced example of the persistence of vision—a high-order illusion.

Illusion is a suspension of belief, in a way. The metaphor could be extended to the magician’s art: fooling us with misdirection or quick manipulation, or an undisclosed set of preparations to change the objects we think we’re seeing whole and unaltered.

We give in to what we think we perceive, even though it might be something else, something mundane and imperfect, underneath. Disappointment in what we once were fascinated or impressed by is often the result of seeing that ordinary reality. We watch a behind-the-scenes video of a favorite film, or of someone explaining how a magic trick is done, and it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by the revelations.

I’m not at all saying this is intrinsically bad. We love our illusions, but we also want basic levels of truth and justice and efficacy in the world. Living in a world of illusions is a temporary goal, and reality, as messy and boring as it can be, also contains untold wonders of experience and understanding. As we work to increase equality and awareness of justice in our world, it’s perhaps only to the good to accept our disillusionment as part of that process.


Just came across ResistBot. It links you to your representatives in Congress, “no downloads or apps required.” In case it was in question from the general tone of this post, my goal is not to be neutral on this blog. For Americans (I’d rather be more accurate, but United-Statesians is awkward), at least, it’s a way to keep our politicians aware of our stances on issues like social justice, sexual harassment, environmental pillaging, net neutrality, and everything else.

Thirty

Thirty

“You’re not old,” he said again. “You have a long time ahead.”

She took a deep breath and let it out in a whoosh so long he thought  she might pass out. “I’m just starting out. Again. I mean, who’s going to pay attention to an old—” she caught his raised eyebrows and corrected herself. “Older woman’s stuff, or my opinions. Does it matter?”

“Dunno. Are you doing it because it matters?”

This was a much bigger question than hers. She didn’t want no one to acknowledge what she did, but she had to admit that wasn’t why she wanted to start again. She needed to. The work, her ideas, the raw stuff of creation inside her—it was a fire she simply had to bring forth into the world. If only just to see what it looked like herself. If only to learn how to be better at it.

She got up and let the quilt fall to the floor. “I gotta go. I’ll let you know when it’s ready,” she said.

Unconfident

Unconfident

It’s inevitable we’ll sometimes feel like our work is crap. We’ll have imposter syndrome. We’ll feel as if we can’t do this any more, or that there’s no point, or that it doesn’t matter because no one’s checking it out.

It’s true that it probably doesn’t matter in a grand way—to the universe, to the world, to the internet. But that isn’t the same as having literally no meaning. It has exactly as much as we assign to it, no less. Others’ assessment of its worth (or meaning) can help support our continuing the work, sure, but it can’t generate the need in the first place. And given a need that was there before anything went out into the world, it follows that nothing more is necessary but to decide for ourselves.

And if the work is worth doing, in light of the need, the only way to have a chance at getting better at it is to keep doing it. That’s really the bedrock of practice. If nothing else, you’ll have something(s) getting better and better over time, the craft of the art experience. If we can focus on 1) satisfying the need by 2) doing the work and it’s 3) good to get better, we better 4) keep making it.

Be Wrong

Be Wrong

They sat at the small table in the corner by the window and sipped their drinks in tandem. She looked out the window and watched the passersby flood across their view, lost in their own frustrations and pressures. It was the first day after she’d finished reading the novel she’d started three years before. She thought it would feel like a triumph, but she just felt drained, as if she’d been at work all day. She shook her head and smiled.

He said, “What? Something funny?”

“Kind of,” she said. She sipped again, still looking ahead. “I just had an idea how I’d feel today, and it’s not what happened.”

He chuckled. “That’s me every day. Maybe better not to anticipate feelings.”

“I guess,” she said. “It’s just, some thoughts are automatic, you know? And for sure some feelings are. It’s just what happens. I think what’s important is not to put any judgment on what we think, just let it happen. Let it be.”

“Speaking words of wisdom?” he said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Nice, old man.”

“Old bands are always better.”

“That’s what the DJs want you to think. Nothing new under the sun, right? But—it’s better to make mistakes, to try things out. To believe you can find the new thing, or the different experience. Maybe that’s how we can move forward.”

“Like, your routine is you being stale? Moving back in on yourself instead of, you know, on?”

“Exactly. We get comfortable with the way things are, and that’s true of the way we think, too. We get stuck trying to be right all the time and defend our opinions like they’re scientific truth. We’re scared of getting something wrong. But really, we should be, I dunno, trying to be wrong, more. We get more chances to discover things that way.”

He considered this. “Interesting theory.”

“Could well be completely incorrect,” she said.

“Yep. Nice.”

The Old Stuff

The Old Stuff

We, or rather, we in the “first world,” have a tendency to hold on to music from our adolescence or youth as we get older. The albums and songs we played over and over in our bedrooms, or heard a hundred times on the radio or music video channel, reach a gilded status when we’re long past that youth. We rediscover the music of that long past time, or it never really left our stereos, when we’re somewhere along the steeply sloping path to our (pathetically-titled) middle age.

I’m not sure why this is the case for so many. Maybe we’re trying to recapture a feeling of promise or potential before adulthood crashed into us. We might just want to experience a little of the energy or excitement of that oncoming juggernaut. Either way, or even given some completely different motivation, the strange, exploratory music being made now is very often ignored, brushed aside, or dismissed.

There’s no doubt in my mind we could extract new insight or meaning from the old stuff, the songs that filled us with emotion when we were younger. But there’s immense power and possibility in things being created now, out of the fabric of the reality which just passed. Giving it a chance might just be the wound-up spring pressed into our being, ready to uncoil into our next creations.

What’s In Here Matters for What’s Out There

What’s In Here Matters for What’s Out There

Reflecting on possibilities is an essential part of being human. Imagining leads to art of all kinds. It’s not just the impulse to make something new, it’s what guides that impulse and allows us some kind of starting condition. Art from a void is really hard.

I’ve always liked this moment from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s finale, when Q, the (allegedly) nigh-omniscient/nigh-omnipotent being, shares an almost tender moment with Picard. His curiosity about humanity has, at this point, been joined by a kind of admiration. But it’s the glimpse into another, larger universe that’s the most fascinating thing to me. In a series with a hundred instances of imagination writ large, here is one that could transcend the show and say something about what we might potentially find. And be.