Having Opinions

You can. Your thoughts are worth considering, and working through. I’m not talking about simply labeling things as “good” and “bad,” but if those are concepts you’re attaching to a thing, I’m advocating you try articulating why they are such.

It’s good for your own work, too. Getting comfortable with your thoughts about what you’ve seen and heard can give you insight into your decisions, even those you make on instinct (which, for artists, can be most of the time). Make lists, defend choices, send them to the public at-large. Maybe we can come to understand that others who have opinions about our work we don’t like aren’t granted any more special right or power to bestow them than we are.

Abandonment

Basically, it’s better to do than to not do. But there are exceptions.

Sometimes something just isn’t working. It’s sometimes better to stop that and do something else, start on a different idea. Finishing isn’t always the best option if it stops you moving to another project that flows.

But there’s always a paradox to resolve: do I need to stop working on this piece because it’s not working, or is it not working because I just want to start a new piece?

Continuing a little too long on something to be sure it isn’t going to work might be the only way to tell. But you’ll be able to.

The Quick, the Plodding

If the work goes fast, you’re in the zone. You’ve found the muse, and things are looking up. You finally know what you’re doing.

And if it doesn’t, if it’s a terrible slog and you have no idea how to continue, or even how this works, any more, the response is the same.

We show up the next day and still do the work. Because it isn’t going to matter in a hundred, or even a dozen days how you felt today. Either you made things, or you didn’t. Over time, it gets fuzzy whether it was a good or a bad day. But if there’s something you made, it stands on its own.

Quick Work

Working to deadlines is often necessary. Time is the one luxury we can’t invoke more of with greater resources, it just gets reallocated.

But, as in every other aspect of creating that requires shoving other things and obligations aside in order to do the work, even a short time is better than none. Here’s where the habit comes in: it takes over when stress and lack of motivation are high.

And, sometimes, we can only produce a small amount of something. Some times are filled with despair and uncertainty. We can only trust that these are transitory. Everything passes by. What might make a difference is that it’s rare something has to be finished in one day. Mostly, work is done in stages, building on things that were done on previous days.

We trust that the pile we’re throwing today’s work upon is going to look better, eventually. It isn’t about today, nor tomorrow. And that holds true even during times we feel good about the shovelful we’ve made in any one day. When there’s flow and inspiration and a sense of insight, it’s still only a passing day’s work to throw on the heap, and it’s little different whether it’s hours’ worth or a few minutes. You won’t be able to tell when you got a little done or a lot, it’s still one big, lumpy pile of work. Consistency is always better. And the rest is editing.

Knowing It When You See It

What’s bad writing? It came up after I saw quite a lot of comments about the upcoming Ready Player One movie. I said at the time to a couple other Generation X geek friends that I was liking the book, but also that I felt it impossible to separate my assessment of its quality from the onslaught of nostalgia porn. Every reference didn’t resonate with good memories, but enough of them did that the rest just helped keep me in the time period. Which, as those who lived through it (specifically, the 1980s) can attest, was often a scary, chaotic whirl, musically, fashion-wise, and politically. I was at least half-sure we’d immolated in a fiery holocaust of hastily-lobbed ICBMs at any moment. My feeling didn’t change after I’d finished, either—I liked it, but was it good, or just pushing my vanished adolescent buttons?

And it’s very, very hard to define “bad writing” objectively, without using specific works upon which one has ground one’s axe in the definition. As a friend said, “maybe it’s like obscenity.” You just know it when you see it. It’s necessarily vague and subjective, because we like such different things about various mediums. Beyond the obvious, like grammar and typos/spelling, there’s a lot of room for style and being idiosyncratic. Analysis ranges widely. Some think abstract painting is abominable trash, others think it’s more essentially artistic than any other style.

Applied to our own work, sometimes we worry about people trashing it, dismissing it. If we’ve worked honestly, with a goal of being our most essential selves, I believe it’s our truest expression, and what we should strive for. If what you’re offering is different than most or all others, there’s an audience for it who likes the thing you’re doing and  possibly you, as well. It’s just a matter of finding the right means of exposure, having persistence, and some luck after that. Or, sometimes if you’re doing a thing lots of others are, if you’re a different enough personality, you draw them by being who you are.

What do you get out of the artists, writers, and musicians you follow? How much is really cool evaluation of its worth and how much because you just like the way their things are made? Or, simply, the people doing it?

When Heroes Disappoint

Just as we’re sometimes disappointed in our work, we often find ourselves disappointed in the artists we look to for inspiration, either in their own art or for the way they carry it and themselves forward through the world. They make something we don’t like, or even that we think is categorically bad. Or worse, act in an inappropriate or appalling way to other people. It can happen for anyone we admire or want to emulate, our heroes and idols, public servants and officials. It’s often called “becoming disillusioned.”

Disillusion’s counterpart is illusion, often a key component of art itself. Paintings and drawings have from the beginning embodied that quality, and film & video carry it even further. The cinema phenomenon, sitting in what is basically a glorified cave watching flickering images on a wall, is a well-advanced example of the persistence of vision—a high-order illusion.

Illusion is a suspension of belief, in a way. The metaphor could be extended to the magician’s art: fooling us with misdirection or quick manipulation, or an undisclosed set of preparations to change the objects we think we’re seeing whole and unaltered.

We give in to what we think we perceive, even though it might be something else, something mundane and imperfect, underneath. Disappointment in what we once were fascinated or impressed by is often the result of seeing that ordinary reality. We watch a behind-the-scenes video of a favorite film, or of someone explaining how a magic trick is done, and it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by the revelations.

I’m not at all saying this is intrinsically bad. We love our illusions, but we also want basic levels of truth and justice and efficacy in the world. Living in a world of illusions is a temporary goal, and reality, as messy and boring as it can be, also contains untold wonders of experience and understanding. As we work to increase equality and awareness of justice in our world, it’s perhaps only to the good to accept our disillusionment as part of that process.


Just came across ResistBot. It links you to your representatives in Congress, “no downloads or apps required.” In case it was in question from the general tone of this post, my goal is not to be neutral on this blog. For Americans (I’d rather be more accurate, but United-Statesians is awkward), at least, it’s a way to keep our politicians aware of our stances on issues like social justice, sexual harassment, environmental pillaging, net neutrality, and everything else.

Unconfident

It’s inevitable we’ll sometimes feel like our work is crap. We’ll have imposter syndrome. We’ll feel as if we can’t do this any more, or that there’s no point, or that it doesn’t matter because no one’s checking it out.

It’s true that it probably doesn’t matter in a grand way—to the universe, to the world, to the internet. But that isn’t the same as having literally no meaning. It has exactly as much as we assign to it, no less. Others’ assessment of its worth (or meaning) can help support our continuing the work, sure, but it can’t generate the need in the first place. And given a need that was there before anything went out into the world, it follows that nothing more is necessary but to decide for ourselves.

And if the work is worth doing, in light of the need, the only way to have a chance at getting better at it is to keep doing it. That’s really the bedrock of practice. If nothing else, you’ll have something(s) getting better and better over time, the craft of the art experience. If we can focus on 1) satisfying the need by 2) doing the work and it’s 3) good to get better, we better 4) keep making it.

Be Wrong

They sat at the small table in the corner by the window and sipped their drinks in tandem. She looked out the window and watched the passersby flood across their view, lost in their own frustrations and pressures. It was the first day after she’d finished reading the novel she’d started three years before. She thought it would feel like a triumph, but she just felt drained, as if she’d been at work all day. She shook her head and smiled.

He said, “What? Something funny?”

“Kind of,” she said. She sipped again, still looking ahead. “I just had an idea how I’d feel today, and it’s not what happened.”

He chuckled. “That’s me every day. Maybe better not to anticipate feelings.”

“I guess,” she said. “It’s just, some thoughts are automatic, you know? And for sure some feelings are. It’s just what happens. I think what’s important is not to put any judgment on what we think, just let it happen. Let it be.”

“Speaking words of wisdom?” he said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Nice, old man.”

“Old bands are always better.”

“That’s what the DJs want you to think. Nothing new under the sun, right? But—it’s better to make mistakes, to try things out. To believe you can find the new thing, or the different experience. Maybe that’s how we can move forward.”

“Like, your routine is you being stale? Moving back in on yourself instead of, you know, on?”

“Exactly. We get comfortable with the way things are, and that’s true of the way we think, too. We get stuck trying to be right all the time and defend our opinions like they’re scientific truth. We’re scared of getting something wrong. But really, we should be, I dunno, trying to be wrong, more. We get more chances to discover things that way.”

He considered this. “Interesting theory.”

“Could well be completely incorrect,” she said.

“Yep. Nice.”

The Old Stuff

We, or rather, we in the “first world,” have a tendency to hold on to music from our adolescence or youth as we get older. The albums and songs we played over and over in our bedrooms, or heard a hundred times on the radio or music video channel, reach a gilded status when we’re long past that youth. We rediscover the music of that long past time, or it never really left our stereos, when we’re somewhere along the steeply sloping path to our (pathetically-titled) middle age.

I’m not sure why this is the case for so many. Maybe we’re trying to recapture a feeling of promise or potential before adulthood crashed into us. We might just want to experience a little of the energy or excitement of that oncoming juggernaut. Either way, or even given some completely different motivation, the strange, exploratory music being made now is very often ignored, brushed aside, or dismissed.

There’s no doubt in my mind we could extract new insight or meaning from the old stuff, the songs that filled us with emotion when we were younger. But there’s immense power and possibility in things being created now, out of the fabric of the reality which just passed. Giving it a chance might just be the wound-up spring pressed into our being, ready to uncoil into our next creations.

Stuff on a Wall

“Yes, I know that, but what does it do?”

“Doesn’t do anything, really. It’s just there.”

“So it’s useless?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. It’s a deep expression of an internal impulse so strong it’s made manifest, interpreted in physical form.”

“Well, what’s the point of that?”

“It makes its own point. It births its own value in all our minds.”

“My appraisal is rather a low value for things that don’t have a practical function.”

“The beauty of the phenomenon is that everyone can give their own appraisal. It’s certainly true they have systems for generating income based around things like popularity, skill, and how long the one who made it has been making them, but that’s really a secondary attachment. What matters is that someone made it, out of that hidden drive, perhaps spending hours or days or years, and let it be seen by others.”

“I suppose I don’t understand. It all sounds very vague.”

“And so it is. Nothing is certain, in fact, the greatest financial gain most often comes after whoever made the things is dead.”

“Hm. So why bother at all if there’s no guarantee?”

“Whatever the reasons for that, and they say different things at different times, mind you, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years. There’s something inside them that not only fires the engine of creation, it sparks a flame in others. It’s both born of and a generator of that internal fire. If it does anything, that’s the thing. They consider it vital—even if they don’t always acknowledge its importance to their existence.”