In 12 days, I’ll be on a plane to Portland, Oregon, leaving 16 years of working and living in what the late Harlan Ellison liked to call Baghdad—before the first Gulf War made it a household word and usurped the literary mythos with a contemporary view of a city very far removed from its legendary past. At least, here in the West.
West Hollywood, specifically, meant tolerance and excess, and it meant a certain freedom from feeling like a minority, even if that was probably an illusion. Eventually it became a pain in the ass to get out of and back into, and changing times and fortunes necessitated a move to cheaper neighborhoods.
Change is inevitable. It’s in the details that everything is tweaked, resolved, and given meaning. Where we do our work is supposed to matter less than our vision and intent. But you’ll always be influenced by your environment. Setting matters. People matter.
I’m visiting some friends I may not see for a long time. I probably won’t thank them for whatever influence they had on my work, that would be too weird. But it is there.
It’s part Idon’tEvenKnowHowMany in a series of existential-type questions that have no succinct answer but I’m nonetheless compelled to give you advice about.
What I’m thinking about are changes. Big ones. Life-altering events that you’ve set into motion yourself. You’ve gone about your patterns and routines for so long it seems like the things you’re planning can’t possibly happen. They’re dreams, plans, chimeras of ambition.
Anxiety is close at hand.
This is me, of course, in this very moment. I’m moving, but not just across town to a similar place. I’m moving hundreds of miles away to another state after wearing familiar paths 17 years deep.
What I think is important to hold to—if you too find yourself with this weight—is that not only is change inevitable, but if you ever left your parent’s house, your hometown, the state or country of your birth, it all changed for you at least once. It’s perspective, again.
And here’s a chance to understand what believing in yourself is all about. Apply the facts of the past to the present. You did this once—or if you prefer, it happened to you—and it’ll happen again. You set the ducks in line, you knock them down in turn. I’m not sure all this isn’t just a collection of eye-rolling platitudes, but maybe by convincing myself here I’ll help convince you. If so, I hope you feel better about the changes.
Change will come, whether you initiate it or not, so you might as well take a shot at shaping it to your vision and your dreams.
As you focus on process over end result, it’s good to remember to have an end in mind. You need a point on the map to head to, even if you change it midway through.
Lots of projects never gets done because there’s no specific point to shine the red dot of our attention on. Focus is good, and it helps get lots of things done. What’s less discussed is that you can always shift that focus.
Life is crazy sometimes. You never know what random chance will bring. It’s good to be able to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Sometimes that means starting over. But if the thing you’ve been working hard at isn’t coming together, move the dot, refocus, finish the thing now. Naturally, you can’t just do this for every whim. But sometimes you were wrong about what the work meant or what was important about it.
If you do art of any kind, you generally want to get better at it. You grimace at the state of your abilities and look longingly at those of the artists you admire. Even during the punk era, where a concerted effort to tear down the lavishly indulgent studio practices included sneering at the technically proficient and of famous musicians of the 70s, bands still worked to become better players.
Does it just happen? Sometimes, sort of, if you do it every day. You’ll end up with a more refined version of what you do, no doubt. But there are a couple simple things to think about if you’re not in art school. Because I like lists.
Copy the work you love now and then. Copying is like an anatomy class. You learn something about why a piece works when you recreate it. You start to figure out what makes it tick, how it was put together, why it works as a whole. You’re not putting any of this out into the world as your own, of course, but it’s excellent practice.
Change styles. If you’re used to working with abstraction, spend some time working from life. If you’re observational, translate what you see into abstracted forms and colors. If you work solely from imagination, learn a bit of life drawing, music notation, or journalism.
Break molds and keep your hands moving—if only metaphorically. You’ll get better at what you want to do faster.
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.
The smallest unit of a body of work in art is the show—a group of paintings often bound by a theme or similar style and execution. For film, it’s, well, a film. For music, it’s long been an album.
We sometimes get caught in the idea of an artist changing direction, thinking it’s the new path for them. And that’s as may be, but it isn’t necessarily a permanent change for someone. Sometimes, it’s just a set of ideas they want to explore for a while.
People like to put you in a box. “This is the bold new direction for artist Z!” But the true box might be a walled-off garden of delights you’ve put together this one time. You’re always free to look back to your past, or completely change again for the next thing you do.
Nothing exemplifies this for me more than Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. Although hated by many fans and critics, who didn’t think the band who exclaimed “We Will Rock You” had any business incorporating disco and r&b influences into its music.
But Freddie Mercury, particularly, forged ahead, and the band made just that album. It was less important how successful they were than that they tried something different. And it was less important still that they indulged their whims than that they recognized it was a discrete time and body of work they were under no obligation to repeat or take direction from for the next thing.
Freddie said, during a show at Milton Keynes,
“That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our rock & roll feel, okay? I mean it’s only a bloody record! People get so excited about these things. We just want to try out a few new sounds.”
Follow your heart and mind. It doesn’t matter a damn what comes next. Do the thing you feel now.
I was reading some things about a sort of contemporary prescriptive thinker, who’s become a guru, in a way, for people who want to see the world as needing more structure and rules of tradition. I won’t link there, no. It’s not for me to say it’s objectively wrong, or bad, either. But it’s not the way I think I want to live, nor the way I want to help shape the world—at least my corner of it. I like the descriptive approach to society, and even to life.
I was thinking myself that making art is better served in a similar way by being always open to new or individual methods of discovery and structure. We need to overturn, question, eschew traditional ways of creation. We need, desperately, to avoid perfection.
In order to make something good, something different and true and compelling, I need to give myself the space to mess up. And then I need to mess up.
I have to flub. I need to blow it. I’ve got to fail, to crash and burn, to slip up, to be wrong, to ruin, to miss the mark,
I need to fuck up.
That’s the way you find not only new ways of making stuff, but totally new types of it, things no one has seen before, strange work that builds on the art of the past but at the same time is new.
Our mistakes lead to change and new paths. Not our perfected customs.
Sleep deprivation. Satisfaction. Weariness. Lack of motivation. Minor disorientation. Relief for happy pets. Minor anxiety that one has spent too much money, didn’t read as much as one imagined, complained once too often instead of enjoyed the moment, you know, in-the-moment.
There’s a noticeable lack of disdain for fellow humans, a live-and-let-live undercurrent to encountering others. It’s possible that Oscar Wilde—via the little squib—was right.
So here we are, and there’s a habit to keep on track, and it was pleasant to have the routine both there and back again.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.