By Marcus

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.

On Repeat

Repetition is good. Repetition is bad. Both things are true, depending on specific values of “Repetition”.

 

Bad 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

Good repetition:

  • 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.

Opinions Like Ice Holes

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.

Being the Moon

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.

Dead Tree Editions

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.

Hidden in Plain Sight

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.

Loving the Problem Child

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 Flavor

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.

Wheel Spinning

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.