Lessons and reflections on art, creativity, and experience.
Fake it 'til you make it.
I developed a mind-reading show called HypnoTricks when I was eighteen years old. Many of the routines had never been practiced before. I was nervous. There was a point in the show where I had planned a hypnosis routine. I had been reading up about hypnosis and thought I could probably do it right if I had enough confidence. I was banking on confidence alone. So, there I was in front of the audience and the hypnosis routine was up next. I was scared. I had an idea to just move on to the next routine and skip the hypnosis all together. I glanced over at the lighting technician and remembered something. There are several important light cues and technical transitions during the hypnosis routine. If I skipped this huge part of the act, then I would completely mess up the lighting guy. So, I plowed forward, imagining I had done this a hundred times before. I began the routine with nothing but confidence. I called up two ladies from the audience to join me on stage and have a seat on the pre-set chairs. I began the induction, calling for their heads to become heavier and for their bodies to slowly hunch over into their laps. And with little effort, it started to work! They began to fall asleep in front of me and the audience! To my amazement the whole routine was working flawlessly. I had never practiced anything like this and it was working successfully on my first try! On the outside, I’m keeping my cool. On the inside, I’m thinking, “Holy shit, it’s actually working!”. Granted, I can credit my minimal research, but I certainly put confidence at the forefront of this success. From that project, I took away the value of confidence. I discovered that sometimes confidence will make things happen just the way you want them to. I faked being a hypnotist and then actually became one (or at least no different from a real one in the audience’s eyes).
Don’t ignore the signs and omens.
We try to make things happen. We want things to go our way. However, sometimes it is wiser not to force them. True, there are occasions where one must be assertive to fulfill a goal. We must show determination to achieve that which seems un-achievable. But I find it is often the case that signs and omens will make themselves known to you, informing what is right. Something may tell you "this isn’t going to work for you". Not everyone is cut out for everything. More specifically, we are not all equipped with the necessary faculties to accomplish our very specific dreams. For some cases, it doesn't matter how much determination or 'positive thinking' is utilized, many may still find themselves at square one. I heard it said that the saddest thing in the world is wasted talent. In my estimation, even sadder is to see a friend strive desperately for a dream they are unequivocally ill-suited for. The signs that seem negative or pessimistic are not necessarily obstacles for you to be resilient against. They are often the whispers from the world suggesting your efforts are more valuable in another sector. I think, probably, the ability to recognize this makes an artist all the wiser.
The artist never arrives.
The artist experiences such difficulty finding inner peace. It's no wonder! Artist are completely full of ambition. The second we find a bit of inner peace, our imaginations find so much more to live for. But we must never anticipate arriving at a finished product. Artists are perfectionists. We are pursuers. We test ourselves and struggle to get the most out of our work, pressing forward towards the moment of completion– but that moment really doesn't exist.
There will always be one more thing to add, to eliminate, to augment, etc. Our perspective of the work's potential belongs only to us. The viewer/audience/listener is incapable of comparing your product with the "even better" version that you've been fixated on. They will see only the brilliance of your "good enough". "Good enough" is always what we are left with. And that is, well... good enough!
Just yesterday, I rediscovered a poem that I had abandoned months before. When I abandoned it, I was frustrated by it and sick to the stomach. I truly hated it but was careful not to destroy it. Upon rediscovery, I was actually quite pleased with it. The initial "perfect version" that I fostered had vanished over time. I no longer had anything to compare the poem with other than itself. I could experience it for what it was and not what it could be. Its state was well-enough to be left alone. So, I allowed myself to consider it complete.
In The Way of All The Earth, John S. Dunne lays out an important observation saying, "Man...will never reach the point where he is content, where it will be enough for him that his heart is beating and the sun is shining." To accept this is not to accept mediocrity, but rather to hold gratitude for what you have already created. Leave "well enough" alone. That is wisdom. From Jean Cocteau, to Paul Valéry, to Leonardo DiVinci, artists of all kinds have discovered truth in the dictum, "A work of art is never completed, merely abandoned." If one can accept this, creation becomes so much more tolerable.
The Hero's Journey has all the answers.
In high school English class, I remember discussing the Joseph Cambell’s “Hero’s Journey” at length. This mythological meta-narrative was of little interest to me as a fourteen year old. But in recent years, I have discovered how remarkable it truly is, not just for storytellers and people who enjoy film and television, but for the average human being. The Hero’s Journey has been observed in mythologies of widely diverse cultures. Occidental mythology is ripe with different heroes whose journeys follow very similar paths. Psychologist Carl Jung also discovered its existence within dream structures and can be analyzed through what he calls the “Process of Individuation”. It seems to me that what this tells us is that the Hero’s Journey actually stands as a reliable diagram for how to approach and access meaning in life. Not happiness, meaning. I am confident that meaning is what humans desire more than happiness. Utilizing the Hero’s Journey as a directional guide on how to approach difficult situations can prove very useful.
I was once interested in a job as a substitute teacher. I was invited by a friend (a teacher) to apply to the job and my first response was to refuse the “call to adventure”. I was not confident that I would be good at it. I reasoned that I had no business working in a school without a background in education. I can remember breaking down my options. First option: I refuse the call to adventure and continue with the small income I already have, willingly dismissing the possibility that I could be very good at teaching - dismissing my potential and learning nothing. Result = zero progress as a person. Second option: I call the administration, despite my crippling nerves, and set-up an interview, embracing uncertain outcomes. Result = pride, knowledge earned, new perspectives. After breaking down my options, the former decision was clearly the most necessary. So I pushed myself through the threshold and passed many obstacles on the way. I discovered by the end of the year that I was the most valued substitute in the whole school system. I was the substitute that all the teachers were requesting. I also learned that I most enjoyed working in the primary schools, something I never would have predicted. My positive impact on the children and valued presence at the schools made going to the job meaningful. It was incredibly rewarding despite the challenges. Each step of the way followed the Hero’s Journey model which is a time-tested guide on how to approach your actions and what to expect from them.
You are learning.
In my adolescence, I made a serious study of acting. The acting classes required that we develop a character into the body through every gesture and movement. I had compiled hundreds of notes and papers and books to catalog all the work I had done on these characters. Over the years as I separated from acting and character work, I have held onto these notes and books tightly. I felt as though if I took on another role, I would need to re-learn all the things that I used to study. I thought that since I had been apart from the material, I must have lost it all and have now become a blank slate again. I recently moved apartments and found myself looking through all this material - directors notes, tips to self, gesture and movement breakdowns, acting books, and beyond. What I came to discover was that all the things I was holding on to were things that already became a part of me when I dedicated myself to them years ago. All that time studying the craft of acting was time for the techniques and approaches to become fused in my bones as a performer. Sometimes, it feels like you have to constantly be studying in order to feel like you are learning. But it is a relief to discover that the brain is collecting, analyzing, and processing without any effort from your conscious. Remind yourself that you are learning even when it feels like you are not.
Create. Don't re-create.
I used to be completely obsessed with Halloween. As a twelve year old, I couldn’t wait for October when my mother would let me have total liberty in decorating the front of the house for the holiday. There was one year from my memory that had been the greatest yard design up to that point. I tried every year to recreate that set-up. I could never get it to be as good as that one particular year. Eventually, I tried something new. I came up with my own cemetery design that would be far different from that of years passed. To excellent surprise, the result was so much more rewarding. All this time I had been trying to re-create something that was good at one point, but not meant to be any longer. I had been approaching the project from the wrong direction. I had not been creating, but re-creating. My pride in the new design showed me that I had finally approached it in the right way. The new design was honest and not superficial.
I learned this lesson again while developing a new play. I wanted to re-create a scene from another play and insert it into my own play. I had liked the way that scene felt when I experienced it and I wanted to deliver the same feelings for my own audience. So I basically stole the whole scene, including the music, and plopped it into my play. The result was a clumsy, contrived, out-of-place sequence that spoiled much of what the play had going for it. My advice to artists is to let things inspire you while being wary of the negative effects of re-creation.
Don't be too picky.
Writing a play is difficult. It takes a long time to accomplish. In the case of Second Sight, it took about five years. If I had learned not to be picky at the beginning of the process, I probably could have finished two years sooner. I remember the moment of discovery. I was writing in my little apartment in Avon, Connecticut and I was spending all this time outlining and character planning. I was so twisted up and unsure of how the story was going to pan out. I wanted everything in the story to be just right. I was being very picky. It occurred to me at that moment, as I was imagining all the ways the story could unfold, that perhaps my finished product need not be perfect. I suddenly got this image of stars in outer space. Each star was every possible version of the play. Like parallel universes, there may be very similar versions to what I’m writing and also very different versions. Could I be vulnerable enough to pluck only one of those stars and allow the others to fade away? This revaluation of the play’s potential released a huge weight from my shoulders. Suddenly, I did not have to be so picky to put the best version of the play on paper. But rather I could allow myself to let go of perfection and offer one version. I say to myself, “This is one version of what Second Sight could be, and that is enough.” To have re-framed my thinking as such was the first sign that I was starting to near completion. I see my peers working on projects that never come to an end because there is such a desire to make the art perfect. I think, probably, that the drive for perfection shows superficiality in an artist more than integrity.
You have one name. Don't f*ck with it!
In college, I used to rock climb in a local gym with a friend. One day, at the end of our session, I showed him the climbing gear that I had rented: a small metallic ATC device. I mimed slipping it in my backpack, suggesting how easy it would be to steal it. His eyes showed me his disapproval and I recognized his concern. “This place has so much money and they will never miss it,” I reasoned. "This gear means more to me than it does to the gym". In that regard, my arguments were probably true, but the stakes were higher for me than I presumed. There was a bigger issue that I was not considering. The best reason not to steal the gear was the very fact that my friend was standing right beside me, observing my naughty consideration. I was risking negative consequences within our friendship.
When I showed him my desire to steal something, I communicated my willingness to be untrustworthy. He informed me that he would not stop me from stealing the gear, but warned that if I did, he would have to consider locking his bedroom door when I come over to hang out. I assured him, “I would never steal from a friend! That’s different!” “Maybe so", he continued. "But now I know that you are willing to steal something that does not belong to you. And that is enough to make me suspicious of your honesty.” I stood for a moment, dropped my head and shoulders, dragged my feet over to the counter and returned the borrowed gear. Comme un sage. “I hope you’re happy,” I said with a smile. He was glad I chose not to steal the gear. He wanted to trust me.
We must be so careful with our reputations as trustworthy people. It is to our advantage that we have the capacity to give others the benefit of the doubt. We are largely willing to assume others are trustworthy – until we have reason to believe they are not. To lie, steal, or show dishonesty of any kind will always deliver less goodness upon us than the alternatives. We must be conscious of how our actions represent our character. Good reputation is fragile. Once it is bruised, it can never be fully restored. You can only ever be the one person that you are. You have but one name. Ensure that it is looked well upon by the people you admire.
Just create things. When we create and create and create, our art will begin to define us. It's my suspicion that we discover who we are as artists upon retroactive observation of a large body of work. The artist's voice reveals itself through his art. I noticed this to be true through the case of a contemporary visual artist. In 2008, Mike Winkelmann began producing a drawing every day with no particular goal in mind. His daily output continued steadily for 14 years. The drawings became predominantly digital and grew enormous interest on social media. In 2022, his work was auctioned as an NFT for $69 million dollars. Over 14 years, he created artwork only for the sake of output. Consequentially, his work began to define him. He discovered who he was as an artist. Such a regiment can greatly benefit the artist whose concern is to discover the purpose of his soul. An artist must not be concerned with activism or persuasion. He must not ask himself what it is he wants to say. His only goal must be to permit his soul to speak in a language unfamiliar to him. Upon looking back at a large body of work, the world will read what his soul had to say.