For years, I dodged, or tried to dodge these questions. “Eh, you just have to work!” “Show up!” While in the back of my mind, I’d be thinking, welcome to the club, friendo, or worse, Get over it!
Part of the trouble is that I’m not a particularly feeling person. I write to know what I think, and I make art to actually know what I feel.
I’ve been thinking lately about how many of the feelings and emotions creative people are trying to deal with are just symptoms that they’re, well, human.
In other words: I’d be more worried about you if you weren’t feeling some of these emotions.
Feelings and emotions are a form of information.
The question is what you do with information.
What’s handy, as an artist, is you can find a way to channel these feelings into the making of the work.
Fear, for example, is often just the imagination getting out of control: you can imagine every single thing that can go wrong. But on the flip side, if you can imagine the worst, you can train yourself to imagine the best.
Imposter syndrome is a sign of extreme humility: we know we’re really not that good, especially to the people we look up to and idolize! (“Some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”) But if you turn it the right way, extreme humility is good: it means you can learn to play the fool and learn what you need to know to get to the next thing.
And jealousy, even, though it can eat you up if you let it, can be also tell you what you really want.
People often ask me how I got the courage to put my work into the world.
I’m not sure I have any courage, but I do have rage.
My secret is: the books are positive because I take a negative approach: First, I see something I feel negatively about, something that aggravates me, something that pisses me off, something that infuriates me, and then I spend some time trying to articulate an alternative vision. (I’m angry, but I’m curious.)
This negative process seems to be infinitely repeatable for someone like me.
Whenever you are out of ideas, there’s someone, somewhere, with bad ideas that need to be corrected. But you don’t necessarily have to talk about the bad ideas, or take them on directly, you can just articulate the good ideas that cancel them out. (See: Identifying poison vs. seeking nourishment.)
A lot of people I know right now are angry or furious or enraged. And rightly so!
“Fatigue and outrage are appropriate emotions,” Sarah Smarsh wrote in a recent op-ed, “What to Do With Our Covid Rage. “But those feelings, if not properly channeled, can themselves take a heavy toll. What do we do with our anger?”
Anger is a contagious energy that jumps quickly from one person to the next. It will seize your mind and body as its host. If allowed to explode, it will hurt others. If allowed to implode, it will hurt you. I had to learn early how to transmute it for the sake of my own survival. I found that it can be the source of a powerful alchemy. If we are up to the task, it could help us create something good together…
I’ll give the last word to The Clash: “Let fury have the hour / anger can be power / did you know that you can use it?”
From John Updike’s Self-Consciousness: Memoirs:
Celebrity, even the modest sort that comes to writers, is an unhelpful exercise in self-consciousness. Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being ‘somebody,’ to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over animation. One can either see or be seen. Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer became conscious of himself as a writer. The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry; the ‘successful’ writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat. Self-importance is a thickened, occluding form of self-consciousness. The binge, the fling, the trip — all attempt to shake the film and get back under the dining room table, with a child’s beautifully clear eyes.
In Alan Jacobs’ latest newsletter, he tells a story of literally stumbling into the Pantheon and San Lorenzo in Lucina while wandering around Rome. (It’s so delicious to think about actually being able to flaneur and wander around a foreign city again one day.) Alan points out how different it felt to happen upon them by chance vs. actively seeking them out.
“Surprise is the great enabler of seeing,” Alan writes.
He points to a passage in Walker Percy’s essay, “The Loss of the Creature” (collected in The Message in the Bottle) in which Percy explores how education and classification systems blind us, essentially, to the reality of things we’re trying to see. For example, a man taking a trip to see the Grand Canyon:
Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is — as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on. The thing is no longer the thing…. it is rather that which has already been formulated—by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon.
In another newsletter that hit my inbox this morning, Oliver Burkeman posted an excerpt from his forthcoming Four Thousand Weeks, about his problem of trying to “live in the moment” while trying to take in the Northern Lights.
The more Burkeman tried to take them in and be in the moment, the more he failed. In fact, he got so far away from being in the moment by trying to be in the moment that he had a thought that still makes him squirm: “Oh, I found myself thinking, they look like one of those screensavers.”
The attempt to “be here now” feels not so much relaxing as rather strenuous – and it turns out that trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail. […] To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from “the moment,” and thus in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.
Part of the problem is that the brain only really registers what it doesn’t expect to see.
When we think of seeing, we imagine the eyes sending a bunch of data to the brain and then the brain interpreting all that data.
“It turns out, however, that the brain does not work like this at all,” Carlo Rovelli writes in Helgoland. “It functions, in fact, in an opposite way. Many, if not most, of the signals do not travel from the eyes to the brain; they go the other way, from the brain to the eyes.”
What happens is that the brain expects to see something, on the basis of what it knows and has previously occurred. The brain elaborates an image of what it predicts the eyes should see. This information is conveyed from the brain to the eyes, through intermediate states. If a discrepancy is revealed between what the brain expects and the light arriving into the eyes, only then do the neural circuits send signals toward the brain. So images from around us do not travel from the eyes to the brain—only news of discrepancies regarding what the brain expects do.
This, Rovelli points out, is actually a very efficient way of functioning: no need to worry the brain with what it already knows is there.
The implications for the relationship between what we see and the world, however, are remarkable. When we look around ourselves, we are not truly “observing”: we are instead dreaming of an image of the world based on what we know (including bias and misconception) and unconsciously scrutinizing the world to reveal any discrepancies, which, if necessary, we will try to correct.
Surprising the brain, however, is almost impossible to plan or strategize! You can’t really will surprise, you can only put yourself in situations where you have a better chance of being surprised.
It’s easy to surprise your brain by looking around a foreign country, but much harder to do in your everyday environment. (In Rob Walker’s excellent The Art of Noticing, he suggests trying to be a tourist in your own town, and to “Spot Something New Every Day.”)
An artist makes the ordinary extraordinary, but if we only really register what we aren’t expecting to see, a great part of the artist’s job is to try to estrange his mind from the ordinary things he’s trying to see.
But seeing with fresh eyes is never a simple task.
I suppose all one can really do is keep your eyes peeled.
The physicist Carlo Rovelli has a beautiful way of talking about science in terms of ignorance and curiosity.
In Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, he writes:
I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and to learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking—thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change.
He wrote almost the same thing almost two decades earlier, in his book The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy:
Science, I believe is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in the certainties it reaches but in a radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance. This awareness allows us to keep questioning our own knowledge, and, thus, to continue learning. Therefore the scientific quest for knowledge is not nourished by certainty, it is nourished by a radical lack of certainty. Its way is fluid, capable of continuous evolution, and has immense strength and a subtle magic. It is able to overthrow the order of things and reconceive the world time and again.
I think he could also be talking about art.
Filed under: not knowing
I drew my friend Rob Walker on Zoom today making the case for curiosity. Do check out his book, The Art of Noticing, and his excellent, excellent newsletter. (I drew in pencil in my notebook, so I had to perform a few photoshop shenanigans to make them legible.)
My favorite part of the talk was Rob’s idea that curiosity is not a luxury or a bonus or an add-on to life — it’s vital tool that makes our life and work richer.
Like creativity, curiosity might be better thought of as a verb, not a noun — not something that some people possess and some people don’t, but something everyone can do and get better at.
Here are some printing experiments with a leftover red onion and blue ink stamp, a la Bruno Munari’s Roses in the Salad.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) August 2, 2021
I’m also a big fan of using peppers. (Or whatever leftover vegetables happen to be on the cutting board and the mood strikes.)
I’ve started incorporating some of these prints into my collages:
Ryan’s poems will often start by thinking about clichés:
Her poems, she says, don’t begin with a simple image or sound, but instead start “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” An old saw may nudge her repeatedly, such as “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“I think, ‘What about those chickens?’” she says, “and I start an investigation of what that means. Poets rehabilitate clichés.”
Some do, perhaps, but many wouldn’t dare to enter such familiar territory. Ryan, however, adds depth and so many surprises that the silliest clichés become fertile ground.
She expanded on this rehabilitation of clichés in her interview with the Paris Review:
I often find myself thinking in clichés. I’ll urge myself on with various bromides and chasten myself with others. When I want to write they’re one way to start thinking because they’re so metaphorically rich. For instance, take the word limelight, or being in the limelight—not really a cliché but a cherished idiom. Before electric light, they heated lime, or calcium oxide, to create incandescence for stage lights. In my poem, “Lime Light,” the limelight comes from a bowl of limes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not nothing, not just a joke. It’s thinking about how limelight doesn’t work very well. You can’t do anything by limelight.
After I copied out “Lime Light,” I found this clipping of George Clinton talking about recording Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain:
Crimson pepper pod
add two pairs of wings, and look
—Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)
Today I saw the dragonfly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;
Thro’ crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew.
Dyed he is with the
Colour of autumnal days,
O red dragonfly
—Hori Bakusui (1718–1783)
I’d never given dragonflies much thought or attention. They are remarkable to watch. Powerful. They can fly in six directions. “A continuous turning and returning,” wrote H.E. Bates in Down the River, “an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight.”
Like all living things, predator or not, dragonflies are vulnerable. Just a few days ago, I found a dead dragonfly floating in the pool. I fished it out with our net, and laid it on a piece of notebook paper to dry. I decided to memorialize it with a few sun prints, which I later made into the collages you see at the top and bottom of the post.
I wondered what happened to the dragonfly, if it got disoriented or flew too close to the water, or died in the air of some other cause in the air and fell.
I’ve since found out that if you see a dragonfly drowning, you can rescue it and hold it in your hand until it gets its wings dry.
“They do not bite or sting people… They are nothing but good and fair, a sufficient reason for summer to exist.”
When its wings are dry, it will fly off.
* * *
“We have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” When I was reading about how gymnast Simone Biles’ walked away from her Olympic event in order to protect her mental health, I became intrigued with something gymnasts call “The Twisties.”
Here is how Emily Giambalvo described the phenomenon in The Washington Post:
The cute-sounding term, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through, as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
The first two paragraphs from that article were so poetic, I broke them into verse in my notebook:
Suddenly, you lose your basic skills. The familiar becomes strange. Your routines collapse. Muscle memory is lost. Everything is upside down.
Obviously, the dragonfly didn’t have the twisties or the yips.
But I might.
Maybe we all do.
When everything is upside down, it can be very dangerous to continue as usual.
One must take care.
Take care, y’all.
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