Malcolm

Sometimes our contribution to creation isn’t up front and flashy. Sometimes it’s support and foundation for the obvious stuff, which wouldn’t be able to stand on its own. That was Malcolm Young’s place. He anchored the massive tower of explosives that was AC/DC, a leader content to drive the bus from the back.

I heard he’d died this morning, and very soon after I listened to Highway to Hell, my favorite AC/DC album, and one that objectively belongs in the top ranks of Best of All Time. It’s overflowing with hooks, nearly every song comprised of variations on open chord sequences of A, D, G, and E. That should get boring or grate on one’s ears pretty quickly, but the Youngs seemingly never run out of ways to riff on simple changes. It also holds the album together, and when I first discovered it as a whole, I rarely played just one or two songs from it. There’s sex, violence, and dark themes, but even more so their characteristic sense of humor all over it. The band never took itself too seriously.

Anchors are vital to ships, and eminently useful to art. May we never overlook them.

The Balance Trick

More from the Jim Henson bio: a lot is made of Jim’s endless work schedule. He was a workaholic, there’s no doubt, but he loved creating and executing projects for The Muppets so much he didn’t care how much effort it took.

You have to sacrifice to make art, that’s true. How much you put into creation and how much time you spend on other aspects of life is the ongoing equation. Is it sacrifice if the thing you enjoy most is the work? Is it failure if you are sustained and inspired by your relationships with other people? The balance can be weighed even in any number of ways, it’s just a matter of what we choose to favor and value.

“[Jim] was very close to us all,” said Juhl. “He just conducted his life in a different way than most people did. He just couldn’t understand about this whole thing called work, and why people didn’t like it, and why people thought there was something wrong with working.” 1

Perspective is paramount. What we choose to emphasize is the important thing, but it doesn’t make you less or more of an artist to shift it this way or that a little bit.

Resistance Is Useful

Turn the beat around, sang Gloria Estefan. Advice can come from anywhere. The desire to create isn’t the same as the desire to have created. What slows the making of things to put into the world (I should probably start capitalizing that phrase soon, as a trope) is the need to stay safe. The wish that people will like us and the things we do, and more so, that they won’t laugh at us, sneer at us, post snark at us on social media. It’s not a positive thing, the drumbeat resisting creation. But thinking of it another way, it can be a reminder to keep working.

We don’t get stronger sitting at home doing nothing. We have to push weights around, lift weary legs a hundred thousand times above the street. We have to keep getting up after being knocked down. It sucks. But without the beat hammering at us to not make a thing we desire, it’s just a meandering existence punctuated by nights spent dreaming. We make the beat useful instead of being crushed by it, and ally with it to keep turning it around. I feel like this is all airy fluffiness, so I might rather go even farther and end with a poem.

Pushing full force against the
Worst north wind of the same sane and
Sober words, cold, thin, baseless,
Chasing the same misplaced thought:
Make aimless forms unnamed to dazzle.

Crashed again and exhausted,
Too like apes who have coughed up a
Reason why those men wasted
Place and their time, why they wrought
Great changing, soaring famous castles.

Milking Dry the Cash Cow

Ideas are the backbone of all the work we do. But sometimes they’re bad. This article, for instance, about Amazon’s plan for a Lord of the Rings prequel (not The Hobbit, which to be perfectly pedantic is the first published, making LotR a sequel, but something jammed between the two) seems not only ill-conceived but empty on its face.

I’d like to stay positive in these posts, but I may have too much Harlan Ellison in my blood to stay out of the berserker side of things. It seems to be more of a Big Media mindset that fears new things and hoards the tried-and-true. But this is to be expected. Wherever a lot of money is at stake, or specifically, wherever executive stock options and cushy jobs are the subject of the perpetual angst of their holders, new ideas will be pushed aside for the chance to milk a few drops more out of the prize cow.

I’m not surprised it’s being tried, I’m surprised it’s taken so long. But so it is for massive invented worlds that have rung the cash register faithfully for long years.

The beauty of being in the world right now is the ability to go into any bookstore or art blog or streaming video service and find more new things (and ideas) than you could consume in one lifetime. There’s always more to experience and to make. We can despair over beloved worlds defiled, but we can also just keep doing the work and discovering new ones.

Running Out of Ideas

Just, no. There’s no shortage of ideas, and they aren’t what matters. For instance, let’s riff:

Tinnekas is a young female spider, learning her place in the world and growing frustrated with spider society. It’s way too isolated, focused on solitary living, only rarely coming together for summits and seasonal ceremonies. She wishes they worked together more, like the bees who sometimes stumble through their webs, or the crows in the trees nearby who shout their bickerings and camaraderie at each other in great black flocks. She has one friend, another girl spider, and they dream of setting up a communal network in a long stand of junipers on the nearby hill, impossibly far but taunting with promise.

They’re always there, but what matters isn’t some novel concept or grand epic plan, it’s the execution. Anyone can have ideas. We hardly ever do the ponderous ditch-digging of filling the canvas and getting words down to the end of page after blank page.

The idea is a path from L.A. to San Diego. The work is a billion heated, raked, steamrolled rocks carefully aligned day after day in the sun.

Distracted

The trick to cutting back on my social media addiction is to avoid social media. Yes, that’s trite! It’s the sort of facile blurb that graces a thousand self-help books, and I apologize. But it’s a shortcut to a discussion about habits and the way simple, bullheaded repetition can make and break them.

I read a piece by John Scalzi about his difficulties writing since the 2016 election. I get it. Despondency over the state of the world (or one’s own chunk of it) is hard to overcome. We have leaders in government and in all media who are masters at creating distractions from all manner of creative work, much of which is, by nature, formed in sensitive communion with an artist’s inner swirl of thoughts and emotions. We can easily give in because those things are urgent, or terrifying, or ruinous to creation.

I’ve tried to be an inspired writer and artist, creating when I’m ready. But my realization came very late: I might never be ready. If that’s the case, I have to make a decision about the things I say I want to make. It becomes important to take a stand for my creative philosophy: is it better to agonize about making the best things, or just to make things?

I mean, objectively, who knows? The world doesn’t lack for new media. At all. I considered this, and if I should shut up (extending that metaphor to my fingers poking at whatever medium they tend to) and wait to distill the Big Important Thing.

But maybe there is something the world can gain from my tiny offering. I can’t know the difference from this distance. It’s possible no one will know until after I’m gone. It might be nothing. But you know, it could be things I didn’t think were Big Important when I made them.

Working Hard or Intently Living?

I’m reading Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson biography. A lot has been said about Jim’s ambitions, his genius, and his work ethic. It’s true, he worked a lot. And, as he said in at least one interview, what he liked was to work. Lots. But he (are you ready for the cliché?) played hard and even familied hard. He did everything with the same intensity. He took regular vacations, brought along Jane and the kids, and packed them with everything he wanted to see and do, including just lounging around soaking up another country’s essence.

The lesson I’m starting to see take shape is that Jim lived with intention. He was ready to change his plan and even his vision if something else seemed stronger and more true. It’s less important to champion hard work in everything, and more so to live intentionally, work steadily, be forthright. Putting things into the world is its own reward, maybe.

Vincent’s Grasshopper

This new story about conservator Mary Schafer’s discovery of parts of a grasshopper stuck in one of Van Gogh’s olive tree paintings is one of those amusing trifles that, at once, is publicity for an event, and a glimpse into the past of a great artist’s process. It’s also a reminder that life is messy and the things we do are all jumbled together with everyone else’s things.

I mean, it could be used for the frothing kind of inspiration that abounds in motivational circles: IF SOMETHING GETS IN YOUR WAY, PAINT OVER IT! But it’s really just that Vincent wasn’t so precious about his work that he cared if a little dust or a bug got stuck in a painting now and then. In a way, it puts us all on notice that art is more than the materials we make it out of.

Being For the Things

stretching black cat

I was already thinking about the struggle of activism and making, that is, the time sucking angst of the former and the willingness to distract ourselves from the latter. I read an article this morning (on Twitter, of which I’ve got an alarm on my phone to remind me to get off it, so, yes, there are probably myriad posts to come fretting over my surprisingly intense social media addiction) about Pennsylvania Trump supporters who were touting his goals and promises as reasons to vote for him last year. Currently, however, it isn’t the lack of accomplishment or abandoned promises that has lost their support. To the contrary, his hardcore fans (and voters) don’t care about those things. They believe he represents them and their values, and so it doesn’t matter what has changed or been altered in policy or goal.

Regardless of my personal depression over such revelations, the connection between that and my attempt to overcome my own barriers to creation is that passion is an important tool in making things for the world. It drives us toward something. I’m not a fan of positive thinking. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided comes to mind. It’s okay, no, it’s important to feel your feelings, to own them, no matter what they are.

But in the case of creation, a fire for getting something made because we believe in what we are for might trump (hah?) the anger over what we’re against. Distilled: a fervent stand for something beats a stance against something because there’s a reason out there, and meaning to be found in heading for it. We’re stirred by what we don’t like, there’s no doubt. But without things to like, without things to be for, it’s shouting into the void, empty and impotent.

 

Conscious Renewal

I’ve been thinking about the promise of being human. We spend a lot of time (too much, I’ve no doubt—I admit, even) discussing and fretting over the drawbacks: not enough time, easy distraction, the capacity for self-destruction, these come to mind.

But as long as we are alive, as long as we’re conscious, we have the capability of self-renewal. We can start over. No matter how badly we fail, or how long we’ve indulged our addictions and destructive habits, we can begin again. It’s kind of nice, as a feature, the flip side of distraction. We don’t have to wait for some biological process to begin or end, we just decide to do it, consciously, because we want to try again. We have this stuff inside us that we think we can make into something real, and it’s not satisfying to leave it unmade.

I’m starting to think about it like meditation. When you learn to meditate, usually you count breaths to learn how to focus. One. Two. Three. Four. One. I wonder what we should have for dinner? Oh, damn. One. Two…

So it is, perhaps, with the creative or productive things we say we want to do. We don’t chastise ourselves for letting monkey mind distract us from the breath count, because it’s good to be kind to ourselves. Also, it’s wasted effort, because that’s just what a monkey mind does. Why scold the sea for getting you wet?

I’ll suggest (to you and to me, both) we set aside the flails and the beating-up-on our fidgety, distracted selves and just notice we dropped something. And, then, pick up the thing we need to do again. That’s equally as human, it seems.

I learned a lot from Seth Godin’s blogging advice and his blog, come to that. And so I’m going to start up. Again.