Maybe Alice Was Onto Something

When sense fails, that is, when the normal reality isn’t getting you anywhere, you can always turn to nonsense.

We get stuck. Making things isn’t always easy. Rather, making things is only easy sometimes. For moments when you’re really stuck, some weird disconnected idea or solution will present itself. I don’t mean anything magical, it’s just the flitting, mercurial nature of our brains. We’re good at stifling those thoughts, however. That’s why we so often turn to children as sources of unbounded creativity. They don’t have skills yet, but they also don’t understand writer’s block.

It’s a habit to tamp down, repress, dismiss the nonsense that giddily bubbles up when we’re really stuck on a creative problem. Next time, don’t. Put down the weird, crazy thing. The thing that makes no sense. What have you got to lose? You’re already stuck, and you can always wipe it out and do it over when a better, sensical idea comes along.

Or, if you’re truly lucky, the nonsense fits, and you might have done something new, connected elements that never have been joined before.

The Golden Age of Something

Fauxcade drawing of a standup fictional video game called "Arg"On a recent podcast, we talked about our nostalgia for several cabinet/enclosed video games and the arcades we visited them in. The swelling wave of Generation X seems poised to roll over everyone, now that the Boomers are entering retirement. I wonder if it’s such a good thing.

No doubt, it’s unstoppable. Golden visions of the past will always out. And there are advantages to nostalgia, they’re described in research about it. It’s when it becomes more important than today that it matters.

In order to be the best makers and creators, we need to be present. We reflect the world both as it is and how we wish it were—or fear it could become.

It’s not living in or for the future. It’s not indulging in the past. It’s being and living now.

Always a Whole New World

I used to play a lot of Minecraft. Or, rather, I played it for extended periods when I fired it up. I played vanilla (for the uninitiated, “vanilla” means the unmodified, straight-out-of-the-download-folder version), with texture packs, mod packs, and custom DIY mods I threw together. One of the first things I did when I got an iPad was download the mobile version and play a half-hour of it.

And really that’s all I needed.

The first day and night cycle in Minecraft is compelling in the same way as a blank canvas or page. Everything is new, you have a whole world to explore and build. If you want. Or not. You can do absolutely nothing, just wander around, watch the sun arc over you, splash in the water, head south.

As you walk, break things, add bits here and there, the world is changed, new possibilities and vistas are created as you move to the edges of what you’ve seen and what you’ve made.

Even if I never go very far beyond that first day. the hidden and limitless possibilities ingrained in a fresh world—a fresh game—are intoxicating. The cool thing is that it’s always there, waiting.

You can always start again.

Only Accomplish the Thing

Nike’s never improved on its slogan “Just Do It.™” Despite problems with the ads themselves, conflating average shoe buyers with the ambitions of professional athletes and worker pay—and that’s a lot, I’ll admit—it’s still a phrase that transcends its cynical ad agency origins and corporate manipulations to retain meaning over time.

When you think about the things you want, it doesn’t matter whether or not you inspire yourself with dreams of what your work or life will be like some time in the future. All you have is now to start the one, next thing you need to do for your art and your life. Stripped of sentiment, despair, fear, or any other emotional adornment.

Merely work on your stuff.

You May Leave School but It Never Leaves You

A few things I’m learning, because school is never completely over while you can breathe, are as follows:

Despite ambition, drive, ideas aplenty, and opportunity, I am still very, very, very good at procrastinating. If I could market that skill, I’d be CEO of I’ll Do It In A Minute Just As Soon As I Look At This One Thing, LLC. (Market cap: $1.4B)

But two things are helpful in overcoming that trait—Pomodoros and doing the hard stuff first.

If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, here’s a short overview. Basically, you work on tasks in 25(ish) minute chunks and take a 5(ish) minute break in-between, then a long break after 4 of those cycles, of 15–30(ish) minutes. Use a timer. This helps keep you focused during work periods and builds in a recess. Our minds need both concentration and free play to make connections and build memories efficiently. It’s the same with bodies, working out needs sufficient rest to build and strengthen. For me, at least, it helps to know there are breaks coming at specific intervals so I can trick myself into starting and staying at a particular task. One note: I’ve tried to do this just watching the clock, no timer, but I end up going way outside the time blocks. Usually with breaks. Timer.

Making a to-do list before bedtime is working well for the getting more stuff done, and for keeping up with the blog, particularly. Getting started on the hard bits first, I’m noticing better attitude, less sulking, and less angst when I’m not working on things.

And sleep really is, really is, the best component of physical and mental health. If you’re in school, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get your 7.5 hours, I know. But keep it at the forefront of any health concerns. No more midnight oil burning outside of major research papers and final projects, seriously. Putting everything to the side for bedtime has been better for remembering what I’m learning and improving the stuff I’m making.

The Benefit of Repeat

The common refrain I hear in response to the question, “what kind of music do you listen to?” is “oh, everything.” I think that may be us not wanting to be put in a box. “Mostly stuff I liked when I was in my late teens and early twenties” is more accurate, in my experience, but that’s not to denigrate people who like the things they like.

While I wish everybody lusted for new and more music the way I do, there’s a danger as well. Or, to not be so dramatic, a downside. Especially these days, music is a cornucopia of bands and releases. There’s so much more to listen to than one person could possibly consume, even once, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of racing through playlists and album streams without really paying attention to them, just having stuff on in order to get through the ever-growing lists. It feels like I’m cheapening music, sometimes, indulging my inborn collector lust, the part of humanity’s acquisition drive that gamification and social media feeds trigger and reward so shrewdly.

But deep listening to the same piece has the opposite effect. In a way, it’s a form of singletasking. The tenth or twelfth time through Ethan Gruska’s wonderful Slowmotionary, for example, or the hundredth time through Hounds of Love and lo and behold, I hear something I’ve never heard on the album before. In a way, it’s new again, I’m startled out of my assumptions. It can happen with art, too. Spend several sessions over a few weeks going back to a museum and just looking at one painting. A Rothko, or a Klee, or a Walker, or a Gueorguieva. Things are revealed to you, colors you didn’t notice, symbols overlooked, a compositional element that ties one side to the other, even references to other works.

Deep dives, if we consciously make them, are keys to insight.

UPDATE: Artsy, of whose podcast I’m a fan, reached out and asked if I’d include a link to their Kara Walker page, which I’m glad to do in support of her greater exposure.

Being Nice

Still so often seen as a sign of weakness, niceness and kindness can be helpful to your artistic work. The idea that you have to be ruthless in some ways, or visibly tough, or relentlessly claw your way to the top is becoming outdated, too. Being generous of spirit isn’t just for other people, either, it’s potentially helpful for you, too.

Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.
— Annie Dillard, The Abundance: Narrative Essays, Old and New

In that vein, I’ve been thinking about my feelings for and of Ready Player One in anticipation of the upcoming film. There’s plenty of hate out there for it, as well as slavering affection, and it’d be easy to take a haughty or dismissive position for the things I found . . . less than ideal. Chris Isaac, writing for Tor offers a thoughtful perspective.

Why So Much Backlash? Ready Player One is Basically Twilight for Nerds

Lindsey Ellis does the same for the Twilight series, and you could do so much worse than viewing all her videos.

So give it away, no hoarding. Not “don’t get paid,” but “share the secrets.” Austin Kleon advocates pretty much this thing on his site and in his books.

Reconsider how much we should trash works that we don’t resonate with, rather than considering why they work—or don’t—for us.

The zeitgeist is telling me the world has been moving in a meaner direction (by which I think I mean the structures of power) for some time, and it seems right to be part of the wave pushing back against it.

The Deal With Airplane Food

Most things have an inherent identity. They’re what they need to be and a result of the processes that brought them into being. This is just as true of a tree or a river as a book or music video.

Imagining the thing you’re experiencing as less than some Platonic ideal is missing the point. Whether it’s bad or good is similarly unnecessary. We’re often ignorant of the processes that went into making—or growing, if you like—something, and talk about it as if it should be something more, or better, or bigger.

I’m not saying all judgment or criticism is off-base. Having high standards is helpful, certainly in our own work. But we spend much time bashing and heaping scorn, and sometimes it’s simply irrelevant. Because many times the reason something is not our ideal is that it wasn’t meant to be. The processes of its making required it to be so.

This may seem vague. Trying to make a universal out of a specific is, well, fraught with fuzziness, and it’s hard to be clear. Let things be what they are, as much as you can. This lets you be kind to your own work when you want to throw it in the trash, and to other things when you want to spend your precious time holding it up against an ideal. Because perhaps it was never meant to, nor was trying to be so.

BONUS: Airline food history, reasons, explanations

Keeping It Real

More on the Yoda metaphor front: reality isn’t always what it seems. We see mostly the surface of everything, membranes of stuff our senses feed on. So it follows that we shouldn’t make too many assumptions about what’s beneath.

The opposite is true of our creative work. We make everything from the inside out, that is, starting with the idea and moving outward until the surface is whole and complete.

So, on the one hand, you need the structure of a piece to be solid, strong, interlocking, hidden. On the other, the skin is where life is most present: moving, shifting, full of color and texture.

You need balance, as in most of existence. Can’t focus only on one side of reality.