I’m not one to go quoting rock lyrics—oh, all right, yes I am. Mostly I do to myself, but if some unsuspecting cow-orker or friend accidentally quotes a piece of a song I know or something close to it, I’ll jump in there and finish a line. Usually I’m just the weirdo being weird, and I have to explain what I’m talking about.
I thought a long time ago that it was easily as valid a choice to apply some lyricist’s rhymes to my life as any random philosopher. And I still do, mostly. Snippets of philosophy rarely do justice to the thoughts behind them pulled out of context. We apply phrases and lines to events and situations to graft our own extemporaneous meaning onto those things, anyway. So what does it matter the context of the original?
Art making is sometimes similar. Our influences and favorites sneak into our work all the time. Usually it’s not wholesale, but just a hint of the thing it came from. It’s a method of brushstroke. It’s a melodic quirk. It’s a metaphor stretched in a peculiar, but compelling, way.
Little pieces of out-of-context art from fellow artists, like lyric snippets, have stuck in our souls. When they emerge, it’s because they’ve become part of us, and therefore shape our own work. Embrace that weirdness, because it all makes you, you.
Today was full of ups and downs. While any random day could fit that same description, I mean it. Today was exhausting.
The day job was its own rollercoaster. After work, I needed to finish editing the show. Podcasts are fun, but the post-production takes time. In this case, I spent a good while carefully cutting levels where I was careless recording with the A/C blasting. Music and pop culture clips are a big part of the show, and there were quite a few this time.
I finally finished the edit, and then mistakenly closed the wrong window without saving it.
Losing hours of work due to a dumb mistake is disheartening, but the thought of doing it all over again was almost too much. It reminded me of when my cousin would run into something similar, occasionally. His solution was to shut everything down and just go to bed early.
There’s wisdom in that approach. It’s draining and stressful to work through a disaster. Sometimes you have no choice. But when you do, I say go to bed. Things look better in the morning. You’ll be rested. It will probably be easier to start. Maybe, just maybe, you can laugh at it all.
I went to church this morning for the first time in many years. I wanted to hear the Easter music program at a place whose choir has a fabulous reputation.
The night before came. I didn’t want to go.
I was tired, just off work, and knew I wouldn’t have a day off for a while. And it was a big social gathering I’ve grown more reluctant to join the last few years. I thought about just staying in bed. But then I just treated it like I was going to work.
Not steeling myself, not begrudgingly thinking I’d better go. I stopped thinking about it and planned the trip and when I needed to get up. It was a weird trick I hadn’t planned or thought to implement. But treating it like a familiar routine I often use changed my mind about it, from something optional to an appointment.
The music was amazing and beautifully performed, and I was glad to have gone. If I’d left the decision until morning, I probably would have talked myself out of it.
It’s tax time, more or less, in the United States. The pressure to navigate the labyrinthine codes of law that drive even seasoned accountants to distraction are a lot to deal with for any citizen. For artists, there’s a metaphor.
There are the things we make. There is the money we make. There are the people who like the things, who may pay us something to keep or copy them. Usually not, and those elements don’t necessarily cross over. This is a regular cycle, and we don’t often understand how it works, just that it needs to happen.
But if I want to grow the number I make for the things I make, I do need to grow the people who like the things. And that’s what this year is about, for me. Getting ways established to do both. Stay tuned, I’m working on them.
Despondency and resignation are old friends. It feels as if, now and then, I either have a million subjects to discuss or I can’t think of a single meaningful reason to write some things. Or draw them. And so I start to wonder if doing something else is more worthwhile to spend time on.
But the words never really run out. Every day, I find things to talk about with people around me, and something new occurs to me, or is shown to me, or I discover just by looking and listening to the things of the world.
Likewise the images are always potentially there to make, thoughts made into forms I can see. But to get back to this realization from despair—if you like—I have to let go and give up trying. In this way, I somehow gain access to the creative center, a trove filled with all those things I could and sometimes do say or think every day. The ideas don’t have to all be amazing. They just have to be there, and continuing to put them into the world means, eventually, some of them will be amazing.
I often do these posts at the last shred of the day, when I’ve done everything I can for online classes and YouTube subs and there’s nothing to do but go to bed. Finishing the paintings and posts on my phone, though, often puts me in the twilight of consciousness. I’m falling in and out of sleep, sometimes, and it results in some amount of incoherent weirdness.
Harnessed properly, weirdness is a staple of art, and one of its draws. Mike Kelly’s installations come to mind. But on the edge of sleep and consciousness, it’s rarely anything more than half-formed. Things appear and disappear. My fingers type nonsense as I relax and rest them on the virtual keys. They make jagged strokes of color on the screen.
So the dreamlike weirdness that invokes or disturbs is, paradoxically, better created by the fully awake.
I read articles to procrastinate more than any other activity. It’s cheap, time-consuming, and allows me to justify it—with no actual verity—by telling myself it’s research of some kind. Just today a few things I read were
Whether the game “Chinese whispers,” as “telephone” is known in the U.K., is racist (people were mostly unsure, but it is)
The Wikipedia page for the Tom Servo character on MST3K
…and several other things.
It’s definitely a problem. But possibly a problem I can get a handle on by being more aware of the habit. Chipping away at procrastination is an ongoing practice of reminding my monkey mind trivia can wait for breaks.
It’s not often the artist’s journey™ feels like a short walk to success town. Usually it’s a Frodo-level exhausting slog, that nonetheless comes with many rewarding stops.
But you can’t see a long journey ahead unless you’ve been working on things for a while. And when you feel overwhelmed with how far there is to go, there’s a good bit of stuff you’ve already done. In reality, there isn’t a place to end, there’s always somewhere new to travel to, further along your particular road. In that sense, you’re always at the same place looking forward, but looking at how far you’ve come will build for as long as you make art.
You can’t always tell if the path you’re walking—metaphorically, as usual—is productive or even really going somewhere. But sometimes it’s clearer. Ironically, the paths that get darker are often dead ends, you should be seeing some light approaching.
I’m not against the white light on the road to Damascus, or lightning strikes of epiphany, but they just don’t happen very often and not to very many of us. Most of the time, your creative journey is downright confusing and hard to see. It’s usually hardest to see at the beginning, though. If things are getting murkier, harder to interpret (for you, forget about explaining your work to others for this), or circular, it’s probably time to abandon it.
It seems counter-intuitive, because we’re often told we should stick it out in life. Successful people talk about the hard work that got them where they are, and how only losers quit. But you’ll know most of the time whether the road you’re on is getting you somewhere. You’ll be able to see, feel, and/or hear it. It’s not necessarily that things should be becoming easier. Just about everything worthwhile takes a lot of effort. But there are very few artistic gems that sparkle suddenly from a confusing and muddy place.
Don’t be afraid to start again. That’s your secret weapon as an artist: you can jump off the current path to a new one any time you want. You try things with as little fear as you can muster, but similarly you should feel free to walk a new road when you hit a dead end.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.