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.
Here’s another thing the daily habit will get you: an opportunity to catch the fire when it flickers into being under your nose.
Waiting for inspiration is a recipe to never do any work. You might wait till doomsday, who knows? But keeping a steady creative pace means you’ve got a flow going. There are insights and truths within that flow. The funny thing is, you might let them loose in your work and not see them at first. They’re a spark and fluff of flame at the edge of your vision. Ignore it and you keep rooting out tinder and kindling in another direction on another day.
Finding a fire doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bonfire coming, but it can light the way to one if you’re ready for it.
In many cases, you love the things you’ve made, at least at the time you’re in the process. These are your children, so how could you not? Not just individual pieces, either, but within any one work there are elements you could consider as separate entities, and you love them. There are just some things, now and then, some children who are brats.
These jerks are full of spirit, but in ways you don’t want. They’re too bold or too sassy or too angry or too difficult in their own way.
But we have to love them anyway, in the ways we would love a kid we’d brought into the world, even though they tire us, and frustrate us. The ideas and concepts we put out there that cause us problems and exhaust our tolerance are our troubled kids. We don’t abandon them—necessarily . . . there are some metaphorical difference, of course—we try to figure out what’s going wrong for them, to help them figure out where and what they need to be. We love them because they’re ours, and they can put the rest of our lives and work into perspective, to torture the metaphor just a bit.
Love those problems just as much and see if you can’t adjust to the things they’re showing you.
Plain is the most boring flavor. Or, rather, it’s a complete lack of flavor. Nobody—or near as dammit—starts out wanting to make their thing in plain (i.e., flavorless). We want flash, darkness, vibrancy, intensity, pizzazz, orange pekoe. But it’s eminently valuable to start out plain and work from there.
The bare bones can be stark or even boring to look at on their own. But the bones are the structure that hold the thing upright, and allow movement and expression. With a solid, plain base to work from, everything else gets easier to add and to tweak.
For many years, I’ve kept to using plain text as a basic unit of writing format. It works on pretty much any platform and can be imported to just about any program or app. Plain is flexibility as well as simplicity. If we think of it as a starting point, a universe of startling and unusual flavors can be chosen to augment it, and even changed if it isn’t as tasty as we thought.
And for the record, vanilla isn’t a default or synonym for plain. It is, verily, the finest of the flavors.
Almost 50 years ago, Blood, Sweat & Tears released a song about how culture goes in cycles like a wheel, swinging left to right and back again. It’s natural to feel stuck, sometimes. It’s harder to know at those dark moments that I won’t be there forever. It’s a big picture perspective that serves me well, when I can remember it.
Another idea I’ve tried to keep in mind is that of Taoist or Zen balance, that what may seem good or bad or fortunate or tragic today can easily become the opposite tomorrow. So it isn’t worth the emotional capital it takes to dwell too intensely on any particular event in our lives.
Of course, we’re only human, and not very good at a wide or long perspective on existence. It’s easy to become roiled by life, politics, and customers.
We need these little reminders that life is never on rails, nor traveling in one direction, forever.
As I expected. Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.
Speaking of Mary Poppins, I was thinking about that film, and how much I missed when I first saw it as a kid. Two scenes are the heart of it, and Julie Andrews isn’t in either one. It is, of course, the not-so-perfect people Mary spit-spots among who are the emotional center of the movie.
Once you get past Dick Van Dyke’s awful accent—which may not have been his fault—it’s a series of moments in which a generous, simple, kind man who knows what’s important 1) brings two children to a new understanding of their father, and 2) gently coaxes the opposite for their father who finds he was wrong about what he thought was important.
Never heavy-handed nor confrontational, Van Dyke nonetheless shows the Banks kids the only-too-human side of their father.
Dick Van Dyke eases off the ham for his scene with Mr. Banks, and David Tomlinson, nearly entirely by expression showing a man’s heart rending with the realization, acts the veritable shit out of it:
The slow walk to the bank and his certain doom, followed by a return to goofballery—albeit still really enjoyable—is almost an afterthought for me. The heart of the film is really Mr. Banks beside the fireplace and his slow epiphany over what has real meaning in his life.
So, I woke up to find yesterday’s post didn’t get through the publish cycle, it just stayed in the drafts pile. Things fall apart.
Lessons again, always lessons. It matters that your work gets done, not that it publishes to the world, clocklike, or that you always make the deadline—although plenty of editors will love you for that—and get eyeballs on each daily bit.
Practice, and the habit, isn’t just to get creating. It’s also to act as a bulwark for your soul, so that when it does all go horribly wrong, somehow, it won’t matter in the grand scheme. I mean, you’ll have a grand scheme of some kind to keep it all in perspective. Looking back, you can see that a little gap in the pieces you’ve laid out doesn’t change the overall path.