Hang on to your Dream

Sunday, 28. February 2021 21:08 | Author:

We all start out with dreams. Some are grand; others more humble. But we all have them. We want to accomplish; we want to become famous; we want to live a certain lifestyle; we want to do this or that with our lives; we want to discover things; we want to be recognized; we want to publish. Then, as we go through life our dreams change due to circumstances or choices that we make. Sometimes they are worn away completely. Some people call that “growing up.” Others say it’s “just being practical.” Still others say it’s “coming to terms with reality.”

Whatever we call it, it’s not a good place to be. We, as humans need something to look forward to, to aim for. The “First Lady of American Cinema,” Lillian Gish has said that “a happy life is one spent in learning, earning, and yearning.”  We need that yearning for the dream, the goal, in order to keep going. Consider the writers who have received rejection after rejection, only to have those books finally published and become best-sellers.

And our dream really doesn’t have to be “practical.” How practical is it to endure over a hundred rejections of a book and still keep trying? It probably isn’t, but a number of authors have done that. Dreams may not even have to be realistic. But they do need to be. We are pretty well lost without something to aim for, something to hope for. The absence of dreams causes some people to become depressed and despondent, and often they don’t realize that having voluntarily or involuntarily given up their dreams is the cause.

But what if you do realize that that has happened, that your dreams have disappeared. If they have disappeared because you have achieved them, rejoice! If there is some other reason they are no longer guiding you forward, you might want to discover what happened. In either case, you will probably want to think about what else you might want. Even though you might have achieved your initial dream, you may find that life without something to strive for is a bit empty. And it doesn’t have to be something grandiose. It could be something quite simple. What is important is that it is something that you do not have and would like to. On the other hand, dreaming big should not be frowned upon; grand dreams can lead to grand accomplishments.

And what if it’s impractical or unrealistic? So what? It certainly doesn’t’ need to be either of those things to be functional in the sense of giving you direction and meaning and stimulating your creativity. No matter how far out of reach a dream seems to be, it can be motivating and inspiring. And that’s what most of us need to keep going—something to aim for.

So if you’ve lost your dream, look around for something that you might turn into a new one. If you still have your dream, hang on to it!

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Take a Moment

Monday, 15. February 2021 0:04 | Author:

Yesterday, I was half-finished with my blog post, which was about the artful response to the once-in-generation winter weather event that we are about to experience, when I stopped. I had suddenly realized that I had no idea about the circumstances of my readers. While I know that most of the readers of this blog are interested in the arts and creativity, I have no idea what their lives are like, and I had made the mistake of assuming that they were much like mine. So I took a moment to think about it.

A number of creative people are, and have been out of work for almost a year. This likely means that they have had to change their lifestyles, including their living arrangements. They may have had to take other types of jobs to make ends meet. Or they may be trying to survive without making ends meet. Others have seen markets dry up and have had to turn to different venues to sell their work, with differing levels of success. Certainly they are operating differently than they were a year ago.

And there is no reason to think that all who read the blog, or even a majority, are in the same life situation that I am in at the moment, so what I was writing not only might not have resonated, but may have been an affront to them—something I had no intention of doing when I sat down to begin the post.

I had been thinking about this severe weather event as providing a temporary respite from pandemic fatigue, which is plaguing many of us as we approach the first year anniversary of the pandemic. It did not occur to me that it might well do that—but in a negative way. And one of the things we do no need more of at the moment is anything negative.

What we do need is something positive. So if the once-in-a-generation winter weather event can bring us something positive, I am all for it. And it doesn’t have to be something big or life-changing. It could be something as small as a warm bowl of soup, a mug of hot chocolate, a moment when we can sit by the fire and read, a minute to stand by the window and watch the snow fall, or just a short time when we don’t have to think about the pandemic and all that that means.

One of the positive things that it has provided me is an occasion to take a moment to appreciate my own situation. For all the complaining I do, I have been very fortunate. Perhaps more importantly, it has provided me the opportunity to take a moment to say how much I appreciate those who take the time to visit this blog. And it allows me the forum to voice my hope that you are somewhere safe and warm and dry as the temperature drops and the freezing rain and snow begin to fall.

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If You Build It . . .

Sunday, 31. January 2021 23:35 | Author:

. . . they may or may not come. The fact is that art does not sell itself. No matter how good our art might be, no matter what our art is, there is no guarantee that it will be appreciated or purchased. There are, of course, artists who become famous after their deaths; Vincent van Gogh and Emily Dickenson jump to mind immediately. But what of those artists who may have been equally talented but were not “discovered” after their deaths? What of their art? It’s gone, lost to us—forever.

Many of us did not enter the world of art to become famous; rather, we got into art because we were compelled by something inside. Still, if we do good work, it would be nice to at least have our work acknowledged. But that is something that does not happen naturally. Oh, family and friends might appreciate out work, but most of us would like to have our work known in a bit wider world. “Oh, that’s just ego talking,” some might say. In some cases that might be true, but in others, it’s about the work, about sharing our work with the world.

There are many artists who would like to share their work with the world, but they don’t know how or don’t want to take the time away from the work to figure out what “sharing” really means to them. Does it simply mean getting the work out into the world? Or does it mean getting the work out into the world and being paid for it? This is not a new phenomenon; it took James Joyce literally years to get Ulysses published.

And it’s something that is not taught in most schools. We can take classes in writing, sculpture, painting, photography, dance, directing, or whatever art we might want to, but nowhere in the curriculum is there training in getting published, or collected, or known. That is left up to each individual artist. And it’s something every individual artist must deal with, even those who are reclusive or eschew sales and promotion.

“Well, there’s always the internet,” some would say, and yes that is a way to get our work out. We can snag a YouTube Channel or put our work onto any of the myriad of platforms offered by the internet. The problem is that we are then just one of the thousands of others vying for the attention of the public. For the writers (and maybe photographers and other visual artists) there is always blogging or self-publishing, and there have been successes in that area, but again, we find ourselves competing with hundreds of others.

So, we not only need to get our work out there, but we need to find a way to get people to look out that work. We have to connect with our potential audience. We need to promote—our work, our selves. And even if it takes time away from creating, it is absolutely necessary. And even though it does not represent who we are, it is absolutely necessary. And no matter how much we don’t want to do it, it is absolutely necessary—if we want an audience.

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New Project, New Beginning

Sunday, 17. January 2021 21:08 | Author:

Let’s face it, routine can be very comforting, and I have gone on record as being in favor of routines. Many artists praise routines, citing the regularity inherent in a routine as a way to ensure that the work gets done. And I am still of that mind; establishing a daily routine is a sure way to maintain artistic output.

But routine can be more than working at our art at certain times of day. It can also include an approach to the work that we do the same way every time. We develop a way of working and then apply it to all projects as they come along. For example, all of our writing projects might develop along the following pattern: idea, preliminary research, outline, more research, write from beginning to end, edit, proof, publish. And that may work for us—every time. However, it might make all of our writing more or less the same. Some would say that is a good thing, because it leads to stylistic consistency. And that may be true, but it seems to me that once a writer, or photographer or director or actor or composer or choreographer or painter or sculptor has found their voice, that style is going to come through regardless of the artist’s approach to various projects.

A worst case scenario is that by approaching each project the same way, we allow our creativity to take second place to convenience: we know how to do it this way so why consider any other approach? So routine can take us to places that are less than desirable.

How to avoid this problem? First recognize that every new project is just that: a new project which invites at least the consideration of a new methodology. Perhaps if the first step in beginning a new project was looking at the project to determine what approach would work best, we might find what really determined the methodology for each project was the project itself. This would allow us to break out of the “do it the same way” mold and bring the full force of our creativity to the project. The result might be better, more interesting projects.

And that’s one of the wonderful thing about projects: they are all at least a little different, and they all are self-contained, even when they might be related. So taking the time to evaluate the approach for each project might open us to possibilities we would never have imagined if we had stayed in our one-method-fits-all approach.

A couple of artists I know work this way. One is a photographer who says, “Every shoot is the same in that you have to have the equipment ready, but beyond that every shoot is different. The models are different and you’re looking for a different outcome, so you have to approach each shoot differently.” A writer says, “I look at each project differently. Sometimes I write from the beginning to the end; other times I write the core of the piece first, then fill in the rest. The material dictates the approach.”

It’s an approach we might consider adopting: since every project is unique, make the approach to that project unique as well. Every new project can be a new beginning—directed by our creativity.

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Make Your Work Known

Sunday, 3. January 2021 23:11 | Author:

Some artists are notoriously introverted and reclusive. Emily Dickenson, Vivian Maier, and J.D. Salinger immediately come to mind. These were artists who were concerned almost exclusively with creating rather than selling their work. A number of us follow in their footsteps, so many, in fact, that Austin Kleon felt compelled to write a book called Show Your Work, which he says is a “guide to getting discovered.”

The reasons for our reticence to get our work out there are many. Some of us are simply introverted. Many of us are insecure. A number of us don’t want to take the time or learn the skills required to sell our work. Some of us don’t want to take the time away from away from the process of making work to show our work. Another group of us has entered shows and contests, even won awards, developed web sites, and found that those activities did not materially enlarge our audience—at least in a way that we could see, so we pulled back. A few of us simply lack ambition. There are hundreds of other reasons, but these are the ones that seem to predominate.

So we do our work in isolation, subsisting solely on the rewards of creativity, eschewing discovery. Still, many of us harbor a small wish to be, if not famous, at least to be known to a group outside our family and friends. We would like for our work to be recognized.

And perhaps that’s the key; perhaps that’s a way to get past our own introversion and insecurity: to think of it as not promoting ourselves, but promoting the work. Perhaps if we focus on our work instead of ourselves it will be easier to find the time and the wherewithal to put it out into the world. After all, we know that work has value; we spent hours, days, weeks making, refining, and polishing it. What we don’t know is whether the work has value for other people. And the only way we are ever going to find that out is by putting it out into the world.

And yes, that will take some time, and some effort, but it may well be worth it. We may find that there exists a group of people who appreciate what is that we do, a group of people who are interested not only in what we do but how we do it. And once we find that group, we may be able to figure out how to grow it. And we may find that some in that group are interested in not just seeing but owning some of our work.

And although it will take that time and effort, our work will become known. And we can stay personally introverted if we like because it will be about the work and not about ourselves. Except now there is a larger audience for the work. The only questions that remain are when and where to start. When is easy: now. Where is a more difficult question, given that there is a myriad of venues. One place we might start is with one of those advice books, like Show Your Work. We just need to remember that what we read are suggestions, not rules. We can take what is comfortable and useful and leave the rest. After all, it’s our work that we are showing and we should do it our way.

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Effortless

Sunday, 20. December 2020 21:17 | Author:

In the 5th edition of American Cinema/American Culture John Belton says that American cinema is essentially a narrative machine that uses “high artifice” to produce work the style and structure of which are “largely invisible.” That invisible machinery delivers narratives “effortlessly and efficiently.” In other words, there is lots and lots of machinery working behind the curtain, but the curtain is never lifted.

Since American film has been remarkably successful from its beginnings to the present, both as popular entertainment and high art, there may be lessons to be learned here. The first is, of course, that to make art good requires high artifice. That is, there needs to be structure, and that structure will contain the expertise and the style of the artist and the time. This suggests that behind the novel there does need to be an outline, at least as a starting point; behind the painting and the photograph there needs to be principles of composition and color; really good music has to be backed by solid music theory. As artists we must know what we are doing and employ the very best practices we can bring to the computer, the easel, the drawing board, the photo session.

The second lesson is that that artifice that we employ should be invisible. The audience should never be aware of the structure of the play or novel, the principles of composition, the theory employed to develop the work of art. We should never allow the audience to be aware of the hours and hours of planning and practicing, of trial and error that went into mixing that particular shade of blue, getting that exact characterization right, finding exactly the right words for the third line of the poem, developing the ending for the essay, the short story, the novel.

Rather, the audience should see a work of art that looks completely effortless, a piece of work that stands alone and communicates its story or meditation or vision in a way that makes the audience completely unaware of the work that went into it. Michelangelo certainly did not want those looking at the Sistine Chapel thinking about him standing on a scaffold to do the painting. While Stephen King sometimes talks about writing, he certainly does not want you thinking about his working methods while reading his latest novel. Anne Brigman did not want her audience to wonder about the darkroom manipulations she used in order to produce the images she made. Martin Scorsese does want the audience to be thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and editing while they are watching his films. All these artists want us to be focused on the content they are presenting, not their methodology.

And this same attitude should be a goal for our own art. No matter how much time, work, and planning we put into the work, what we finally present to our audience should appear completely effortless. We might want to talk about the planning, time, and effort that went into a creation—during the marketing of that work, or perhaps when we are teaching or studying a work. But when showing our work, all of that needs to remain completely invisible to the normal audience member; we need to make it look effortless.

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Recut, Revise, Rearrange

Sunday, 6. December 2020 23:29 | Author:

In case you missed it, Francis Ford Coppola has recut The GodFather, Part III, renamed it Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, and, after a very limited theatrical run, will release it digitally this week. Coppola said of the revision, “For this version of the finale, I created a new beginning and ending, and rearranged some scenes, shots, and music cues. With these changes and the restored footage and sound, to me, it is a more appropriate conclusion to ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Godfather: Part II’ and I’m thankful to Jim Gianopulos and Paramount for allowing me to revisit it.” Diane Keaton, costar in all three original Godfather films said, “It was one of the best moments of my life to watch it. To me it was a dream come true. I saw the movie in a completely different light. When I saw it way back, it was like ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ It didn’t seem to do that well and the reviews weren’t great. But Francis restructured the beginning and the end and man, I’m telling you it worked.”

This is not the first time Coppola has recut his movies. He has also recut The Cotton Club and made multiple cuts of Apocalypse Now. It’s what happens when an art work is not quite what the artist wants it to be and has the opportunity to revisit their work. As Coppola said of his new cut of The Godfather, Part III, “It was like pulling on the thread of a sweater that annoyed you, and you end up re-knitting the whole sweater.” Coppola is not the only director to recut films; Sir Ridley Scott released five versions on Blade Runner, in addition to the two preview versions which were shown only in 1982.

And these are not the only artists who feel the need to revise. Many artists are dissatisfied with their work, but call it “finished” in order to meet a deadline or fulfill a contract or simply to move on to the next project. There are many reasons for this dissatisfaction, some of which are covered in a post from a few years ago, but there may be few opportunities to revise older work. Coppola seems to think that that has to do with how much clout one has and one’s age. That may well be. One thing that is certain is that as one’s perspective changes, one’s opinion of one’s work also changes.

And that often happens with time: sometimes that can be years; other times it may mean just a week or so.  Time allows the artist to “step away” from the work and look at it with “different eyes.” Successful parts which could be bettered become apparent. Areas which are less successful become obvious. Errors and flaws jump out.

The next step is admitting that, though what one made is good, it could be made better. Then the challenge is having the courage and wherewithal to actually modify the original.  In one respect Coppola is lucky, not only in that he had both, but in that he works in a medium that allows itself to be rearranged and edited, and if one has access to all the negatives, added to. Others, who work in ephemeral arts, such as live theatre or dance do not have this advantage and either have to mount a whole new production or let the notion of revision pass.

The point of all this? We as artists should not be afraid to follow Coppola’s example. We should not be hesitant to revise that which we can revise when we can. It keeps the work alive, at least according to Picasso, who suggests that art works are never done: “To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul, to give it its final blow the coup de grace for the painter as well as for the picture.” It allows us to make our work better.

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No Small Parts

Monday, 23. November 2020 0:13 | Author:

Constantine Stanislavski famously said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” And while most directors and acting coaches firmly believe that, most actors, of course, do not. That’s primarily because actors look at the size of the role from an ego perspective; they are counting lines or stage/screen time. Directors, on the other hand, look at the role from a functional point of view, and understand that every role in a well-written show is absolutely necessary, and each contributes to the telling of the story.

Recently I was reminded of this truth when I was watching the second season of the science-fiction series, Counterpoint. One of the lead characters was in a serious predicament and there seemed to be no way out. Suddenly, his secretary, Milla, appeared, provided him with a solution to his problem—that she was the mole everyone was searching for and how he was to handle the situation and then obligingly killed herself with his gun. She, of course, was not the mole, but the problem was solved. Given that this was almost a Deus ex machina, one might question the writing. But the character, played flawlessly by Mirela Burke, was well established; she had appeared in five episodes, often bringing a message or tea or some other secretarial duty. And in the universe of Counterpoint, there is a sleeper agent behind every street sign, just waiting to be activated, so her suddenly becoming an active agent was not all that surprising.

What was significant was that this character, whom most would consider a very minor supporting character, managed in four lines (10 sentences) to turn the plot in a completely different direction and save the character we were worried about. The whole thing took precisely 49 seconds, and she managed to solve the mystery of a missing recording as well. It was amazing. The acting was good. The whole thing worked beautifully.

It served as a reminder of how important the things that most people consider small can be. As in this example, the whole plot pivoted on what most people would consider a “small part.” In most cases, the import of the “small part” does not jump to the fore as it does in this instance, but these roles are important nevertheless. Someone has to serve the wine. Someone must announce the visiting royalty. Someone must give Romeo the poison. Someone has to fall through the ice so George Bailey can save him. The list is endless. Small parts are not just important; they are necessary.

It is the same in many arts. The brush strokes in the clouds on a plein air painting fall into this category; as does the cat in the corner of the photograph; as does that scrap of blue at the right side of the collage; as does the mole on the chin of the witch’s makeup; as does the flourish at the end of the dance routine. How many characters there are in the chorus of a musical matters, as does every detail in the costume of those chorus members. And, just as in the case of the “small part,” small details, those tiny parts of all of the art we create, are not just important; they are essential.

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Relax Your Face

Monday, 9. November 2020 0:11 | Author:

It’s been a very tough, very tense week—at least around here. Of course, you may be asking, “What week isn’t these days?” And, of course you would be right. Almost every week is tough and tense. It’s difficult to get things done, much less be creative. There are just too many things we can’t control that impact our lives. So the tension builds, and we have very few ways to dispel it.

Some try exercise, thinking that a good workout will relieve not only physical tension but mental tension as well. There is something to be said for that. If a person is both physically and mentally committed to a particular exercise regimen, engaging in that exercise will certainly relax the mind if not the body. Some people practice yoga, which also purports to engage the body and the mind and the spirit, and to some extent it does. Like any other exercise, while a person is doing it, the mind is engaged in the poses and not in the day-to-day worries that plague it. Some people meditate, that is, they focus their concentration on something other than the problems that assault us daily. Meditation is said to relax the body as well as the mind, and so is just as useful for relieving stress as any exercise program, although not perhaps as useful for toning the body.

Those activities, along with a number of others, are really useful for maintaining for general stress control, but they involve time and commitment and may or may not impact the momentary frustrations and pressures that get in the way of our creative work on an hourly basis. We all know that we should just let those things go, but doing that is far more difficult than saying it. Should we rant and vent our frustrations or should we somehow attempt to not let difficulties get to us? Is there some other thing we might try to deal with stress and tension? It turns out that there is: relax your face.

Yes, I know that sounds silly, but it’s not. The first person who ever told me to relax my face was a yoga instructor who was not talking to me specifically, but the whole class. I thought it was silly too—until I tried it. Then I noticed that as I relaxed my face, other tension left my body. I have since heard it from other yoga instructors, who sometimes say, “Soften your face.” It means the same thing: to consciously relax the muscles of the face.

Evidently, we hold tension in our faces, and when we consciously relax those muscles, other muscles in our body respond as well. Personally, relaxing my face also tends to relax my neck and upper shoulders. And it doesn’t take very long at all.

Does it generate as much relaxation as a yoga session or thirty minutes of meditation? No. But it does work, and it is nearly instantaneous. Give it a try. When you are struggling a problem that is causing you stress or tension. Stop. Take a moment and relax your face. It can make a huge difference. Just that little relaxation can make your work a bit easier and sometimes can facilitate creativity by removing that temporary stress block.

Let me know how it works for you.

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A Process of Discovery

Monday, 26. October 2020 0:07 | Author:

Austin Kleon’s blog post for October 15 is entitled “Art takes you where it wants you to go,” which is a paraphrase of a statement by 93-year-old quilt artist Laverne Brackens.  Kleon goes on to quote other artists:  textile artist and print maker Anni Albers, poet Ciaran Carson, quilt artist Bisa Butler. All say pretty much the same thing, as does Kleon himself. The materials lead the artist, not the other way around.  If you examine the writings of other artists you will find much the same idea repeated over and over.  And it doesn’t matter much which materials an artist is working with.

For example, sculptors in wood or stone must work with the grain of the material if they are not to risk destroying the piece before it is realized. Naturally, working with the grain will require some changes be made in the finished product, so the resultant work is not so much a work of the sculptor’s imagination as it is a cooperative effort of the sculptor and the material.

Actors also often bend to the material. Upon first reading, they may think they know the character and exactly how the lines need to be delivered. However, once those actors delve into serious script analysis and exchange dialog with their colleagues, new readings emerge; the character morphs because of the influences that were not apparent in the first reading. It’s called character “development’ for a reason, and the actor often ends up with a performance that is very different from the one they envisioned when they first picked up the script.

Filmmakers and stage directors have a similar situation. The actors who are cast determine which way a character will go, which, in turn, influences which way the film itself will go. For example, Rebecca Onion writing for Slate.com points out that by casting two very attractive people who are nearly the same age as leads, the producers of the new Rebecca on Netflix have dramatically altered the dynamic between the two main characters from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, and with that single change have altered the meaning and substance of the artifact.  Another issue in film and stage is that the chemistry that does or does not develop among the actors as they work can also influence the outcome of the final product. A good director will often get what they want in terms of a final artifact, but they may have to arrive at it a much different way than they planned.

And of course we are all familiar with Bob Ross’ “happy accidents” in painting. Painters not only have to work with accidents, happy and otherwise, but must deal with the viscosity of the paint, with the surface of the substrate, not to mention humidity and temperature—and the condition of the brushes and knives. So there are a number of factors that can influence the outcome as well as the artist’s intention.

Almost all photographers will acknowledge the contribution of a good model to the outcome of a shoot. Sometimes, the photographer not only gets what they want but many other excellent images as well—all because of the ideas that the model brings to the shoot. Sometimes the best images are completely unexpected and are the direct result of collaboration between model and photographer.

Writers, whether they are poets, writers of fiction, or non-fiction authors consistently talk about how they think they know where they are going, but the words lead them in a different direction, and the stories, and essays and articles turn out differently than their creators originally imagined. The written work becomes organic and takes on a life of its own. The writer sometimes just keeps putting words down to find out where they are going.

Most artists, regardless of the medium in which they work, agree that when the artist listens to the material, the results are far better than when the writer tries to force their will on the material. That’s because the creative process is not what many people think it is; rather, the creative process is really a process of discovery.

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