From January 2018

Modular Synthesis

I watched a documentary about the rise, fall, and rebirth of analog modular synthesizer technology called I Dream of Wires.

I was amused to think that modular synthesis is what many artists do as part of their work. We take bits of ideas and parts of a whole and put them together in new ways, moving plugs and dialing certain elements up and down.

We make and remix concepts and create new things in the world.


It used to be called, of course, “working.” Management and clients didn’t request our attention to be split several ways and to try to do more than one thing at once. Multitasking—which is more accurately task-switching—though, is inefficient and draining.

Research is clear about it. There’s a cost in time and in brain function.

I’ve been going through Note to Self‘s Infomagical series from 2016 the past couple days, and the first challenge is to spend a day only working on one thing at a time. Try it, you’ll probably find, as I did, that you spend a lot of effort thinking about your distracting digital life: social feeds, email, updates, notifications. Doing one thing until it’s done is harder than you might think.

WNYC’s Infomagical page

The Repetitive Thought

There’s a point when the idea at the back of your mind starts speaking loudly, loud enough to distract you from the thing you’re currently doing. At that point, you need to either write it down to explore further later, or pause what you’re doing to acknowledge its importance. This is, admittedly, anthropomorphizing something that doesn’t have a physical presence. But if you don’t, an important idea might either keep nagging at you, or go away entirely.

Neither prospect is much good to your work.

Your Worst Thing Is Someone’s Best

Most of us who love a certain medium to the point we could (or do) create lists of our favorite or what we’d consider the best examples will hardly hesitate to question the examples of others. It’s almost a truism that someone next to us who loves or lauds a work we think is awful is up for scorn, or at least a severely-raised eyebrow. Conversely, we might feel compelled to argue them into liking—or at least acknowledging the worth of—a work we think is fantastic.

The trouble is that no one is objectively right, here. It makes as much sense for us to be wrong as any other person. Further, your thoughtful analysis is no more necessarily correct than my gut reaction after the fact. Equal amounts of thought or consideration of the work might allow each of us to put the other person on equal footing, but it won’t change the basic fact: someone is going to love the thing you think sucks.

This phenomenon is an opportunity to be generous of spirit. It’s a valuable tool for artists and observers of art, alike. We need to be able to see our opinions in new ways, and to downplay their objective truth, by turn. Creators can only benefit by rethinking our opinions of the work of others, not to mention our own. We might find new appreciation of stuff we’ve dismissed, and improvements to our own we’d never seen before.

Train Keeps a-Rollin’

Momentum perpetuates itself. Get a streak of anything going and it’s easier to continue on.

Once a habit of creation becomes a compulsion, it can turn into a compulsion. For art, this is nearly always to the good. It overcomes doubt, outweighs sloth, and undermines indifference.

All night long. With a heave and a ho.


Clickbaity title, I freely admit, but I’m specifically talking about the picking-and-choosing-things kind of discrimination, not concerning people.

My friends and I were talking about the firehose of media, which is, of course, a rather definitive first world problem of having way too much available for one person to take in. Nobody can possibly keep up with all the TV shows, nor movies, nor books, nor podcasts, nor music being churned out. And beyond that, there are blogs, vlogs, streams, and comics (both web and dead tree). Never mind all the bleeding video games I can’t even start.

We make our choices of the most appealing media to consume and favor, and have to chuck a big portion of the rest. But recognizing this isn’t sad, it means we have to value our time and our attention. While social media companies are trafficking in that very attention, it’s time to reconsider how precious and limited it is.

You’re worth taking a stand for the things you enjoy and eschewing what you don’t. The things we then choose become commensurately more valuable, themselves.

Too Much to See

There’s too much stuff out there to experience it all. Every day brings a new pile of media, films, videos, TV series, books, music, podcasts—we’re drowning in it all, often happily. But we rarely talk about having to choose a narrow slice of the seams-bursting pie.

Whether we know it or not, we’ve made a choice about how much of what kind of media we’ve taken in, and we’ll continue to do so as long as our access to media (or content, if you like), remains a flood, ever rising and widening.

The kinds of things we choose should always contain a bit of the type of work we strive to create ourselves. It’s useful to see what’s come before, what fellow artists are making now, and, if we’re lucky, a bit of insight into how they made the thing that is capturing our attention.

We have to make another choice as artists: to consume less and give time to our own making. The flood doesn’t stop, and nor should we, so long as we have waters that are sincerely drawn and uniquely ours.

NOTE: Thinking about the water metaphor, I can see there could be a long series of posts exploring the symbolism of it: good, bad, and, well, innuendo-laden.

Collaboration Is the Future

Group projects, co-authored work, co-operative ventures: do them. The image of the solitary artist making all their stuff out of dreams and magic alone in a white room—or dingy garret—is a trope that obscures the increase in group creation. It’s common to see group work and teams, from design to video games to film. There’s plenty of room to grow, too.

It’s healthy and inspiring to get out of your own mindset for a while and work with others to make something.

It feeds your own drive, through ideas and concepts you hadn’t or would never have thought of, and that makes returning to your own projects feel fresh. We learn from teaching, we learn from collaborating, and learning should never end. Otherwise, we can stagnate or lose touch. With the world and our muses.

Bring It On Home

What if I used a song title as the title of every blog post? Probably just confuse everyone, actually.

Having given us all an out for taking a break from our creative stuff yesterday, I have to pull it back in again. It’s time to get back to the habit of doing. It’s way to easy to keep indulging monkey mind and let it go another day, which turns into three, a week, a year.

It’s true, some geniuses blast out a veritable torrent of work all at once, having done nothing for weeks or months. But I’m no genius. You may be, but then, if so, why are you paying attention to me at all? You just need to listen to your inner muse and let your ideas flow into reality to the blueprint of your vision. Most of us, though, are fumbling a bit and trusting that eventually the thing will have a distinct shape.

Starting up, keeping the habit, working steadily toward a finished piece is going to get things done, which is the real goal. Judgment about its worth, evaluating its place in the world—that all should come from others and after something is finished.

For now, you put aside fear for an hour or three and get the mechanism of daily practice (or near as damn it) back on track.


The same old dull routine. It makes you crave a change, tired of the stuff you’ve made that’s become regular, overly familiar. When habit has become tedious, it might be time to let it go for a day.

Change is good, and taking a break from monotonous behavior of any kind can reinvigorate you, re-energize you. It might be a relief to break out of a rigid structure of rules, even when you’re the one who’s set them.

Let the routine go for once, laze around, do nothing, think about a new direction, explore your surroundings. Everything is fodder for a new making. Indulge.

Just don’t go more than a day. Be back to the habit soon to put the new fire into the old coals.