process

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

Letting Your Work Speak for Itself

“Here’s a new song. I haven’t practiced it much and I don’t think it’s that great, but whatever. And I’m not even sure it’s finished; I still have to put in another verse. Also, I’m sick and bad at whistling, and I’ve never whistled in front of anyone before but this song has a whistle solo. Jeez, it’s hot in here. Sorry for talking so much. Okay, here we go.”

If you have been to any open mic or shows with first time performers, chances are you’ve heard some version of this infamous speech. This can also be seen in creative workshops for art or writing, where an artist or author wants to explain their intention and the point of their work before a single eye has been laid upon it. It’s understandable. I think we’ve all been there with something in life. I’ve been sharing music and writings with people for 10+ years and I still find myself in this state of mind from time to time.

We understand, dear artist, that you are nervous. We understand that you are comparing yourself to your peers and heroes and find yourself coming up woefully short. As artists, we want to share our work with others, but we can’t neglect our own relationship with our art and the steps we’ve taken to get to where we are as students of the craft. Today, we will look at the collective creative journey we take as artists in hopes to understand that our progress is our own (even when we share it with others). This way, we might find ways to be content with letting our art speak for itself.

There are experiences as a creative person that most everyone shares or relates to. We all have to start somewhere. Some people start earlier in life than others, some later. Some people have natural talent, others have to grind to keep up their chops. There are so many methods and processes for encountering, developing, and mastering craft, and each one of us will have a unique progression and context for these encounters.

The frustration that often comes from beginner or intermediate artists (or any artist striving to find some sort of commercial or colloquial success) is when we begin to compare ourselves with people on a level of skill or notoriety we’re not, expecting to meet or surpass that level and despairing when we haven’t crossed the threshold. The real problem is, if you are dedicated to your craft but are still so absorbed into this comparative/competitive mindset, you will find that threshold will never be crossed, but rather always one step ahead of your current position. It’s like when you realize CHVRCHES has only been a band for a little over 5 years and they’re a global sensation, while you’ve been playing just as long or longer and still can’t get your mixes to sound just right (*psst, Fallon, you’re projecting*). Or perhaps when those teenage Instagram/Twitter artists show off their sketches and you feel your 4th revision on a piece doesn’t exhibit half the technical skill or isn’t capable of getting a tenth of the credit.

Well, we’ve recognized how toxic we can be toward ourselves by seeing our inspirations run circles around us. This is the first step! If we can’t recognize these thought processes for what they are, we’ll be chained to them indefinitely, the elusive threshold of success forever just out of reach.

Remember all that stuff about unique personal progress? Well here’s where we analyze our own creative journey and realize that if we don’t own each triumph and each mistake, we can’t benefit from how they can help us move forward. If you think you need more practice, then practice! If you need instruction, there’s infinite resources on the Internet for cheap or free (I recommend searching around on YouTube or checking out a paid program like Udemy). If you need feedback, get a hold of a trusted peer (and if you don’t have one of those, shoot me an email or something; everyone should have someone).

And remember: it’s a wonderful and necessary thing to take influence from others. We can learn from their mistakes and analyze their triumphs to fill in some of the gaps we find in our own ability. If you find it is still too challenging to be critical of these things, perhaps it’s best to cut off the avenues for jealousy until you can establish that self-confidence. Social media is the first to go in a lot of instances!

For everything else, be glad for the success of others and thankful for your own journey, whose destinations and methods are not bound by the ones others have taken. Being confident in your work means letting your work exist for what it is, not what it could/should be. The nervous person at the writing workshop doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand what they’re trying to express in their stories, but the hard truth is that a well-written story can speak for itself (make sure the right audience is listening). Even poorly written stories have something to say, though it may not be a clear line of communication from author to reader. Even still, seize those misunderstandings, dig deep into what doesn’t work as much as what does, then take those elements and write another draft. When you compare the two you’ll see firsthand how far you’ve come.

It’s hard, often thankless work, I know. With so much incredible art that’s so easily accessible thanks to the Internet, artists are often fixated on things like hype posts and web analytics to secure personal affirmation in their work. Then when it comes time to put nose to grindstone, we become overwhelmed when the work we have to put in is harder and takes longer than we expected, that the outcome may not meet our ideal, and that the finished product it must sit in the company of so many who’ve established themselves. Don’t forget: they ALL have pushed through their own journey to get where they are. Find your focus and own your process.

There’s no formula to success in the arts, just ask Hans Zimmer. You are just as capable as anyone, and support for growing artists is plentiful. If you don’t feel that way, remember that if nothing else, your friends at Chroma have your back. Take a chance, drop your fear of failure, and write those drafts, record those demos, draw those sketches. This is how it all begins.

Taking Back Your Craft

“How did I come to dread the thing I once loved?”

No matter your motive for creative activity, it is a valuable aspect to your life. And yet, there are times when creating can be difficult or stressful. For many this can look like writer’s block, coming up short for a deadline, getting sick of a project, being dissatisfied with a final product, etc. My soapbox for today isn’t aiming to serve as cure-all advice for complex and situational dilemma, but to instead shift focus toward creating a healthy long-term attitudes toward creating, which may, in turn, free you up a bit from those times of frustration.

As children (before the era of tablets and Fortnite), we are often encouraged to draw or color when we get bored. The implication here is not necessarily to build a skill, but to have fun. When we get older and more practiced, we often trade enjoyment for other goals, citing this as the matured or more fulfilling progression of creative activity. Here’s my question:


both

It may be argued that the point of creating with productive intentions in mind makes our innate need for productivity also fun, but I think it’s an entirely separate goal that requires our attention and practice to accomplish.

The most effective way of injecting fun back into creativity is by making it a habit of enjoyment. If the only time you pick up a guitar or a paintbrush is to “do work” you’ll only be reinforcing the idea that your efforts are just work. This kind of mentality makes routine practice grueling and result-oriented, and more often than not, results fluctuate throughout long-term practice and mastery. Try incorporating subject matter you’re excited about into your practice (e.g. a cover song, fan art, a short story about your favorite mythology). It may even help to replace your time reserved for entertainment (don’t worry, social media will be there for you before you go to bed) and treat your practice time as if it were the thing to relax your mind. If you find it takes too much effort in your practice to replace that passive sort of entertainment, remember that as you change your habits it may take time to let your practice be something natural to you.

It’s also important that you specifically try, at first, to keep your relaxing/fun practice time separate from any practice which you’d typically consider “work.” Work will still be there for you when you come back to it (“We’re eating dinner, can we not talk about work?”). You’ve cleared out this time to not work, serving the end goal of having refreshing “play” interactions as opposed to that which is prone to burnout.

Let’s address the subject of productivity, which up to this point we’ve somewhat tried to forsake. Perhaps you’re not satisfied, particularly if you, like myself, are still seeking the union of work and play (or, more specifically, integrating as much productivity as you can into your every free moment). The benefits of dedicated time toward play is not only going to improve your relationship with creativity, but because it is something you intentionally engage with, you can be certain its contents will stick with you. Our very own Chroma blogger Patrick Quigley suggested the idea of a band who records their jam sessions returning to those sessions and picking out the moments that really shine amid the carefree experimentation. You can also look to most any inspiration found in a given work, like how Pendleton Ward integrated his experience with Dungeons & Dragons into the writing process of Adventure Time. Visual artists use their experience of drawing particular references repeatedly so that they can replicate that similar shape or subject in a new context. In this way, you hopefully might justify play to yourself as a vital part of your productivity spectrum.

Be patient with yourself. It takes time to build habits, and even longer to establish comfortability within your medium. If you’re already in a strong place regarding this subject, remember a balanced creative life is not a given to everyone. We all have our own reasons for creating, and with that comes a unique journey and creative process. If these ideas relieve or challenge you in some way, take them and start in on your new routine of play. Now, if you can!

Know Your Audience

Last week, Dave said something very poignant that settles the anxiety of seeking validation for one’s creative works. “Look, there's nothing wrong with making things and wanting people to like them. That's human nature. But that should never EVER be the primary reason you make something.

What subsequently sprang up in my mind is a two-part question: why and when does intended audience matter? For the purpose of today’s exploration, let’s presume the place we create from is healthy and self-confident, meaning we’d create even if it weren’t feasible to share or profit from it beyond satisfying the urge that we simply must create.

Goals. The #1 aspiration people peg for artists is to make a living doing it. While that may be true for plenty of hard-working creatives, it may not always be the case, and hardly ever is it the entire picture. What’s important is to define these goals for yourself before deciding the best way to share with others.

Do you want to make money doing it? Don’t worry about how right this second, just answer yes or no! Do you have an action-oriented purpose behind your work, like social justice or spiritual contemplation? Do you want to have fun? Do you plan to devote a half-hour every day to practice? Is this all just an excuse to meet people and make friends?

The list could go on forever, which is both overwhelming and exciting. As the artist, you get to determine these goals for yourself, which also means analyzing your capabilities and limitations. It is important to be realistic, but that shouldn’t mean forsaking your values if you can help it. Be patient with yourself and your collaborators so you can all grow and do your best!

Alright, so you’ve considered what you wish to accomplish. If none of those things involve sharing your creations with others, consider continuing along with the article so that you can assist others you know who value sharing their work.

It is typically expected of artists to share their work with as many people as possible (i.e. being “paid” in “exposure”, getting a label deal, playing festivals, etc.). Let’s consider the possibility that this may not be the most effective approach in accomplishing your goals, especially if you are not financially driven. There’s nothing wrong with increasing the accessibility of art, but let’s consider what it looks like when attention is sought in the wrong places.

Imagine showing a painting to everyone in your downtown area by carrying it around and sticking it in their face (a price tag, conveniently marked on the corner of the frame). While yes, you would be showing it to the greatest number of people you could in a short moment, they are probably going to be annoyed and without space to properly appreciate what you’re sharing. (There are lucky people who could probably get this to work for them, in which case I say more power to ya.)

The people you share your work with are going to have goals regarding what they engage with, including how they engage with it. Having a fundamental of respect for patron (viewers, listeners, attendees, etc.) needs and desires the only avenue to start a mutual creative discourse. Once you figure out the demographic you are creating for, that’s when you search for mediums and compromises to connect with them in. The hopeless, disgruntled kids in a basement want to hear from a voice who genuinely understands them; the critic wants to be shocked by the skill and creativity in a composition; grandma is happy hearing you tap out “Moonlight Sonata” note-by-note.

Whether you are a beginner or a lifetime creative, there is always room to grow in our consideration of others while also esteeming our personal values. We aren’t capable of perfect empathy, which is what makes art and interactions so interesting. So often are we challenged by the fresh perspective of people who share our biases in part. We will never have all the bases covered, and it is because of this we must be deliberate in conveying our passions. Be true to yourself and give people a chance to clearly see who that is.

A Thought on Process

What is the point of all of this?

That's a question I find myself asking a lot these days. Not just in this space, but in a lot of the areas I'm finding myself, lately. And the truth of it is, in the moment, sometimes I don't have an answer. Sometimes I just feel lost. In some cases, really lost.

I recently took a trip to a film festival that is known for being one of the top in the country- constantly on shortlists. I'd never been to a film festival like that before. One of the only touchstones I had were the images in my mind of that episode of Entourage where the boys go to Sundance (that should have been my first red flag, let me tell you). I was there because I had the opportunity to score a short film that was being shown at this festival. So I flew out with delusions of grandeur. I had scored a film! I was very proud of my work. And it was being shown around the country at film festivals! I got so wrapped up in the presumed glamour of it all that I forgot that film is just like any other art medium: it's hard!

To make a long story short, the showing was plagued with technical difficulties, and the already small audience didn't feel like sticking around for the crew to get them sorted, so we (the director, producer, and I) ended up showing the film in a less than stellar setting, and then doing a Q&A for four people. This was not what I had imagined.

But it was also not altogether unfamiliar territory for me. Not at all. I constantly play music in less-than-ideal venues for small numbers of people. That doesn't bother me anymore. So why did this?

I think in the moment I really just wanted the validation that the thing we had been working on was good, and would be liked by people. First mistake. I think I also wanted to have my ego padded a little bit. Second mistake.

Look, there's nothing wrong with making things and wanting people to like them. That's human nature. But that should never EVER be the primary reason you make something. Which, in the age of feeding off of the dopamine releases we get from social media likes and retweets and hearts and shares and virality and whatever else... It's hard. It's hard to readjust your mind to the idea of creating just to create. Making something because you HAVE to. Because it's inescapable. Because there's something inside of you that needs to come out.

After the showing we all talked together about the experience for a long time. And frankly, as much as I was talking with my friends and partners in the creation of this film, I was reassuring myself. I had to remind myself that the thing that I loved I had already done. We had already made the film. And it was good. We were proud of it. We had so much fun making it, and it was a huge learning process for all of us. We came out better for having made it. All of this other stuff- the festivals and the PR and marketing and all that stuff- that was fine, but it was not the point. I had to remind myself that if I was not enjoying the process while I was making something- if I was making something just to reap the likes or downloads or whatever after it was done, then it was a wasted effort because none of that stuff is guaranteed. The only thing that is guaranteed is what we're doing right now. The process. And if you lose sight of that, you're bound to be let down later.


-Dave