Made-Up Missives

I’m reading a book consisting of letters, supposedly written by the author to someone back home from the places she’s traveling to, around Italy. It’s a strange way to construct a novel, because the plot forms slowly, in pieces, and can be patchwork or incomplete. I’ve enjoyed collections of letters by famous literary figures—my mom allowed me unfettered access to her sizable shelves of the same growing up—for their own merits, and they’re glimpses into the real thoughts, fears, and hopes of people who did amazing work.

They might be real, these letters. I can’t tell. But it doesn’t even matter whether they are or not. They still have the power to hand you insight.

The somewhat rambling form of handwritten letters is charming, but also more meaningful than email, which the author discusses in her letters now and again. And meaning is always gold in your creative work.

Anyone can make something beautiful. If you then add truth and meaning, you’ve stepped above the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Rather Be at the Pictures, I Suppose

I’ve seen Real Genius more times than I can count. It’s one of the pieces of comfort media I have around, in case of ongoing distress or doom. Like most anything you keep going back to, it’s got dozens of bits of Truth™ scattered through it, in addition to the main story and message. One of them is the idea that neither the hard physical world studied nor the structure of thought, ideas, and interpretations is enough on its own.

CHRIS: Yes, Mitch, he cracked, severely.

MITCH: Why??

CHRIS: H—He loved his work.

MITCH: Well what’s wrong with that?

CHRIS: There’s nothing wrong with it, but that’s all he did. He loved solving problems, he loved coming up with the answers. But—he thought that the answers were the answer for everything. [mouths: WRONG] All science, no philosophy…

And so there are these disparate elements of making your stuff. There are the tools and materials, which you can evaluate and improve upon as you get better at using them. There are also the ideas and meaning of what you make. The balance between them is something we’re all figuring out as we go.

The One Secret

Ooh, clickbaity. You know the answer, right? Here’s where I say, “There isn’t one. Only hard work and determination can move your art forward and to fruition,” and then I smugly sign off.

But no. That’d be some kind of cheesy cop-out. It’s not that there’s any single, simple secret to whatever anyway, there are heaps, piles, loads.

I was well involved in the New Age movement of the 80s & early 90s. Most of it I later tossed aside, but one thing quickly became abundantly (see what I did there?) clear: we are really good at coming up with prescriptives, keys, aphorisms, solutions, directives, proverbs, and maxims that sound like and feel like they’re true.

And they may be.

But they aren’t some holy or benevolent revealed wisdom, they’re from the same place any intuitive process comes from—inside us. And any one of us can make them into personal affirmations or principles.

Go ahead, make up a universal truth about creativity, and apply it to your practice. Irony abounds, because maybe this is the one true secret to unlocking your inner genius.

Or probably not. But it will keep you thinking about your work, and how you best accomplish it.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Here’s another thing the daily habit will get you: an opportunity to catch the fire when it flickers into being under your nose.

Waiting for inspiration is a recipe to never do any work. You might wait till doomsday, who knows? But keeping a steady creative pace means you’ve got a flow going. There are insights and truths within that flow. The funny thing is, you might let them loose in your work and not see them at first. They’re a spark and fluff of flame at the edge of your vision. Ignore it and you keep rooting out tinder and kindling in another direction on another day.

Finding a fire doesn’t necessarily mean you have a bonfire coming, but it can light the way to one if you’re ready for it.

Your Worst Thing Is Someone’s Best

Most of us who love a certain medium to the point we could (or do) create lists of our favorite or what we’d consider the best examples will hardly hesitate to question the examples of others. It’s almost a truism that someone next to us who loves or lauds a work we think is awful is up for scorn, or at least a severely-raised eyebrow. Conversely, we might feel compelled to argue them into liking—or at least acknowledging the worth of—a work we think is fantastic.

The trouble is that no one is objectively right, here. It makes as much sense for us to be wrong as any other person. Further, your thoughtful analysis is no more necessarily correct than my gut reaction after the fact. Equal amounts of thought or consideration of the work might allow each of us to put the other person on equal footing, but it won’t change the basic fact: someone is going to love the thing you think sucks.

This phenomenon is an opportunity to be generous of spirit. It’s a valuable tool for artists and observers of art, alike. We need to be able to see our opinions in new ways, and to downplay their objective truth, by turn. Creators can only benefit by rethinking our opinions of the work of others, not to mention our own. We might find new appreciation of stuff we’ve dismissed, and improvements to our own we’d never seen before.

Be Wrong

They sat at the small table in the corner by the window and sipped their drinks in tandem. She looked out the window and watched the passersby flood across their view, lost in their own frustrations and pressures. It was the first day after she’d finished reading the novel she’d started three years before. She thought it would feel like a triumph, but she just felt drained, as if she’d been at work all day. She shook her head and smiled.

He said, “What? Something funny?”

“Kind of,” she said. She sipped again, still looking ahead. “I just had an idea how I’d feel today, and it’s not what happened.”

He chuckled. “That’s me every day. Maybe better not to anticipate feelings.”

“I guess,” she said. “It’s just, some thoughts are automatic, you know? And for sure some feelings are. It’s just what happens. I think what’s important is not to put any judgment on what we think, just let it happen. Let it be.”

“Speaking words of wisdom?” he said.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Nice, old man.”

“Old bands are always better.”

“That’s what the DJs want you to think. Nothing new under the sun, right? But—it’s better to make mistakes, to try things out. To believe you can find the new thing, or the different experience. Maybe that’s how we can move forward.”

“Like, your routine is you being stale? Moving back in on yourself instead of, you know, on?”

“Exactly. We get comfortable with the way things are, and that’s true of the way we think, too. We get stuck trying to be right all the time and defend our opinions like they’re scientific truth. We’re scared of getting something wrong. But really, we should be, I dunno, trying to be wrong, more. We get more chances to discover things that way.”

He considered this. “Interesting theory.”

“Could well be completely incorrect,” she said.

“Yep. Nice.”