There’s a general sense—in the United States, particularly—that negative emotions are objectively bad and need to be countered immediately with positive thoughts. The drive to improve our health, status, income, and productivity is relentless. At least, it seems so to me.
But I think there’s an unappreciated world in dark moments, down days, moody patches. Being human is a spectrum of emotions, and being an artist requires being open to possibility. How can we be effective interpreters of the universe if we shun a big part of ourselves?
It might seem scary at first to just let some shadow feelings alone when they show up. But there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about them. It’s what we do with those feelings that makes the difference. I think suppressing or ignoring our emotional spectrum is a problem, and I doubt it makes for good art. Affective, relevant, insightful art is what moves us, both to shape our view of the world and to better connect with each other.
It happens. I say be destroyed by stories, shows, albums, interpretive dances. All that stuff that makes you feel so vulnerable is a piece of your being now, and you need that depth of feeling if you’re going to make sincere work.
Game of Thrones and/or new Mountain Goats album it up.
Oregon, that is. I’ve always loved rain and cloudy skies. I didn’t get a lot of them growing up in Arizona and almost as few living in L.A. for 17 years. But since I visited Portland last year, I noticed there’s another aspect to the gray. In the middle of the day, rain clouds are, indeed, leaden.
But at dawn—and dusk—the cloudy turns positively cerulean. It’s beautiful, and full of portent, and it makes the other colors near the ground stand out, somehow. It’s a lovely combination of gloom and beauty, and the relative stillness of the early morning gives the day a zen quality that calms and gladdens me.
Few things are as satisfying as diving deeply into a realm of artistic experience you resonate with. Gaming, painting, books, film—there are depths beyond depths if you choose to explore beyond the surface experience of any art.
But, of course, it doesn’t change the raw experience any casual patron of the medium might have. It’s still the primary goal of any work of art to invoke some kind of reaction in the people who experience it. The filmgoer who watches The Green Book, say, shouldn’t be viewed as a lesser participant in the work than a scholar of cinema who understands layers of subtext and craft that went into the film’s creation. Most people don’t, after all. Every person deserves their personal experience without a requirement to study mechanics of creation or art beforehand, unless the thing is specifically designed for that purpose.
I think I mean to say that we can hope the deeper meaning behind our work is appreciated and understood by our audience. But a deep and personal connection, regardless of how studied the patron’s background, is the first and important thing in giving your work to the world.
That and staying mostly off social media. The never-ending feed of friends, family, enemies, and annoying friends-of-enemies can throw you off balance and out of whack, emotionally and mentally.
But you always have your thing, remember. You can always return to your center, your place of zen. The creative well is always available, whether we think it’s bringing up anything good or not. We’re not always the best judge of what’s good in the moment. If you keep at it, there will be good stuff you can build on and savor.
I’ve found it a bit pat when people say things like, “get to work!” But it’s just the simplest way to say all the foregoing. Keep a creative habit, do your thing, and the work will be good enough, often enough, to keep moving forward and—in the most renewable ways—detoxify you.
We’re all affected by the weather. It’s just that we’re affected in deeply different ways. Art is the same. There are commonalities, we know something is abstract or naturalistic or minimalist. But how we feel standing in front of a Rothko or a Gericault or a Morris is personal.
We’re getting pretty good at fake-scaring ourselves. Movies and series and books that terrorize us, temporarily.
But being scared of bigger things is kind of helpful. At least, it can be to your practice. Helplessness, stagnation, despair, apathy—I think these are worthy of our fear, if it leads to our doing something against those. Your practice is your expression of your humanity. It brings a part of your essence into being. Into the world comes a new thing, and we need it.
Moving brings out all the emotions. For me, it’s not all stress, all the time. I’ve always brought a sense of melancholy as well, sorting old letters, books, photos, notes, objects long hidden in a box that never got unpacked from the last move.
I want it to be Vanpire Weekend’s “Cousins,” but of course it feels like (brilliant) Ethan Gruska’s remote-gas-station-lit “Teenage Drug.”
This is a useful, and I think harmless, if not even helpful, kind of nostalgia. Feeling the past while you actively head toward the future.
Losing it is a big deal for most of us, at least while we’re in the midst of it. Let’s talk a bit about it.
While failure is nothing to be ashamed of—I mean I’m in favor of it—and it’s only human, anyway, losing it is us coming to a compromising emotional state over it. Either we court it directly as an end in itself, because we’re despairing or self-destructive, among other things, or we obsess on it and bring ourselves to despair.
I’m not sure there’s an easy way to cure such a tendency long-term without professional guidance, should you find you’re a habitual self-sabotage, say. But there are two things that can mitigate it. Wait, three things.
Physical exercise: get out, away from your workspace into the outdoors. Walk around. Be brisk, breathe deeply. Stay out for a while.
Keep working. Just do the daily piece of whatever you do, even if it seems futile and terrible. Inevitably, creators who look back at what they’ve done can’t tell when the good days and the bad days are by what the stuff they made is like. Step #1 has an all-purpose steadier: breathe deeply, in. Out.
Be kind to yourself. Remember you have tomorrow and today’s piece is only a small part of the whole. As in #1, breathe.
To make things is to become emotionally involved. I’m not sure it’s possible to be dispassionate and produce things that are worth a damn. But my main concern with losing it is to find ways beyond or out of that state.
Breathing is always good for centering. Centering is the practice of withdrawing your attention back inside yourself. When you feel scattered and stretched, if you can pull back emotionally, you’ll feel better able to cope. It’s an easy borrow from meditation: close your eyes, take a deep breath, hold it for a half-second, let out the breath, wait a couple seconds, open your eyes. Sometimes that’s literally all it takes to become calmer and more focused.
Don’t take my word for it, it’s classic Karate Kid!
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.