This and That

No, not the Michael Penn song—although that still holds up, as does the album it’s from 1—but rather I’m thinking back on this flood of prescriptive, advices, maybe some platitudes? I’m not sure if this can go on forever. Maybe? If academia is to be taken at face value, perhaps there’s always something more to say about art and how it’s made.

I’m thinking ahead to 2018, what I want to accomplish, and, to my own chagrin, no small amount of fretting over what seems an ever-diminishing supply of time to do, well, anything.

I do find it interesting that you could always make this argument at any point in your life. It seems impossibly short when we look at it in the context of history.

I suppose the platitude here is to note that the time we have left is the time we have left. A tautology to mean it’s just as valid to consider there’s time enough to do some things, and that’s all anyone ever has. A pile slightly bigger for Stephen King doesn’t mean our own small pile is any more (or less!) pointless in the grand scheme of a vast universe.

We make sense of existence through our art, and thus meaning, and most of us find that more fulfilling and worthwhile than not making it.

If this all seems like the climax of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy original radio series—and its adapted scene in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe—with the eternally skeptical Ruler of the Universe, doubting not only his own existence but that of everyone else and their actions, I feel you. Optimism comes and goes, like pessimism, and motivation, and indolence.

We merely know it pleases us to make these things, and if it does, we should keep making our efforts. And do more tomorrow.

When You’re Weary

You get tired. Holidays are especially wearing, and stressful in ways that can’t be fully overcome by the excitement and joy they also offer.

So, what do you do about it? Same as everything else you feel, you accept it and keep moving. The only thing certain about life is that as long as it exists, it moves. It moves forward through time—at a terrifying velocity, sometimes—even when we’re sitting still.

Do small work. Do quiet work. Do deliberate work. Your work doesn’t have to be grand or frenetic all the time, it can move with time, as life moves. This is part of being kind to yourself and respecting both feelings and your practice.

Imperfec

I may have reached a point sometime within the last few months where I’ve decided that how a piece of art makes me feel, and what thoughts it evokes in me, is more important than its mechanics.

This is significant, I think, because I’ve thought less of this approach to art in the past, sometimes ignoring my experience of a work to analyze the details. Counting trees—hell, climbing and mapping and naming them—instead of just perceiving the forest.

My experience of the forest isn’t diminished by a couple of names carved in one trunk, or a crumbling stump in a clearing. I have the whole, and I feel something walking through it. Its imperfections are natural. We take it in stride that nothing is perfect. I’m trying now to understand what’s important about a work, despite its imperfections.

Maybe sometimes there are too many, perhaps a clear cutting has occurred, or a fire has swept through leaving sorry ashen spikes. Maybe a film has too terrible a performance (or no good ones) or a painting exhibits dull choices and clumsy technique. I do think some works are probably objectively bad.

But if imperfection is only natural, maybe you can see and praise and ponder the things that have value, or are evocative, or powerful. Maybe there isn’t so much time to spend on the other things.

The New Thing

Craving the new is a natural part of being a novelty-seeking species. We love innovation, new albums, the latest book by a beloved author, a new season of a show we’ve followed for years.

As the new year begins, though, you shouldn’t forget about what’s been left behind. It’s useful to our next work to occasionally take stock of previous ones, especially unfinished stuff. Dig out old sketchbooks, unroll stored drawings and paintings, see what you like in them and what wasn’t working.

The road ahead can sometimes be better chosen by looking back at where you’ve been.

It’s Always a New Year

That should really be the thing to think about while so many of us celebrate renewal and rebirth of a regular cycle, but just to take it too blogsplainy far:

It’s only a trick of the calendar that allows us to think of an endpoint for a year. Sure, the Earth reaches the same point in its orbit around the Sun at this time, but it’s really a few days off the celestial extreme. What’s special about this one? We have three other possible extremes, two equinoxes and another solstice, as equal partners, if we’re being neutral. Historically, we’re matching the “rebirth” of the sun, nearly, but that’s from a prejudicial Northern Hemispherical perspective. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s their summer, their solar maximum.

Like any object in orbit, any point along Earth’s path—i.e., any calendar day, any moment on the clock—can be arbitrarily chosen and claimed as a starting point. If you’re alive, there’s always another chance to start again. We reach more or less the same point in orbit around the Sun, but we’re also traveling around the galactic core, at a new place in space than we were last year. And the Milky Way is itself moving, which makes every year a new point in space.

Make some New Year’s resolutions, get determined, become more disciplined, make more things. Our rituals are important and create meaning.

But remember that it’s always a brand new point along the curve, and you can always start again no matter the day.

Reaching Out

A woman I didn’t know hugged me at work the other day. She had mentioned the card scanner always says, “approved,” at the end of a transaction, and said she liked how it validated her. This devolved into some jokes about how we rely on machines so much now, downplaying the need for validation.

I said, “We all need approval now and then, especially during the holiday season.” She immediately moved around the counter and opened her arms to hug me. I gratefully met her embrace.

When we separated, she said, “aw, you guys are gonna make me cry.”

We can’t forget our need for human contact. We need each other sometimes, the introverted and the extro-.

Remember we usually make things for other people. We aren’t sending objects into the void, we need reactions, responses, takes.

We need to connect. We don’t have be wary of that need.

Trappings as Trigger

Part of the reason we feel so strongly about Christmas and similar winter solstice events is that they come with attendant decorations, music, and themes. They repeat every year, rituals that defy cynicism and modernity, sometimes reaching autonomic levels of response to them.

You may enjoy these effects. You may hate them. What matters is that they affect so many of us in this way.

What are ways we can incorporate these feelings into our work? What elements and themes might make a piece so strong it evokes something like winter holiday nostalgia in its audience? Solve that deep problem and make a thing that is powerful and irresistible. Well, given the proviso that Xmas music fatigue is the flip side of the seasonal coin, maybe sprinkle a bit of balance in with that solution.


The iconic moment brought to my mind the most this year is this quotation pair:

“Happy Christmas, Harry!”
“Happy Christmas, Ron.”

Simple is usually best.

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.