Emily Dickinson

Savoring Secrecy

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Consider today’s topic, embracing the personal nature of art, as an extension of my last post, Immersion in the Micro.

What happens to the secondhand exercise equipment that's never sold off at thrift stores? There's a tragic narrative in there: an optimistic person who's financially well-off enough to decide they need to focus on their health; they buy exercise equipment, maybe give it a few tries, but distractions come by or their initial enthusiasm waned. Thus, the equipment is placed in storage for years before being relinquished to a donation center where our once-lauded tool to fight lethargy and poor health sits defeated and unwanted until it is deemed a nuisance even at an extreme discount. It is eventually turned over to humanity's mass grave of good intentions: a landfill.

Take this as analogous to artistic ideas and I think we have a dead-on fit for those ambitions which are devoid of any spine for the creative process itself. We might get an incessant itch for a concept album, an experimental piece, or the fated "something no one's ever done before," and in a flash, we are dreaming up crowds of onlookers and reviews of high-esteem. It's only natural to get excited about these sorts of things, since as independent artists we often feel stuck on the side of the onlooker and not the awe-inspiring creators we admire. Ideas are a dime-a-dozen, and equally prone to being abandoned, forgotten, or short-lived.

How do we salvage our aspirations? Many ideas and desires arise within us without any attempt to foster them, sometimes to the point that we can feel burdened with having our dreams unfulfilled, or perhaps we feel guilty for being too lazy to bottle those lightning strikes. But like I said before, I think reaching for accomplishment in and of itself is where the trouble lies.

Look to the life of Emily Dickinson, who has forever shaped modern poetry not through a business-savvy spirit, but through dedication to her craft. Her work almost entirely composed in private, being shared only to a select few whom she trusted. Dickinson only ever published a couple poems and openly resented the process of piece submissions. She rejected conventional wisdom to seek mass approval and committed herself to writing the words she believed in.

Let us also take a look at Vincent Van Gogh's artistic journey in brief. A failed art dealer turned failed missionary who was afflicted heavily with mental and physical illness, Van Gogh was also an immensely prolific artist, producing over 2,000 pieces of art, only a few of which were received by the artistic community during his life. Like Dickinson, his work was posthumously discovered, and only then was it properly understood for the value it brought to humanity and the world of art.

Van Gogh died in sickness and poverty, and suffered a great deal more consequence for not selling his art when compared to Dickinson (who lived a quiet, secluded life through her family's wealth). For our purposes though, we can look to these artists and see that their great works and influence came not from chasing praise from the world or even from their somewhat extreme life circumstances, but from sincerity and dedication to their work.

I talk a lot about the creative process because I want people to focus on the actual act of creating; publicity, patron engagement, even performance comes later (with some exceptions regarding improvised art or performance art). Sometimes jokes do become successful artistic expression and sometimes entrepreneurial genius is a matter of capitalizing on a bolt from the blue, but we can't make that our foundation if we want our art to yield any depth of expression or substantial creative contribution to the lives of others.

You don't have to throw away your unsubstantiated ideas (I even suggest making a list to keep track of them), but be mindful of your attitude regarding them. When you actually try seeing one of your ideas through once in a while, relieve yourself the pressure of success/failure; see where it goes and enjoy it!

Immersion in the Micro

We have a short video to start off today’s class.

This goofy scene from the dark comedy Frank had me laughing to the point of tears the first time I saw it, but, oddly enough, I was also moved by it. There’s something genuine about the creative process tucked away in this parody of the clichéd “band makes an album at an isolated cabin in the woods” scenario. Throughout the film, you see the titular Frank character write narratives for the most minute, overlooked objects and instances within our world. That one liner about the door? There’s a music video for what came out of it (a deleted scene from the film, so minimal spoilers). If you listen intently, I think you’ll see how that inspiration comes through.

Creatives and patrons of art have a lot to gain from focusing on the intricate details of an art piece. I’ve written about being an intentional listener quite a bit here on the blog, but this type of observation is less focused on the intellectual close-reading of art (seeking depth and meaning) and more so on the intuitive, sensual, contemplative appreciation of minutiae in the world. We are often driven to the macro (completing a long hike, striking the big deal, harvesting food from the garden) and as a result, we gloss over the micro (the glimmering water droplets on a spider’s web, learning something new about a co-worker’s childhood, the delicate resilience of freshly sprouted shoots).


I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there ’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

They ’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

-Emily Dickinson, 260

The legendary poet Emily Dickinson embodies this dedication to micro over macro. If she sang songs, we would never know; of her paradigm-shifting catalog, only a handful of poems were ever explicitly intended to be shared with anyone other than one or two other people. She observed and explored the birds, bugs, flowers, death, and intimacy that she encountered. Poetry was the wondrous byproduct, not the intention.

In this age where so many humans are thrown into the digital public platforms of social media, the pressure to produce an enthralling image, profound idea, or captivating experience has never been greater. As we seek more and more to proselytize the mundane, we often overlook the truly profound nature of its being. Don’t rush into beauty; meet it with patience and curiosity. Instead of rushing to learn a song you can play at an open mic tomorrow, take your time over the week to feel out the heart of the song, its accents and tonal nuances, and come back the following week with a piece you’re deeply connected to and a journey of creative exploration worth sharing. 

I think Sun Baron says it best:

A meadow 

What are you talking about? 

I’ve got solace tonight 

And it was so hard to find 

All you do is talk and talk and talk all the time 

No it doesn’t seem right 

What are you doing here? 

Get it all off your chest 

Give your soul some rest 

Just learn to sit still 

And just root like the trees 

With the moss and the leaves 

You are golden now

-Fallon