I’m reading a book consisting of letters, supposedly written by the author to someone back home from the places she’s traveling to, around Italy. It’s a strange way to construct a novel, because the plot forms slowly, in pieces, and can be patchwork or incomplete. I’ve enjoyed collections of letters by famous literary figures—my mom allowed me unfettered access to her sizable shelves of the same growing up—for their own merits, and they’re glimpses into the real thoughts, fears, and hopes of people who did amazing work.
They might be real, these letters. I can’t tell. But it doesn’t even matter whether they are or not. They still have the power to hand you insight.
The somewhat rambling form of handwritten letters is charming, but also more meaningful than email, which the author discusses in her letters now and again. And meaning is always gold in your creative work.
Anyone can make something beautiful. If you then add truth and meaning, you’ve stepped above the ordinary into the extraordinary.
It comes out of nowhere, looming like a tidal wave. Or, less dramatically, the wistful reminiscences of your past. Either way, it’s only so good for so long. Too much nostalgia isn’t doing any of us any good.
It’s calming and sometimes inspirational to indulge our love of nostalgia. Memory is completely necessary to move forward in any way, not least of which is knowing your influences and which bits to steal from them. But keep turning to the past and it stalls us, makes us hesitate trying the new thing, because it’s not the way it was done. Indulgence in nostalgia is a bit of a sand pit.
Balance is the obvious key. Older and wiser, we can draw on a larger set of warm and influential memories to work with. It doesn’t matter that we feel nostalgic, but it does matter that we incorporate it into today.
To make things is to become emotionally involved. I’m not sure it’s possible to be dispassionate and produce things that are worth a damn. But my main concern with losing it is to find ways beyond or out of that state.
Breathing is always good for centering. Centering is the practice of withdrawing your attention back inside yourself. When you feel scattered and stretched, if you can pull back emotionally, you’ll feel better able to cope. It’s an easy borrow from meditation: close your eyes, take a deep breath, hold it for a half-second, let out the breath, wait a couple seconds, open your eyes. Sometimes that’s literally all it takes to become calmer and more focused.
Don’t take my word for it, it’s classic Karate Kid!
No idea how I found it, but there was a long debate in The Comics Journal’s letters pages several years ago about what “craft” meant to comics creators and their work.
James Kochalka started with a column called, “Craft is [sic] the Enemy.” He holds to some unpopular opinions about not only what craft is, but why his definition of it is detrimental to creators.
I’m a bit in the middle on this concept. One one hand, I think artists should strive to take care with the materials of their work—whether physical or not—nearly the same way they care about the work. I think care in the presentation of work makes a difference, too, at the least conveying that if we care about that, we care about that, we likely care about the work itself. That’s part of craft.
It isn’t what things you make, that’s just medium or field. It does help you stand out if you care more for craft than others around you who don’t.
And yet, it isn’t the first consideration. If anyone thought there were gatekeepers to the arts worlds, they’re mistaken. Everyone can declare themselves in the game, and if you have something to say, I think you should start.
If you aren’t good enough, the only thing that will make it better is more work made and tenacity. But keeping work from the world until you reach some stage of objective readiness is depriving it and you of valuable feedback and growth.
I think we need to care for craft. But we don’t need to hesitate in starting.
I’m the caretaker of a cat. It feels weird to call him “mine,” or “my pet,” because he generally does what he wants and I generally accommodate that. But sometimes his whims conflict with my own. Like at 5:00 a.m., when he meows loudly in the silence, or walks on my head, and I have no idea what’s happening or what he wants. Or he’ll be about to break something I care about or go somewhere I don’t want him to, such as the keyboard of my laptop or the shelf I’ve balanced a week’s worth of papers on. I tend to get angry, and because I am bigger than he is, and his cat brain can’t comprehend my mouth flapping around, I usually pick him up and drop him on the floor. Occasionally, I have been rather more forceful than was required. This despite the fact that I love him, in all his infuriating fuzzy aloofness. Why do I get so upset with someone I care about?
But lately I’ve been trying something else. I was despairing of social media, and the number of people I scroll past—I know, never read the comments, mea culpa—who say that the opposing political group is beyond reasoning with and they’ll never listen to them, because they’re [belittling epithet]. But humans are still humans. I tend to think most of them want the best for everyone, even if we disagree how best to live. Given that earnestness, it makes as much sense for me to try to see things from their point of view as it does to get angry about their position.
So with the cat, I’ve tried to put myself in his paws and imagine how things look from his point of view. He can’t get his own food, or scoop his own box, and he’s just up because he doesn’t have to deal with jobs and outside obligations. Because cat. It helped, a lot.
Synchronicitously, I clicked through some list of links to find Rebecca Knight’s article “How to Develop Empathy for Someone Who Annoys You” in the Harvard Business Review, of all things. It’s not long on scientific papers, but does have a lot to say about cultivating empathy. We probably could do well with a bit more in the world.
I’ve been missing having so much time with traditional art tools since I graduated and started practicing up my digital ones. But there’ve been recent rumblings about the real stuff and I’ve begun questing for some quality pencils to go with the paper I’ve set aside to make my next sketchbook (Strathmore 400 recycled, if you’re in the market).
Writing and drawing—not to mention cartooning—with physical tools is as much hearing the graphite sizzle across the page as it is constructing sentences. We’re forced to slow down, be deliberate, get our fingers dirty.
Changing up tools is resetting your habits and breaking the ubiquity of screens and electronic devices we’re surrounded with. That can reconnect us not only with the past, but with slightly disused brain pathways.
If your day job is wearing thin, I have a couple of quick tips to get beyond your day-to-day irritation that have helped me.
Tired dinosaur hits from the 80s on the store soundtrack get new life when you sing along without any contractions or slang substitutes, as if you were a trained opera singer with no knowledge of pop or swing. Ex: “What does love, what does love have to with it?” or “If there is something weird / In your neighborhood / Who are you going to call?” I admit I find this hilarious.
Play opposite your type when interacting with others. If you’re reserved and friendly but quiet, spend some time being high energy and talkative. If you’re gregarious and dynamic, spend time smiling and nodding a lot. It’s like an acting job in the middle of the day. Use sparingly with management.
There aren’t really good connections among the past three days’ posts, but Three Is a Magic Number. Bob Dorough died a few days ago, and despite his being ambulatory and lucid all his 94 years, and therefore getting higher on the Good Life Lived ladder than most, I was still sad to learn he was gone. I saw him at a small club in San Francisco in the late 90s or so, when he was on a tour with a company of young singers to supplement. It’s extra lucky that Jack Sheldon—singer of “I’m Just a Bill” among many others—was there to reprise some of his hits, too.
Part of my quest to keep good digital hygiene—which is frequently less than successful—is to continually re-examine my habits and compulsions with my devices and the stuff I use them to do. I finished reading an intense, stirring interview with Jaron Lanier about the state of social media (and the internet in general). That’s not unusual, his interviews are usually dense like that, and have been since the 90s. His forthcoming book will argue for ditching social media accounts entirely.
One other thought-provoking interview I came across was from backtracking through previous episodes of Jocelyn Glei’s podcast Hurry Slowly. In episode 15, Oliver Burkeman talks about the difficulty we have of doing anything for its own sake. Not for a goal, not for a higher purpose, not to make us better and faster at doing other things. It’s extremely hard not to ascribe a benefit to it, but sometimes we should get bored just to experience it.
Boredom is now a scarce commodity—at least for most of the digitally-networked. We have endless distractions available, many for free, so why let an unpleasant state like being bored get any foothold in our day? There are some distinct creative benefits to becoming bored. But, as hard as it is to avoid selling this idea using some, I’m advocating for becoming bored despite those benefits.
It’s good for us as people to do a little nothing every so often. If our predominant state is to be on-the-move, working, being productive, getting distracted, filling idle moments catching up on The Latest—then activity has become a monolith. It’s good to have perspective and also to experience different states of mind and being. It’s like an inverse meditation, putting aside every amusing distraction and indulging in stultification.
I prescribe 20 minutes, at first. Do it today or tonight, see how different it feels to have nothing to do. There’s no restriction on what you think about, but I’m trying to get into the same mindset I had as a kid. Kids are often experts at getting bored. They usually have fewer things they’re supposed to do, fewer responsibilities, fewer pressures churning our minds into a constant fret.
Go. You’re 10 years old. Nothing on TV, no friends available to play, internet a distant dream. Twenty minutes. This feels different. Good.
A fair bit of the internet is being charmed by this video of two girls who are meeting for the first time in person. It’s true that real friendships are forged and nurtured on the ‘net (as the kids no longer say), and that some connections wouldn’t be possible at all without it. But the joyous intensity of emotion on these girls’ faces as they touch for the first time is a level above where they were just minutes before they saw each other.
We need each other, but we need each others’ physical presence, too. The idea so many of us had of staying home and reaching out to the world from safety and comfort isn’t what we need. It’s nice to do that and have interactions across world-spanning distances. But standing across from you and your body next to me is deeply and essentially part of what makes us human. I’m moved to tears and I’ve had not a single previous moment with either person above, ever. It’s deep and it’s touching. “Are you real?” is going to stick with me for some time.
I’m a fan of hers, but I didn’t think I’d want to listen to more than a snippet of Juliana Hatfield’s Olivia Newton-John covers album. But I did! It’s a lot of fun, and good to hear these songs interpreted by a musician I’ve long admired and respected.