Madeleine L’ Engle says that “An artist at work is in a condition of complete and total faith” – a faith that some minute piece of the manifold mystery will become material for a moment. A faith that some small substance of the things hoped for will become manifest albeit in an ephemeral way. A faith that we will uncover the evidence of things unseen, the evidence of the possible, and that the possibility will claim meaning.
We are full of secrets. We contain a multitude of mysteries. We are breathing inkblots, walking Rorschach tests. Perhaps, its in experiencing the weight of our own untold secrets that we are driven to create and compelled to keep creating.
Maybe art, itself, is an external attempt to touch our deepest secrets, the secrets buried so deeply that we don’t even know that they’re there. And maybe, these are the secrets fighting the hardest to be unearthed.
We stand poised upon the precipice of a sacred unknowing. We don’t know what comes next for us as a culture, as a society, we don’t know what our civilization will become, but we know that there are glimmers of hope in the kitchen, and maybe that’s the secret sauce.
Maybe I’m just getting to that age where conversations about the weather is a thing that happens now. Maybe the weather is as good a metaphor for life as any other. Perhaps then every conversation about the weather is an implicit conversation about living and being alive. Perhaps what we really talk about when we talk about the weather is how we are handling the way life is at this moment right now…
If you want to look further into some of the writers and thinkers I mention, check the links below:
This episode is kind of a hodge podge of ideas and reflections. I talk about some recent art work I’ve done and some feedback I’ve got from that’s given me some food for thought. And so I thought I’d offer you some of these random thoughts on art, poetry, and everything in between. I hope you like it.
I reference a lot of books in this episode and quite a few artists. Here’s some relevant links if you want to delve deeper:
Welcome to Friday. Just a quick note to let you know that early this morning I dropped a brand new podcast episode.
In the previous episode we talked a bit about why I haven’t put out any new podcast episodes, videos, blogs, etc. for the past 6 months. In other words, we talked a lot about what I haven’t been doing. But, we didn’t talk about what I HAVE been doing, what I have been making and creating. So, this week I wanted to discuss what my work creative work is; a kind of return to my first creative loves – art and poetry. I talk about what that looks like, how it plays out, what it means for me, and what I’m learning from it.
After an almost six month hiatus from releasing a podcast episode, I’m back. In this episode I talk a little bit about where I’ve been, what’s been going on, and why there hasn’t been any podcast episodes for the past SIX MONTHS. I share about some personal difficulties I’ve been having and some hardships I’m still reeling from and going through. I also get into why I decided to finally make another episode.
Liu Wei says that “a piece of art is never an answer to something”. The purpose of a piece of art is, rather “to pose a question” but, “the question is only the beginning”. To me, that says that art is the iterative attempt to ask better questions. It’s continuously attuning the questions expressed through the work directed at the audience, but it’s also the constant refinement of the way in which the artist poses questions to themselves.
I think that means asking ourselves questions not only about “what we have to say” or “what we want to say” in the work, but also asking ourselves questions about “how we say it”. In other words, I think it means examining and analyzing the creative processes we use that enable us to express our questions; questioning our methods of artistically asking the questions.
This kind of critical and creative soul-searching has been teaching me about myself and my own creative process. It’s becoming more and more obvious that, artistically speaking, I’m a writer before anything else. Such a realization is more an act of acknowledgement and acceptance than it is a statement of shock or surprise. The fact that I have a long held love of language is not a revelation. What is slightly more revelatory is how I’ve often neglected or ignored my predilection for literary expression purely out of vanity. In a culture that preferences the consumption of audio/visual arts, it simply isn’t as sexy to be a writer, a blogger, a poet, etc. And, rather than allow my writing to take the wheel, I have relegated it to the backseat. Sometimes even barbarously stuffing it in the trunk, bound and gagged.
But, no matter how much I try to place video, or design, or drawing, at the forefront of what I do, writing has been the tell-tale heart pounding beneath the floor boards, refusing to relent or subside.
Truth be told, when I’m being creative my thoughts turn to the language of the written word before anything else. That’s where everything begins for me.
Austin Kleon calls himself “a writer who draws”. Something about that feels right even for me. Maybe you could say I’m a writer attempting to make art, or maybe, a writer who makes podcasts, videos, and art. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue though, does it? I’ll have to work on it.
The point is that writing is the catalyst for all of my creative endeavors. Almost every podcast or video I’ve made has begun with a piece of writing. Even many of my art projects arise from something I’ve written. It’s like I can’t envision “imagery” or the “images” until I see the words. But, somewhere in the process of searching for the words, in sculpting the language, and guiding them from my head to the page, the pictures arrive.
For example, the picture at the top of this post came to me after I had written an essay called “Gratitude is Mutinous“. Interestingly enough, even the image I created for “Gratitude is Mutinous” came from another piece of writing as well. That’s how it happens for me. Sometimes the simple turn of a phrase is the key that turns the lock to the door of a secret I’ve never seen.
In a way that’s gratifying. When it comes to writing I’ve always wanted my words to paint a picture, and it seems like it does, if for no one else than for me.
Suffice to say, whenever pen gets put to paper, I’m home…
Earlier this morning I put out the audio and the video of a New Podcast Episode.
Last month I wrote a blog called “I Am Grateful for the Insight of the Other“. In many ways that essay opened some creative flood gates. It’s been the catalyst to much of my recent creative work, so I thought it might be interesting to talk about it on the podcast.
Realizing that November is the “National Month of Gratitude” prompted me to take a hard look at myself and my propensity to be “ungrateful”. I began to think, what would it look like for me to be more intentionally grateful? What would happen if if I made it a point to purposefully practice gratitude? What would I find? What would I see?
One of the first things that I found myself incredibly grateful for are the countless conversations I’ve had with so many inspiring people; people who have brought me to insights I would have never arrived at on my own, people who taught me so much about myself and the world.
I remain presciently grateful for the insight of the Other…
Almost all of my work is done in the digital domain. The only exception might be the random notes I scribble down during podcast interviews or when capturing a thought requires the utmost speed and immediacy. The videos and podcasts I make are recorded and edited digitally. It’s the same for my forays into photography – all digital. My “writing” is done primarily in a digital format. Even now, as I write this very essay, my thumbs are tapping furiously upon a digital keyboard displayed on a smart phone screen, watching the words arise letter by letter into an Evernote document.
Recently, I’ve even started dabbling with collage. That too, has been an exclusively digital endeavor.
Working within this digital environment has been creatively freeing but, for one reason or another I’ve found myself wanting the experience of physically cutting out images, the sensation of spreading glue across paper, the motion of moving the pieces into place by hand, the tangible unpredictability of brushing on paint.
The flexibility of digital, allows me to overcome some of the anxiety of creating. but, as I’ve been dabbling in Analog mediums again I’m beginning to learn unanticipated lessons. Digital work provides the ability to infinitely undo and redo. The ceaseless option to reset to original means that No mistake is ever permanent, and I think sometimes that can be problematic.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly helpful to those of us who judge ourselves harshly because of the mishaps that inevitably occur during the creative process but, I think the reliance upon this kind of digital forgiveness has the potential to hinder as much as it helps. It insulates us from the weight of our artistic transgressions. By becoming dependent upon this ability to fix everything that falters we are each in danger of creating in a “bubble”; seduced by the sterility of safety and security. If Art imitates life then, here we implicitly create an unrealistic view of life and reality; a view of the world anesthetized of error, a reality sanitized of slip-ups – an artifice, an un-reality…
That may sound tempting but, it also sounds boring and uninteresting.
In a recent conversation I had with my friend Daniel Midson-Short he said that “You don’t have a story until something goes wrong”. In every story, every book, movie, and tv-show something dramatic, something traumatic, or something catastrophic, maybe even cataclysmic, occurs and that’s when things get interesting. A tale without a twist is a tale in which nothing takes place. A story that doesn’t go sideways isn’t a story at all. The misadventure is the adventure. It’s the adversity that gets our attention. It’s the crisis that peaks our curiosity.
Midson-Short says that “we’re interested in the character development of the person after something goes wrong not because they succeed”. There can’t be a protagonist without an antagonism, and calamity reveals the character of a person. When the shit hits the fan we demonstrates the truth of who we are, and it’s who you are when things don’t go well that matters most, that’s what makes you interesting, “that’s the parts that people remember”.
Sometimes we fuck up. Sometimes we fuck up bad. There is no undo. There is no reset to original. That’s life. But, those moments of profound “fucked-up-ness” are the most telling, the most insightful, and the most revelatory. We don’t know what what we’re made of or what we’re capable of until we encounter adversity and things get fubar.
We have to sit with the mistake, we have to take it in long enough to really understand it, and we have to figure out a way to make it work. Sometimes working with the stray marks of an unsteady hand or the brush strokes that go awry actually open us up to new creative possibilities. Sometimes it reveals something we’ve never seen before.
But, sometimes we just can’t make it work, sometimes there’s no “fixing” it. There are times when we just have to live with our errors, accept them for what they are, and start again…
Everywhere we look we are told that who we are, what we have, and what we do is not enough. We are told that we need more, we need be more, we need to do more. And all too often these sentiments are expressed most ardently within ourselves to ourselves.
Usually, the loudest voice in the room telling me that I’m not enough is my own. As a result, we become afflicted by the disease of what Daniel Midson-Short calls “comparison-itis”.
In fact, not long ago I sent out a tweet admitting that the trap of “comparison” is one that I fall into often, actually “often” may be an understatement.
These unhealthy comparisons not only render us unappreciative of our living particularities, they also leave us feeling ungrateful.
As a result we overlook our own anomalous nature. We take our lives, and almost everything within them, for granted but, gratitude is a protest against the autocracy of comparison. Instead, it is a celebration of the “overlooked”, a commemoration of the “taken for granted”.
All the metrics and measurements, though helpful at times, are imaginary and ultimately inconsequential.
“Moving the needle” simply means that we’re making the effort to make it work.
Gratitude says that wherever our feet land as we walk upon our path is a landmark. Every move we make within the process is a milestone.
Nothing we make ever turns out exactly as we imagined; that this is a feature not a bug; and that this is why we do any of it. The trip down any path of creation is not A to B. That would be so boring. Or even A to Z. That’s too predictable. It’s A to way beyond zebra. That’s where the interesting stuff happens. The stuff that confounds our expectations. The stuff that changes us.
The fact that our work defies all our imagined expectations, and often becomes something dramatically different than what we previously anticipated is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. In fact, that previous sentence gives me a slight cringe. Not only because it contains the sting of a harsh reality, but also because it seems to imply that I’ve “learned” the lesson. I haven’t. Confronting the unexpected outcomes of my work is a lesson I’m still in the process of “learn-ing”. It’s ongoing, and I’m far from done.
“Art” is about provocation and transformation. As creatives we are provoked to create and in the process of creating we are transformed by the work. When we’ve done our job honestly and authentically, our work will provoke a reaction that elicits a transformation within the recipients of our work. But, for this to happen we cannot allow ourselves to be bound by our expectations. We must release ourselves from the “result”. We must unshackle ourselves from the “outcome”. If the work has any chance of “changing” others, we must be changed by it. And, if we are to be “changed” by the work, we must allow the work to change.
As John Dewey illustrates, “A painter must consciously undergo the effect of his every brush stroke or he will not be aware of what he is doing and where his work is going.”
However, such a provocative transformation requires us to let go of both hope and fear.
Margaret Wheatley explains that “Hope and fear are inescapable partners”. She says that “Anytime we hope for a certain outcome, and work hard to make it happen, then we also introduce fear – fear of failing, fear of loss”.
Similarly, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche writes that “We suffer because of hope and fear” because “Wherever there is hope and fear, suffering follows automatically”. If this is the case, then, to be caught in the cycle of “Suffering” is “to be controlled by hope and fear, over and over, again and again”.
Perhaps we must begin to ask ourselves: What if there is no “outcome”? What if the “outcome” is never-ending? What if the “outcome” is simply the on-going persistence of the process?
When I interviewed Jerome Shaw for an episode of my podcast he shared a quote with me that is still reverberating in my ears, especially now: “The reward for your last challenge is your next challenge”
The process is a kind of actively unfolding cartography. It’s making a map to a place we’ve never been while in the thick of it’s unknown terrain. Everyday is a creative expedition of which we have limited control. All we can do is explore, observe, and keep meticulous field notes of our findings. And, that’s what makes it thrilling and terrifying. As my friend Charlie MacLean told me recently, its starting “with a process you don’t know, down a path you are unsure of”.
To be sure, our work is always catalytic. It always produces a consequential outcome. But the outcome is always uncertain.
We create the iterative conditions that cause an outcome, though it may not always be the outcome we seek. Thus, to work based on outcome alone is to live in the cavernous suffering that resides between hope and fear. So work for the love of the work…disregarding the results, unencumbered by outcome.
Thomas Merton reminds us that we cannot “depend on the hope of results” because:
You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
Let “value” be our only metric and measurement. Let the truthfulness of our work be our only guide.