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Month: April 2018

Good Enough

Good Enough

I’m thinking about two competing ideas about the artist’s path to doing work. In one, you should strive to be the best in the world at what you do. This sort of philosophy holds that you will stand out by relentlessly getting better at it, and that your work will be able to rise to the top and obtain eyeballs. Certainly.

In the other idea, there’s a point where the work isn’t perfect, not the best in the world—maybe not even very refined at all—but it fully conveys your meaning and intent. It does the job. It’s good enough.

I think we hold back a lot from creating things and putting them into the world because we’re afraid of their imperfection. We worry they aren’t as good as stuff made by the artists we hold in highest regard. But you get no points for things you make that aren’t out there. The only way to get better is to keep making things. And your work doesn’t have to be perfect to evoke emotion in the rest of us, to stir us with its passion, to inspire us with its beauty—or its repugnance. It doesn’t have to be “good,” it just has to be good enough.

Part of this is what you’re making. It may be so that the fine craftsmanship and technical nuance of the work is most important. In that case, yeah, you want to strive to be the best in the world. But that path is long, and there are lots of types of art that can just be good enough. Consider the difference between the dreamy precision of an early Alan Parsons Project album and Bob Dylan wheezing out his own songs. In the case of the latter, good enough is sometimes genius, and we need it in the world.


Thinking about the title of this post, I half-heard a half-remembered song in my head. There had to be tons of songs titled “Good Enough.” And, of course, there are. But the one that had nagged at me was Van Halen’s. It’s the lead track off 5150, and was still fun to listen to after I’d searched it up. An exuberant, flashy, over-the-top middle finger to the pre-haters of the then brand new iteration of the band, it sort of bridges the gap between the sleazy, goofball, raunchy sound of the David Lee Roth era to the over-earnest, FM-synth-washed, party bro Sammy Hagar phase. But it was the only one from the album I could stand to listen to completely.

What seemed an evolution to me just out of high school now seems, well, stuck in a high school sentimentality. It’s weird which fond musical memories remain firmly in the nostalgia folder as we get older and which get revised and edited.

Trying Try, Try Again Again

Trying Try, Try Again Again

Picking oneself back up is the perennial topic of any number of motivational speakers and books. It’s rare you’ll be a person who can consistently and sustainably get yourself to the creative task you’ve set, day-after-day. For the rest of us, we just have to realize we’ve not done work for a bit and get to work again.

I write on this a lot, but I think it’s because I need to remind myself over and over: it doesn’t just fix the problem to know about it. Greater than knowing you’re going to slip up, though, is the idea that it doesn’t matter. There’s no real world penalty for missing a session or two in the studio—substitute wherever you do your work for the word “studio,” here—while you’re distracted by shiny things on the internet or plain old daily life. No one fines you for not working on your paintings or album. You’re just one day fewer without something done.

But, again, it doesn’t matter. We all fall short of our most lofty ideals at some point. It’s part of being human. We spiral around again, we trip over the same stupid crack in the sidewalk. But what isn’t often discussed in the talk of our failings is the corresponding attribute of our successes. Nobody’s going to glorify your completion of the next piece of the artistic puzzle you’re figuring out. But we spend collective hours and miles of text lamenting shortcomings. It doesn’t have to be of any more significance, in my not at all humble opinion.

You failed! But everybody fails, every last one of us. You’ve got to let go of that harsh voice and be kind to yourself. It matters that you don’t let it get to you, beyond that initial disappointment. You’re still alive, you have one more day to pick up where you left off. Once you finish a thing, that’s the time we should be all appreciating you, acknowledging you made that thing and it’s done. Maybe it isn’t perfect, that’s also not important.

If you have the urge to make things about and for the world, all you have to do to rise above our darkest emotions and harshest contempt is to start again.

Systems Analyst

Systems Analyst

I like systems. I like organizing principles. I don’t often keep to them strictly, but I’ve got some kind of organizing fetish—with an office supplies corollary—that keeps me becoming intrigued by them and putting at least some of them into practice regularly.

Frank Chimero’s music organizing system of Spotify playlists is the latest. It’s pretty specific and elaborate, so your mileage may vary, but so far it’s been quick to adopt, if slower to get used to the details of it.

The advantage of a system is it cuts the amount of brainpower necessary to do any particular mechanical task like sorting and distributing. In theory, it leaves me freer to spend those newly-available neruonal firing cycles on stuff that matters more. In practice, it might just keep the itch to sort things that pokes at my conscious mind satisfied for a bit longer. Either way, there’s value.

Day Jerb

Day Jerb

I’m taking another retail gig. I was out of the last one for a couple months, and despite having an abundance of time to work on creative stuff, I didn’t end up doing much more than I was when I had my previous job. There’s something about the routine and structure of an occupation that supports doing your creative work around it.

Unpacking the word “occupation” a bit, its root is the Latin occupare,  or “to seize, capture.” A job captures our attention, time, and energy while we do it. It’s funny left at that: your job seizes your life like an invading army captures a town—which is also why “occupy” can refer to military conquest. But there’s a potentially positive effect.

In her wonderful piece in the New York Times last month, Katy Waldman points out that celebrity artists who earn their living from their creative work are mostly a recent phenomenon. Even the superstars of the Renaissance got by largely on a few wealthy patrons’ commissions, not the free-flowing whims of their solitary musings.

[…] even the celebrity painters of the past half-century had to hustle at one point. As David Salle — who was financially insolvent at the time of his first show, held at the loft of a young dealer named Larry Gagosian in 1979 — admitted in a 2005 lecture, “It was common not to expect to be able to live from your art” in 1970s New York.

She further counters that having a day job can even be a boon to creation. Yes, many artists get jobs in related fields, like music production or session work, museum positions, or editing. However . . .

[…] there is another category of artists-with-jobs: people whose two professions play off each other in unexpected ways. For these creators, a trade isn’t just about paying the bills; it’s something that grounds them in reality. In 2017, a day job might perform the same replenishing ministries as sleep or a long run: relieving creative angst, restoring the artist to her body and to the texture of immediate experience. But this break is also fieldwork. For those who want to mine daily life for their art, a second job becomes an umbilical cord fastened to something vast and breathing. The alternate gig that lifts you out of your process also supplies fodder for when that process resumes. Lost time is regained as range and perspective, the artist acquiring yet one more mode of inhabiting the world.

And although it isn’t good to be too bored, if there’s just enough tedium or routine, your imagination creeps into the open cracks and begins to grow.

That, Like, Thing You, Y’Know, Do

That, Like, Thing You, Y’Know, Do

Today, or at least tomorrow, let’s think about the things we say we want to do, or want to have done, or have always wanted to do.

Why haven’t we started doing them? We can, of course. It’s like everything creative I write about here: find a starting point and do something more every day until it’s done. Or until you don’t need the thing anymore, like say, this blog. Who knows? Maybe I’ll decide in two years, ten, twenty, that one thing I should be doing every day should take its place, or obviate it.

For now, though, it’s either The Thing You Do daily, or it’s one more of the things you do. Creation is most heartily served by a daily habit, and it gets easier to do as you go along.

So how do you find the starting point? It’s not always obvious. The good news is that it doesn’t matter that much. You can always take it on faith that if you start, it’ll soon become clear you should backtrack, or back up, or skip back a bit and continue from there. I’m sorry if that sounds cryptic, I’m trying to think of it universally, art wise.

The idea is that you can’t let fear of not knowing if you’re beginning in the right place get in your way. Imagine the point if you have to, pretend it’s the right one. You’re always free to change how you do your thing.

Rather Be at the Pictures, I Suppose

Rather Be at the Pictures, I Suppose

I’ve seen Real Genius more times than I can count. It’s one of the pieces of comfort media I have around, in case of ongoing distress or doom. Like most anything you keep going back to, it’s got dozens of bits of Truth™ scattered through it, in addition to the main story and message. One of them is the idea that neither the hard physical world studied nor the structure of thought, ideas, and interpretations is enough on its own.

CHRIS: Yes, Mitch, he cracked, severely.

MITCH: Why??

CHRIS: H—He loved his work.

MITCH: Well what’s wrong with that?

CHRIS: There’s nothing wrong with it, but that’s all he did. He loved solving problems, he loved coming up with the answers. But—he thought that the answers were the answer for everything. [mouths: WRONG] All science, no philosophy…

And so there are these disparate elements of making your stuff. There are the tools and materials, which you can evaluate and improve upon as you get better at using them. There are also the ideas and meaning of what you make. The balance between them is something we’re all figuring out as we go.

Get Small

Get Small

Problem: You have no freaking idea what to write, to play, to paint. The canvas or page is an ocean of white nothingness, and it’s frightening, frankly.

So it’s time to change scale. Whatever surface—or time period, to relate it to music—you’ve got, put it aside and get something much smaller. An index card, Post-It Note, a single mono track. Use one tool, one color, one instrument. You can fill that space a lot easier than a big one, and break the starting barrier, the hardest part of creating.

Once you feel yourself starting to drop into the flow/zone/zen, you can generate an idea or three and move back to a larger space when you’re finished. Or before, if the spark is there.

Where We Look When

Where We Look When

There are limits that we should place on our own nostalgia. Referencing our past can be a powerful element of our current world view, and therefore, work. But indulge that natural desire too much and we lose the connection to the present that makes looking ahead effective.

And there’s nothing explicitly wrong about making one’s work an examination of nostalgia, but I think it’s limited, a narrower box. You need some spark of the future to kick the work above the memory exercise alone.

Returning to our own past tickles some powerful neurons. But I’ve noticed that I crave reliving the original experience, and that isn’t possible. I’m not the same person I was. I have more experience, more understanding. More life.

We need to move with life, not spend so much time in the past or future. Here is all we have.

Art and Civilizations

Art and Civilizations

I just started watching Civilizations on PBS, and it’s already a marvelous wonder. In the very first minutes, the horrifying story of Khaled al-Asaad‘s murder by ISIS members for refusing to divulge the hidden whereabouts of the art he spent much of his life caring for is starkly told. But the big picture is that of how important art is to our humanity.

A lot of us spend our days talking about art—I doubt very much if very many of us are prepared to lay down our life for it. For Khaled al-Asaad, the stones and statues and columns of Palmyra were more than simply an ensemble of antiquity, they were the expression of what the creative imagination could do to make a city home.

— Simon Schama

A bit later, there’s this, about the earliest sparks of artistic impulse—at least, the ones left behind and found, so far—that speak to the definitive nature of art’s place in making us what we are.

Other kinds of animals make tools. Other kinds of animals may have some kind of language. We know that other animals have extremely complex social organizations. But what about art? I think we can see art as being maybe one of the only ways that we can imagine humans to be distinctively different.

—Maya Jasanoff is streaming this currently, watch this before it expires.

Home Is Where the Home Is

Home Is Where the Home Is

One thing about finding the passage back to the place I was before: it’s made me very tired.

Traveling is exhilarating, but it usually shreds your creative schedule. On the other hand, you’re feeding your mind, your heart, your soul with an overabundance of newness or—if you’re lucky—strangeness. The flood of sights sounds smells feelings ideas isn’t just intoxicating, it’s positively hangover-inducing. Once drunk on the new stuff, the return to home feels like the morning after.

It is worth it, though. Changing your point of view by completely changing your location has always been a fantastic source of new material, new blood, almost.

You awaken exhausted but renewed, disoriented but with a pack of vibrant memories. It all needs to be sorted through and labeled, but you can feel it: you’re changed, there’s more of you than there was before.