Not Having the Answers Is Also Not Knowing What You’re Doing

I thought—actually said—this evening, “I have no idea what I’m doing” with these things I’ve been digitally painting. It’s a common feeling—and saying—among artists. It’s okay. The feeling is part frustration and part bemusement. But certainty doesn’t necessarily lead to breakthrough or even satisfaction. A little mystery is helpful.

The Experience of Failure and Its Diminishing Negative Effects

NaNoWriMo has come and gone. For the second time, I haven’t finished my novel. I have failed to do something.

It’s really no big deal. I fail at a lot of things I try. So does anyone who attempts anything big, or beyond their comfort zone, their routine. Unless you were all talk, it matters that you didn’t just say you were going to do something, but that you actually tried. The important thing is to recognize you broke out of the regular day and leapt.

There are always lessons to learn in any creative attempt. The things we learn today can be applied to what we do tomorrow. They help make those things easier, and there will be successes based on everything we know and have learned. And, often, we had fun! There was joy in making things we didn’t know how to make.

The more we try these new things, unfamiliar things, harder and deeper and more demanding things, the more we learn about life, ourselves, and creativity. The more we do them, the less importance failure has on our existence, and the easier it is to try something else that’s new, or that we know better how to complete.

The fact that I fell down isn’t as important. Getting up and keeping moving forward is.

That Ol’ Black Magic

Sometimes we get lucky, and a compelling concept drops in our lap from the ether. It’s like the idea knows what it wants to be, and you can hardly keep up with it, knowing where it needs to be shaped next. It’s like magic.

Usually, though, we just have to plow along and chop away at the stone, maybe a rough outline of . . . something. This is why we cultivate discipline. This is why we don’t worry about the day-to-day. In the long run, the self-revealing—and knowing that’s the illusion it is—and the steady hammer can produce a similar figure.

Modular Synthesis

I watched a documentary about the rise, fall, and rebirth of analog modular synthesizer technology called I Dream of Wires.

I was amused to think that modular synthesis is what many artists do as part of their work. We take bits of ideas and parts of a whole and put them together in new ways, moving plugs and dialing certain elements up and down.

We make and remix concepts and create new things in the world.

Back to the Drawing

“I can’t draw!” Yes, well, even proficient artists feel like that, at times. There always seems another level to rise to, and never enough practice to get you up there.

Like most things art, though, it’s all about patience and regularity. Practice isn’t a temporary condition for students, it’s a lifetime habit. Whatever you cultivate will yield fruit, and that’s not just for real life stuff, it includes compelling abstract work.  But to sidestep frustration with our progress—and lack of it—in drawing any particular subject, it’s about two main things.

First, simple tenacity. Drawing is the foundation of all other visual art, and it feeds into everything else if you do it regularly to keep in practice. It’s like working out, you’ll never notice changes day-to-day, but every so often you notice you’re suddenly better—or fitter—than a few weeks ago, months ago, years ago.

Second, kindness. Not in general—but do that, too—but to ourselves. Be kind to you and try to avoid beating yourself up for any perceived lack of progress. There’s no end point, so there’s no race or rush, it’s just something you do. And it can be anything, not necessarily a high concept or grand scene. Simple lines. Circles. Cups. Leaves. Hills. Buildings. Faces. Figures. All worthy subjects along the way. Just the habit of working, as usual, is the most important thing.

Then, don’t stop.

Signifying Nothing

I’m a big fan of Song Exploder, which gives us a partial behind-the-scenes sausage production view of a specific song, as related by the artists. The mechanics of creativity are endlessly fascinating, even if they don’t add up to much on their own.

But still, it’s useful for artists to examine others’ processes. It can inform our own, give us ideas, offer new possibilities. Even when the medium is not your own, a glimpse at raw creativity in motion is inspiring, and we can make connections to our work we didn’t even think about before.

I associate Nine Inch Nails with fury, and obviously they are mostly concerned with sound. The band Grizzly Bear is similarly concerned, and they offer a counterpart: sometimes touching the sublime. But there’s little anger in the SE episode below. Here are two episodes of SE, examining each band and the details of creation in making a song apiece, each approaching sublimity. They signify nothing, but out of nothing everything was born.

Episode 124: Nine Inch Nails

Episode 113: Grizzly Bear


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.


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.

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.

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.