From June 2018

Switching Tasks

Lots of advice on learning a new language (programming and foreign) or medium or instrument says you should just pick one and stick with it, not give it up and move to something else after the initial bout of getting the basics down. I’m not a big fan of this.

Life is short enough, and there are worse things than trying out several possibilities in a row. Sometimes you have to give something a shot to know it isn’t for you.

Or even that it’s not for you right this minute. In order to give learning something as complicated and slowly-progressing as language or the piano, you’ve got to have a connection to it. There needs to be a spark between it and you in order to make the tough middle part of the journey seem worth your time and occasional frustrated energy. Sometimes you don’t find it right away and you have to try a few different things.

After you’ve learned German or C++, you’ll often want to learn something else, and earlier experiences trying a little JavaScript or Spanish or oil paints will clue you as to the thing you want to put your heart and soul into. Or you dive even deeper into your experience.

But you won’t get chastised by me for abandoning things at the beginner stage because it doesn’t feel right, right now.

Here in the Humdrum

The usual state of things as an artist is to be working on something or somethings. If we’re honest with ourselves, the exciting parts, the beginning of projects and their finish, only exist in a brief window relative to everything else. Most of our time is spent between, when process is all there is. As Austin Kleon makes clear, this is how we should be thinking of our work, in general.

What seems endless, sometimes tedious to us can be fascinating from outside. Weirdly, you can sometimes look at your own stuff that way yourself! It’s a way of being kind to yourself by checking yourself out with new eyes, outsider eyes.

It’s about showing how you do your thing, rather than what you did. And you also might create a new sense of excitement among the people who like what you do. They’re in on the secret part of the path, and you’re the person showing them the way. It’s cool to not hide how you do things. Not to mention, it keeps you honest and looking for new ways, and that’s probably necessary in the age of YouTube tutorials and Instagram galleries.

Harlan, and Good and Bad Things

He finally went and did it. Died. Deshuffled the most mortal of coils. A fiery, arseaholic ball of emotion and invective with an Edisonian ability to invent new tales burned out and went forever silent. He wrote amazing things, and I considered him a hero for a long, long time.

Then I started hearing about his sexist behavior. Odd, I thought, since he was such a fierce advocate of the ERA and feminist ideals. But sometimes the people we admire do awful, hurtful, damaging things. We can’t shy away from talking about that part of our erstwhile heroes, if we talk about them at all, and sometimes if we don’t want to. Harlan shamefully groped Connie Willis on stage, and was reportedly grabby with a lot of women through the years. This is unacceptable sexual assault, and he should have been called out on it a lot more than he was. He apologized to Willis, who accepted. That’s to the good.

He inspired millions of us to write and to create new worlds and to never give in to the powerful who wanted to crush or steal our dreams. But he hurt people and sparked fear in some innocents he denigrated, and womenthe woman he touched inappropriately, and that will shadow his brilliant work forever, as it should.

Here’s my Ellison story:

I was attending Comic-Con in 1995 or ’96 as an exhibitor for my comics series Greymatter. I saw that Harlan was going to be meeting and greeting at a booth in the middle, somewhere, and even though I was terrified at the thought of confronting such a fierce and forward man, and the real possibility that he’d excoriate me and my work, I had to go get in line.

I waited, I walked up, I handed him a pile of books. He was delighted, and gracious, and welcoming. He said, “Ack! You waited in line to give me comic books?!” with a giant grin and slight head shake. He accepted my fanboying with tolerant good humor and thanked me. And I left, exhilarated I’d met yet another of my favorite creators.

Cory Doctorow wrote a better obit than this one, about HE, and how to think about someone we admire who does bad and good things and it’s here, and it’s worth reading.

What Are We Waiting For?

We’re told—and often, by experts self-styled and acclaimed—that we need to keep doing our work and things will happen. Is that the goal? It seems a prescription, hoping for some tangible, recognizable event that tells us, “hey, you’ve made it, you’re now a success. Boom.” We tend to accept the advice from those who are famous or at the least, making rent from their work. Is it inevitable?

I’m not sure. What if, just suppose with me, here, that you never make a living from your art. Are you still willing to do it? Deciding that the dice won’t roll your way—not just that they might not, but they will not—does it seem worth it?

If not, why continue? Give yourself a few years to get discovered and have an exit plan. Easy peasy, little harm done to your well being and your life. But maybe you can’t handle that notion. Maybe you still need to get the work out.

If that’s the case, you’re in a different category, one where success has a different measure than popularity or wealth. It could well be self-defined, and you might not have the tools to quantify it, yet. That’s fine. I’m pretty sure I don’t have them, myself. I’m making it up as I go, trusting that my need to do the things I’m working on are enough to scratch the itch, to keep riding the wave of desire that an urge to create swells within. There are a couple things to keep in mind, I think.

Don’t discount the few eyeballs on you. They matter. It can seem like social media, particularly, is full of more views and likes than you’re getting. But even if you’ve only got friends’ views and listens to chalk up, they’re probably steady ones. It means someone is paying attention, and if they’re already your friend, they’re more loyal than the average casual viewer. Cultivate those views and appreciate that they keep liking the things you’re making. It’s good and humbling that they make the effort and take the time.

Also, always renew your sense of love for the work you’re making. If you don’t love it, it becomes tedious, like any other job in the world, unspecial. Your work needs to matter to you first. It’s what you alone can bring into the world that no one else can.

All these things mean we can switch from waiting for some outside force or entity to bestow success and meaning upon us to finding success and meaning in the everyday work as it happens. Keep doing the work and maintain the success and meaning. Boom.

Short Link Roundup

A few quick links below that I found intriguing to fascinating:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has a really cool design scheme, contemporary and clean, knockout sections and monochromatic, but that makes it versatile, color-wise.

But it does feel crazy that I’m paying Amazon over $100 a year simply to encourage myself to buy more shit on Amazon.”

An amazing Keith Haring mural in Amsterdam that had been obscured by weatherboarding was uncovered 30 years later, and it’s typically stunning.

More From Uncle Paul

You’d think the great ones would praise their fellow masters, and so they do. But now and then comes insight about the less perfect, the odd, the understated.

As we came to the city limits the Lateran palace diverted us from our project. Also, the mother of all churches next to it. The Byzantine mosaics in the choir, two delicious deer. After this hors d’ouevre, over to the Christian museum in the Lateran. Sculptures in a naïve style whose great beauty stems from the forcefulness of the expression. The effect of these works, which are after all imperfect, cannot be justified on intellectual grounds, and yet I am more receptive to them than the most highly praised masterpieces.

Paul Klee, Diaries, 1901

Guilty Pleasures

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the stuff you like that is critically acclaimed or praised as best. What about the things others disparage that you still love?

The answer is still to celebrate them. Ray Bradbury once said (probably more than once, as he gave plenty of talks over the years), “Never apologize for your taste.” Indeed. The things we like are an essential part of who we are. And, as artists, they color and flavor our work.

You can definitely benefit from trying new things and expanding the possibilities of what media you experience. But never be ashamed of what sparks love and excitement in you. We should be trying to become ever more truly ourselves, and that includes everything we enjoy reading, watching, and listening to. The set of things that influence you are unique to you.

A Little From Uncle Paul

In my productive activity, every time a type grows beyond the stage of its genesis, and I have about reached the goal, the intensity gets lost very quickly, and I have to look for new ways. It is precisely the way which is productive—this is the essential thing; becoming is more important than being.

— Paul Klee, Diaries, 1914

What Becomes

One of the peculiar things about making art is the weirdly vast pool of raw stuff we turn into finished things. It isn’t tangible or visible, but all of the substance—that is, everything that isn’t the material components of the work like paper, canvas, pigment, wood, stone, fabric—exists in a big lake inside our heads ready to be, literally, tapped.

I mean, sometimes it feels more like a shallow pond than a lake, but I try to think of it more like our inability to always get the tide coming our way is a problem of weather—like fog or storms—obscuring our view and sense of the scale.

Like any other ocean or body of water, it changes, expands, gets choppy or calm, brackish, sweet, muddy, or, when we’re lucky, crystal clear.

Here’s the weird thing: none of us knows where it comes from. It’s all of our experience and knowledge and feelings. Somehow that becomes something new in the world just by our channeling the waters.

Losing It

I’m despairing a bit over the U.S. executive administration’s immigration scorching the earth with zero tolerance. The piece above is a reaction. A more physical response will happen at the next march. I didn’t know when I started that it would also serve as an early catharsis to a missing post.

I wrote a fair bit on the new Carters (Jay-Z & Beyoncé) video a couple days ago. I was sure I’d hit the “Publish” button, but somehow it’s mostly gone, except for a brief opening in the Drafts folder. I discovered this as I set up for today’s post.

It’s a given that things you do will occasionally disappear or get lost. This is especially true of digital work. We are all at the mercy of the random electron gods.

Whether benevolent or vengeful, if your thing is condemned to oblivion, there is nothing to do but keep moving. This seems a good point to mention putting your feelings into your work. Musicians have an easier time with this, in my opinion. But whatever your medium, work that connects is work that translates and engenders feelings. You can use this.

The next time you create your stuff, you can channel your anger and frustration. This isn’t just the only revenge against the random electron gods, it’s an easy motivator. But even if you haven’t lost a piece, any moment of trauma or high emotion can be applied and channeled into your work. You can gain some relief in making. And then, beyond that, you have another thing coming into being. Another pseudo-child springs forth to comfort you in loss or despair. You can more easily take action afterward.