From February 2018

No Easy Answers

She was tired. And tired she would remain for the rest of the day.

It was the same most days, but she supposed it was partly her obsession with getting 6 hours of solid labor clocked before she broke for a late lunch, some time after the sun had angled the shadows more or less 45 degrees.

Hakim had been playing on the couch, but he stopped, rested his palm on the strings and watched her.

“You okay?” She looked over and smiled, a grim one without teeth.

“Yep. Fine,” she said.

“Uh huh.” He waited, she turned back to stare out the window in front of her computer. “All right, I mean . . . okay.” She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He was still staring at her. She faced him again.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Really. This is what I wanted, I’m doing it. This is good.”

He nodded, carefully. “Right. Are you sure it’s good for you?”

She opened her mouth to dismiss him, of course it was good—then shut it again. Was it? She’d never considered the question before. It was what every artist wanted: to do their art full time. To make it their job, their career. To fill their waking life with making, and not have the drudgery of a meaningless livelihood. But she was becoming perpetually exhausted.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. Art was supposed to energize you, lift you up and give you wings, set your soul on fire. But she was doing it, and she just felt burnt out.

But then, she also felt free. She felt a deep satisfaction with her life and herself. Maybe it was just something else that was off. The scales had to shift.

“I think we should walk over to the lake,” she said. Hakim stood up and reached for her hand.

Writing for the Cat

I’ve seen plenty of advice on creating and making that, in one form or another, advocates that in the absence of an audience, you write for yourself. Or, in another vein, we’re advised to avoid trying to make things we think the market wants. I’m going to go against one and clarify the other: Create for others, but be your most honest self.

And if you don’t have a specific audience in mind to write your novel to, write to your pet. Your job is to get to the deepest parts of you in making your work. Getting it out is paramount, and if you can’t overcome the fear of making it for other humans, you can start by making the things for your fur-person companions.

Your cat is a valid substitute to create for, at least for now. What you’re aiming to do is take the focus off yourself.

The point of art is to illuminate the human condition. Art is better shared. Additionally, creating for others can keep us honest. Nobody wants to be thought of as a hack or careless. We can give ourselves permission to be shitty, as long as we care about what we’re doing and want to get better. Facing the fear that someone else won’t like the stuff we do is a necessary step in creating for other people. What matters is that it’s out there, and we contribute our own small offering in tribute to the art we’ve absorbed ourselves. Sometimes to its ultimate sacrifice, I agree, but fire can be cleansing as much as it can burn us.

Not Actually Stupid

I took a long time getting to—and through—the Bojack Horseman episode “Stupid Piece of Shit,” S04E06. It’s a deep, devastating examination of the central character’s self-loathing as seen through his own internal dialogue. And it’s hard to watch.

We can be so hard on ourselves, so much of the time. It’s easy to forget we’re as much in charge of the voice that gently comforts as we are of the voice that berates and excoriates us from within. It’s better to keep countering that voice with the first.

It’s almost instinctual to listen harder to the negative voice. But neither inner voice is real. We can only control so much. If we are forthright, if we are even steady and habitual, the positive counteracting voice is there, as well, to tell us “good job!,” “well done,” and other helpful notes.

And if both voices exist within us, they aren’t both equally helpful, nor healthy. It’s better in the long run to give more weight to the voice that encourages, that supports, that’s delighted we did a thing. Things that keep hope alive and up lead us to make better and more things for the world. As you keep up the daily habit, you can acknowledge both sides of your inner self.

You are forced to listen to the voice telling you you’re a piece of shit. But you don’t have to accept its opinion of you and your worth any more than some random person on the street. You have an alternative. You have a voice that lifts you up and strengthens your resolve, too. Consider the other voice.

Morning Magic

It was late winter at the little house in the woods. The snow outside had melted away, except for scattered patches in the shadows of a few trees. Lynn was starting the ritual charm.

She hadn’t known why she called it a charm, there was no manual or instruction to follow, or specify what type it was. It just felt like it fit, and she used that feeling in making this magic. She had laid out the pencil, the pine seed broken from its cone, and the feather all in a row, a line broken by a dot. She waited, listening. There it was, a wood thrush began to sing, four notes and a trill. She placed the four white pebbles around the seed to form an X.

   o           o

  ———-   ~    ----====

   o           o

She touched two fingers to her lips, the top of her head, and the back of her neck. Hakim had asked her, after seeing her do it all one morning when he woke unusually early, “What’s all that about?”

“It’s a morning magic,” she said. Hakim snorted, leaving no doubt of his opinion on the two words being together in any way. Lynn smiled, but ignored it.

“What’s it do?”

“It sets the day in place,” she said. He had shrugged and walked away. But even this vague an explanation was a lie. Not a serious one, she thought, but at least for a time she wanted to keep the truth to herself. And the truth was that the construction of the arrangement did nothing at all. It was magic for magic’s sake. She brought it into the world to bring more into the world.

She watched over the arrangement for a few seconds. Then she went to the kitchen and reverently made a cup of tea. As she wrote, it would sit beside her, steaming, slowly cooling and untouched.

Manufacturing the Sacred

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.

Wave Theory of Creation

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.

Inevitable Editing

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.

Only What We Can Do

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.

Shifting Generations

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 before1—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


Unfeeling It

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.