Lose Yourself in the Work

Sunday, 4. December 2022 19:04 | Author:

Steven King’s novel Billy Summers is many things, but one of the things it is, is an ode to writing. At one point a character talks about the act of writing and how the world of the author disappears as the author enters the world that they are creating, how the writer is able to see the smallest details that they are describing and how the world they are creating becomes as real, the specifics as clear as any in the real world. Repeatedly King comments on how real time disappears when one is writing, how the writer becomes so absorbed in the imaginative world of the book being written that they almost cease to exist in the world we normally inhabit. This is the ideal condition for creating imaginative realities.

And, of course, this applies to arts other than writing as well. It certainly applies to theatre and film. Whether one is an actor involved in a scene or a director working with actors and designers, one needs to be completely involved in the process. The same holds true for a painter or a sculptor, a dancer or a choreographer, a singer or songwriter, a composer or a musician.

Whatever our art, we must enter the imaginative world completely and fully, paying attention to the smallest of details. If we do this with our whole being we will be completely immersed in the work. Time in the real world will disappear. The entire real world may disappear, and only our work will exist. We may or may not be in flow. When we come back to reality, much time will have passed without our noticing, and we may be tired. But it will be a good tired, and the work we have done will be our best.

But there are obstacles. There are many things for us to think about. There are large issues: inflation, politics, climate, racism, fascism, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, health care. There are more local issues: weather, traffic, education, housing, food costs, neighbors. And there are personal issues: money, health, relationships, mental health. All of these touch us one way or another. It’s a wonder then with so much to occupy our minds that we have any capacity left for our art (and I’m sure I’ve missed some). But we manage the distractions as best we can and press on.

Or at least we try. Those many things to think about prey on our minds when we try to create. In training beginning actors we advise them to leave their problems and worries at the stage door—such get in the way during the rehearsal and performance. Yet we are seldom completely successful at getting all students to do this. And, unfortunately, this is an even greater problem in a post-pandemic-lockdown world—not only for students and actors, but for teachers and directors as well.

Still, we must try. And we may well emulate that practice we teach beginning actors. We might well make a ritual of leaving our worries and concerns at the door of our studio. We might even lock them in a locker or box, which can be either real or virtual. But we would do well to drop our concerns at the entrance to our workspace; they will surely be there when our work session is over—ready to overtake our minds again. But for the time we are in our creative space, our minds can be free to work only on our imaginative reality, on creativity, on making. If we make this a practice, pretty soon it will become habit. And that habit will be reflected in our creativity and productivity. We will experience the joy of time creatively spent as do King’s characters.

 

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Make Something—Anything!

Sunday, 20. November 2022 21:50 | Author:

Why is it so hard to take advice, particularly when we know the advice to be good? Certainly no one can tell us how to create, but often those who study the creative process have ideas that can help aid creativity, particularly when there’s a difficulty. Thus we have individuals like Julia Cameron, Austin Kleon, and Maria Popova, just to name a few. And consistently these advisors and many others tell us that when there is a problem with creativity or productivity, the answer is to keep making whatever it is that we make—to keep plugging away and the block will dissolve and our creativity will flow. I have even offered this advice myself.

Why then, when we find our flow of creativity blocked, do we not heed that same advice? Maybe it’s because we are all somewhat egotistical when it comes to creativity. Perhaps it’s because we are stubborn. Whatever the reason, we don’t—until we do.

This happened to me recently, and I hope that I have learned from it. My creativity and productivity were practically nil. There was no particular reason for this, so far as I knew. Ideas were just not happening, but rather than worrying about it, I just used the time to rest. But it kept going on. Still it was not a major problem, that is, until I realized that I had a project coming due soon.

Every year I create and send a holiday card out to friends and acquaintances. And it was time for that to happen. The deadline is self-imposed, but it comes a while before the holidays to allow for printing, mailing, and all the logistics that go into such a project. Since I have done this project for a number of years, not doing it was not really a consideration. So I finally decided that it was time to make the project happen. I already had images that I created for the project, but they were far from their final form, and that was the problem.

So I jumped in and began to work only to discover that some of the images did not really work the way I had thought that they would. So, instead of pushing, I went back to some images I had created earlier to see if there were any possibilities there. And there were.

And then an interesting thing happened. As I began to examine possibilities, new ideas formed, new possibilities presented themselves; I found new ways of working with the images I had started with. Before it was over, I had not just one card, but five. So I picked one for this year—not the one I had started with, but one of the others, and will use the others in the coming years. And I’m finding that my mind does not seem to be done with this project even though images have been selected, captioned, sent to the printer, and returned. So I will enjoy the new stream of ideas and probably continue to develop those ideas, even though they support a project that only happens once a year.

The point of this is, of course, to remind ourselves to follow good advice, and when we are creatively blocked to make something—anything—to get the ideas flowing again.

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Yes, Voting Matters

Sunday, 6. November 2022 22:11 | Author:

The Astros won the World Series. I know because two people texted to tell me. Otherwise I would not have known. Because I don’t follow baseball, I have no interest in who does or does not win the World Series, or any other game for that matter. Simply put, baseball does not interest me or impact my life.

Unfortunately a number of artists take the attitude toward politics that I have toward baseball. The difference is, of course, is that no matter how much we wish it, no matter how we try to ignore it, politics does impact our lives. Even those of us who are so absorbed in our work that we live like hermits, closing ourselves off from the rest of the world, particularly the news, will be impacted by politics in some way or another before we are done.

Given that, it would be well to pay at least a small amount of attention to what is going on politically and what the choices are in any given election, because if we don’t, we are likely to be taken off-guard by changes suddenly forced on us by the political system.

This year particularly, we need to look at the choices before us. Never have the lines been so clear-cut between the opposing parties. One party seems intent on establishing authoritarian policies, removing reproductive rights, eliminating Medicare and Social Security, reducing privacy rights, allowing hatred, bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism to govern public forums, and supporting failed theories of trickle-down economics. The other party is vociferously opposed to all of those things, and is taking what is to my mind a far more positive approach to solving the problems facing the nation by advancing practical solutions.

Again, if we think that none of these issues will touch us, we are sadly mistaken. Some of these policies have already been implemented at the state level, and have certainly impacted, if not us, someone that we know. So these are real issues that really impact our lives, not just talking points. The very least we can do is inform ourselves on the issues and of the threats to democracy that are now part of political discourse, and vote. Compared to the possible outcome of the current election, the time it takes to learn about the issues and vote is a very small investment.

And we should not hide behind the “but it’s only one vote” pseudo-defense. As a matter of fact, there are a number of elections that have been decided by a single vote and even more that have been decided by miniscule margins. So our votes do matter.

And this year they matter more than ever. This year there is an unambiguous difference between the parties and the outcomes they envision for the country. This year the choice is about what kind of country we will live in, perhaps for a very long time. This year the election is important, perhaps more important than any in recent memory, and even if we don’t campaign, or contribute, or volunteer, we need to do our part. We need to vote!

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Why Do We Make Art?

Sunday, 23. October 2022 22:12 | Author:

Last week reading an essay in The Marginalian about Loren Eiseley’s musings on the meaning of life by Maria Popova I ran across a statement about consciousness’ “irrepressible impulse to make meaning out of indifferent fact.” This led to my musing about making meaning of life, which in turn, led to musing about meaning in art, and wondering if the two were somehow related.

The meaning of life is a question which is too big for me, but the question of meaning in art is a different thing, and one that I thought was worth examining. It is obvious on the face of it that not all art, or even most art, is meant to reflect the meaning of life, so we can dismiss that idea immediately. There may well be pieces that attempt this, but it is not a significant percentage.

There is no argument that art has meaning, at least some art. Perhaps even most art in some way reflects on some aspect of the human situation. Other art may not; its existence is its only meaning. And art is not really utilitarian, although some of it does cause viewers to think, to consider; other art simply provides pleasure because it is interesting to observe. Given that, why have art at all?

Some artists seem to be impelled to tell stories regardless of the media in which they work. We find stories in written work, film, in song, in instrumental music, in dance—virtually everywhere. Such stories reflect not only all aspects of life, but speculate about possible futures or focus on fantasies. Other artists are not interested in stories but rather impressions or feelings that they create work to communicate. Again the variety of media is extensive.

And artists are motivated by any number of things. Some are motivated by social conditions, some by domestic situations. Still others by dreams. Others by a conversation they overheard or something they read. Some by nature. Some by the news. Some want to better the world; some just want to entertain. In other words, artists can be motivated in an endless number of ways. And the variety of art work they produce is also seemingly endless and runs the entire gamut from profound to trivial.

Yet we label all these things that they create as “art.” If they do all fall into that single category, what is the impetus for their creation that can apply throughout that category?

Although the motivation, media, meaning, and depth of art varies from artist to artist, the impetus seem to remain the same, although the strength of the impetus also seems to vary from individual to individual: in some it’s just a tickle; in others it’s a necessity.

That impetus is simply the human urge to create. Whether what the artist makes is insightful or superficial, large or small, complicated or simple seems not to matter at all. Whether the artists sell their work or hide it in the attic also seems to have little impact. How many people see the work often makes no difference. Whether the artist receives recognition or not is of no import. What matters is the making. And it seems that’s all that matters—all the rest in ancillary.  Of course, we can find counter-examples to all of these instances, but on the whole, the making is what’s important.

Keep making!

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Work-Life Balance for Artists

Sunday, 9. October 2022 22:23 | Author:

Achieving a decent work-life balance is difficult for most Americans. If those Americans are in the arts, the task is even more difficult. The reason for this is, of course, is that most people who are in the arts are obsessive individuals whose primary obsession is the work they do. Given that, it is, of course, difficult to achieve any sort of work-life balance. This is the reason that artists historically have such bad family lives. They often feel compelled to spend more time on the play, composition, book, poem, sculpture, or painting than they do on relationships or family matters.

For many artists, art is all that matters, so art is their life. Everything else is secondary. In such instances, any kind of work-life balance is really impossible because such artists are working literally all the time—until they decide to take a brief break. But that’s all it is—a break, not anything approaching balance.

The key seems to be to set firm limits on the time the artist spends at work and they time they spend in other activities. For example, I know three artists who have achieved something of a balance in their lives. All are teaching artists as it turns out. One produces art as a part of his teaching load; one has reduced his artistic output to one faculty show per year: and the third does a mix of producing work as part of his teaching with a side job now and again. So I don’t know that we could label any of these full-time artists. Still they are making their living working in the arts and all three have achieved a balance of sorts between work and the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, they have all done it the same way. They have set limits by regulating their time at school as “work time” and their time away from school as “home time.” There is, however some crossover. Personal phone calls happen during work hours, and work phone calls happen during home hours. Of course, occasionally, work demands more than the scheduled time, and all three then put in more time for their work, but for the most part, the separation is complete, and all three seem to be content with their arrangements.

Then I know artists who also teach and produce art as part of their school work, who devote themselves to the work in the same way a completely obsessed working artist who was not a teacher might. These artists spend a great deal of time “at work” and even when they are officially “not at work,” they are still developing ideas and working at their art. They fall into that category of artists whose work is their life, and, as one would expect, their home lives are far from traditional and stable.

It is not the goal of this post to decide which of the artists mentioned has a superior life. That is a decision that each artist has to make for themselves. However, if we are to achieve any sort of meaningful work-life balance, we will have to follow the example of those artists who establish a set time and/or location for work, and devote the rest of their waking hours to other aspects of their lives.

Whatever way we decide to pursue art and live our lives is up to us, and it is not a one-size-fits-all choice. We must each find our own path and hope that the path we choose is fulfilling both in terms of our art and our lives.

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All Good Art is Escapism

Sunday, 25. September 2022 22:19 | Author:

On a British television series that I watch, the detective asked a woman about the stack of books she was carrying. She said that it was her summer reading and the books were historical romances. “Escapism,” said the detective, and the woman agreed. The implication was that escapism is a lower form of literature. And that set me wondering which genres of literature were escapism and which were not. So I ran through as many genres as I could think of and discovered that all of them, except textbooks and some non-fiction, were to some degree escapism.

Since escapism is simply a “mental diversion form unpleasant or boring aspect of daily life, typically through activities involving imagination or entertainment,” it stands to reason that almost any written fictional work and some non-fiction would fit that definition. While not necessarily written as escapism, most books and short stories are designed to capture the imagination of the reader, to take them out of themselves and involve them in the world of the narrative for the duration of the read.  So whether or not they mean to, such works function as escapism.

And books that do not grab or continue to hold readers’ interest are simply set aside—unless there is some overriding reason for the reader to continue. So whatever their authors have to say will be lost to any potential readership.

But what about other arts? Obviously, performing arts function the same way, attempting to engage their audiences for the duration of the performances regardless of what message they are trying to get across. This is simply because if they cannot hold the audience’s interest, they will never convey their message. So directors, producers, showrunners, and choreographers work very hard to ensure audience involvement in their productions.

And other arts are much the same. Painters, photographers, and sculptors want their audiences to forget their lives for a moment and join with the artwork they are looking at, so that the artifact and the audience are the entire world for a moment or two—or perhaps longer. So, in addition to saying whatever they have to say, such artists work to make their pieces appealing, knowing that audience engagement is at least half the game.

So what does this mean to aspiring or working artists? It means that no matter how pithy our content, no matter how challenging our subject matter, no matter how important our message, what we have to say must be set into a form that is engaging and interesting to our audience. Otherwise, our audience will never hang on long enough to understand our full message. What we produce must be not only accessible to our audience, but engaging as well.

So we might take the time to study those works that are unabashedly labeled “escapism” to discover what techniques we can appropriate to use in our own projects in order to better engage and maintain audience interest. Our work will be the better for it, and our audiences will appreciate it.

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Aesthetics, Bigotry, or Something Else?

Sunday, 11. September 2022 20:54 | Author:

Unless you are an aficionado of fantasy, you may not be aware of the two major video releases of 2022 fantasies: the live action version of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series on Netflix and the Amazon Prime series, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. And if you are not aware of these series, you probably are not aware of the controversies that followed their release. The controversies in both cases boil down to the same thing: fans are not happy with the changes that have been made to the characters in these works of fiction. And the changes in question seem to boil down to the same problem: people of color, although to be fair, there have been gender changes in Sandman which have also upset fans.

Never mind that Sandman casting was done with input from the creator of that work, Neil Gaiman. Never mind that the casting of The Rings of Power was done with input from Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien. Still, some fans are vocally unhappy; they are sure that these race and gender changes are completely uncalled for and pretty generally ruin the works that they love.

What are these “original” works that they love? In the case of the Sandman, it’s a graphic novel. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the originals were novels and stories, although many fans are basing their opinions on the film series by Peter Jackson in the very early 2000s.

The specific objections to Rings of Power are not limited to the introduction of non-white characters, but also include making the harfoots, prototypical hobbits, Irish who resemble 19th century cartoons, and minimal facial hair on female dwarves. The objections to The Sandman are similar; they include Death being played by a Black actress instead of a white Goth girl, Lucifer being played by a woman,  and Desire being played by a non-binary actor—and they look different from the comic book drawings.

Neil Gaiman has been quite active defending casting choices and reminding fans that his characters have taken many different forms and genders even in the comic series. Gaiman has also weighed in on the Rings of Power controversy as well. So now a number of fans on Twitter think he was one of the creators of Rings of Power, a series that he has no association with at all. His arguments point out the foibles of most of the critics, and those are many. Some have even tried to say that having people of color in Rings of Power is “historically inaccurate.” Gaiman has suggested that many have not actually read Tolkien.

But what is all this really about? Is it that a certain segment of vocal fans are simply bigoted? Is it that making gender and race changes in an established fictional world is offensive to the audience’s sense of aesthetics? Or is it just that any sort of change to a fiction solidly seated in an audience’s mind is unsettling?

To claim that change in an artwork is unacceptable is an untenable position, particularly while the artist is still active. There have been for example, a number of versions and editions of The Sandman, including both color and black and white graphic versions, film versions, and audio versions; Gaiman has been involved in several of these. Even when authors are no longer available, other artists often reimagine the fictions they have created—sometimes to great effect. The best example of this, of course, are the vast number of interpretations given to the works of Shakespeare, or works based on Shakespeare’s plays.

Certainly, we do not have to like all changes or all adaptations or all interpretations of an existing work, but when we do voice our dislike for something another artist has created or modified, we must be sure of our footing; we must be sure that our reasoning is solid and based on something other than bias. Just as we hope our audiences will stay open to our efforts, we must remain open to the work of others.

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Art Doesn’t Love You

Sunday, 28. August 2022 21:04 | Author:

A friend of mine, who is an actor and director, tells a story about when he first learned that theatre didn’t love him. Seems that he was hung over at 9 am, putting on makeup for a morning performance of a children’s show when he discovered this truth. Some time after he learned that, he tried to leave theatre, only to come back, a pattern which he repeated at least two more times.

Imogen West-Knights talks about giving up on her dream of acting in a Guardian article, “Why I Quit Acting.” Theatre didn’t love her either. The stories go on and on about those who gave their all to theatre and got very little, if anything in return. Even those who succeed in the eyes of the world find themselves dissatisfied with performance; just google “quit acting.”

And it’s not just theatre. None of the arts love us, regardless of whether it’s photography or painting or sculpture or dance or poetry. They demand our allegiance; they exert an influence over our lives and relationships, but they give very little back, particularly in terms of worldly success. The most we can expect is the bit of joy we get from the creative process. And that is often laced with anguish. We spend hours, sometimes days or weeks—or even months and years trying to create, and the return: acknowledgement of the artifact, but very little for the pain involved in its creation. It’s a very lopsided relationship that we have with our art.

Yet those of us who don’t quit continue to do it. Even those who quit one art, such as Ms. West-Knights, pick up another. It’s because those of us who are addicted to art have a strong urge to create, to tell stories, to invent, to make. So completely quitting everything creative is difficult for us, if not impossible. And even though some individuals succeed, for many, it’s a sad life. There are many articles connecting sadness or depression and creativity. But we still keep doing it.

And we continue to do it, in one form or another. And we all have the satisfactions that come from creating as well as the attendant pain. We do it because we must, because we are driven to create regardless of the toll it might take on other aspects of our life.

Not that there are not rewards. There are, although for most of us they are small. We sell a piece here; we get a good critique there. And all the while we get to create, and that’s the bottom line for most of us: satisfying the urge to create. So we continue to act and direct and photograph and paint and sculpt and dance and write because, for us, there is no other way to feed our addiction to creation.

And the fact that our chosen art does not love us does not deter us. We persist, not because we think that we are going to “make it big,” not because we think we will become famous, but because we must. We seem to have been born with an imperative to make things, to tell stories, to create. And so we continue to actively demonstrate our love for our art, unreciprocated though it is.

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Endings

Sunday, 14. August 2022 22:55 | Author:

Having just retired from my long-time day job, endings are very much on my mind: not only the ending of jobs and projects, but the endings that we craft for our creations, and the comparisons between the two.

Even though we all know that all things must come to an end, there are sometimes emotions attached to arriving at the end of a project (or a job), particularly if that project has held some great interest for us or has been especially difficult or especially rewarding or both. We may be happy that it is over, or the opposite, but we are likely to have feelings one way or the other. And these feelings may be complex: we can be both sad and happy at the same time over the same termination. How long these feelings may last is another issue: they may last minutes, hours, days, or weeks even, depending on the project and how attached we were to it.

Crafting endings for our audience is a different thing altogether. Every created work that is experienced through time must have an ending, and unfortunately, there are as many types of endings as there are types of stories, songs, plays, poems, or stories.

And endings are difficult. Obviously, the primary reason for the ending is to bring the project to a satisfying conclusion. If pieces that I read and write are to serve as a guide, this is not as easy as it sounds, particularly with regard to short pieces. In fact, one of the last pieces I read came to an abrupt conclusion with a six-word sentence voicing a semi-philosophical statement; it was as though the author got to the end of what they had to say and simply tagged a short statement on the end so the reader wasn’t just left dangling. Authors are tasked with bringing the narrative to an end in a way that wraps up the piece and is aesthetically pleasing to the audience. Therein lies the problem. In my experience it is one of the more difficult tasks required of an author, particular if the work is not a formal academic paper of some sort.

Additionally, very often endings serve a twofold purpose: there may be loose ends to tie up. There may be a call to action of some kind to be embedded. There may be a sequel to set up. There may be any number of secondary purposes. This compounds the author’s problem in that they have to create an ending that satisfies the requirements of any ending plus insert the elements to accomplish the secondary goals as well, making the process all the more complicated.

And what do endings inside projects and the ending of projects have to do with each other? Simply that they both have to with wrapping things up and finding a stopping point, in one case for the author and in the other case for the audience. However, it should be clear that although they bear the same name, they are two entirely different processes, and have in common only that they come at the end of projects.

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When It Clicks

Sunday, 31. July 2022 20:40 | Author:

Sitting in rehearsal on an evening not long ago, it clicked, and I suddenly understood that the show would indeed come together. In the world of educational theatre, that is never a foregone conclusion. I cannot explain what factors came together to provide me with this information, but it was suddenly there, and so I relaxed a little. This did not mean that there were not still things to do, but that bones of the show were solid, and the rest was more-or-less cleaning up.

Educational theatre is not the only area in which this phenomenon happens. I have known it to happen both in photography and in writing, although it happens in a slightly different fashion. In photography, it often happens with an edit. Most shoots result in a number of less-than-great photographs. Sometimes a re-crop or some other edit will move that image from uninspired to brilliant. And sometimes that comes as a surprise. The photographer expected the change to make the image better, but did not predict the degree of improvement the edit would make. Again, there may be other clean-up to be done, but the “click” has happened.

In writing it is much the same, and, as in photography, often happens in the editing stage. The author will rewrite a sentence, or insert a new sentence, or move a paragraph, and suddenly, “click.” The whole piece is better. Not that it was necessarily bad before, but now it, like the play, has demonstrated that the piece will come together, and will be far more successful that it would have done otherwise.

Perhaps it’s just a natural part of the creative process, but I know from experience that an artist can work to complete a piece and never really get an indication of whether it will be successful or not. It certainly does not mean that the piece will be bad, or ever mediocre; if fact, it may be great. It’s just that with some projects there is never a “click,” a prior indication that all of the elements have or soon will all come together in the best possible way.

Whether this happens in other media I cannot say, but I rather suspect that it does. Creativity is, after all, the process of making connections between sometimes disparate components, and in that process it is quite likely that a key piece will snap into place much like the key piece in a jigsaw puzzle, and “click.”

Please note that that “click” is simply a recognition that a piece is coming together. It is strictly from the creator’s point of view and has nothing to do with whether the piece will be well-received by its intended audience. It is probably just the conscious representation of the largely unconscious knowledge that all the components of the piece are in place and nothing has been left out—and nothing more. And though, as noted, it doesn’t happen with every project, it is comforting when it does happen. Making art is hard, and anything that tells us we are on the right track is welcome.

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