Category Archives: Creativity


On this day last week, I was up all night finishing up some new stories – an eleventh-hour push before an event.

I have no such deadline today, and it’s hard to tell what kind of thing I want to write.

So I’m musing instead on the oddities of the writing yen. It isn’t exactly mood-based: I can be in a goofy, zany sort of a mood, but want to write something mythic or poetic. I can be in a sentimental mood, but want to write something didactic.

Sometimes, I can’t quite sense what it is that I want to write. That’s how I am tonight.

I can tell enough to know that it’s more introspective. It’s not a desire to hook up my forebrain to another’s and jump-start it with information. Nor even entertainment. It’s definitely not a comedic mode. But whether that means it’d lend itself better to a thoughtful essay, a bit of short fiction, or some roleplaying, I’m not sure.

When I’m lucky, I have specific inspiration. I got An Idea out of nowhere, or I have a couplet lodged in my head. There’s some distinct conceptual particulate around which the writing can condense.

Though this isn’t a sure shot, either. If I let the idea sit too long, if I don’t at least start the process while the inspiration is live, it’s harder to build on. The confluence of mental processes that brought the idea into being may not be in play tomorrow, much less next month or next year. It may still be an interesting idea, but it feels distant. Relic-like.

Obviously, what’s changed is how I relate to the idea.

(This is also why any completed work has about a six-hour shelf life, at best, before it goes from “as good as I can get it” to “utter trash that proves my insufficiency as a human being.” Either you keep writing something forever, never finishing it, never being done, changing it as you change and refusing to show it to anyone… or you do call it “finished” at some point, consigning it to a fixed point in time, after which point you’re forever growing away from it. It becomes a snapshot that reflects the idea, your understanding of the idea, yourself, and your surrounding culture, at that one specific moment in time. Whenever your understanding of any of those things changes, the work is only as good as Past You could make it, but it’s going to reflect on Present You for as long as the work survives. Which may very well be longer than you survive. But I digress.)

That’s why I find it important to at least start on any idea as soon as possible after I get it. If I get a good start, then the nascent work itself can help cue me into whatever mental state I had when the idea first came to me. Not with the exact same fidelity, true. Already, by the second approach, it’s become a bit of a performance: me trying to mimic the thought-processes of a previous version of myself.

There’s a sense in which all writing, and all reading, is an attempt to reconcile the differences between the subjective and the objective, between the self and the other, and between the present and the past and (ideally) the future. The very act of writing can change how we frame an idea, an observation, a belief, or even a fact – and that change in framing can itself change how we engage with it.

It’s like trying to remember a dream, really. You may or may not remember your dream when you wake up in the morning – but it’s less likely you’ll remember it tonight, and very unlikely that you’ll remember it next week. But if you write something of it down – anything, even keywords – you probably have enough to cue yourself to remember it later on. The act of writing helps you encode it into memory; reading that writing again later on, obviously, helps you trigger those memories again. But you do have to keep coming back to it, keep reminding yourself, keep making your present self acknowledge the ideas of that past self. Keep making those past-ideas into part of today’s thoughts. Like a time capsule you never bury.

And there may come a point where you realize that you aren’t remembering the dream as such anymore – you’re remembering thoughts you’ve had about the dream. You’re remembering yesterday’s memory, which involved remembering the day before’s memory.

That’s part of why it sucks to have unfinished works. There’s one story in particular that I always wish I could finish – but, really, I wish I could have finished it when it was more relevant, when the wire was still live. I started it my sophomore year of college, after all, and even then it was a ridiculous, self-indulgent, post-adolescent paean to my high school theater days. But that stub of a story is still such a guilty pleasure, and while I hate to leave it unfinished, I’d hate to start it up again only to realize I’m just too old and too far distanced from that young Thespian self to be capable of finishing the job.

I’m not sure what’s worse, though: the fear I’m too old and too lost to share an artistic empathy with my past self and one of my life’s most cherished experiences… or the fear it would be all too easy, because I haven’t traveled far enough from that self –  because my maturity and sensibilities and skills all stalled out nearly two decades ago.

A week ago tonight, I was writing a poem. I used to write poetry a lot when I was younger. I like words, I like assonance, I have an innate sense of the rhythm and meter of words, and so poetry feels like a fantastic puzzle. “Hmm, I need a two-syllable word or phrase that rhymes with ‘eyes’ and has stress on the first syllable, and that ideally has some assonance or alliteration with this other part of the line…” There are rules and formulas, and while I might fudge things a little, the attempt to create something that’s simultaneously cogent, rhyming, and rhythmic is so much more fun and fulfilling.

And yet I feel that “doesn’t count” as modern poetry anymore. As if “real poetry” doesn’t rhyme, has no meter, and has no particular need for evocative language of any sort, but instead has to be “free verse,”

the coward’s form
where everything
no matter how prosaic
no matter how much its supposed rhythm sounds
like a running unbalanced washing machine
down the stairs
becomes a poem
so long as you refuse to punctuate
or submit to the yoke of capitalization
and so long as you break
your ideas
onto multiple
like framing a random stain on a gallery wall
this format of
gives the reader
to slow down
to reflect
to listen
for one goddamn moment
and when they
are amazed to hear
in their minds
they think
the depth
is in the words
and writer.

I already feel guilty about how easily poetry comes to me, relatively speaking. I come to it armed with a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus, often, but I can make it happen with relative ease. And if my insurance-company coworker’s arrhythmic, mangled, CC’d-company-wide “parody” of “The Night Before Christmas” was any evidence, that’s not something the average Joe has the same knack for. Much like how I can’t move my body rhythmically to save my life – literally; I can’t even coordinate my limbs enough to tread water.

But my regular prose can already trend toward the purple, and if all I had to do was chunk it up onto separate lines to make it “poetry,” then what the hell fun is that to write or to read?  Shouldn’t all of this be harder?  If it’s easy, if it’s enjoyable, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?

Still, I’d stopped writing poetry when I was 12 or 13 – shortly after I learned the word “doggerel” – and except for a couple required assignments in a Creative Writing class, I didn’t succumb to the temptation again until this past year. (Assuming we don’t count song parodies, anyway. …Which are even MORE fun, because they have even more constraints to fulfill – like rhyming, or at least having some assonance, with the original.)

But, now that I’ve written poetry again, I can’t help wondering if it’s remotely “better” than when I left off. I still like to do it, but isn’t this, too, something I should have grown out of? Is it any surprise I haven’t gained any skills if I haven’t let myself do it for twenty years?

It’s the same old Catch-22 as ever: you can’t get better if you don’t practice, but you’re not allowed to “practice” because everything you do counts and has consequences. Whatever I do is only as good as I can get it, and my instinct is always to sit on it and hide it away and try again sometime when Future Better Me is capable of doing things right.

I’m getting better about realizing that I can’t just quantum leap from here to there, and that I have to do things “well enough” and make mistakes and revise things over time. Though that still feels like a free-verse sort of life, one where I decide that rules and consequences shouldn’t apply to me if I don’t want them to, so long as I’m conceited enough to believe I’m doing something “meaningful.”

Still. If everything is a constant series of mistakes, at least I’m trying to make interesting ones and to err on the side of creation.

But now, tonight, I’m tired.  And while this doesn’t feel done, or interesting, or anything, nothing else compels itself to be said.

I know I should write other things here.  Better things.  More meaningful things.  Things that address all the political absurdity going on lately.  Not that I have anything worthwhile to contribute, but it’s a civic duty sort of thing.  I can emit words in a place where they can be read, so I should probably damn well say some things about some things that may need to be said, even though they’re things that should damn well go without saying.

But, at least I fulfilled that yen for vaguely-poetic introspection.

Tomorrow, most likely, there will be improvisational fiction, and possibly some technical writing, and maybe some life-sciences sci-fi, and a bunch of regular old conversations. And, who knows, maybe some strange synapse will fire, and I’ll end up scrawling something that all flows together, just the way I want it to, just the way it feels like it’s waiting to be, in a way that could practically make you believe in the Muses.

Or maybe it’ll be, like most other days, a day where I have the permanent drive to write, but no direction or focus in mind.  I just have to listen to myself, figure out what seems to be flowing best, and set myself on that task as long and as well as I can.

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Overanalyze ALL The Things: Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – Creativity

(Note: since I have reason to suspect that the final episode will be coming out tomorrow, and since I’d like to at least address all of the episodes, these will be more like bullet points than full essays.  Management reserves the right to rewrite or expand them later, even though they’re probably wrong.)

What’s your favorite idea?
Mine is being creative.

And so the lessons begin.  Through music and visuals, the Sketchbook attempts to teach The Red Guy, The Yellow Guy, and The Green Duck Guy about creativity.

Red and Yellow show a dramatic and excited reaction, leaning toward the Sketchbook. Yellow’s mouth is agape, and he looks wholly amazed.  But Green does not even move.  He is completely unsurprised – either because similar things have happened before, or because the very same thing has happened before.  As stated in the previous essay, the characters behave as actors waiting for their cues.  Perhaps Duck Guy is weary of this role, after many takes.

This question and its response come on like a koan.  The notion of having a “favorite idea” is bizarre.  Treating “being creative” as an idea unto itself is stranger still.  Creativity is not being treated as a process or method, but as an entity in its own right.

How do you get the idea?
I just try to think creatively.

Creativity is treated as both cause and effect here: Sketchbook got the idea for being creative by thinking creatively.  This doesn’t impart knowledge to the unfamiliar. You need to accept the wisdom of the answer and be capable of applying it already in order to gain and apply the wisdom in the first place.

The rhyme scheme is also simplistic.  “Idea” is rhymed with “idea.”  “Creative” is rhymed with “creatively.”  Tautologies are the antithesis of creativity.

Now, when you look at this orange,
Tell me, please, what do you see?

It’s just a boring old orange!
Maybe to you, but not to me.

A bold move, ending a line with “orange,” one of the English language’s most famously-rhymeless words.  Almost any other fruit could have worked – like “apple,” or even “pear.”

Why, then, an orange?  Given the nature of the puppets as puppets, the attempts at inculcation, and the hints of authoritarianism, it evokes A Clockwork Orange.

Strangely enough, when you stare into this fruit basket, the fruit basket stares into you.

DHMIS Fruit Basket.png

Something blue is at the back of the basket.  It has a googly eye and either a feather or a tuft of hair.  This seems to be yet another entity that has a face, yet is not treated as a character.

The orange is, however.

I see a silly face (Wow!)
Walking around and smiling at me

I don’t see what you mean!
‘Cause you’re not thinking creatively!

The Yellow Guy, who comes across as somewhat naive, childlike, and unintelligent, is at least playing along, expressing enthusiasm at the Sketchbook’s creativity.

Red is somewhat more ambivalent, and his character comes across as apathetic.  He reacted to the Sketchbook’s appearance, but not as dramatically.

Green is more pragmatic and more fussy.  He’s trying to learn, in that he’s questioning the Sketchbook and attempting to get her to explain herself in a way that might make more sense to him.  However, his failure to learn this way of thinking is being treated as the reason he failed to learn this way of thinking in the first place. His inability to see the world the same way as someone else is being called “uncreative,” and he’s being told he should change how he thinks. This is conformity dressed as creativity.

The attempted rhyme scheme reverses here.  The first two lines of each couplet don’t even come near a rhyme, but me / creatively succeeds.

So take a look at my hair (Cool!)
I use my hair to express myself.

That sounds really boring.
I use my hair to express myself.

While Green is trying to engage with the Sketchbook and to demand , Red seems to be more random.  He played along in the beginning, mugging a reaction, and his voice can be heard saying “Cool,” though Green’s cannot. However, Red also resists the Sketchbook, saying her attempt at expression is boring.

When confronted with the idea that her attempts at wild and colorful self-expression are, in fact, boring, the Sketchbook’s only response is to repeat her assertion that she’s expressing herself. It as if she cannot conceive how her personal self-expression could be seen as boring to anybody else, and therefore Red must not have heard her the first time, or must not have understood her – his response couldn’t possibly be his own genuine self-expression.

There could also be some mockery of those who’d wear “wild” hairstyles to express themselves in the first place – given that hair grows out and can be dyed, making it a safe and risk-free way to creatively express oneself.  Perhaps the argument is that real creative self-expression entails more risk – and doesn’t need to be explained or asserted.

Perhaps Red is saying that her hair is cool, and it would be cooler if it was there for its own sake: her insistence that it’s “expressive” gives it meaning and purpose, and therefore makes it dull.  Ars gratia artis, after all.

She never risks letting others draw on her, or drawing on herself – she doesn’t seem to express herself by her own hand, or to facilitate creativity in anyone else.  Rather, she just acts as a presentation, flipping from already-existing illustration to illustration.

Now, when you stare at the clouds in the sky,
Don’t you find it exciting?

It’s not looking at clouds that’s engaging – it’s the search for patterns. (Even then, it’s not “exciting,” it’s generally more relaxing.)   Still, is pareidolia a creative act?  It doesn’t analyze or recreate or compare – it just involves looking at an amorphous or ambiguous shape and recognizing the shape of something familiar.  Being able to see more things might denote higher creativity or adaptability.  So might an ability to see things in both the positive and the negative space. But I would argue that there’s nothing creative about seeing a shape in a cloud or a face in a rock formation on Mars. The mind simply recognizes a pattern in things as they are, comparing them to other things-as-they are, whereas creativity involves an ability to imagine things as being other than they are.

Come on, take another look! (Oh wait!)
I can see a hat, I can see a cat, 
I can see a man with a baseball bat.
I can see a dog, I can see a frog,
I can see a ladder leaning on a log!

Curiously, “creativity” appears to involve each person seeing the same thing at the same time.  Genuine creativity would arguably result in a wider diversity of perceptions.  Still, the Sketchbook asserts that they’re on the right track.

Think you’re getting the hang of it now!
Using your minds to have a good time.
I might paint a picture of a clown!
Whoa there, friend; you might need to slow down.

The Duck Guy still looks dubious and unimpressed, even as the Skechbook says they’re doing well.

The direct connection between the mind and time is somewhat odd.  In the phrase “have a good time,” time is being used in a much more abstract sense. But the picture illustrates both very literally – the mind is a brain, and time is a clock.  This is a very reductionist approach for someone who supposedly advocates creativity.

It also foreshadows the second episode, which focuses on time – and which begins to address the idea of time as a human invention, not an actual entity.

And so is pausing the entire song to dump black paint all over Yellow’s painting of a clown.

Why should he slow down?  Even if he’s comprehending creativity (or the Sketchbook’s concept of it) more quickly than The Duck Guy, there’s no sense in destroying his progress or holding him back – unless, of course, even the Sketchbook realizes that she’s not advocating real creativity, and is just encouraging a sort of versatile positivity within arbitrary authoritarian constraints.

What sort of creative exercise does the Sketchbook support instead?

Here’s another good tip (Yeah?)
Of how to be a creative whiz kid:
Go and collect some leaves and sticks
And arrange them into your favorite color.

Again, this is koan-like insensibility.  It does make much more sense to have a favorite color than a favorite idea – but arranging “leaves and sticks” into a color can’t exactly be done.

And so they arrange the leaves and sticks into the words for colors – the signifiers instead of the signified.

Green is not a creative color.

The Red Guy picks the color blue. The Green Guy picks the color red. Yellow picks Green, and is scolded, his work covered with a large black X.

Yellow was not asked to arrange them into a creative color, just into his favorite color.  He’s punished for taking the Sketchbook at her word instead of paying attention to the subtext – that his favorites should now be in line with her ideals.

No reason is given for why green is not a creative color.  Perhaps it’s because leaves and sticks are already greenery, so using greenery to spell “green” requires too little imagination or seeing-things-as-they-aren’t.

However, again, the Sketchbook thinks creativity is nothing but seeing whatever everybody else sees. Whatever complaint she has about green, the fact that it’s not truly creative enough is unlikely to be one of them.

Perhaps there is something else that is wrong or threatening about the color green.

Blue and red, both primary colors, were fine – but green is a secondary color, made by combining yellow and blue. It is, itself, created, a sum of disparate parts, and it is therefore an objectively creative color.  It looks all the more as if the Sketchbook is only interested in asserting authority – legitimate displays of creativity are blacked out, X’d out, or otherwise maligned.

There’s one more thing that you need to know
Before you let your creativity flow:
Listen to your heart, listen to the rain,
Listen to the voices in your brain.

This would be three more things. The depiction of a heart shows a more anatomically-correct heart, aorta and all – another very literal depiction.

“Listen to the rain” seems more abstract, but it’s not an encouragement to listen for patterns, melodies, voices, or anything else in the rain besides the literal sound of raindrops hitting surfaces.

On “Listen to the voices in your brain,” the Sketchbook shows a simplified image of the lobes of the human brain.

DHMIS Brain.png

An image of grey matter would have sufficed, but the lobes have been created – and color-coded.

The forebrain is blue – Red’s favorite color.  This is the part of brain that controls decision making, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and ethical choices.  It may be worth noting that damage to the frontal lobe can result in a lack of emotional affect – a failure for emotional states to be reflected in facial expression or tone of voice.  This evokes Red’s muted, neutral reactions.

But the lobe in green is the temporal lobe.  It’s the lobe that processes sensory input, recognizes language, and forms long-term memories.  If green is a forbidden color, and the temporal lobe is green, then the Sketchbook is cautioning against accurately processing the evidence of the senses, against comprehending language, and against remembering events of the past – all of which could be used to refute or disbelieve authority.

Come on, guys, let’s get creative!

The fridge shows “Get Creative” in colorful fridge magnets – and then the image snaps from live live action to rather-dated CGI, as might be seen in an extremely low-budget children’s cartoon.  The letters fly off the fridge and toward the camera.

A montage of live-action creativity begins – the characters using traditional childrens’ craft materials like glitter and googly eyes, popsicle sticks and potato stamps to create random-seeming amalgams of matter.

The camera returns to the live-action shot of the three characters sitting at the table.  The image flickers between this and a crude CGI representation of the characters and the kitchen.

DHMIS CGI Before.png

The camera pans around the table, and the kitchen falls apart – the walls slip aside, and the cuckoo clock swirls through the air.  Soon we see what has been behind the “fourth wall.”  The characters are being filmed, and are aware of this: there are cameras, a boom mic, a clapboard, and a director’s chair – all manned by creatures that appear to be nothing but giant eyeballs on yellow birdlike legs. The background is the pale blue-green with confetti, as in the title card.

But as the scenery is changing and previously-unrevealed entities are being shown, the characters are changing as well.  When the camera returns to its initial position, Yellow and Green are significantly different:

DHMIS CGI After.png

Both are taller and broader.  They appear to be adults.  This could be seen to represent the same characters, only older – or it could represent their parents.

The image becomes pixelated, then returns to a live-action view.  The puppets are no longer the same, and no longer appear to be puppets at all, but rather people in full costume.

DHMIS Live Action After.png

Another craft montage begins.  A raw human heart sits on a yellow background. Shredded confetti is haphazardly stuck to an ill-painted round disc.  Red – or the elder Red – covers the heart in gold glitter.

The three stand in the kitchen again.  The table is gone, and the letters of “Get Creative,” presumably having flown off of the fridge, now hover in the background. The calendar still shows June 19th. Yellow dances erratically while Red and Green look on.

The view looks out the window, where dark storm clouds roll in and a thunderstorm begins.

The music grows more and more frenzied – violins sawing, occasional discordant notes played over them.

All three characters now dance wildly.  Red rolls the heart from the glitter, exposing the unglamoured flesh.  He shakes and gyrates, rolling the heart in the glitter, blood smearing the pale yellow surface.

The original puppet Yellow is seen again, convulsing somewhat, while the Sketchbook looks on in apparent approval.

The three larger, adult characters sit at the table again, excitedly cutting into a cake bearing pale blue frosting and the words “Get Creative.”  Red and Yellow clap as Green removes a slice.  The cake is full of offal.

Red and Yellow, two of the three primary colors, are represented in these characters.  So is Green.  Perhaps Blue is in the cake.

The three hug and spin as the music reaches a peak of screeching frenzy.   Green’s potato stamps spell “DEATH” and the H trails off into a smear as his limp hand slides down the frame. Fallen offal is pulled into the mousehole by an unseen agent.  The small version of Yellow convulses again, even more wildly, and the Elder Green scoops more offal into the cake.  The DEATH potato stamps are seen surrounded by skull stamps and smears and by the potatoes themselves, and Green’s hand casts them away as cymbals crash and faint screams echo.

Through this cacophonous phantasmagoria, creativity is shown to be far from the tame and rulebound ideal expressed before.  It is unhinged, it follows no pattern, it is heedless of time.  It confronts mortality.  The raw matter of the world, of plants, of animals, even the very hearts of animals and the innards that work within them, is distorted and changed.  Potatoes are used as stamps, hearts are covered with glitter, organs are made into cakes.  Food, life, art, and death are all intertwined.  It is unclear what the dancing is meant to celebrate – life and art, or death itself.

Perhaps this is a view of the past – of the characters’ parents, on June 19th of 1955, another Father’s Day, performing some sort of creative / destructive rite, a summoning or appeasement of horror, which the main characters now have to live with.

The screams die away, and we see the Sketchbook and Green again, Green in his original form.  The original view is shown once more – Red looking at the Sketchbook, Yellow looking distraught, but not making eye contact with the camera, the Green Duck Guy looking vaguely toward the book. Nothing has changed in the kitchen.  Time does not seem to have passed, to go by the clock.

Yellow looks around, as if confused, though the other characters show minimal reaction to the events. The upbeat music strikes up again.

Now let’s all agree to never be creative again.

With a discordant honk of a woodwind, the Sketchbook falls backward, its cover closing over it once more, and the screen goes black.

Next Entry: Frenzied Nigh-Random Bullet-Point Observations About Other Things In The Rest Of The Series.

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Day 24 – A Song That Describes Your Job / How You Feel About It

There aren’t any songs that will describe any of my jobs in specific.  I’m not Working In The Coal Mine, Working On The Chain Gang, or even Working 9 To 5.  I’m not a Blue Collar Man.  I don’t even dislike the jobs, so I’m not Working For The Weekend, and “Bang on the Drum” – catchy as it may be – just doesn’t apply.  Besides, one of my work meetings is always on Sunday, so I don’t even have a full weekend to look forward to.

When it comes to my day job, I’ve assuredly had worse. I get to work from home, in my pajamas, posting real estate listings for a property management company in the Big Apple.  Instead of a five-hour commute, I walk two feet from my bed to my computer chair.  I can set my own hours.  My work’s appreciated; my boss is cool, and it’s a low-stress job.  But it’s only part time, and the pay is somewhat on the low side, so it’s hard to make ends meet.  It’s better than the guaranteed nothing that I’d have without it, though!  I’ll do it as long as they let me, absolutely, and try to keep doing it even if a more profitable opportunity should arise.  But, to be honest, if it were profitable enough to be a more livable wage, with full-time hours and benefits and all that jazz, they wouldn’t be able to pry me out of my position even with a lever of Archimedean proportions!

But, as it stands, I appreciate it, and it’s keeping me afloat when I’d otherwise be utterly screwed.  I like it, and I can’t complain, but I know it’s not perfect, and there’s probably something better out there for me, if I can figure out how to make it happen.

So the song that best describes my day job is “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Good Enough For Now.”

You’re pretty close to what I’ve always hoped for
That’s why my love for you is fairly strong
And I swear I’m never gonna leave you, darlin’
At least ’til something better comes along.

As for my editing job, that’s even harder to address!  I’m editing the players’ handbook for a friend-of-a-friend’s upcoming tabletop RPG, a position which I fell into by a staggering sequence of increasingly-unlikely events.  I’m unsure how it’s all going to play out in the end.  It could be a big dang profitable deal!  It’s always possible it could flop, and that I could be the one who ruins it somehow!  Aaaagh!  But, to be honest, it’s fairly low on the strife scale.  And I tend to forget there’s even a chance of money in it.  I get to use my skills to help people out!  I get to help someone else’s cool creative ideas get the context and clarity they need to better explain to and inspire the players!

My bossfolk are the worldbuilders, and I’m just facilitating others in engaging with that world.  Maintaining the spacecraft that’s going to bridge the gap between Earth and that world, orbiting and surveying it. Checking for errors and irregularities, probing both craft and world for a breathable atmosphere and gravity that won’t pancake people or fling them into the void.  Making sure all the instruments give accurate readings, so the players can launch their landing pod, get out on the surface of that world, and have a damn fine time. And also get out from under the weight of the real, largely-sucky world.

So, with that metaphor in mind, perhaps Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void” would fit the bill. Especially given that game world’s design as a place where certain kinds of judgment and inequities simply haven’t come about.

Freedom fighters sent out to the sun
Escape from brainwashed winds and pollution
Leave the earth to all it’s sin and hate
Find another world where freedom waits

But I have another job on top of it all: the job of writing.  This blog thing, other short story things, and even a commissioned piece, recently, which made me a Legitimate Professional!  I don’t make a living off of this work, true.  But I’d like to say that’s just not true yet.  I’ll figure things out more, get myself out there more, and manage to get by.  I don’t want fame, by any means; I’m not out to be a bestselling author or anything.  It’s just that I want to do very little else but writing, and I’m good at very little else but writing, and I also want to not be homeless and starving, so if I could actually fund my existence through the act of writing, it seems like things would work nicely all around.

If I were a really good writer, of course, I’d be able to just write a persuasive essay that convinced people to give me money.  It worked for L. Ron Hubbard, after all, and he wasn’t even a good writer!  And I do enjoy religions and rituals.  So step right up, folks, and join the Gantist Mystery Cult — only $50 a head.  Is it a UFO cult?  Doomsday cult?  Lovecraftian cult?   Sex cult?   All of the above at once?  That’s part of the mystery!  You’ll pay good money for the opportunity to figure out what the hell you just paid good money for!

Ah, if only I had fewer scruples.

Wait, that’s the ticket!

SCRUPLES — $50 APIECE!  The more I sell, the fewer scruples I’ll have, and the more I’ll charge, so GET YOURS FIRST!

In all seriousness, I’m unfathomably humbled that people have actually paid for things I’ve written.  It still feels like the most self-aggrandizing thing in the world, having somebody essentially pay to read an assortment of your thoughts.  If I had a useful occupation, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel so weird.  Somewhere out there, there’s a guy who legitimately loves being a repairman.  He knows what the parts cost, he knows what his time and labor and expertise are worth, and he makes a living doing what he enjoys and excels at, without feeling like he’s ripping people off.  The value and utility of his work are self-apparent, and while nobody’s pleased that their stuff is broken, they’re probably glad to get it fixed.  If someone doesn’t believe the fix is worth the price, they can try someone else or go without.

But that’s just not the case with writing. It’s not so easily quantified.  It is so easily lived-without. A painting or sculpture, unique in all the world, may go for millions, but words suffuse everything. We notice when they’re missing from something, we notice when they seem to be organized strangely, we notice when they’re catalyzing a dramatic reaction.  But their mere presence or availability is unremarkable.  Only when we already know someone’s a writer, care that they’re a writer, and moreover care what they have to say, only then do we yearn to read their words.   A writer has to emit a whole secondary set of words in order to convince people to spend their time reading their primary set of words, when we’d really like to believe that the primary set of words speak well enough on their own.

Wouldn’t it be nice if words would just shine through the covers of a book somehow, glowing brighter for each person depending on how interested they’d be?  Every book a beacon.  Many a book a lighthouse. But it isn’t so, and so we must put out a trail of smaller lights to lead to our larger. We must tell people why they might want to hear what we’ve said, without directly telling them what we’ve said.  Or we have to tell people why other people might want to hear it.  Gatekeepers abound.

And, yes, I know this all just screams “Paperback Writer,” but I refuse to be so cliched.

Because it would be nice if writing just shone with its own light without anyone having to read it yet, but it doesn’t.  And because I haven’t been going through those gatekeepers of publishers, either.  No Dear Sir or Madam.  No rejection slips. Just my own (*shudder*) marketing.  Taking the thing I’ve spent so long fleshing out and condensing it into a little spore, hoping that spore gets noticed, hoping it takes root, and hoping it grows into enough of a neuron-overriding brain-mushroom that it influences the host to alter its originally-intended course of behavior in order to instead obtain and intake more of our words.

This is weird.  And creepy.

The way I feel about writing is not just about the writing and the trying-to-get-published and the making-a-living, it’s the fact that I essentially want to infect someone else’s brain with ideas.

It’s a particular sort of irony that, in writing about writing about writing, I can’t even write THIS particularly well.  Nothing seems to be coming together, the ideas are vague and sludgy, and it’s more like the compost of discarded ideas than an actual idea itself.  Compost that isn’t even fostering the growth of any seeds.  Light, spores, compost, seeds, but nothing’s growing, everything’s just kinda rotting in the sun.  It happens!  Maybe it’ll ripen pleasantly, break itself down in time, and become more fertile ground for other ideas later on.

All I know is, I write because I have to.  Something in my brain insists.  I remember banging things out on the family typewriter when I still needed help getting into the chair.  I remember reading Dick and Jane books and being so angry that they were so dumb, knowing that I could write better stories already than these adults were writing for me.  I remember writing stories in kindergarten with the teacher’s aide while everyone else was learning their letters. And I remember a time before I could write, when I had a basket of plastic play food and was taking my parents orders, scribbling on a notepad like a waitress — then being incredibly frustrated with myself, five minutes later, that I couldn’t read my scrawling pretend-writing scribbles, and couldn’t remember what they had said.  It felt like part of my brain was missing.  Or part of my memories, or part of myself.  There had been a thought, and because I didn’t write it down, it was gone forever.  I couldn’t follow up on it.  I couldn’t even try.  It was terrifying and depressing, and I fear that my life will have symmetry someday, and I’ll get old and senile and forget how to write, but remember enough to know what I’m missing.

Until then, every day, I write.  Blog posts or conversations or roleplay or complaints or workmatter or analysis; the format forever varies. There was a long time when I didn’t write fiction anymore; trying to plan my everyday life was stressful enough without standing at the helm of an entire fictional universe, guiding the micro- and macrocosm.  I even used to write poetry, when I was too young to know any better.  I write fewer analytical essays now than I did in college, for certain.  But – as was absolutely verboten in those essays – I inject more personal opinion and experience into these bits of enbloggenment that I write now.  What I write and how I write it, that’s always been in some flux.  That I write… that’s just a given.

So a song that describes how I feel about writing might as well be a song that describes how I feel about existing.  It’s… a thing that I do.  Not doing it sounds very inconvenient and unpleasant.  I don’t really have a great sense of purpose to it, or any real aspirations, and I’m not trying to achieve anything or become anything or be anything specific.  I’m just being right now – and I’m okay with that, and that’s pretty monumental!  I’m doing things, enjoying doing them, and being appreciated for doing them!  I can’t always try to write – or live – for people, intentionally trying to make them happy, because that always turns out crap.  But I can just do what I do, see it through, and try to believe that it’s going to turn out okay.

I can’t claim that I’ve “made it” yet, or that I have any real concept of “making it,” much less an expectation to do so.  I don’t have a destination.  But I am finally doing something; I am finally going somewhere, even if that’s just “away from all the before-crap.”  I’m writing things, I’m putting them out there in public, I’m sometimes even sort of advertising them, and I’m getting paid to write occasionally!  All of these things that have been stewing in my head forever are slowly getting out onto paper (or screen,) and being seen, and being appreciated, and every one seems to take me further… somewhere.  I don’t know what I’m doing or where I’m going, but there are people who are legitimately interested in coming along for the big weird wordy ride.

Ah ha!  It took a long and circuitous path, but I suppose it’s only appropriate.  The song that may best describe how I feel about writing – and existing – is “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys.

Well, it’s all right, doing the best you can
Well, it’s all right, as long as you lend a hand
Well, it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine
Well, it’s all right, we’re going to the end of the line


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Labor’s Love Lost

Labor Day has come and gone.  Summer ends, and school starts for the kids, marking the end of freedom and the start of a fresh new year.  And, for the adults, the day off is an appreciated but insignificantly short lull in the droning sameness of workaday life.  There’s no real appreciation of labor or the workforce, no reflection on the condition of workers, or even on the condition of work itself.

I tried to write something more profound here.  Something about how hard it is to find work that affords even a simple life.  How the full-time job with reasonable pay and benefits is no longer basic, no longer standard, but a promotion.   How so many of us are temps, or “independent contractors” – frequently in name only – that we can only hope to be real employees at all.  How many of us have to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet to any degree.  How we’re saddled with student loan debt, because everyone all our lives told us that we’d need a good education to make it in the real world — so we sought one, paying more than we might ever earn back, even if we were still responsible enough to go to a public school in-state.   How we still get accused of being irresponsible spenders, even though an increasing number of us are choosing to rent homes rather than buy them, avoid owning a car, and even delay marriage and children — some might say out of a prolonged childhood, but arguably because independence is yet another luxury we can’t afford.

But it’s hard to try to speak so broadly.  I’m no expert in socioeconomics; I can’t sum up the changing function and fears of the American workforce.

All I can do is speak to my own experience, as one of those “gifted and talented” kids who grew up to be apparently useless to the world.

I won’t go through my own sordid work history; suffice it to say that it’s consisted mostly of temporary positions, rarely offered any kind of benefits, occasionally resulted in injury, frequently was riddled with miscommunication at the least and outright scandal at the worst, and had no bearing on anything I actually wanted to do when I grew up.

Because I never wanted to be something useful.  I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic or a teacher.  I kind of wanted to be an FBI agent until I learned all the rigors of training, which I knew my crapsack legs would not allow.  I kind of wanted to be an entomologist, until I realized that field work would require endurance and stamina as well.

No, what I always wanted to do, since the first time I pushed a key on my mother’s electric typewriter, was to be a writer.

Of all the things to be good at in the world, I was good at writing — at least, if you asked the adults around me.  They were always sharing the little poems I’d write as a kid, or the little short stories, or saying how good my essays were.  It was like that well into high school, when my teachers would say my papers were already graduate-level — and into college, when professors would say THEY had learned something from reading my essays.  (I’d stopped writing fiction and poetry shortly after I learned the word “doggerel.”)

And yet there was one constant refrain:  You Can’t Make A Living At That.

The one thing I was naturally good at, the one thing I enjoyed doing above all others, the one thing that anyone gave me any positive feedback about — the one thing I most loved to do — and the first thing out of anyone’s mouth was You Can’t Make A Living At That.

Nevermind that time and experience have shown that I can’t apparently make a living at anything else, either.

There’s never been anything I’ve loved so much as creating.  Writing most of all, but also music and drawing.  I’ve never been quite as good at anything as I was at writing, but the arts, in general, were my few islands of patience.  I’d get frustrated, as a child, with my lack of coordination in every other sphere of life, but something about Art of any kind was self-soothing.  There has never been anything in my life as wonderful as finding just the right word, playing just the right chord, watching that stirring scene in a play or a film.  Feeling the goosebumps rise, the tiny hairs stand up on the back of my neck, the wave of energy as if my body’s every cell was overflowing with life.   There is nothing like that aesthetic overload.  And if I could do anything, I’d spend my life trying to do things that wreak that same sensation in other people.  (Though it’s insufferable hubris to think I even could.)

I love to create things, but it’s so hard, at the same time.  Because there’s no point if you don’t share them, and yet sharing them is always an abject terror — calling on other people, sometimes even strangers, to judge the thing you’ve poured your time and effort into. Even if you wouldn’t go so far as to call it your “talent,” it’s damning enough to know that you spent time and ATP on it.  It could have been spent on work that makes you money.  It could have been spent on applying for jobs.  It could have been spent on reworking a resume for the tenth time, or tweaking another cover letter.  It could have been spent on something that was really worth something.  And I know that it should be.  Especially during these times that I’m unemployed, and everyone tells me that “your full-time job is finding a full-time job,” as if there are even enough jobs out there for which I’m qualified enough to apply.  All my ostensible “talent” just boils down to a fast typing speed and firm grasp of grammar and spelling — but every job I find is heavy labor or skilled professional or some kind of high-powered executive.  Jobs that I’m not qualified for, and in many cases physically can’t do.  But  America doesn’t believe in the word “can’t,” we just forgive different reasons for “won’t.”

But every once in a while, something just breaks, and I fritter away an entire afternoon writing something, or working on some sort of graphic design thing, or otherwise doing something creative. It hardly feels like any time at all – I’m just in the moment, doing what needs to be done for that task at hand, letting the inspiration guide me, and it’s all deeply appealing on so many different levels.   I’m focused, alert, productive, and yet I’m calm, steady, and persistent, even if I end up having to start over.  For those few timeless hours, I’m not scared or stressed or sad.  And then it’s done, and I have my draft of a post, or my short story, or some kind of photoshopped something, and I have a few moments of relative contentment (you know, where you realize the work is still totally Wrong but that it’s the best kind of Wrong you can make it.)  And while I might not be beaming or boasting, there may be a faint pearlescence of pride.

At least, before I look at the clock and see just how much time I’ve squandered — time which could have been money, had I been working on something valuable.

And yet,  one part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is always yelling at me that I can’t afford not to do these creative projects, because with every day that passes, I might be losing inspiration, losing the moment, losing the window of opportunity. I know that if I don’t start writing when I’m inspired, the idea and the mood will be gone and I may never get it back.  And that maybe, maybe, this is the idea that DOES matter.

This is a selfish part of brain, really. It says to me, “YOU are the one with this idea right now. YOU are the one who can do this. YOU should do it, because nobody else is going to do it unless YOU do it. You’ve spent all your life hiding and making yourself feel bad, internalizing every paradoxical insult ever hurled at you, convincing yourself that you weren’t worthy of anything. But after all these years, you convinced yourself that you are worthy of being alive, you are worthy of having a sense of self, you are worthy of having a unique identity, you are worthy of having a will to achieve and incorporate new things into yourself, you are worthy of developing a sense of agency in your life. There is a reason you feel peace with yourself when you’re creating, or contributing to artistic creation. There is a reason that it feels like it’s what you should be doing. There is a reason something at the core of you twists itself up in a knot at the idea of working in an office again. There is a reason the bile rises in your throat at words like ‘proactive’ and ‘webinar.’ You know this, no matter how complicated you may try to make things for yourself.

“All your life, you’ve been hiding your lamp under a bushel, and forcing yourself to see it as a faint little glow under the Chernobyl sarcophagus — and equally as treacherous if freed.  But there are people who want to hear what you have to say, to see what you have to make. Some are known to you, and some unknown — waiting for some mutual creative experience to, however loosely, however briefly, tie your minds together. And you know that, even if there were nobody left on the planet, you’d still be writing. You’d still be trying to make something of it all. This is what you do. This is your nature. And if you’re going to feel guilty about anything in your life, feel guilty about denying these most fundamental truths of yourself. No matter what has happened, you never fully let them go. You never let anyone take them from you. Not even yourself. You think you’ve changed so much in these past few years, but you know the secret – know it and have known: the only change has been in self-perception. You’ve always had this same potential, but only now are you allowing yourself to see it.

“But now is no time to blind yourself for blindness, guilt yourself for guilt or shame your shame; if you think that any time was squandered, then allow it to squander no more. Don’t seek permission or justification to pursue a life where you are what you know you could be: by being and by knowing, you have earned this. Earned this, and earned things that will be beyond your knowing until, reaching upward – however weakly, however slowly, however blindly, with hands however numb, you find them in your grasp. Some you may have already – have but not yet feel. And no matter what anyone has told you, or you have told yourself, it is a goodness to feel. So – for the love of any and all ye gods and a thousand glimmering shoals of little fishes – just let yourself CREATE.”

Meanwhile, the rational part of my brain/psyche/ego/whatever is telling me, “Will you shut your idiot piehole and talk sense? Look, if you don’t work every possible moment your job lets you work, you can’t afford to pay rent and eat food. It’s not that complicated. Not that you exactly need to eat so damn much, and not that you deserve to live where you are, but you have a responsibility to yourself and the people who let you live with them to keep yourself alive and pay your fair goddamn share.  Remember THAT word, Dostoyevsky?  RE-SPON-SIB-IL-ITY?

“I don’t care how burnt out you feel, I don’t care how incompetent you feel, I don’t care how dissatisfied you feel. I don’t care how peaceful or happy or accomplished you think you should feel, and I don’t care what you aspire to, because your feelings don’t matter, and your idea of a future doesn’t matter.  Because the future is just like today with a different date slapped on the tin. I don’t care if you feel bad about yourself, because you should feel bad about yourself.  Because, idealism aside, you ARE the money you make. You ARE what you can afford. You ARE what everyone else sees you as. You are a human in a society, and you need food, shelter, and a certain base level of acceptable appearance in order to stay alive and engage in in remotely successful interactions. These things cost money.

“You like to think you see yourself as better now, but you don’t, because you’re still at least a little awkward about going out in public, and — yet again —  you should be. You’re pining away like you think you’re a Romantic hero, some melancholy soul rejected by society to its own disservice, but you’re just a dumpy unemployed ugmo with bad skin and bad teeth and bad legs and bad hair.  You don’t even deserve to THINK about beauty, much less believe you can craft it. If you wanted to help the people around you, you’d stop believing you could make things that people want, and you would sell all your art and craft supplies for actual money. Nobody will ever pay even five bucks for anything you’ve ever done, because they know and you know that there’s more value in the printer ink or paint than in the “work” you’ve subjected it to.

“And whose fault is all of this? Yours. You could have chosen differently all along, and you didn’t, and now you think you can THINK yourself into the right to a better life than you’ve earned. You are not a bohemian, you are not insightful, you are not important, you are not a thing that matters, and the more you delude yourself into thinking you are, the more you are going to be discontent with the normal responsibilities of adulthood. Nobody gives even a sixteenth of a shit about your life but you, and you don’t even deserve to care about it as much as you’re trying to. Even if I let you do the artsy-fartsy bullshit you think you want to do, you KNOW you’d only be upset with how it turns out, and you KNOW you’d whine about how it could be better and how you’re just not good enough. And guess what — you’re right.

“I’m saving you a lot of trouble and embarrassment. You think you’re at peace with yourself when you’re creating, and you think you’re finally freeing yourself, but you’re actually hiding from the reality of the world you chose for yourself. You could have majored in anything in college – English, or arts, or psychology, or some kind of science. And whatever you majored in, you could have chosen to spend less time and money on that asshole you were with at the time. But no, you majored in Philosophy because you thought the critical thinking skills were more practical, and you still wasted your time, energy, money, GPA, and sanity on an ungrateful alcoholic jerk. Thinking that you could help him, even though you clearly couldn’t even handle your own life well enough to pick a major that’s not a cultural joke. You regret that time now, regret how everything happened, but you know you deserved just as good as you got, and still deserve to be suffering the consequences. Everything matters, every choice matters, and all the choices you have ever made up until this point have put you where you are. And it’s not even that bad, you ingrate. You’re just poor and unhappy, and both of those are logical consequences of those previous choices – or have you completely forgotten the Philosophy major you wasted your family’s money on?

“Listen. Your responsibility to yourself is not to be happy. Happiness is what you can pursue when you are DONE with all your responsibilities, and even then you can pursue it ONLY if it doesn’t come at the unhappiness, botherment, or even mild inconvenience of anyone else. If you manage to climb out of this hole you’ve put yourself into – and good goddamn luck with that, gimpy – then maybe you can start thinking about whether you have needs as a person or not. Until then, shut up, be a broken-toothed little cog, get a job, and do it.  Be grateful when someone chooses to pay you money to perform one of those few services your useless ass is capable of performing. All you ever do is let everybody down – and that’s when you’re NOT trying to do things beyond your limits. I have been telling you these same kinds of things every single day since you were in the third grade, and just because you decide to stop listening to me doesn’t mean I’m wrong. So sit down, shut up, and go back to work.”

Clearly, that part of my psyche is rather a lot more emphatic. And louder. And tends to go on at length. And has more objective evidence behind it. All the hippie-dippie encouraging attitude has behind it is your usual hope/faith/optimism stuff, which is painfully cyclical. If you want to be an optimist, you have to be optimistic that optimism will help you. It’s like most religion, magic, and other forms of faith that way – though, while that paradox of optimism is straightforward, actual systems of faith tend to be convoluted and circuitous enough that you ultimately manage to believe in yourself without your own ego interfering. It’s pretty damn wonderful and heroic when it all works out, but there’s the reason why that’s the kind of thing you read about in fiction. There’s a reason why, when that happens in the real world, it’s news.

And so here I am, on my first day of my latest bout of unemployment, an indefinite Labor Day weekend.  Telling myself that I’ll write things, I’ll create things, I’ll do useful things for people, until I get some kind of job that gives me dollars again. Trying not to be so stressed out and sad that I give up and hide from the world.  Trying not to delude myself with optimism, nor fall too deep in the mire of pessimism, no matter how much that pessimism looks like objective and rational truth.  Trying to make peace with my lack of social value while still believing it possible to redeem myself.

Nobody ever gets what they want in life.  Nobody ever gets to be happy — the hedonic treadmill sees to that, if nothing else.  And so, perhaps nothing has changed in all this time.  Perhaps none of it matters.  I’ll take the next job I’m capable of that opens up, I’ll work it until they arbitrarily get rid of me, or the company goes under, or the work runs dry, or they replace me with someone, or I have to quit before I have a nervous breakdown over the incompetence and impossibility of it all.  I’ll try to do the creative and calming things I can do in what free time I have, if just for myself, if never to be seen by anyone else.  And in every other hour of my life, I’ll feel myself age, feel myself grow stupid, feel myself grow even more slow, and regret more and more all the things that hindsight fools me into thinking I could have done with this time.

Because this is what it is to be an adult.

This is what it is to be a worker.

This is how we make a living.

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What Remains.


Consider these two images.

Both depict an artistic tool, splattered with paint.

Both might, initially, evoke some amount of wonder — wonder about these stray streaks of pigment, raw and formless, that got lost on their way to becoming Art. Was that red used for a setting sun or a soldier’s coat?  When the rest of the flesh-colored paint made it to canvas, what was happening to the body it depicted?  This is what remains – what had it all been?

This wonder might grow all the more vivid, to know that the palette on the top was one of Vincent van Gogh’s.

It might wane to know that the easel on the bottom is a piece of home decor from Anthropologie.

And it costs over two thousand dollars.

They didn’t rescue this easel from the estate of an artist.  Its splatters are not the orphans from any great mother body of work.

It is exactly what it is: a large easel that has been splattered with paint.

And it costs over two thousand dollars.

There are humans who have purchased it.

They do not buy their own easel and bedeck it with the remnants of painting.  They do not even buy their own easel and fling paint at it until it looks more to their liking.  They let somebody else do it, then purchase it, then put it up in their home so that they might Say Something About Themselves.

Somebody looked at its classification and read “STYLE: Bohemian – layered and quirky” and thought that was fitting.  Fitting for the person they wanted to seem to be.  Fitting for the object itself.  They looked at it and thought: It’s disheveled and splattered and passionate and it’s just so artistic and BOHEMIAN and it only costs me two thousand dollars.  It only costs me two thousand dollars, and I don’t have to dirty my own hands with paint, and I don’t have to dirty my own mind with art or with the failure to create art.  I can turn this tool into something that exists only to be looked at, and that’s artistic, because art is a thing that is seen and not a thing that is done.  This could be churned out of a factory and I would never know, but surely it’s not because it costs two thousand dollars so it has to be handmade and artisinal and authentic.

Surely it’s not the case that they see the price tag and immediately craft justifications for that price.   Surely it’s not the case that they fear to buy any actual art because it’s all such a mystery to them, because nobody can just say which ones are Good and which ones are Bad. Surely it’s not the case that they can’t just say “I know what moves me when I see it” because they fear to ever be moved.  Surely it’s not the case that they splatter this object — and all the other objects they own — with these justifications and hopes and raw and formless emotions that got lost on their way to becoming an actual thought or feeling.

They thought:  this is a thing that is worth the money.

They want to be a carefree, artistic, authentic Bohemian so badly that they will pay any price for it.

Any price but the cost of lifting a tool.  Of taking up oils and pigments and applying them to a surface other than their own face, for any purpose but to disguise the lines of age and pain and false smiles held far too long.  Any price but the risk of ugliness, or the realization that the facades you create, the globs of thought and feeling you express, are just as empty, just as devoid of any goal, as the erratic spatters on that easel.  Not lost on the way to anything — just strewn around to make it look like they’re working on becoming just what they’re pretending to be.

Creative.  Artistic.  Authentic.


But la vie boheme is a life where you cannot afford much of anything, but the one thing you can afford least is to stop making things. A life whereyou’d sooner spend a week without eggs, bread, and milk than a week without painting, writing, drawing, photography, singing, digital art, whatever madness you’re up to.  A life where your muse does not speak to you through the television or through the society ladies, does not tell you what things you could do to be prettier today, but which snarls at you incoherent and inchoate.   A life where you will and must do whatever you do to slake the heartlust of the beast that sits gnawing and howling and ever-hungry in the pit of yourself, the beast which may nip your heels to encourage one day and bite out your hamstrings another, the beast that cannot be bribed and cannot be tamed but with which you have together forged An Understanding and part of that Understanding is that it owns you as much or more than you ever could own it, the beast which resents all leashes and which will not simply come when you call because it refuses any name that could be spoken, the beast that you have fed of your own flesh, your blood and toil, tears and sweat, and sometimes it seems all for nothing — until those nights when everything has left you but the beast, which curls up warm around you, purring like a rusty diesel motor, and for once neither of you is asking anything of the other but to be there.  And you have nothing, but you would not do anything to harm the beast, not for two thousand dollars and not for two million, because to kill the beast of art would be the death of life itself.

But what do I know; I’ve not seen two thousand dollars in what feels like as many years, and everyone who’s really successful knows that things matter more if they’re worth a lot of money.  I can make no claim to being an artist of any kind; I just write things and try not to get in the Universe’s way.  I can’t even have pretensions of being an unpretentious Bohemian; I’m just some bunch of nothing barely on the shy side of bumhood.   But at least I know that I’ve made things, I’ve felt things, I’ve thought about things, and the sentiments I’ve splattered invisibly onto the things I own are the sentiments I developed for myself, the ones that got stuck to other things while on their way to creations and moments that ended long ago — not the ones that I just believe purchased the rights to.

People with more money than integrity can feel free to buy these easels if they’d like to, if they’d rather not make their own.

I think it would be a fine place for them to display the certificate from the star they named after themselves.

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Art vs. The Artificial

I’m taking a brief break as I try to power through an all-nighter to catch up on work (since I actually have work available, and since I may well just get canned any time now.) I’ve just cracked open a Rockstar energy drink — making me suddenly and sharply nostalgic for the season I spent as a stagehand.

I spent those days fueled mainly by Rockstar energy drinks, cheap pizza, ramen, and a unique combination of overexertion-adrenaline, panic-adrenaline, Art-endorphins, and acute social anxiety/shame. I was never not working, it felt like, and I was never remotely good at those things I was working at (being too short, too weak, too slow, too uncoordinated, too afraid of heights, and otherwise too terrible.)  But I was backstage again, and helping make theatre happen again. Even though I tended to end up doing the simple gofer oddjobs so that the useful people weren’t wasted, and even though I still think 95% of people there hated my face, even though I was in copious pain most of the time, and even though I wound up wounding myself as well as getting laid off at the end, and even though the pay was a slap in the face.  Especially when we were working La Boheme, an opera all about impoverished artists.  La Boheme, with its brand-new set with ridiculously huge and overelaborate scenery, meticulously designed to look like bohemian squalor.  La Boheme, for which we were paid minimum wage with no benefits, so that the rich patrons and donors could watch it and continue to fund future shows (and the wages of future bohemians.)  You could’ve smothered in the layers of irony.

…And I still think of it as the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.

I remember stumbling home from the bus stop, boneweary, sneezing black from the dust of ancient drops, peering at my arms in the sunlight and finding the day’s fresh bruises and scratches that the stagelights didn’t show.  I remember how my cheeks and ears felt forever burning with guilt and fear of my inadequacies, from all the simple tasks that were so disproportionately hard for me, whether carrying a flat or climbing a ladder or not stripping a screw. Forever torn between a fear of being seen as the worthless weakling and the overly-ambitious tryhard – that is, when I thought the rest of the crew noticed me at all.

So why was I doing it?  What was the appeal?

There’s an ambiance in a theatre that’s not matched anywhere else.  It’s a place where the borders between Art and Reality are both so blurred and so knife-sharp.  Scores of people do nearly impossible things with wood and paint and cloth, with voices and bodies, with lights and gels and props, all day each day for months.  Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.  Dashing ourselves against the limits of plausibility, possibility, and damned common sense.  Against our own fourth walls that divide our perceptions of ourselves from what we might be seen to be.   “It is what it is” was the eternal mantra. Whatever It was, It was never quite enough, never quite right, never quite good, never quite anything. The directors always wanted something else, things never quite went together as they should, something always went wrong, and after a point you just had to throw up your hands and surrender to it.  It Is What It Is.

And I saw myself as the same – never quite enough, never quite right, never quite good.  Never quite anything.  I felt my limits so acutely, and in such fine detail, so self-similar and self-containing that I could swear it took on fractal dimensions.  Finding shallow solace only when I was so tired that I couldn’t care anymore, and all I could do was surrender.  Surrender to the limits of my petulant body, surrender to the absurdity of the directors’ demands, surrender to the drama, surrender to Dionysus or whatever mad muses haunt the modern stage.

But somehow, that very hollowness seemed to make me more fulfilled.  The gulf between expectation and reality seemed miles wide — until the show itself.  And then, even from my post backstage, even though I’d done so relatively little to contribute… that great theatrical Something swept in.  It filled in all the gaps in me, even and especially the gaps I didn’t know I had, until I felt myself brimming with energy.  Cheeks flushed and neck tingling again, but with that ineffable aesthetic thrill, those chills, that invisible electricity that made the small hairs stand up, made the goosebumps rise.   So autonomous and unthinking, so much an animal response, but so much a sublime one as well.

In that moment, It still was what It was.  I was what I was.  A whole and very finite thing.  But the perception had flipped, the suspension of disbelief had been triggered, the aesthetic surrender was underway.  And for those few moments, those limits – that border between Art and Reality, Self and Other, Transcendent and Immanent – could be felt so distinctly, so minutely, that I could feel how imprecise it actually was – how it contained itself within itself, over and over again.  A finite area with an infinite border.  To the point that it didn’t dissolve, but took on a dimension deeper than any simple line could be.  The fractal fourth wall.

Those moments of electric aesthetic surrender – whether they’re from theatre, a particular swell in a song, finding just the right note as I try to play something by ear, figuring out just the right word to write, hearing or reading some evocative speech, whatever – are some of my favorite moments in life.  The ones that I have helped create, even in some small way, even moreso.

For all I know, nobody else feels that, and I sound like some sort of lunatic because this is just more neurological miswiring, and my brain actually short-circuits itself if I let it get too happy.   But that’s how it is, and it’s marvelously affirming – not just self-affirming, and not just giving faith in humanity that these things exist, but an almost completely abstractified Yes.  I want to make things that give myself that sensation.  I want to make things that give other people that sensation, presuming they’re similarly wired!   Since I’m already imagining things, I want to be able to afford to make such things without being evicted or starving to death!  Even if I -were- evicted and starving on the street, I’d be hauling my filthy carcass to the library computer lab and STILL writing every day; still seeking out ways to have, generate, and possibly inflict that sensation.

But you can’t always get what you want.  A song which, I might add, gives me that very same sensation.  Here!  Have some!

But what am I doing now?  I’m taking a break from a job that has me home every day, sitting in a chair in my pajamas, being paid to be overly analytical about the Internet.   A job of strict guidelines, of pedantic distinctions, of interpreting a world of information and expression in accordance with criteria.  A job devoid of all art.  A job where even the analysis is not my own.  A job that leaves me exponentially more poor than I was when I was working minimum wage on stage crew – financially, socially, mentally.  Feeling useless, soul-sapped, and self-reviling, my worth subject to so many factors beyond my control, all of which are almost completely external.  Most of which are arbitrary.

I find the job – find myself – reducing myself to the same kinds of criteria.  Am I useful?  Am I of sufficient quality?  Do I answer what I ask of myself?  Or am I misleading myself? I keep telling myself that this is just what adulthood is – being stressed, being miserable, being bored, being unfulfilled, being tired, being ashamed, being guilty, being serious, being practical, being rational, and putting on the act that we’re all okay.  Feeling artificial.  Feeling guilty for not being conventional enough.

But which is the false self?  Which is the act?  Which is art and which is artificial?

I have an idea of myself as a writer, as a potential creator of some kind.  As a thing that may have Art in it.  But then there’s the idea of myself as someone who could – in fact, SHOULD – be content as a cubicle drone or similar functionary. Playing the role of a Normal Human Adult, striving to work in an office, wear the business casual costume, recite the lines.  Every day the same blocking of bed, car, cubicle, lunchroom, cubicle, car, bed.  Same cast of characters to deal with every day, all of them following their own routines.  All for an invisible audience, and someone hidden in the distance – watching, judging, giving us notes – if we’re lucky.

One act certainly seems more practical than the other – but if it leaves me all gall and wormwood, what’s the worth of me?   Have I set myself up to accept that I don’t have worth, so that I never actually address the questions of who I am and what I want out of my life, and never feel I’m worthy to know, or to seek it out?

I’ve been sitting on this post for two nights now, trying to answer all of that.  Knowing that I can’t; that if I could answer it, I wouldn’t be asking it.  That if I knew what to do about it, armed with that answer, I wouldn’t be asking it.  That if I felt like I was capable of doing it, armed with that knowledge, I wouldn’t be asking it.

For most of my life, until quite recently (and even still I frequently backslide,) I’ve thought myself utterly undeserving of happiness, a sense of self, or any but the most basic and biologically necessary interactions with the world.  I tell myself that I have a duty to other people, and to myself (whatever that’s worth), to be smart and responsible and rational and to never take stupid risks and never make mistakes. To avoid bothering or inconveniencing others at all costs. I tell myself that it’s infinitely better to miss an opportunity by inaction than to pursue and opportunity and fail. I tell myself that happiness is a privilege to be earned only if that duty is fulfilled. That it doesn’t matter if I did get to spend all my time writing or creating – I’d still be awkward and discontent and unworthy and self-loathing because that’s just the kind of person I am, because I’m just not the kind of person who can do things right. End of story.

But maybe that’s all somebody else’s lines. Other peoples’ idea of my character. People long past, who knew and judged a person who isn’t even Me anymore. All an act, in short, and one that I’ve become a little bit too good at method-acting – and one with all the makings of a tragedy.

After all, the times I’ve felt most like myself – and, strangely, all the times I’ve seemed to gather the most friends – have been those times I was intentionally playing around with my identity and behavior. No lies, no bullshit – just intentionally disregarding my old ideas of who and what I “should” be, who and what I think I am, and instead trying to write and talk and behave like the person I wish I could’ve been.

Was it an act?  Kind of.  But, oddly, it seemed to let in more truth.  By acting like someone who was maybe allowed to be happy and strong and funny and powerful and smart and capable, and by not poisoning the well with my honest self-opinion, and by not getting those concepts shot down, I began to feel like I was – or could be – that kind of person after all.  And maybe it’s true.  Maybe I can fake it ’til I make it. Maybe I can eventually earn the right to deserve some sense of fulfillment – if not aesthetic, then maybe just a sense of accomplishment.  Maybe I don’t have to be a drone.  If I try to write more (that is, more things that aren’t emo type rambling like this crap), or try to paint more, or otherwise try to art more, suspending the search for justification and just sincerely letting myself do it anyway… then who knows.

I’m not going to be so selfish as to say that happiness or self-worth are needs, but still:

If you try sometimes, you might find….

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So, this may well be way too reductive.

But I’m still thinking about the issue of my total lack of confidence. Trying to determine whether confidence is supposed to be naturally-generated or if it’s a learned behavior based on enough positive reinforcement. I am totally not able to naturally generate confidence, but this very awkwardness and reticence often comes through in what I do, and actually quashes others’ inclination to give positive feedback. I know it’s only priming people to be critical. So, even if I’m motivated by external positive reinforcement, that very desire is its own undoing.

The deeper concern is that confidence just seems so dishonest. I can’t claim I’m capable of doing something successfully, because Shit Happens.  I can’t claim I’m capable of rolling with the shit that happens, because Shit Happens. And while I feel like it’s far more honest and realistic to be self-critical and self-doubting, it’s also a loop that keeps me from ever acquiring confidence. I don’t get how people can look at themselves and choose to be confident – how they ignore what they ignore, or forget what they forget, or whether they’re just synthesizing some fake-confidence in the form of Pride or outright Delusion that works well enough to get them through life without much incident.

Given all that…. I wonder if, ironically, I need to give up on the idea of having confidence or faith at all.

Just acknowledge the fact that, even though I’ve earned a sense of self, that doesn’t mean I matter.  Or should matter.  Not even to myself.

And then, knowing that I don’t matter, and therefore surrendering any concerns about whether I feel deserving or capable or disingenous, JUST DO THINGS ANYWAY.

The few times I -have- dared to do things without feeling ready, it was scary and stressful – but, with persistence, they really helped make me who I am. Which is odd, since I was originally 100% positive that they couldn’t possibly overlap with my life. For whatever reason (okay, occasionally a booze-related reason,) I just turned my brain off and pushed the Do It Anyway button — and whaddaya know. Things that aren’t part of your life can become part of your life if you just DO THEM.

Courage isn’t the condition of feeling fearless, but of facing one’s fear.  Maybe confidence isn’t the condition of feeling self-certain, but of facing a challenge to your identity and seeing it through.

Maybe I’m forgetting that there’s no certainty in anything, no matter what you do. That things can become unpredictably complex because of simple changes, but those changes ARE, themselves, simple. For all the hemming and hawing about What to do, Why to do it, How to do it, When to do it, For Whom to do it, the only certainty there can be is that, if you DON’T do it, it doesn’t get done.

Yes, things get complicated later on, in ways I may or may not be equipped to deal with.  But still, it all starts with a choice between Create Something and Don’t Create Something.

Perhaps I just need to remind myself:

Maybe it’s better to err on the side of creation.

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Overthinking Overnalyzing

After the last post, and the general ages-long analysis-paralysis delay in posting anything, I was digging around and trying to determine more about Why That Happens.  I enjoy analyzing things just because it’s intensely satisfying to find patterns and to make things make sense — even, hell, especially when it’s pareidolia.  Whether it’s an optical illusion, a mashup, a metaphor, or a joke, I love implausible juxtaposition that calls on the brain to make some synapse between utterly unrelated neurons.  I don’t think I could still Be Me if I didn’t enjoy that – which means that my tendencies to analyze things and try to seek patterns aren’t, in themselves, problematic.

What IS problematic is how I react – or don’t – during the process.

For all my fondness of weird, juxtaposed, implausible, chaotic things and the strange kinds of harmony they can produce… in most of my behaviors, I’m painfully rulebound.   It might be due to upbringing, to a large degree – one parent thought anything not planned was not worth doing; the other was more spontaneous, but much more fretful about change.  Throw in the fact that the only thing I’ve ever excelled at was school, where everything is Right or Wrong, clearly defined, and any mistake you make carries through your entire school year to affect your final grade or GPA, and I quickly internalized a mindset of If You Can’t Plan It, Predict It, Or Perfect It, DON’T DO IT.  Not doing things was always better than doing them wrong.  And as for “learning from your mistakes,” well, learning didn’t matter.  Grades weren’t based on how much you improved over the course of a year, after all. They were just the aggregate of how many mistakes you made.  Start with a perfect A+, and subtract all the fuckups you made over the course of 9 months.

So, a miserable stasis was always more preferable to making a mistake in the name of ‘progress’ or ‘hope’ or ‘learning’ or whathaveyou.  Trying my best was only adequate if it correlated to an actual objective reward.  Getting a C was as good as an F, a B was a C, an A was a B, and an A+ was “Expected,” not “Exceptional.”

And yet, for all of that, I’ve never been too much of a control freak.  I want to understand things, sure, and plan things when I can — but my crap self-esteem has ensured that I rarely think I have adequate control over anything.  I’ve always been far more inclined to just go with the DON’T DO IT answer by default – knowing that I’ll plan wrong, make bad predictions, and generally fail, which gives the less-practical, more-emotional corollary of YOU DON’T EVEN DESERVE TO DO IT.  And, at times, the doubling-down of YOU DON’T EVEN DESERVE TO WANT TO DO IT.

I’m more than willing to concede the fact that the world works as it works, there’s not necessarily order or structure, our perceptions of such are largely illusory, and “control” is another term for the delusion of confidence and competence. It’s also not an illusion of control, because I never feel remotely in control of anything. Including and especially those things I should feel most in command of. It’s like there’s some sort of psychic maintenance involved – every artificial thing I’ve tried to impose on myself, I have to try to keep functional, all on my own, while being besieged by all manner of external forces that only even feel like a siege at all because I tried to fortify myself against them in the first place.

No, all this analysis and reticence and paralysis isn’t for a sense of control. Just a sense of justification. Just a sense that, in some respect, whatever I’m thinking, planning, doing, not doing, or doing-by-not-doing (to get all wu-wei on things) is Okay.

Even though it never works out like that, and I know it.

The closest I ever get is: “You’re making a constant series of mistakes, and you’ll never be able to fix them. You may or may not have done your best, and even if you did, that may or may not have been good enough, and it may or may not even matter. So… it is what it is. Do stuff. Or don’t. Or something. You may or may not find out, in the end, whether or not it was right, wrong, acceptable, or immaterial. So it’s all on your head, Sparky, and so is figuring it all out.”

I think I just need to make myself a little more aware of when I’m obfuscating myself. When I’m holding myself back. When I’m telling myself that something – whatever it is – just needs A Few More Things or Just A Bit Of Refinement before I call it Done. When I’m caught up in worrying about what other people might think, or how well it might work, or whether what I want to do is acceptable to do or even acceptable to want.

Because I suspect that what I’m really saying to myself is, “This thing is probably actually ready. I feel like I’m not. I will not do anything until I feel like I’m ready. This thing, and everything and everybody else, therefore has to wait for me to stop feeling like a failure before it can be done / shown / shared. The very fact that I don’t feel ready yet makes me feel more like a failure, which makes me feel more unready, which makes me feel more like a failure.  Therefore, this should never be shared.”

And by the time I do feel ready to share something, time and growth have made me just a slightly different person than the person who made the thing.  Which makes it a little too distant to be be relevant to me.  A little too much a relic.  A little too much an anchor. And if I’m ready, in principle, to share, but the thing itself is no longer representative or meaningful or relevant, then how can I claim it should be of worth to anyone else?

So I don’t share things.  Or even make things.  Or try much.  Or challenge myself, since feeling like something is a challenge is, to me, a sign that you are inadequate or inadequately prepared for it. But, because I don’t challenge myself, I don’t allow myself to make mistakes – which leads to poor coping skills when I do make mistakes. Therefore, my parameters for what is a surmountable challenge tend to stay the same – not only because I haven’t made the mistakes to learn what not to do, but I haven’t learned enough coping skills to make the very act of mistake-making feel like anything short of utter unacceptable doom.

When I’ve made a thing, when I’ve gotten myself to the point where I feel it’s done, it still never really feels good or right.  I just feel like there’s nothing left I can do with it, and that this is my own fault. Maybe I’ve made the thing for its own sake, or for others, or even if it is for myself, all I end up seeing is how it’s still not right, still flawed, in ways I can’t fully articulate or fix.  It’s an overwhelming feeling that this would be better if only it were somebody else doing it.

And yet, the more I try, the more I feel like I’m irresponsible.  There’s only so much time and energy, you know, and there I am pushing myself against some essay or poem or story or whatever as if I could EVER be good enough to make it what it deserves to be.  As if there’s not something else in the world I could be doing, something practical and purposeful, that would directly help me or someone else.  So I get torn right  in pieces between feeling energized by the idea and desperate to realize it in some way or other before the inspiration’s gone forever, feeling completely incompetent at this idea that’s burning in my brain, and feeling selfish and pompous for spending time on it at all.

And all of that combined means that even when it’s as Done as I can get it, I still feel like I can’t share it.  Because it won’t live up to the idea, or it will have too much ME in it.  It’s too raw and ill-defined, while at the same time being so dense, so solid, so untouchable.  But I can’t generate my own justification or validation, and I feel instinctively that neither the thing, nor I, deserve it from anyone else.  And yet, if I don’t want others to enjoy it, or even approve of its existence, or even grudgingly accept it, and if I can’t generate those things myself, and if I’m unsure whether or not it really speaks for itself or not, is it really done?  Should I even have made it? Why did I bother? What’s the point?

I guess that’s the appealing thing about faith. It cuts all those issues short. Whatever you do, you’re not doing for the thing itself, or for yourself, or for others; you’re doing it for Insert Metaphysical Entity Here.  Maybe not even a capital-G God.  Maybe just a muse. Maybe anything outside of yourself that you believe in. You don’t have to explain why you’re doing it. Insert Metaphysical Entity Here inspired you!  Regardless of how you feel about it, and regardless of how anybody else reacts to it, you can assume that Insert Metaphysical Entity Here is pleased! And you don’t have to worry about how things seem in hindsight, or all the infinite possible spiraling potentialities. Insert Metaphysical Entity Here decides what happens, so any results – good or bad – are its will. As long as you can justify yourself to Insert Metaphysical Entity Here — a process which, from my viewpoint, appears alarmingly similar to the self-reflection echo chamber — you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to doubt. You don’t have to be afraid. Well, unless you have one of those Insert Metaphysical Entities Here which like you to be worried and doubtful and afraid, and like to be judgmental. But you know what you’re in for with that, too.

It just sounds so trite to say that I should have faith in myself.  Besides, I’ve lived with myself all my life; I know better than that.  And my thoughts on faith of any kind is another heap of blather entirely, though it boils down to an idea that faith is a learned behavior that operates independently of evidence, which can be used as anything from a temporary psychological stopgap to a sort of outboard ego through which one routes some, or all, perceptions, judgments, and thoughts.  One can have faith in a deity, or oneself, or another person, or any other ideological thing.  But, all too often, the thing you have faith in isn’t what you think or believe it is.  And you end up having to have faith that the object of your faith even functions as an object of your faith.  You have to have faith about your faith about your faith, giving up bits of your ego with each iteration until there’s almost nothing left.  Faith is what you have when you are too unaware of yourself, the world around you, your abilities, or your limitations, to have a rational understanding of cause and effect.

At the same time… cause and effect aren’t always so clear-cut.  That’s chaos theory for you – even the most minute changes in initial conditions can lead to vastly different results in later conditions, and it takes superhuman abilities to even guess what swath of possible results might be more likely.

It’s a fact that I love.  And have loved forever, since before I even knew there was a term for it.  And then I discovered Discordianism back in high school, which – for being rather tongue-in-cheek – was still an encouraging and ennobling target of at least some sort of faith.  Even if the faith was just that, yes, there are other Weird People in the world; yes, trying to make things more orderly often fails; yes, it is a Good Thing to be creative; yes, the world is silly, and it’s okay to be silly yourself.

Also, I guess that’s why faith in an external metaphysical entity — even one almost completely fabricated — seems less stupid than faith in myself:  I know enough about myself to know that having faith in myself is only writing myself a check that I can’t cash.  I rationally KNOW I’m not a viable target of faith.  Something that doesn’t exist can’t be such a failure.

But for so long since, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between ruts of destructive order and destructive chaos, forgetting that they’re not really as opposing as I make them out to be.  I’m quite possibly the world’s only lapsed Discordian.  But I’d do well to remember some of these formative things, the things I thought I’d hold to as an adult.  The more I feel I’ve failed as an adult, as a person, as an anything, the more I try to seek order and stability and things that are predictable and known.

But perhaps this is me just trying to retreat into some “safe” and ever-besieged world of known failures,  regularly scheduled crises, and rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.  Perhaps I should be reaching toward those things I’ve always been most drawn to, when I dare draw or be drawn.  To art-ish things, and writing, and storytelling, and gods help us all maybe even poetry.  The things that I try to tell myself are frivolous, pointless, impossible, that require too much of me, that are more than I could handle, that are for Other People, Better People, Funnier People.   The things I bribe myself with — “Okay, just do the things you have to do, and then you can do the creative things you want to do – never mind that the moment will be long lost by then.”  I keep telling myself somehow that, if I get a good stable job, or otherwise earn worth or wealth, then I’ll be allowed to be creative again.  Nevermind that the times when I have jobs like this are also the times when I’m most stressed and sapped and unable to summon the energy or effort or inspiration to create.

All I know is, it sucks to feel simultaneously that you have no purpose in all the world but to Create Something — while knowing that you have to make a living, and you have to earn the right to be alive, and that even fulfilling your purpose of Creating Something isn’t enough.  If you’re particularly low on marketable skills other than Creating Something, there is almost nothing you can do to make you deserve things like food or shelter, or the money to afford such things.  The time you spend doing whatever scraps of things someone will pay you to do, is time you spend not doing what you feel made to do — and, in fact, time you spend dessicating and burning away everything in you that makes you capable of Creating Something at all.

I guess all we can do is choose creativity.  Even as we’re growing old and slowing down and drying up, even as we’re inching further into the gutter, all we can do is keep thinking, keep making connections, keep creating new ideas from the patterns we see (or create) in the chaos all around us.  Accept that it doesn’t matter, and we’re going to die alone and broke and ugly and from something probably depressingly preventable, and nothing but a burden on everyone we’ve ever cared about but maybe, before we’re shoveled under and forgotten, we’ll Create Something that lasts.  It won’t make up for anything – nothing can – but it will be Something.

“To choose order over disorder, or disorder over order, is to accept a trip composed of both the creative and the destructive. But to choose the creative over the destructive is an all-creative trip composed of both order and disorder. To accomplish this, one need only accept creative disorder along with, and equal to, creative order, and also willing to reject destructive order as an undesirable equal to destructive disorder.” ~ Malaclypse the Younger, KSC

And that, if nothing else, is something to stop and think about.

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Some Thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Quality of Art”

This Tumblr post of a friend-of-a-friend has given me some things to chew on.

I think it helps explain some of the problems I have with doing anything remotely art-like. I know I lack technical prowess, and whenever I make anything – whether it’s writing or some kind of digital art or the rare painting – it’s driven mostly by passion. But I always have to ask myself if that passion actually matters. If I’m not great at it on a technical level, AND if I’m maybe not completely groundbreaking either, what right do I have to be passionate about what I’m doing?  I already felt sorta crap about my technical prowess, but I guess I never remembered that I should be innovative, too.

I mean, it’s not like I can help it. If I could control what I feel passionate about at any time, or how original my ideas are, I’d be letting a constant sluice of energy into my brain and I’d never let up from creating never-before-imagined things. But it comes and it goes, or channels itself into different projects, in ways I can’t actually guide. All I can do is choose whether or not to ignore my creative impulses. Usually I have to ignore it for practical reasons (I have to do real work, I can’t make it come out right, I don’t have the equipment, etc.)

But sometimes there’s nothing that’s really holding me back — just the question of whether passion alone is an adequate justification for pursuing that passion. Whether pursuing my passion, despite technical failure and unoriginality, is a cop-out.

I want to say it’s always okay to try things, and that you’ve only failed when you give up. But that’s probably insulting to real artists.

This is why I almost never actually accomplish anything. I just have ideas, try to start, remember who and what I am, then give up and go pet the cats.

…I say as I write and publish a blog entry.

Maybe I’m just thinking too much about some end-game, some concept of being “famous” to at least some degree, with a lot of people from a lot of backgrounds all looking at me and my work, and judging me.  I’m trying to figure out how to be acceptable to as many people as possible.  And when that starts to happen, my usual instinct is just to withdraw.  I can’t make everyone happy simultaneously, and my own happiness and utility shouldn’t come at the expense of anyone else, and if I screw something up, I risk failing other people and failing the idea itself.  So it’s easier not to try, and easier to justify inaction.

I realize this is a somewhat cowardly attitude.  I’m letting the hypothetical judgment of a bunch of hypothetical people dissuade me from doing not only hypothetical things, but real actual things I could really actually do.  And, obviously, all those hypothetical things are being hypothesized in my own damn head.  I mean, yes, I might not be able to really actually do the things I want to do very WELL, but it’s usually at least somewhat possible.  And people have liked some of the things I’ve dared to do.  I’ve had good feedback on some of my writing, when I’ve dared to show it to anyone, and on some crafts.

At the same time, I fear it’s an even bigger cop-out to say “Screw it, my audience is Whoever Likes This Thing I’ve Made.”

Still… this is The Internet.  Even if something isn’t original, it can be remixed and recontextualized, used to satirize other things, or even to satirize itself.  And there’s someone out there for everything.   The Long Tail is looooooooooooooooooong.

Maybe it’s worth it to just put something in the world that wasn’t there before. Whatever it is. Do what I’m compelled to do, even if it’s derivative.  Do it as well as I can.  Put it out there.  Whoever finds it and likes it, right on – I knew I was right to pursue it.  Whoever finds it and hates it, right on – I knew it was a bad idea even as I pursued it.  I can’t pretend to be genuine or be trolling when I legitimately don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m just making things, because I can.

Maybe it’s okay to err on the side of creation.

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Other People’s Words: Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins)

From A Matter of Scale, today’s Penny Arcade newspost by Tycho Brahe (Jerry Holkins):

You have to get back on the horse.  Somehow, and I don’t know how this kind of thing starts, we have started to lionize horseback-not-getting-on:  these casual, a priori assertions of inevitable failure, which is nothing more than a gauze draped over your own pulsing terror.  Every creative act is open war against The Way It Is.  What you are saying when you make something is that the universe is not sufficient, and what it really needs is more you.  And it does, actually; it does.  Go look outside.  You can’t tell me that we are done making the world.  

Say whatever you want about Penny Arcade, but this man writes truths.  This cuts to the heart of why it’s hard to go through with something, or even to begin.  It’s the temerity of telling the Universe that you have looked upon it and found it wanting.  Of deciding that the fault is not in YOU for wanting something the Universe As-Is cannot provide.  And then, most audacious of all, asserting not only that this should be made, but that YOU should be the one to make it.

At each step, it’s more logical, more reasonable, less vain, to shut up and think you’re in the wrong.

“It’s probably a stupid idea.”

“If it was a GOOD idea, it would have been done by now.”

“Maybe it’s already been done, and I just can’t find it.”

“It’s not like anyone else would want this, anyway.”

“Maybe it’s an okay idea, but it’s not like I could actually pull it off properly.”

And you can think all these ideas at the same time.  The cognitive dissonance is barely noticed: on some level, you realize it’s all saying the same thing.  In different phrases, with different gauzy veils of “reason,” they’re all just saying NO.

Even if you’ve tried anything before, you can so easily use all your prior failures against yourself – any and every other thing that never got off the ground, never got finished, was finished but never got the recognition you hoped for.

This is even before the stumbling blocks of What Other People Would Want, or What Other People Would Think Of Me, and What If Screw Up.  This phase seems like a confrontation between You The Creator and the Concept, or You The Creator and the Universe.  But it’s only a confrontation between You The Creator and yourself.   Trying to justify – or argue against – inflicting your will on the world.

But each idea is its own.  Each day, each hour that goes by, you have learned something, gained something.  Your perspective is slightly different.  Whatever the success or failure of anything else you’ve ever tried, you were a slightly different You then.  You’re a slightly different You now.  Maybe that doesn’t mean you’re better overall, or good in general, or worthy to even have the ideas you’re having.

But you have the ideas anyway.  Your brain is the one with the set of associations, the attitudes, the experiences, that would allow this particular idea to be sparked when a few seemingly-disparate chunks of brainmeat all light up at once.  And this might seem to be proof that you shouldn’t go through with the idea, because who else could understand?  Who else could grasp the idea?

Maybe this is the trick.  It takes a certain kind of mind to generate the idea from nothing.  Or, if you prefer to think of inspiration as coming from Somewhere Else — and, logical as I may try to be, damned if it doesn’t sometimes seem more logical — it takes a certain kind of mind to catch and hold that idea, a certain weaving-pattern of thoughts and emotions and experiences and attitudes and associations that can sift that thought from some collective-unconscious ether, that can catch it and hold it long enough to act upon it.   But while other people might never have that idea on their own, that’s not to say they wouldn’t get it when presented with it, once fleshed out.  They might not have the idea — but they could get it, as soon as you show them.

Others never do understand, of course.  And others get it, but have more refined experience and knowledge, and will tell you all the ways in which you’ve done a disservice to the idea and to the Universe in general.  But you can learn from that and apply different techniques in the future, or choose to let certain ideas slide because they’re unworthy.

Or you can just keep doing as you do, as best you can, because you can.

Which seems like the very height of selfishness.  But it’s almost all or nothing:  if you don’t try, then what are you? What are you for? I know what it feels like to think of myself as The Thing With The Ideas In It.  That nothing else really matters about me except for my ability to have ideas, analyze them, express them, and relate them to each other.  To love my ideas but loathe myself, and to doubt that I could adequately perform what seems to be my only natural function.  And I know it’s way too heavy to think things like “Who am I, really, if I do or don’t do this? What kind of person should do this, and am I that kind of person?”   Whether or not you have an accurate self-perception, these thoughts only bring on doubt and guilt and fear.

But maybe it’s easier to address the negative:  “Am I doing this, or not doing this, because I’m trying to be somebody else?”    Whatever you think you are, whoever you think you are, whatever you might want to be, whatever you might think you deserve, you still probably have some sense of self, and some awareness of whether or not what you’re pursuing is You or not.  Listen to it. Maybe you’re only doing the idea, yourself, and the Universe a disservice if you’re trying to stomp yourself down, or view yourself and your accomplishments through somebody else’s filters.

And yes, it’s terrifying.  Yes, it opens yourself up more than you may be ready for.  Yes, it’s possible that you won’t be able to handle it. It’s easier to assume you’re going to fail, and it sometimes seems more logical, too.  But if you’re going to insist to yourself that you will inevitably fail, maybe it’s better to think that you’ll fail at your success.  That you’ll make something awesome and fail to market it well, or you’ll make something awesome and say something stupid about it, or you’ll make something awesome and be unable to communicate the meaning clearly, or you’ll make something awesome and otherwise embarrass yourself and objectively prove yourself unworthy forever.

But maybe that’s still better than not making anything at all. Because, regardless of what you may think of yourself, maybe the Universe needs more You.

Maybe it even needs more me.

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