Controlling Your Dreams—on Paper

By “paper,” I mean “in the waking, physical world.” Which ZenTaoist masters might have a field day with, given various definitions of awake and asleep, but grant me the metaphor, please.

Our dreams are mostly uninteresting to anyone but us. For most definitions of them. They’re amusing, sometimes, to discuss briefly, but their tricks on memory and disconnected narratives get tedious quickly. This goes for visions of accomplishment, too.

But things that are dreamlike are another realm.

Giving your work, or the thing you happen to be working on now, at least, a dreamlike quality can be resonant and evocative. This is because we can consciously shape them to be so. We can edit them in a way impossible for the sleepified version to be, lucidity notwithstanding.

Control is usually frighteningly absent in a dream. But in art, it’s the control that turns it into a story or a mood for everyone else. It gains power beyond your own subconscious and penetrates ours, too.

Sleeping and Dreaming and Needing Both of Them

For the vast majority, dreaming is healthy and necessary to maintain good mental and even physical health. And sleep means dreaming at some point.

But the opposite isn’t always true. Dreaming doesn’t always require sleep. We do a different kind of dreaming as artists. And it’s a twofold phenomenon: we dream not only by envisioning new images, sounds, and words, but also as we work on bringing those visions to life. Making art entails a kind of dream state at times, which is so appealing it keeps us coming back to feel it again. That sense of flow during creation is like nothing else.

Along with the work, you need time to dream, and to avoid criticizing yourself when you do it. As long as it’s not taking the place of bringing a dream to reality, a healthy level of dreaming is necessary. For good art health.

Detecting From the Ending Backward

A popular trope about writing mysteries is that the author starts with the ending in mind and writing the plot back to the beginning. It’s probably not used universally, at least not any more, but there’s a bit of a corollary to other art practices.

If you have an end in mind, or a grand vision of some kind, it’s easier to start moving toward it. The hard part is when your execution doesn’t match the image in your head.

I find if I start with that kind of overall vision, I can’t stay too wedded to the original concept. It’s easy to become disappointed and discouraged by my abilities, or to realize the original ending wasn’t really that great to begin with.

The thing I’m making may be better off going on another direction, entirely. It’s mostly about creating the map as you simultaneously make the territory.

Persistence and Art (and You, of Course)

The more you resist the urge to stop, the easier it is to keep finding your path. And maybe that path wanders a lot, but you will feel at ease on it, more often than not.

Lots of people talk about making art. Most don’t. Most who start making it at some point quit, or just dip into it now and then. If you aren’t one of them, you’re making things to put into the world, beautiful, affecting, amazing things. New things, that haven’t been experienced before. That’s the important part. It isn’t how brilliant everyone else thinks they are. That’s nice if it happens, but if it doesn’t, you’ll still feel a connection to your being in a powerful way.

Passing Out at the Doctor’s Office

I was in for a check up, and they wanted to draw blood for testing. Fine, “but,” I added, “just so you know, I have fainted before, once, after they poked me four times in a row unsuccessfully,” which is something like I always say. Usually, they get a vein after one or two tries, and we all go our merry ways.

This time, however, the nurse kept digging in deeper, and it got to me, consciously and subconsciously. I felt myself slipping away as the burning in my left arm intensified and the room spun a slow circle.

I woke up on my back in the chair, fully reclined, while the nurse held my feet in the air. I guess that’s what they do to get better blood flow to your brain, maybe. It took a long time to recover, and I still have to go get blood drawn soon.

It’s weird that these kinds of altered consciousness exist. I had a very short dream while I was out, though I don’t remember it. It’s the kind of thing that artists have historically made work from, dreams and strange alterations. I do suspect the majority don’t involve such harrowing causes.

Building Something, and I’m Not Sure What

There are a lot of moments in art where I have an idea for a project or series of things, but I don’t know if it’ll result in anything fully realized or not.

Creative life is full of false starts and failures. Sometimes there are successes. You need some of the former to discover the latter. I remember thinking a particular series of paintings I was working on in art school were going to be received well and progress in a predictable path. But then they ended up not going anywhere, or the execution didn’t match my vision. Sometimes, a project that became one of those little triumphs or breakthroughs wasn’t much of anything until there were two of them.

You just have to trust your instincts and your dedication, and keep moving forward, that’s all I can gather. And then you see where it’s gone when it seems like it’s finished.

Keep Looking. No, Harder. More. Again.

Just a reminder here—because most of us need reminding, now and again—to keep looking at everything around you. Noticing things others don’t notice is part of being an artist. You have to be able to convey a vision to the world, either an internal or a translated external one (come to think of it, inner visions have to be translated themselves).

In order to fully convey your vision to us, you need to have seen and absorbed what you’re putting down for others. You can’t do that unless you’re really good at seeing stuff.

It’ll seem too simple at first. Then, as you keep noticing and looking deeper and longer, you start to see that it’s almost infinitely complex, and you could get lost in the most mundane slice of your day. But don’t stop. The idea for your next thing comes from what you see and how much and how far you see into it.

There Should Be Less Division Between Artist and Worker

Mierle Laderman Ukeles made the above piece in 1976, but we still haven’t applied the concepts she boldly displayed widely enough, yet.

It’s very easy to get caught up in rock start aesthetic, superstar mythos, where we dream of rich hedonism and a life above the humdrum, creating at will and to great acclaim. This is America.

But that vision isn’t real, and the humdrum is just life in general. It’s where we are most of the time, and it feeds and sustains our practice. Ukeles asked maintenance workers to consider part of their work during the day as art, and complied her worker-artist subjects in a grid of fellow creators, not merely portrait sitters. These are lessons we should pass on and ponder. Everyone can make art, it’s for us all.