tomorrow will hurt less than today

tomorrow will hurt less than today

Every day that I read I am taken down from the ledge that looms over my total annihilation, and every day that I don’t finds me drawing ever closer to it. Most days, in one form or another, I am found mourning a loss of life. I am mourning the death of day in my life lost to inconsequential matters, lost to irrelevancy; all the minutes and hours buried in the desolate cold of a cubicle shaped tomb, a sepulcher in the service of subsistence, seething with fester and rot. Or, at least that’s how it feels on days when the melodrama of my own melancholy is more unchecked than usual.

And yet, “In the stillness of reading,” says Dani Shapiro, and in “the silence save for the sandpapery sound of my fingers turning the page, I [am re-]born.” Often it is only a temporary rebirth; a promethean cycle of regeneration in which I am made whole only to be devoured again and again. But, those moments of generative completeness in which the dawning awareness of feeling unmistakably less alone, of recognizing “that I [am] not insane”, and “That my heart [is] not so very different from everyone else’s”, of feeling “less ashamed,” or “Less weird”, or “Less different”; those moments that “[connect] me deeply to my own humanity” are the moments when I not only feel the most alive, but they are also the moments when I am the most glad that am. And those small, fleeting gifts of gladness are reprieve enough to make the daily ritual of being ripped open and torn apart more bearable.

Perhaps books cannot rescue me from the slow erosion of being eaten alive, but every day they manage to save my life from the agony of utter despair by providing me with the highest form of hope a person can have; the hope that tomorrow will hurt less than today.

there is only writing on…

there is only writing on

Muses are fickle and unpredictable. Graceless guests that cannot be trusted to arrive on time, nor counted on to show up for work ready to do their jobs, if they even show up at all. When creativity is a no call, no show, the writer must be prepared to carry the weight of covering the shift alone. “Writing can be thankless” , Amy Poehler says. Contrary to what many might think, it is far from an elegant task. Instead, as Poehler makes clear, “it’s usually lonely and isolating”. It’s pulling a double, working open-to-close, with little hope of being truly compensated for it.

Stephen Pressfield says that “Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying…Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen… we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. insights accrete.” But it happens slowly, agonizingly; never all at once and never alone.

The greatest of writers give up on all desire for glitz and glamour, graciously gulping one tepid beverage after another, each gone cold too soon because inspiration couldn’t be bothered to come in. We promise ourselves that one day soon we’ll clasp our hands around a steaming cup and consume its contents the way it was intended. We know it isn’t true. We know that it’s a lie, but it’s a good lie; one that makes us smile, if only half-heartedly and if only for a moment.

there is only writing on

The one profound secret that all writers of the past, present and future can quietly and unquestionably agree on is that when there is nothing; nothing left, nothing there, nothing to find, when creativity is either gone or never arrives, you write on. When “I am not at all in a humor for writing”, Jane Austen says, “I must write on until I am.” In truth, there is only ever this one thing; only this one thing that stays, only this one thing that remains, there is only ever writing on.

to read with the eyes of an artist…

read with the eyes of an artist

I wish that I could read faster. I wish that I could absorb information more quickly. But, I also recognize that when I’m reading I’m doing more than just interpreting the markings that make up a strung together series of words. I’m scouring through sentences and syllables in the hopes that, maybe, I’ll be able to slip into the small spaces between the structures of language, where seemingly secluded and separate things start to seep into one another.

Amanda Palmer says that “artists connect the dots”. She goes so far as to say that “This impulse to connect the dots and to share what you’ve connected is the urge that makes you an artist”, but she points out that “we can only connect the dots that we can collect”. In other words, it is not enough to find and follow the trail of bread crumbs dotting the path, we must also saunter slow enough to stuff our pockets full of as many of the fragmentary particulates as possible, especially if there is to be any hope of connection.

“It is tedious” as Jab Abumrab points out, this arduous task of spinning arbitrary words into gold; this Sisyphean labor of “eyes and brain” cracking open the “elaborate husk” of signs and signifiers “to extract out meaning”. But this is the unfolding of the artistic endeavor: collecting, connecting, considering, conspiring, continually.

When we read closely we discover that each collected crumb is a microcosm; a half-opened window to a world bigger than ourselves, a small inkling of an expanding universe beyond our comprehension feverishly punctuated by the possible . When we uncover the ways in which all the crumbs conjoin “Every page is a whiplash” that, according to Abumrab, pulls us from the normative patterns of daily living. And, we discover that “Each page contains a portal”, Abumrab goes on to say, an intricate network of wormholes that reveal rifts through time and space; places where the past is made prescient, where the future becomes present, where now becomes perpetual. We escape from the claustrophobic constraints of all that we cannot control through the doorways of what Abumrab calls “a self-transcending structure”, and when we emerge on the other side of our literary meandering, we find the radicality of our realness more fully real-ized.

Perhaps this is simply what means to read with the slow and steady eyes of an artist…

The immutability of books…

the immutability of books

“Book…are immutable…We like books because they stay the same ”

– David Byrne, The Velocity of Being

Nothing can be relied upon as concrete. Nothing is immune to that all-pervasive ephemerality inherent to existence itself. Nothing except books that is. Books are the only true unmoved movers I know of. It is their immovable fixity in the face of a world that is unfastened and always tottering that helps to keep us moving forward. Books give us the stability of a sure structure even, and, perhaps, especially within the chaotic randomness of this place we haphazardly and hesitantly call home. Despite all the capriciousness of our attempts to clearly define things, and in spite of the fact that the factual can often prove to be fickle, books are still there, ever-reliably present and unchanging.

They are unflinching when we are at our most unsteady. They are unafraid when our thoughts are flailing. When the path is faltering, when the ground itself feels unreliable, books are the offer of assured footing. When the light in the heavens and at the end of the tunnel begins to flicker and wane, books, Matt Haig says, are “salvation from the dark.” And even when we feel confined, cornered, and closed off, when are so impossibly stuck and stagnant, “Books are possibilities”, Haig goes on to say; “They give [us] options when [we] have none,” and “Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”

It is the stable solidity of books that show us that things can be different, that our circumstances can be altered, that things can always change, that they always do, and we, ourselves, can always change too. They do not guarantee that all our questions will be answered in the end. Nor do they guarantee that the ending will always be a happy one, but they do guarantee that the story is going somewhere, and that the surety of it’s unfolding is meaningful.

The work never stops speaking…

the work never stops speaking

If what Cormac McCarthy says is true, that “Books are made out of books”, then Grayson Perry is equally as accurate when he says that “work comes out of work”. He says that “Work makes ideas”, and those ideas feed back into the work. Like an eternal karmic return of creative iteration, our own work rebirths itself into rejuvenated forms and reincarnated lives. To have faith in the fervor of the work is to believe that its potency can never be contained within the bounds of a single setting, a single use, a single context, a single frame. That regardless of the application it is never exhausted. It is to believe that there is always an experiential excess that spills out and over the coterminous corners of its context, that it’s over-abundance perpetually exceeds the limits of what seeks to hold it. It is to be a panentheist. It is to believe in the transcendent immanence of the work, to believe that it inundates all that is and that it still somehow overflows exceedingly, abundantly above and beyond all that we could ever ask, imagine, or think.

Rollo May says that “the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” We work within the limits of varying forms and structures, and we discover that the constraints of the forms, themselves, create the conditions for the expansion of the work by order of magnitude. Finding that these original limits of form are, as May explains, “an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing [our] meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence [we] wish to express.

We must willingly and purposefully look for places and ways to reuse, reinvent, reinsert, revise, and revisit past work because we must learn to recognize that the place in which the work is born may not be the place it was intended to be. Nothing is ever static. Nothing is fixed or unmoving. The content that came to life as one separate continent may be meant to drift across the span of 8799 miles of geologic time and space in order to form a more perfect union; a Pangea of love’s vast and totalizing potentiality.

The work is never disposable, never one-time use. Instead, it is ever evergreen. It never dies. It is always alive and still breathing; always evolving, iterating, reiterating, and self-replicating. The work never stops speaking, the question is are we still listening?

a fragment unfolding…

a fragment unfolding - poem and art by Duane Toops

Elena Ferrante says that “We have to accept the fact that no word is truly ours.” She says that “We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own”. We never achieve excellence out of nowhere. Never all at once, and never on our own. If we think that it can come out of the blue, if we think it can arrive fully formed in an instant, or if we think that we can achieve it alone, all we have really done is failed to think it through, failed to pay attention, failed to retrace our steps, failed to cite our sources.

“Everything, in writing has a long history behind it”, Ferrante says, and we must get “comfortable with everything that has already been written”, we must “reckon with other writing.” Excellence is iterative and incremental. It is the slow and unfolding outcome that follows from the daily act of making choices and adaptive corrections. And no matter how solitary the process seems to be, our ultimate achievement of excellence is predicated upon a plethora of engagements, interactions, and exchanges with people and ideas that have each discreetly and imperceptibly pushed us to be better than we were before. “Writing,” explains Ferrante, is “entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned”, it is “seizing everything that has already been written and gradually learning to spend that enormous fortune”.

We commune with what has come before, with all those that are both present and past, all the people on the other side. Their words like crumbs marking the path. And we realize that we are but one in a long line of “I’s” who writes in effort to make a more excellent version of the last; “a fragment among fragments”, Ferrante says. A piece of an elegant theory that helps us get to a better one.

yearning to be whole…

yearning to be whole

Robin Wall Kimmerer says that “writing is an act of reciprocity with the world.” She says that “It’s what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me.” This is how I relate to writing as well; as a grateful returning, a show of thanks and connection to the elaborate interwoven-ness of all that I have been the recipient of. It is, as Parker Palmer says, a way to hold the pivotal paradox of community; an adjoining to one another in such a way so as to “protect each other’s aloneness”, coming together “in ways that respect the solitude of the soul”.

In the fastening activity suffuse within the written word we are softly un-individuated. We become, what Maria Popova calls, “unselfed-not persons”, healed from the lacerating scars of ego, identity, and ideology, in restorative “fields of grateful awareness“.

But, there are days when I’m tired. When I feel so unbearably slow. Days when my eyes burn, and all my atoms ache. When my skin bristles and stings. Days when everything hurts. When extinction feels not only eventual, but inevitable. When survival is almost always the exception, and almost never the rule. Days like today. Days when its hard enough to breathe, and even harder to write.

To not be able to write is to not be able to give back. To not be able to give back is to be broken off from the mutuality of exchange with the world. It is to come uncoupled from the earth’s orbit round the Sun. It is to be disconnected. It is to be an island; an island that is both desert and deserted, both uninhabited and uninhabitable.

On these days, I press my pen into the page with the lamentable angst and travail of David’s psalm: “How long…?…How long…?…How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?…How long…?”

I try to remember the words of two other David’s. David Foster Wallace reminds me that “Writing is very difficult…and it takes a lot of time and energy”, and David Sedaris advises me that “its important to not be in a hurry”. And so I tap out a penitent prayer for not only perseverance, but also patience

To stumble across even just a few good words is to regain a revelatory sense of connected vastness, in which “hope emerges”, Matt Hiag says, “and…clings to you as stubbornly as lichen clings to rock.” Like tiny fragments of life clustered together in an indomitably effort to endure against every insurmountable obstacle, all in the service of an obstinate yearning to be whole.

do the work you want…

do the work you want

It’s up to you to push back. To expect more. To expect better.

It’s easy to pander. To give up. To cave in. To do what’s expected. To give the people what they want.

True, there may be a wisdom available in crowds, in the collectivized base of knowledge that can extend problem-solving and innovation into an expanse beyond the tyranny of isolated expertise. But, there is also a madness; an impressionability that is maddened and maddening. There is fickleness, and volatility, and caprice. Crowds are susceptible to the frenzied delusions of mania and misconstrual. 

The crowd is capable of much, but “the crowd,” Kierkegaard says, “is untruth”, especially when it comes to the truth of you, the truth of who you are. You alone are responsible for your own invention and intervention. It is your duty to come alive, to experience your own becoming, to learn “more about what’s inside you”, writes Kurt Vonnegut, and to make “your soul grow”.

Endeavoring to do so is not always easy.  It will require commitment, courage, and resolve. It will not always please or appease others. But, as Seth Godin says “[we] have to embrace the cost of…focusing on what [we] want to promote” and be willing to pay “the price to do so,” realizing that “culture is almost always improved not by what the masses want tomorrow, but by what a small and dedicated group of people are willing to commit to for the long run.”

Realize the bigness of small things. Embrace humaneness of your scale. Try. Think. Learn. Change. Grow. Make things you love. “Artistic excellence”, Maria Popova says, lies not in running oneself into the ground on this clattering hamster wheel of public approval, but in continually and quietly ascending one’s own private ladder of creative development.” Do the the work you want to do, and then keep doing it; again and again and again and again.

neither finding nor creating: you are how the pieces fit…

neither finding nor creating: you are how the pieces fit

Tim Ferris says that “life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself. ” To which I say… “no shit”, but also “not exactly”. It’s both. And neither. Simultaneously.  It’s finding, and creating. There is no difference, no mutual exclusivity. They are one and the same.

Finding is creating, Creating is finding. No creation is ever a creation ex-nihilo. Creation is an inventoried search. A catalogued exploration.

Hank Green says that “everything is inherited,” and what matters most is “what you do with what you have.” You have to collect all the discordant tesserae of who you are in order to make a mosaic of all you can be. And, the real magic of creating is in finding how all the pieces fit. Amanda Palmer explains that “All art, no matter what shape it is, has to come from somewhere, and one can only connect… what we can collect”. This pliable exploration of evolving oneself is an artistic endeavor. And any creative act of artistry is by necessity, and perhaps even by design, a matter of collection and connection.

Finding and creating operate in tandem because they are each incomplete on their own. There is no platonic realm of perfect forms in which to discover your perfect self. There is no ‘ideal you’ that you can finally, once and for all, create. This is something the artists knows; every work is a work that fails and falls short.

Annie Dillard writes:

“You cannot fill in the vision. You cannot even bring the vision to light. You are wrong if you think that you can in any way take the vision and tame it…The vision is not so much destroyed…as it is, by the time you have finished, forgotten. It has been replaced by this changeling, this bastard, this opaque lightless chunky ruinous work.”

The artist knows that the vision lost to ruin and change is precisely what is both created and discovered. That is the art itself. A discovery that is flailing and infirmed creates the conditions for something beautiful and new. A creation, broken and misshapen unearths unseen parts of ourselves that we never ever knew. Making and meandering. Creating and curating.  the wreckage and the rising. The “Two are one,” says Ursula Le Guin, both “lying together like lovers…like hands joined together, like the end and the way.” “Light,” she says, “is the left hand of darkness.” We find that the making of our meaning, is in the meaning of our making.

“[T]he artist,” Heather Havrilesky says, “leans into reality; the dirt and grime of survival, the sullen grim folds of the psyche, the exquisite disappointments, the sour churn of rage, the smog of lust, the petty moments that fall between.” She says that “The artist embraces ugliness and beauty with equal passion”, and “knows that this process is always by its nature inefficient…a slow effort without any promise of a concrete, external reward.”

Every self we can suppose is a fiction. There is no best self; not one that we can either find or create. No faultlessly formed version ourselves somewhere in the future to be uncovered. “The best version of you”, Havilesky concludes, “is who you are right here, right now, in this fucked up, impatient, imperfect, sublime moment.” Its not about finding or creating. Your task is to make the most of the self you can find.

children of the work…

Nietzsche says that “the ‘work,’ whether of the artist or the philosopher, invents the man who has created it, who is supposed to have create it”. We are an invention of the work. We do not ever possess the work. The work possess us. We are possessed by it. We are what the work creates. Success is a liar. It deceives you into thinking that “you’re the painter,” when, in fact, as John Green points out but “you’re the canvas.”

We are the incarnated outpouring of creativity coming to earth; the creative kenosis of earth coming to know itself as itself. Formed and fashioned by the hands of the work seeking to reveal the sleeping secrets in the clay of who we are; the ekphratic undertaking of something ineffable coming into its own.

Elizabeth Gilbert says:

“Everything that I am and everything that I have learned and everything that I have been and become in my life, is because of the creative things that I made. In other words, they were making me. That’s why you have to let your creativity out, because it has you as a project, its building you, its creating you.”

We are not the parents to the pieces that we make. They are not our children. It is we who are the children of the work.  We are being fostered by the desirous fulfilment of the work’s succession; guided by its careful instruction and its caring attention.  In search of who we are and who we were always meant to be, the work teaches us to see ourselves more clearly and moves us incrementally closer to who it believes we can become. It is it’s mission to make us ready for what comes closely after.