Sunday, September 23, 2007

Culpa Minor

You have to be willing to be bad. You have to be willing to fail. No one tells you this.

As an artist you have know this. You are going to make awful things. You are going to make mistakes. Never mind that this is in large part how we really learn. Hard knocks. We learn by screwing up.

So here is the kicker: if we can't admit to our mistakes, if we can't admit when we've been bad...what? We don't learn!

Doing something bad or making mistakes is impossible to contemplate for so many of us, especially those of us who have high expectations of ourselves or thrust upon us. This is what accounts for what are called underachievers and overachievers. High and low expectations.

Admitting to mistakes or failure is so impossible for some people that they resort to denial, lies, blaming, cover-ups, misdirection, and anything else that will get them off the hook. They are PARALYZED by the very idea of mistakes or failure. They even become hostile.

Admitting to mistakes and failure not only allows us to learn, make amends, and move on; it allows us to take risks. Risks become impossible if mistakes or failure are forbidden. Learning from our mistakes not only helps us grow, so does taking risks. Admitting to mistakes and failure takes courage; not doing so is giving into fear.

As an artist one learns very quickly to treat failure and mistakes as friends. So often you hear of the "happy accident." Artists make a special effort to incorporate what would otherwise be considered a mistake or failure and learn from it. It enlarges their experience, and it makes them brave. It explains why so many of us give up on our dream to become an artist. We can't tolerate the shame of so much disappointment. It also might explain why so many of those who do go on to be artists aren't afraid of a lifetime of failure. It is more than art being its own reward; it is more than learning to get back up after getting knocked down on a regular basis; it is the profound knowledge that we are always learning and that we and our work will be better for it, and that that is what is most important.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Humble Pie

I doubt there is an artist out there who doesn't know that the next thing they do could be a complete bust. We live with it. We try to beat it; we try to get around it. We can't. Of course, it cuts both ways. There are two sides to what we face; the glass half full and glass half empty of it. Tabula Rasa; abyss. Fresh start; bottomless pit/fall of dispair.

John Ashberry complains about how as a poet he has to start over every time and every time can be a disaster and that this is hell; novelists get to tinker securely with the more solid ground of a work in progress. But I don't think so. Even with a novel in progress under your belt you still face the blank page every day.

I like to admit I don't know what I'm doing, but nobody really knows. Seriously, who knows? This keeps us real. As soon as you think you're in the zone, you're out of it. Pride comes before a fall.

I work in serials. These allow me to face the abyss. Bit of a crutch, but it gets me there. An excuse to make a painting I always say. I work away until I feel like there is nothing left of something, and then I start again. But still, if I do something where I think, yes, wow, I'm sailing free, well, before you know it I have a death spiral on my hands.

They talk about it in baseball all the time. Not just for hitters, but pitchers too. You think you have your best stuff and you get lit up; you think you won't be able to find the plate and you throw a no-hitter. I heard the Indians manager, Eric Wedge, talk about it, staying real, assuming nothing, taking nothing for granted, when the media wanted him to talk about their recent success: he said he had to live what he preached.

When I was a drawing teacher I had only one thought I wanted to impress on my students: don't assume anything and you'll do fine. Never think you know. Look and see.

Assuming anything is our first mistake. Do we want to be able to assume things. Of course. Does it make us secure. Of course. But if you can assume as little as possible, and take nothing for granted, well then, you can be right there, and give yourself the best chance in any situation, and best of all, you can be truly grateful. Assuming things rules out learning and gratitude, two of life's greatest gifts.

How do we do this thing? One breath, one heart beat at a time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Three Ps

When I was a teenager and hitch-hiked everywhere, I learned the lesson about letting go. It was a quasi-spiritual revelation, and more than likely drug induced, but it still applies. The letting go thing was uncanny. When you're standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere for hours at a stretch, you get a lot of time to think.

One of the things you're thinking about, of course, is how to get somebody to stop and give you a ride. You start to develop a psychology, and if you spend enough time out there, hitch-hiking long distances, you develop a lot of theories. Theories about everything, but especially about hitching, which in turn become about everything. Things like: needy is unattractive; and that hard-to-get could be surprisingly more effective. You don't want to look desperate, but instead like picking you up would make their day. Of course, some people actually wanted you to make their day, or night, and I found that polite but firm worked just fine when saying no. No, thank you.

But the real lesson I learned was about letting go. Whenever I let go, I got a ride. Every time. Never failed. Well, almost never failed, as I remember it(not hard to tell yourself you haven't REALLY let go). So much so that the huge temptation is to tell yourself you have let go even when you haven't. Yes, I have let go, so pleeeeeease pick me up. Dead give-away is of course telling yourself. If you're telling yourself, you're not letting go. You can't fake letting go. We all want to; we all try to, but it never works, and for obvious reasons. You have to really let go.

I love the trying thing. To this day I know people who are convinced you get points for trying. I ask them to show me where it shows up in the box score, and of course they can't, but the denial is so HUGE.

For all our might we want to saying trying counts for something. We want to say: but look, I tried. Doesn't wash. Never has. The reality is that as hard as we try to sell it to everyone else, we won't buy it when someone tries to sell it to us. If the pilot comes on the loud speaker and says: I'm sorry, I tried to get us to Denver, but how's Toledo? NO WAY! Doesn't fly. Sorry.

We keep trying with the trying nonetheless. I ask you though, show me a time when trying doesn't really mean failure? We say "I tried" instead of "I failed." Check this out: I tried to save my marriage. What does that really tell you? I'm divorced! How about: we tried to win the game? We lost. Do it, with anything. He tried to swim across the lake. He tried to climb the mountain. He tried to pass the bar. Didn't, didn't, didn't.

Otherwise we just say: I saved my marriage; we won the game; he swam across the lake; he climbed the mountain; he passed the bar. We're supposed to try. We're not supposed to talk about it. It is supposed to be understood. Trying is the language of failure. Lose it.

In all fairness, I have to add, sometimes trying seems like all you want to do. Like trying is just enough, any more would put too much pressure on the situation. We don't really care about results. It is a variation on: it is the thought that counts. It is trying that counts. Not results. I didn't really want to save my marriage, I just wanted to try. Maybe then I won't feel so guilty. It is a guilt-free way of removing results from the equation. If trying is enough, then, of course, you didn't really try, you didn't even really want to try. Maybe all the trying in the world wouldn't have made a difference, which of course only makes my point that much more. This is when letting go, really letting go, comes in handy.

We have to know when trying won't ever get it done, and stop. Stop trying. Let go. A scary idea for most of us. Trying seems a lot easier to swallow. Trying and failing. At least I tried. The funny thing is, letting go has a way of getting results of course. Really letting go. Something's going to happen. Something for the best. But you have to let go.

Reminds me of this joke an artist friend of mine told me when he really wanted to get into this one gallery, about the guy who gets a flat in the middle of the night and doesn't have a jack. He sees a farmhouse in the distance and as he goes towards it he imagines again and again that the farmer won't let him borrow his. By the time he gets there and the farmer politely answers the door, he tells the poor farmer that he can take his jack and shove it. It is the wanting that gets us in trouble time and again. Wanting, trying, and the guilt are all part of the same stinky ball of wax.

Which gets me to the three Ps. Came to me in a dream, funnily enough. Perseverance, patience, and peace. Works in hitch-hiking; works in painting; works in everything. Don't want, don't try, no guilt, just do, and love doing it! We do it, "just DO it(deep down even the most stubborn and ornery know the fun is in the doing)," and let come what may.

Again, do whatever it is you do as an artist(no one can take that away from you). Don't want results, don't try, and that means success, appreciation, recognition, respect, gallery, money, any of it. Don't feel guilty because you're surrounded by idiots who think that those are the measures of being an artist(the guy who came up with "eyes on the prize" was of course blinded by want, and should have had his eyes poked out with a stick). You know better. Trust yourself. Just do, and be happy. Peace.

Why an artist like Rothko, whose work represented nothing if not this very idea of faith, should have folded so badly in the end, should give us all pause, and make these three Ps that much more imperative. Whatever else happened to him and so many other artists, whatever caused him to abandon the two essential principles of faith: I can do it, and It will be ok, I'll never know, but this is why we call the straight and narrow the razor's edge. Rothko is now more than anything a cautionary tale.

When you stumble, when your green grass has been taken from you, get it back. Somehow, someway. And know that it will come back, somehow and someway. I'm an atheist but the religious proverb: god helps those who help themselves, resonates with these principles. You can do it, and it will be ok. A two part harmony. Perseverance and patience; and peace.