This is one of those posts where I almost want the title to stand alone.
We’re pressured to pick and stick to paths in life and career. But if change is good, and inevitable, where’s the line between getting somewhere and always starting anew? Is it focus, or stubbornness? Is it being adaptable or scattered?
It isn’t bad to change direction and break a longstanding pattern. If you always circle back, okay, maybe that’s a phenomenon to try altering. But I want to keep in mind that we only get to the end of a metaphorical path in life when life is over. And if we’re always journeying, how much does it matter where we’re going?
It’s not the easiest thing, these days. Most of our attention—most of us, most of the time—is pulled a dozen different ways every second. We have our phones, we have high speed internet connections, TV, podcasts, and friends who are deeply connected to those things, even if we aren’t.
But I’ve been trying to take time, whenever I think of it, to do two things: 5 deep breaths, and just noticing the view.
For the latter, “noticing” means stopping whatever is occupying my time and looking & listening in a single direction for a few minutes. I watch what moves, what the colors are like, how it sounds, and if I’m really present, what is not there.
Taking these moments is a way to pull out of the neverending algorithmic tendrils that yank on our attention every moment. Break those bonds when you can.
In the above photo, my friend, Chris, is playing a little Star Wars Battle Pod. Video games are a prime source these days for feeling accomplished—provided we have some sense of progression in skills and scores.
Making art has it built in. I just finished editing the 100th episode of my show (plug: available on Tunes and at itsjustcalledtwobrothers.com) and it seems impossible we produced even this simple podcast for a hundred straight weeks. But most of the things we make come embedded with some sense of accomplishment. This makes us proud, confident, and capable.
It can also make us anxious, wondering if we can pull off a thing in the future, thinking we’re hacks, and that what we’ve made isn’t as good as the stuff we admire. The only solid advice I’ve taken to heart that seems to work for getting past too much of either good or bad feelings is to eschew both extremes and start working on the next thing.
It’s a Zen or Taoist approach, to be sure. It’s nice to feel the good things. But if we indulge in them, it stops the work or leads us to second guessing ourselves. Humility is helpful. If we care less that the things we made aren’t pleasing everyone, we can keep moving to the next piece. And when we feel proud of the things we’ve made, it’s better if we simply move on sooner rather than later and let that feeling motivate us to make more.
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.
Involved in a tabletop game the other night, I had a chance to hold forth—probably too enthusiastically and vociferously—on John Cage’s iconoclastic piece, “4′ 33″.” There’s plenty of analysis on the work, but what struck me at the time was the following: Claude Debussy is supposed to have said (among other similar composers/musicians), “music is the space between the notes.” Cage simply expanded the space until that’s all there was, metaphorically making a silent composition music, not the lack of music.
This isn’t to diss Bob Ross, because he’s a delight. But like everything in art, there is nuance and alternative meaning. When Bob talked about happy accidents, he was teaching his viewers not to break the flow of their work with thoughts about how they messed up. It’s a way of reframing the unforeseen.
Mistakes will happen. But whether your work is meticulously planned or completely spontaneous, it can be helpful to keep rhythm with them. It’s another Zen or Taoist concept applied to creation: it doesn’t matter if errors crop up, because they become part of the humanity of your work. It’s only more real for small flaws.
And sometimes they can take us in different directions we hadn’t thought of, or would never find in a perfect thing.
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.
It’s not that I pretend I don’t want my work to be perfect. I do. But I realize—recognize—it can never be so. Yet, I persist, if I’m not paying attention.
Sometimes, it’s good to let something go as it is. And sometimes it’s better to scrap the thing and start again, scrape the canvas, delete the tracks, crumple up the page.
How do we know when to stop? Deadline is a good full stop, but if you don’t have one, it’s an arbitrary point where you’re out of flow, getting stuck in fine details, with little or no progress or change to the big picture.
There will be no bell. No buzzer. You can choose the moment—but sooner rather than later is usually not a bad thing. Your time is all you really have, and making another imperfect thing helps more in the long run than approaching the logarithmic curve of perfect.
DISCLAIMER: watchmaker and Zen master mileage may vary.
Sometimes you just get obsessed. Sometimes this is flow, the zen state, in the zone, and your work is going well. But sometimes it might just be fascination and the puzzle of whatever you’re focused on, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a long thread on social media that keeps going in circles. It’s day-to-day coverage of politics.
It’s rarely necessary, but it’s addictive. If it keeps you from working on your thing, it’s probably better to treat it like a momentary thought in meditation practice. Notice, then let it go.
It does sound easier than it seems. The secret to meditation practice, though, is that you aren’t judging the distraction. You’re just noticing it exists. It’s okay that it comes back. We’re patient.
Acknowledge the obsession, then turn back to the thing you make. Repeat as needed.
My first year in college, I signed up as a creative writing major. I thought that was what I wanted to do more than anything. I’m still not sure that’s not true, but I have vacillated, all my life, between wanting to write, to draw & paint, and to play music (it’s interesting that the act of making images and words have their own singular verbs, “draw/paint” and “write,” likewise “dance,” and “photograph,” but music doesn’t, somehow).
One of the best things I found when I was devouring “how to write” books, soon after I left my university, on academic probation and disillusioned, was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. In it, Goldberg lays out a daily ritualistic method for getting going, called writing practice. It’s meant to be a time of non-judgment, where the only goal is to keep your hand moving and words flowing. Content is irrelevant. It’s freeing and helpful for the more specific writing you’d otherwise do, and it doesn’t necessarily stay separate from that. I did it for a long time, before I changed creative course.
It’s been very hard to stick to any path for long, though I’ve made a steady go with visual art the longest. But often, I still have trouble starting, and with keeping a sustained habit. I don’t have an easy answer or advice to fix that. I do that often enough, here. The idea that there’s a secret or trick to making art has too much traction, I think. Sometimes you should just ponder and try things out.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.