When I was a kid [tangent: I rather liked being called a kid when I was young. Han Solo called Luke “kid” most of the time, and I loved it. I devoured Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventures series and longed for a scaly green demon mentor to call me that. We need some kind of old person endearment to match. “Elder” is just gross], I had a few blocks and other building toys, but the prize was always Lego and its knockoffs. Infinite possibility of form was its promise, and like fumbling apprentices, my brother, cousins, and I got pretty good at making the things we tried to make.
Small, simple pieces iterated over made up a big, more-or-less recognizable thing. Sometimes they were just evocative and expressive sculptures. It was art, of course. Art is created from repeated iterations of little things.
The marks of pencil and charcoal, the strokes of paint, the bits of pixels. Alone, they mean nothing. But what keeps us practicing and returning to make stuff again is that magic of transforming it all. I think we lose sight of that easily, in harsh criticism of the thing that’s made, how imperfect and unlike our vision it often turns out to be. But the magic part is borne out of the small things, and in the moment its there to be felt and reveled in, if we let it be.
What do we do with all these things we’re noticing? If we start paying attention to both sides of things, we’re seeing details we overlook. We’re noticing how they fit into a larger context: the big picture. What’s after getting these new thoughts and images?
The things we take for granted, things we think are routine and familiar are full of life and fractalised components of being. But you don’t have to consciously apply the stuff you perceive to any creative thing you’re working on.
This act of trying to see deeply applies itself.
I would argue—and I do argue—that there’s a magic connection to your work, if you’re doing both things together. “Magic” not in a mystical sense, but in an ineffable I-don’t-know-how-this-works-but-it-happens sense. Making and creating is enhanced and enriched by your changing the way you move through familiar environments. And the fact that you’re working on art of some kind enlivens your mundane perceptions.
You don’t have to try. We can overthink the work very easily. I think a better way to improve and hone the thing you do is to carry the feelings and careful way of seeing (or listening) outside the place you make that thing.
Consider not boxing in your work. See if you can open the sense of flow throughout the rest of your day.
The impact of scaring ourselves deliberately is a magic trick of the mind. We aren’t the only ones who do it: I’ve watched our cat pretend I’m terrifying just to get a good chase vibe going through the apartment.
But we should acknowledge the delight that a little fear can bring. It motivates and stimulates, and we can apply the same principle to the work we do as creators. Go scare up some magical art moments.
Social media is a huge element in the struggle to keep on top of your time. You only have so much in a day, and algorithms are very, very good at sucking it away in chunks. I’m certainly not excluding myself from the phenomenon.
Some things, many that are invigorating and fulfilling, take time to pay off. Regarding the internet, some of those things aren’t even particularly lengthy, at least in terms of a whole day’s worth of minutes.
I listened to a piece from This American Life that illustrates the point. It’s about how Teller—of (in)famous magic duo Penn & Teller—crafted and incorporated a brand new trick into his act from a very old source. I listened from a web page. I couldn’t speed up the sound, I couldn’t scan the transcript. I had to wait 28 minutes for the payoff, a little less than halfway through the segment. It was well worth the time, and I think we can say the same thing about art. Drawing, painting, writing, composing—they all take a lot of time to make, far more than it takes to consume. But when things do take so much longer than a tweet or a quick video to reach their peak, I think it’s insightful. It’s a window to the reasons we make things. It’s a new level of contentment, a moment of pleasure that measures up to happiness.
Something that’s always kept me interested in The Lord of the Rings as a story is the idea that men—humans, but Tolkien was stuck deep in his culture’s patriarchy, so that’s how he labeled all of us—
I don’t have nearly the familiarity I’d need to pick the best chapter, but I’ve always been partial to Return of the King‘s “The Houses of Healing,” where Aragorn doesn’t just ride into Minas Tirith in triumph after effectively turning the tide of battle, but then proceeds to deftly heal ALL the wounded heroes in turn, suck it, haters.
He’s so completely human, and self-realized, with all the profound doubts and assured self-confidence the extremes of our species can muster. And you think, “Yes, sure, democracy is the moral imperative of government, and all, but holy Silmarils—if Aragorn were before me, I’d bend my knee without hesitation.” Just in sheer reverence at his magnificence. At the idea that a human being is the greatest of all these magical and ancient creatures that surround him. That we are worthy of continuing beyond the age of magic. That the ordinary can be as extraordinary as any ring of power or woven sorcery. And if you have to have a monarch, it better be someone generous of spirit and given to bouts of circumspection.
I certainly do wonder at and try to learn the lessons of the magical in stories, wizards and hobbits alike. The former are often steeped in worldly wisdom, or sometimes arrogant and mad with power, the latter are ever-vulnerable and unguardedly emotional, and free with their feelings. But I’m human, and I think, at the best of times, we have a lot to offer to ourselves and the world, despite our failings.
When sense fails, that is, when the normal reality isn’t getting you anywhere, you can always turn to nonsense.
We get stuck. Making things isn’t always easy. Rather, making things is only easy sometimes. For moments when you’re really stuck, some weird disconnected idea or solution will present itself. I don’t mean anything magical, it’s just the flitting, mercurial nature of our brains. We’re good at stifling those thoughts, however. That’s why we so often turn to children as sources of unbounded creativity. They don’t have skills yet, but they also don’t understand writer’s block.
It’s a habit to tamp down, repress, dismiss the nonsense that giddily bubbles up when we’re really stuck on a creative problem. Next time, don’t. Put down the weird, crazy thing. The thing that makes no sense. What have you got to lose? You’re already stuck, and you can always wipe it out and do it over when a better, sensical idea comes along.
Or, if you’re truly lucky, the nonsense fits, and you might have done something new, connected elements that never have been joined before.
It was late winter at the little house in the woods. The snow outside had melted away, except for scattered patches in the shadows of a few trees. Lynn was starting the ritual charm.
She hadn’t known why she called it a charm, there was no manual or instruction to follow, or specify what type it was. It just felt like it fit, and she used that feeling in making this magic. She had laid out the pencil, the pine seed broken from its cone, and the feather all in a row, a line broken by a dot. She waited, listening. There it was, a wood thrush began to sing, four notes and a trill. She placed the four white pebbles around the seed to form an X.
———- ~ ----====
She touched two fingers to her lips, the top of her head, and the back of her neck. Hakim had asked her, after seeing her do it all one morning when he woke unusually early, “What’s all that about?”
“It’s a morning magic,” she said. Hakim snorted, leaving no doubt of his opinion on the two words being together in any way. Lynn smiled, but ignored it.
“What’s it do?”
“It sets the day in place,” she said. He had shrugged and walked away. But even this vague an explanation was a lie. Not a serious one, she thought, but at least for a time she wanted to keep the truth to herself. And the truth was that the construction of the arrangement did nothing at all. It was magic for magic’s sake. She brought it into the world to bring more into the world.
She watched over the arrangement for a few seconds. Then she went to the kitchen and reverently made a cup of tea. As she wrote, it would sit beside her, steaming, slowly cooling and untouched.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.