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.
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.
What stops us from our work, from making things, is often fear of the unknown. What if they don’t like it? What if I’m a fraud? What if it sucks?
But that’s our fear’s job. It’s a valuable evolutionary trait and we need it, but not where art is concerned.
When editing and refining, you can consider and revise and judge. Deliberation when you’re working only stops the flow. Trust your habit and your instincts with the blank page, The uncarved block, the white canvas. Gut instinct is just another term for getting out of your own way.
You create something from raw materials: pigment, surface, stuff, ideas. Once made, the work is a new thing, almost like something alive you birthed.
We have this compulsion to bring new things into being, and we should show them to the world, in turn.
Then the rest of the universe has an entirely new thing within. You can be proud of it.
There’s a point in Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson biography I knew was coming: Jim’s huge disappointment over The Dark Crystal’s reception, after spending years conceptualizing, developing, producing, and finally co-directing and performing in it. It might have seemed like years of wasted effort, even though the movie made its costs back and then some.
But it wasn’t what he wanted. The artist had a vision of how his work might be received, and that vision didn’t match reality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have expectations, or that it’s even possible not to. It’s akin to asking us not to dream. But when we are disappointed with how our work is received, we can mitigate it. Or, sometimes, we can accept it with grace, knowing one thing:
The work still exists and it is ours.
Even when sold, the thing we made is attached to us. Jim, crushed by his disappointment, still had the thing he’d made, and it is forever his, for all its flaws and triumphs. Even though he isn’t here, his work lives on. There’s much wonder in it. I have a wonderful volume of Brian Froud’s conceptual drawings on my bedroom shelf. I marvel at the breadth of what The Henson Company was able to create out of mere ideas. I read that there’s an upcoming 4K screening of the film in February 2018 in selected theaters.
What you’ve made is yours, no matter what people think of it. Sometimes, if you believe in the vision you made it out of, it gets another chance, or two, or ten. Opinions change, and art can always be seen by new eyes.
How very human it is to desire rituals. They’ve been part of who we are as long as history, and almost certainly from the dawn of us becoming human in the first place.
We’d love to be iconoclasts, smashing the stuffy conventions and customs of the past. But it might be detrimental to be too enamored of the new. We still find truth and connection in our traditions, and that desire for them may well fill a biological need.
There is such a thing as going too far, creatively, if we lose a work being relatable.
First drafts, like first attempts at anything, can succeed, even messily. But usually they don’t. When painting, we can touch up, fix wavering lines, or paint out the whole thing white again. When writing, we can cut massive sections, or tweak phrases and words in sentences till they look better, seem more true.
It isn’t in our first attempts that we deliver our best work, or our best selves, which is really at the heart of making art of any kind. Self-discovery is an essential part of our artistic growth, and parallels our (hopefully) growing skills.
Anxiety is natural, but so is a rewrite. You’re free to change your mind and your work as it gets done and you can see it more clearly.
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.
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.
“A little work done is still work done,” said Lynn.
Hakim nodded. He played a full chord and let it ring.