Surfing used to be my church. I went more often than once a week, but that’s nothing unusual to many. Muslims would rightly say, “… yeah? And?” But for a non-religious person, I still enjoy and get tangible benefits of viewing some parts of my life as sacred. More often these days, they’re moments, not necessarily entities or institutions.
Today was one of them. I’d had Mark Hollis’s sole solo album (eponymous, 1998) in my collection from about 2004. I was—am—a big fan of Talk Talk, having rediscovered them after I lost track for several years after they released The Colour of Spring. Theirs was one of the most rapid and far-reaching evolutions in all of popular music, going from a synth pop dance band through post rock over the course of five albums. They didn’t do it as fast as The Beatles, but they went much further, stylistically. Mark Hollis really was the driving creative force behind the music, and I wanted the final chapter in his oeuvre to be special. From what I’d read, the album was relatively quiet, so I wanted to experience it alone in a room on a quiet day. As quiet as one could get in the city, of course.
The problem was, I was trying to create a perfect moment, and I don’t think they can be manufactured. What I needed to happen was a sacred moment. An amazing experience can happen more easily with that intention and setting, but you don’t need perfection to experience the sublime. But I made sure I’d be alone for a while, opened the blinds to the sunset, and started the album.
It wasn’t a perfect moment. But it was profound. I’d been putting off a really nice experience so I could try to make it perfect, but really, I’m not sure that’s good for me. For us. It was certainly unfair to put the expectation on the artist to have made the perfect thing, even if that turned out to be true.
We need more of this sacred time, I think. I unreservedly recommend you take 45 minutes, or an hour if it’s long, to just listen to a single album you’ve never heard before in a devotional way—doing nothing else except perhaps look out at the trees and skies nearby.
Nothing proceeds in a straight line forever. There will be plenty of times things are going well and fast, and others when they drag into the quicksand of the afternoon. The long, dark tea-time of the soul, as it were.
This is obvious, probably, and I’m sure I’ve written about it before. I will likely write about it again, because it’s good to remind ourselves of the tough realities of creating things along with the pep talks and fun inspiring ones.
This up-ing and down-ing of inspiration, motivation, and energy are part of a natural flow. And if new age mystic wannabes can co-opt science for their own metaphors, we certainly can, too.
The only certainty is change: what goes well can—and will—go poorly. For a while. But I take comfort in knowing that the curve always goes back up, and in the meantime it’s simply getting work done that keeps it moving at all.
When you finish a piece, it’ll almost always be a little rough, in need of some polish or alterations. In school, this was taken care of by critiques, and advice from my professors and fellow students alike on how I did and what I might think about to make a piece better. What do we do out here in the real world?
Imagine there’s a person waiting at the end of your process to check out your work. They’re objective as any person can be, but they’re on your side, they want you to be your best. They’re nice, but firm. If there is a real person waiting to experience your work, that’s a win! They’ll be much better than your imagination at seeing things you overlooked. Whether they’re a friend, a colleague, or a professional curator/producer/editor. But it still can work if they’re imaginary.
Because what we’re striving at, if we’re still not hitting a daily habit level of working, a reason to keep working on our stuff. Someone waiting for you to get done might be a little scary, but it’s also a potential motivator to keep going. You might not need anyone. But if you do, and even if they’re imaginary, you can take their role yourself and try to see your work with new eyes. This is best done, I think, by listening to longstanding advice to writers: put the thing away in a drawer for a few weeks so you aren’t so close to it. It’ll be easier to see it from new perspectives once it cools from your red hot fingertips dancing it into existence.
What makes a difference between what matters and what doesn’t is caring. Seems like a small thing, perhaps. Caring that your work is worth doing, that you can make a difference in the world, and that existence has meaning lead you to be engaged in things that matter.
Subjectivity aside, as long as the work is done, the substance of it is a lesser consideration. It will be imbued with your own unique world view and passions. Does it matter? I’d say if you care, it does, and I’m not sure how you create anything for very long without doing so.
We have limited resources. Worthy causes abound. Just as we can only devote so much to helping those in need, we can only give so much to our creative work. We have to choose.
I’d say that it matters less what path or what form that work takes and more that we care about it. Keep caring.
I feel like an old man, sometimes. It’s not new, but as Gen-Xers, um, inexorably slip into the trick-knee-bad-back zone, I expect the frequency of this feeling will, irritatingly, increase.
But this is okay. Every generation—in addition to blaming the one before—inevitably succeeds the previous one, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. No amount of kicking and screaming will prevent Baby Boomer influence from subsumation. For example.
What I’m also aware of in me regarding Millennials, specifically, are feelings of admiration, desire to protect, and inspiration to act. Every generation also trashes the one after them. They’re always wrong. No millions-strong group is any one thing, and there are plenty of conscious, engaged, competent people among the next generation. I’m so unworried about the future. At least, not where the capabilities of the young are concerned.
The Parkland student protests and activism is one of those inspirational zeitgeist markers, and it edges into post-Millennial/Gen-Z territory, even.
And I was again thinking of David Bowie, who was always thinking about what was happening “now,” and searching for the pulse of history as it moved through. Immune to your consultation, old folks. raises fist like John Bender
Today’s was the first post in a long time I didn’t feel like writing when it popped up as any kind of obligation or to-do item in my mind. That happens on any long-term project, from time to time, so it’s not surprising. But since my usual bent is to think of some way out of that reluctance, I’m just going to do the opposite and leave it.
It feels a little ugly. There are plenty of moments in your creative life where some spiraling emotion or other takes over for a while. We’re taught to resist them. We’re told to replace them with positive ones. We’re expected to overcome them with nice thoughts about ourselves and the potential of our work. Because . . . why?
I think the thinking goes that since depression is bad, and despair is bad, and disappointment is awful, we should do all we can to crush them like a Marvel™ villain, lest they drag us to our dooms with them.
But they’re just feelings.
That’s weird, I know, and not a little paradoxical. Our feelings are the foundation of why we work hard at a creative life in the first place, and we risk making things without heart or spirit without them.
Giving too much power to their influence over us, on the other hand, especially when so-called negative emotions are looming, is a path to overindulgence and, eventually, empty work or worse: no work.
And feeling sullen or down about your work is fine. Really. So long as you keep doing it and being honest in it. They’re just feelings and it’s only human to feel them all.
Repetition is good. Repetition is bad. Both things are true, depending on specific values of “Repetition”.
- Having to listen to the same playlist of thirty songs because the soundtrack where you work never changes
- Initiating patterns of compulsive, destructive behavior in every relationship
- Racial/sexist/homophobic slurs learned from parents blurted in public
- Obsessively checking your social media feeds for the dopamine loop hit
- Playing a beloved song over and over until you know every line and every note by heart
- Saying a poem to yourself until you can recite it by memory
- Lifting weights in sets so as to increase strength
- Working on a daily creative habit
Might have fudged the last one, there. But it isn’t what you create, it’s how you get it done, and it is a kind of repetition. Mindless, habitual, until you forget about motivation and stamina and working yourself up to forge ahead—you just do the thing.
Putting Johnny Dangerously aside, it’s easy to have opinions. And it’s just as easy to set them aside as a meaningful part of who you are. In the act of creation, it’s a bit like ice fishing—you spend considerable time around the hole in the ice with a line in the water, waiting to catch something.
But your opinion about what you’ll catch, how good it is when it comes up, what the best thing to bring up from the little hole you cut? It’s really irrelevant to what really shows up. You can’t work with how you feel about the hole in the ice, you can only make something of what you catch.
You have to be out there fishing, actively trying to get something, and maybe that means showing up every day and being cold, because you never know what’s going to hit the line. Easy lesson: eventually, if there are fish to be had at all in the lake, one will bite.
Reading Paul Klee’s diaries, I am regularly struck by his insight and seeming general imperturbability.
The evening is indescribable. And on top of everything else a full moon came up. Louis urged me to paint it. I said: it will be an exercise at best. Naturally I am not up to this kind of nature. Still, I know a bit more than I did before. I know the disparity between my inadequate resources and nature. This is an internal affair to keep me busy for the next few years. It doesn’t trouble me one bit. No use hurrying when you want so much.
The evening is deep inside me forever. Many a blond, northern moon rise, like a muted reflection, will softly remind me, and remind me again and again. It will be my bride, my alter ego. An incentive to find myself. I myself am the moonrise of the South.
— The Diaries of Paul Klee: 1898–1918
Even when he was later drafted into the army during WWI, Klee kept this same clearheaded accepting mindset. Some things were out of his control, and always would be. He always had somewhere to climb in depicting his images. The work was always just a reflection of nature and thought.
I’ve got a lot of books. They’re in the bedroom, they’re in the living room, they’re in the garage because I ran out of shelves to put them on and need to donate or give away some. I love them, and I love their form.
But they’re bulky. They weigh me down as I move through my day and across town. I forget them upstairs, and forget to put them in my bag when I head off to work. E-books have changed those (very small) problems. I have dozens of them in iBooks, and they more or less sync up my current page across devices. I can read them on my laptop, I can continue on my phone at the coffee shop. I have a mini-library in my pocket.
But. They have no presence. Or, rather, their presence is entirely ephemeral.
After I finished several e-books and audiobooks in a row, I decided to read my mom’s old copy of A Wizard of Earthsea, printed in mass market paperback form in 1980. The difference is stunning.
I’m 28 pages in, and completely enchanted, having a tangible object to read. It’s been months since I felt pages under my fingers. And the smell. Good lord, this thing is decades old and its dark perfume is giving me nostril orgasms.
There are distinct advantages to digital art, I’m fully on board with that. But we can’t forget the sensory power of physical things. It’ll be there so long as we have nerves to sense with.