Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Making Movies Means to Me

In 1978 I began my freshman year at college with the intention of working my way into a prominent film program--to fulfill the dream I'd nurtured all my life. That is, to continue my long-standing relationship with the big screen (as a dedicated cinema buff) by stepping out of the audience and entering the world behind the magic wall.

But, as happens to so many young artists, life had other plans for me. A couple of tours in the Army as a counterintelligence agent, marriage and kids, and, of course, the ever pressing "Legend of the Rent," as Jack Black named it in School of Rock. I saw some of the world (Korea and Berlin before the wall came down) failed at a business or two, raised my kids, moved to the mountains, and went back to college (for an education in something practical). 

But through the years, a part of my psyche was still sitting with its brand new school clothes and box of crayons, waiting for the bus to arrive and take me to film school. I became aware of this fact because the stories milling around in my head started throwing a tantrum every time I saw a particularly inspiring film. "When's it gonna be our turn?"

Still, by now the kids were teenagers and film school seemed as likely as going on a Jules Verne adventure--maybe less.

Then along came the digital revolution. It was like being Charlie in that moment when Willie Wonka hands him the keys to the chocolate factory. So many possibilities--and no more excuses. Just do it, as they say.

Of course, it isn't really that simple. To be really good at making your own movies requires a commitment to excellence and bruising hard work that puts you in something like the 99.99th percentile among overachievers (and possibly crazy people)--all with no guarantee you'll ever make a nickel or reach the fabled audience with your work. There is something truly masochistic about wrangling an all volunteer cast and crew, lining up locations on a handshake, scraping up pizza money for shoot days, and so on. And it takes some emotional guts to ignore the perception that because you never did make it to film school, you'll never be a real filmmaker.

And yet, there is that kid who is no longer waiting for the bus to arrive. That guy sits in front of the computer monitor through days upon days of post-production with a tub of popcorn and a box of Junior Mints and can't believe how lucky he is to be alive. He or she just wants to hear a story.

It is good to remember that's what it's all about--story. I hope you enjoy ours.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Instructions for Living a Life

This week I will do what all honest artists do in every moment of creation: I will borrow from another. It’s okay. The last original thought happened when the first Artist said, “Let there be light.” Everything since then has been derivative of all the infinite passion and imagination present on that youngest day. And still the universe is a bottomless well of new ways to see. This is our heritage—playtime that never ends!

And so I start with Mary Oliver’s words:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Twelve words. Twenty syllables. One hundred million practical applications—and an uncountable number of impractical ones.

Instructions for living a life. I am tempted to add a modifier: Instructions for living a creative life. After all, we have come here in search of The Way of the Artful Warrior. But at the last minute I catch myself and imagine the poet left the training wheels off her words on purpose. Maybe she is saying that life is just life—always creative, always free, always a handful of possibility from which we make what we will. Living is creating. Creating is living.

Pay attention. Has it occurred to you that every time someone scolded you to pay attention as a child, or as a dream-walking adult gazing through windows during meetings and other Important Matters—is it possible that you were paying attention, just to the “wrong” things?

To pay attention well often means to rob from others in order to fill yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Thou shalt not profess that which thou dost not believe…Thou shalt not heed the voice of man when it agrees not with the voice of God in thine own soul…The life of the soul in conscious union with the Infinite shall be for thee the only real existence.”

Steal back your attention from those who have questionable use for it—sometimes even from ones you love—and pay it into seeing what poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer calls “the scarlet worship along the edges”—of everything.

Be astonished. If the dusty yet prolific cataloguers of the world have taught us one thing it is that looking is not the same as seeing. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about a pine tree:

“Pines are native to most of the Northern Hemisphere (see List of pines by region), and have been introduced throughout most temperate and subtropical regions of the world, where they are grown as timber and cultivated as ornamental plants in parks and gardens.”

Not an ounce of astonishment at the way a pine tree clings to cliff faces; turns forest air into another substance entirely—ancestral breath and aromatic music; speaks the poems of its kind in the house of flame; shelters the titmouse and the eagle; sways in wind like a sufi mystic; feeds the squirrel and the beetle; pries the mountain away from itself for a long journey to the sea; catches winter snow and holds it back to the sky in thanksgiving; in a long life, washes in the light of ten thousand full moons.

Astonishment is hard work now. The door opens when we commit to un-naming things. Un-knowing the facts. Un-learning “the way things are.” Read Neruda, go blindfolded into the woods, beat a drum and listen for voices chanting in the rhythm, be the fool for once.

Tell about it. Shout it! Bleed for it! The world is full of “art” that does everything right—form, color, story structure in three acts, verse-chorus-verse, dances of impeccable perfection—and is utterly unmemorable. It is the difference between hotel room carpet and a carpet of autumn leaves on the forest floor, still quaking with the astonishment of being. Speak nothing, make nothing until you are standing inside its magical, pan-dimensional, un-effing-believable soul.

Post these instructions everywhere. Let go of the shore and leap into the great current of living a life.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Hide and Seek

There’s something I’ve noticed about making art. I offer it to you as a talisman to carry in your pocket. Here goes:

Creation loves to play hide and seek. Loves it. Like a child who will not come in for a bath until you’ve searched the darkening yard one more time. Doesn’t matter that you say: “I mean it, you come here this instant!” She just giggles.

Creation loves to jump out and surprise you.

Here’s the catch—though the game is on all the time, it’s being played in the real world. Not happening in TV world, or Facebook world, or video game land, or worried-sick-about-the-bills-ville.

And since the real world is only happening in the present moment, then to play you actually have to be present yourself. It won’t work to go for a walk only to perform historic battle reenactments in your mind the whole way—“Then he said, then I said, and she couldn’t believe it, and oh how I wish I had said…” That’s the best way in the world to squish all the fun out of a good game of hide and seek.

You’ve got to actually be looking. Play along. Search in all the unexpected places—like down the storm drain to see what child’s toy washed away in a recent rain. Notice the way your elderly neighbors hold hands (or don’t) while walking the dog every day, or the way the dog jumps at doves impossibly high on a wire overhead. Look for your next idea through the windows of cars parked on the street. In the colors and aromas and textures in the Portuguese dish you made for supper from a second hand recipe book you found at a neighborhood garage sale. 

Don’t tune out in line at the grocery store—and for heaven’s sake don’t even look at the magazine racks. Instead, listen. Observe. Never stop peering through walls and around corners to where your muse is hiding. Listen for the giggles that tell you when you are getting warm.

In those times when making art seems hard and no fun—close your eyes, count to twenty, and say "Ready or not, here I come!"

Friday, September 20, 2013

Four Clues You're an Artist (Human)

I have a confession to make. The title of this piece is a bit deceptive, because I don’t really think that the following four traits are limited to artists alone. I don’t believe that “artist” is a separate species of human, a special club you have to be born into. It’s true that some people seem to have fewer creative roadblocks than others, and possess great artistic momentum from day one.

But I am quite convinced of this: these traits describe what it means to be an unfettered human, free of the “get-back-in-line” prison boss we all carry around in our heads. We all want to play, to make things, to put on talent shows in the living room, to sing, dance, write…you name it.

How can I be so sure? Because I am a father. Nearly thirty years of parenthood has persuaded me that all children are artists, period. Is it plausible to believe that our creator gives each of us a brief taste of fantastic creative power as children only to slam the door shut just because we “grow up”? Be serious!

Someone told me recently that she “didn’t get the creative gene.” What blinding power is this that can so thoroughly confuse us about who we are? Not everyone will paint a masterpiece, but we all are destined to create art, beauty and meaning with our lives. And it is a destiny we must fulfill—soon—if we hope to rise to meet the challenges our civilization faces in the coming decades.

Some people already know in their bones they are artists. The following is meant to cheer you on, and give you the courage to be freer than ever. Others are hypnotized by the drone of creative repression they’ve been subjected to their whole lives. To them I say: time for a new vision of the you that is possible. Here’s a good start:

1. An artist is fluent in many languages—and only a couple of them involve words. To a creative person there are many ways to convey meaning and tell stories: motion, color, form, images, textures, sounds (some traditionally musical, some not; all containing music), touch, words, feeling, food, mathematics—on and on.

These are ancient languages that require one’s whole being to master. No wonder sitting in a desk at school or in a cubicle at work, restricted to a narrow band of the artistic spectrum—written words and numbers—can feel abusive at times.

For someone who is aware of the artistic nature of existence, the world never stops creating and speaking in new creations, inviting us to participate and add our own brush strokes. Which leads to…

2. An artist can’t easily compartmentalize life. “There is a time to daydream and a time to get to work.” “Doodle on your own time.” “That’s nice, but be sure you have a practical skill too.”

Have you heard these messages, or some variation? Do you tell yourself these things on a regular basis? If so, you are surely an artist. But chances are, it doesn’t matter how many times you are shamed (or guilt-trip yourself) into believing this tripe, it never sticks. That’s because it is impossible for you to limit your vision to only a tiny slice of the bandwidth of life for more than a few minutes at a time.

This doesn’t mean that artists have license to be flaky and unreliable. But how much better would you be at life’s mundane tasks if you were free to approach them as you are—with maximum freedom and creativity? Don’t wait for someone to give you that permission. Imagine the perfect creative life, hold the image in your mind—then take steps toward it every day.

3. An artist measures worth differently than others. There are good reasons why the phrase “starving artist” exists. First, art of all kinds is vastly underappreciated—and undervalued—in a mass market culture like ours. Powerful corporate interests have gone to great trouble and expense to be sure the public gets its art and entertainment from the same handful of mediocre merchants, period.

But it’s also true that artists themselves tend to live in ways that cause financial advisors to cringe—choosing time (for creation) over security, investing money in the means to make more art instead of planning prudently (with or without a “payoff”), and giving away their talents just for the pleasure of seeing something beautiful in the world.

Here’s the point: Being an artist frequently brings you into conflict with the encrusted consensus version of How Things Are Done. It is tempting to see that as evidence that you are doing something wrong. Ha! Quite the opposite. Accept this fact and just get on with being who you are, doing what you love to do.

Joseph Campbell said, “If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” Doors of contentment, achievement, partnership, financial reward, brilliance in your creations you never thought possible. Doors that reveal new and creative ways forward in our quest for more sustainable and resilient living arrangements.

4. An artist knows that magic is alive and well. How? Because he or she has seen it in person, at work in the moment of creation—a song that seems to drop, fully formed, from the sky; a painting that appears to arrive through the canvas from the other side; a dream in which characters walk with writers, telling their stories; dancers who swear they feel like leaves on a breeze, as if they are being danced rather than dancing.

Yes, it is possible to turn making art into Hard Work and take it seriously as Really Important Business. But, once in a while, even people tempted by this approach are carried away in a transcendent moment they can’t explain. Julia Cameron writes that we mislead ourselves when we say artists “think up” creations—because in fact we “pull them down” from a river of magic flowing above us all the time.

Here’s the bottom line: what the world desperately needs now—as we face multiple signs that “business as usual” is coming to an end—is more creative and self-aware human beings who value beauty and wholeness over utility and profit.

What we need is a world full of artists.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Artists of the World Unite!

Let’s get one thing straight: This conversation we’ve begun about how to define and defend the imaginative, creative life in our modern world is not just a topic for tea parties and polite poetry circles. It doesn’t belong in the “Lifestyle” section of the Sunday papers—but on the front page, above the fold, big letters. 

Certainly, the subject matters a lot to individual artists who must constantly swim upstream against the relentless current of our cultural belief in profit, prudence and responsibility as the highest possible ideals. (We have our puritanical heritage to thank for that.)

As Julia Cameron wrote in The Artist’s Way, “For most of us the idea that the creator encourages creativity is a radical thought. We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical, something that God wouldn’t approve of for us. After all, our creative artist is an inner youngster and prone to childish thinking. If our mom or dad expressed doubt or disapproval for our creative dreams, we may project that same attitude onto a parental god. This thinking must be undone.”

Yes, it must. But not just for the benefit of solitary creatives who deserve the psychological and emotional freedom to be who they are and do what they do—to say nothing of a little cultural encouragement along the way!

This is also a liberation movement that matters to the health and wellbeing of our society as a whole. Our collective relationship to creativity matters a lot, because it is the wellspring of vision and inspiration, without which no nation thrives for long. Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote years ago called “Where Are the Poets?”

I once read a story about the leader of a revolution whose lieutenants asked him on their day of victory, “What would you like us to do first?” Without hesitation he replied, “Round up the poets.”

That’s because any tyrant knows, before there can be opposing armies or mass uprisings there must be ideas that inspire and unite the people. The basic building blocks of our world are ideas. Only later do we pour the concrete, or design software or form parliaments. Control the ideas and you control the world.

True change – social, political, spiritual – falls like rain when the time is right, but only if it has some nucleus to form around. Poets and artists of all kinds are the rainmakers of the world. We seed the clouds with stories that offer new ways of seeing things. We look into the shadows and behind forbidden doors and then scatter what we see in poems, songs, novels, paintings, plays, dances, films, symphonies or sculptures. We pull back the veil of collective denial and hypnosis to examine ourselves as we really are.

Often, true art reminds us how beautiful we are and that the ancient story of love is alive and well, transforming everything it touches. Sometimes the story is not so pleasant, and it forces us to face cultural luggage we’d rather leave in the basement.

So to all those timid artists out there, to all the repressed artists who listened to the nay-saying critics and took their daggers to heart, to everyone with a story to tell in a painting, a play, a book, a poem, a sculpture, a film, a dance, a puppet opera, a song, a skyscraper mural…or any other form yet to be imagined…

We need you! Rise up and make your art, out loud, on purpose, in defiance of gravity, with joy in your awesome artist’s heart. Have courage! See the world as only you can, then tell us the truth about it. Write on the back of napkins, paint on discarded pizza box lids, sing on the subway, dance wherever you go.

Wake up to the amazing gift you are—and pass it on. As Judy Garland said, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of somebody else.”

Let’s play!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Boyd's TV Repair Shop and Art School

I spent the afternoons of my senior year in high school working at Boyd’s TV Repair Shop, located in a 1940s, sun-bleached storefront building in a working-class neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. The place still presented a brave face, head held high, but everything around the middle had begun slouching toward sunset. The hardwood floorboards were worn as bare as the day they were milled, but infinitely smoother. They sloped ever so slightly toward a vanishing point in the back corner, so that crossing the floor always felt like getting up from the dinner table after a little too much wine. Window and door frames enhanced the effect by leaning imperceptibly out of plumb.

In this way the place reflected the proprietor, Mr. Boyd, a reliable and meticulous man who nevertheless showed signs of having stood too long behind the counter. Keeping the current of broadcast dreams flowing in other people’s homes was taking a toll.

It was 1978. The Bee Gees were Stayin’ Alive on Top 40 AM radio far longer than they should. Jimmy Carter was president, in the innocent time before there were hostages in the embassy in Tehran to worry about. Something called “stagflation” gripped the nation—simultaneous inflation and unemployment. Go figure.

But in those days if—heaven forbid—your TV broke down you could still call on Mr. Boyd to fix it for a reasonable fee. The massive things were meant to be repaired, not replaced at the first sign of trouble. He would write your name, address and a brief description of the problem on a triplicate invoice and pin it to the scuffed metal clipboard hanging on the wall beside the phone. That act sent repairman Tommy Pehl and I scrambling out to the well-worn white panel van, stocked to the roof with the parts and tools we might need to break the logjam and get those electrons flowing again.

Tommy looked a lot like Don Knotts. In fact, exactly like him when he coincidentally played a quirky TV repairman in the film Pleasantville. Tommy was the brains of the expedition. I was there to help lift and fetch—and maybe learn something about TV repair along the way.

And that’s where the story gets around to the creative life and what it means to be an artist. Not simply to make some art once in a while, but to be an artist, “balls to bones,” as The Oracle says in The Matrix.

The fact is, my head and heart just weren’t into learning to read schematics or the dusty entrails of television sets, hard as I tried to pretend otherwise. I give fervent thanks for all the people who are interested in such things. But in spite of the general appeal of “learning a trade,” as my family advised and hoped for, it just wasn’t to be. Here’s an example of why:

One day Mr. Boyd’s invoice led us to the very nice home of an elderly woman with a TV in need of only minor adjustment. It is a good thing, because all I could see was the fabulous baby grand piano in the corner. A Rolls Royce compared to the much-loved VW bug I was learning to play at home. The deep black glassy finish caught the late afternoon sun flooding through the window, a warm caress the keys seemed to be straining to answer, to complete the circle with sound.

Seeing my attraction, the woman invited me to play. From behind the TV set Tommy shrugged and nodded tentatively. Clearly this wasn’t on the schematic of what is expected of a repair crew.

I sat down and performed a song I had recently written—no doubt a forgettable and sappy love song. But for that moment, time stopped. The technology of television ceased to exist, along with the physics of electromagnetism and the universe that spawned it. Pure, unformed existence emerged when fingers and keys melded into sound, when voice and words climbed the music like a staircase leading home.

When finished, I opened my eyes and saw my reflection in the old woman’s expression. A lifelong lover of music, she had a look of quiet recognition, like she had heard her native language in the marketplace of a distant country. Tommy’s eyes never left the task at hand—an act of deep integrity, a reflection of who he was. Mr. Boyd charged his customers by the hour, after all, and he wouldn’t waste a minute of it.

Back in the truck he said, “That was wonderful.”

The scene has repeated itself in my life too many times to list—delaying a furniture delivery I was responsible for to watch a late summer wind push ocean waves across a field of amber wheat; ignoring my “legitimate” work because a story or a poem or a song has latched on and won’t let go. To this day I am easily distracted by shiny things. I tend to prioritize life in ways that make the world’s bean counters go crazy—God bless them, every one!

But there is a difference, now that I’m past 50, and one I highly recommend for you too, if you recognize yourself in this story: I’ve given up trying to be anything else or live any other way—not even for that most revered cultural Holy Grail: a steady paycheck.

I am an artist, you see. Can’t be anything else.

Next week: (No really!) the five traits of being an artist.