The faces stare me down with unbalanced eyes and colors swirling. Fixed on a museum canvas, only imagination could add to Van Gogh’s story of their lives. Until last night, Continue reading “Loving Vincent”
What I learned in a watercolor class that was so good, I knew immediately that I had to drop the class and not go back:
There are four keys to being a good artist, he told us, swooshing his brush across the cotton paper. He painted much faster than he spoke.
Learn to use your medium: how to mix, how it meets the paper – this would be the first step.
Standing at his camera tripod-turned-easel, working left to right, he painted the sky in less than a minute. It looked scattered and messy, like a child’s first attempt at Chinese characters.
Step 2: Continue reading “Letting Go”
In my campaign for creativity, I’m lobbying myself to move the creative processing outside my head and into the world. I wrote about shedding a fear of failure, and capturing creative energy as ideas rush in and out like the tides. Sometimes we need a push to get an idea out into the world, especially when complicating factors like pride get in the way. Continue reading “Creating Competitively?”
This is one of the most creative years on record for me. First I had to allow myself to be bad at something long enough to improve. Embracing failure keeps my perfectionist foot away from the brake pedal. But working through that fear of failure was only the first part of my creative drive.
I still had to get the other foot to step on the gas. So what’s been driving that? Continue reading “Creative Tides”
Overcoming the fear of looking stupid takes practice. I found plenty of that practice when I took up soccer.
Trying new things means being bad at something for awhile so that I can improve – and it’s brutal. When I was younger I resisted trying something new unless I had a hunch I’d be good at it. Age only worsens this tendency. As I develop particular spheres of expertise, pride and comfort insist that I stay inside them.
But after coaching and watching my kids play a thousand and one soccer games, I saw the beauty of the beautiful game and I had to give it a shot. (pun intended)
The only problem: I wasn’t good, and I hate being bad.
I mean I really hate it. It’s even worse in a team sport – what Malcolm Gladwell calls a weak-link sport – where even the best player’s success depends on the weakest. For a social perfectionist, the only thing worse than being bad at something, is being bad at something in front of others.
The first step was simply getting in shape – I was sore for an entire year. But after clearing that hurdle I was left standing toe to toe with a lack of technical skill.
Like a backseat driver my mind had remarkable ideas but couldn’t quite reach the steering wheel.
I played on. My schedule allowed me to play twice a week. I went back time after time, building confidence muscle with repetition. Even a hard day on the pitch was better than a safe day inside the workout gym.
Some days I saw progress but other days I felt like quitting. After losing the ball enough times, I noticed teammates simply passed it elsewhere. It felt like I’d lost their trust. I wished I could explain to these guys that I was actually good at other things in life.
I had to talk myself through many sessions, and occasionally just take a break. It seems pride, like hamstrings, can take only so much strain before seizing up.
But after nearly 5 years, I’m noticing a mental change that is impacting my life far beyond soccer.
I’ve become more accustom to making mistakes and moving on, and this simple adjustment is opening up creative freedom at home and at work.
Is failure an option?
As I’ve been trying to convince my ego, the “fail fast, fail often” movement has been gaining momentum over the last decade in Silicon Valley and beyond. It has even spawned its own conference, appropriately called FailCon, whose motto is, “Stop being afraid of failure and start embracing it”.
Starting with an understanding that we are going to fail at various points along the way, the goal of the movement is simple. Fail quickly, learn what went wrong, and correct course before you’ve gone so far that failing is expensive.
This mantra has taken root in my workplace, where our software is put before customers early. We let them decide what should be perfected or abandoned. Instead of planning for perfection, this encourages us to “try stuff” and learn from it. This approach seems to suit software, soccer, and creativity.
Instead of planning for perfection, this encourages us to “try stuff” and learn from it.
In the case of art, sketch something, tack it to a wall, and look at it with others over a few days; you’ll know what to fix and what’s already working. Share a half-written song and the early feedback will make your creation better. Write a short blog entry and dare yourself to click the “Publish” button even if another week of editing could make it better. Be willing to share a rough draft and then revise it.
Can you take criticism?
I’ve had to work at this, especially criticism from myself. It’s said the best athletes have short memories – they can move forward quickly without obsessing on mistakes.¹ When mistakes become a brain blocker, it only reveals my own high expectations.
If making a few bad passes devastates me, I must have expected that every pass would be perfect.² Playing soccer has forced me to play through mistakes and balance my expectations.
Likewise my artistic creations rarely live up to my vision. Ira Glass cleverly³ describes this as the gap between your creative work and your good taste – which motivated you toward art in the first place.
I certainly feel that gap between my soccer mind and my soccer cleats. But here in my creative driver seat, keeping my learning foot on the ball somehow keeps my perfectionist foot away from the brake pedal.
And that lets the creative drive, drive.
Now let’s get out there and fail. : )
¹See also http://believeperform.com/performance/whuy-mitsakes-are-birllaint/ The article is good and the purposeful mistakes in the URL proves the point.
²The reality is that failure and success are more distributed: If I touch the ball 10 times, 3 of them might be awful, 3 could have been better, 3 good, and 1 just might be brilliant. (when I first started the ratio was much worse) The point is this: if I can’t go out in public and make 3 awful passes I’ll never get the 1 brilliant shot that makes me proud.
³If you didn’t already click the Ira Glass link, do it now: it’s 2 minutes of motivation for anyone doing creative work. https://vimeo.com/85040589
I painted the above to express in simpler terms the many words I was chewing through. Of course Bob Dylan would completely disown me for explaining a work of art, but sometimes growing up means going against our mentors : ) .
Consider the right panel: the work starts with strict boundaries on the left – everything is clearly defined and of a solid color. As we move across – like a timeline – we see what was once neat becoming blurred, less defined, messy. Life still goes along, rich(er) with color, but no longer categorized as it once was.
If it’s no surprise to us in the present day that this piece is titled, “Deconstruction”, neither would it have surprised our ancestors. It’s nothing new to discover the world is not as it seemed. I’ve been finding friends through history, each of them deserving a more in depth look, but as a start:
Picasso had the skill of a realist painter but questioned whether realism was all that real. Maybe the paintings that accurately described the world around us, didn’t. Stripping away all but a few grotesquely exaggerated elements, cubism was born.
He wasn’t alone – Monet in his impressionism, Cezanne in his post-impressionism, Stein in her purposely broken grammar, all became disillusioned with contemporary art’s expression of the world, and used their creativity to shine a light on it.¹ Critics saying these artists had a skewed view of the world missed their point: even the mainstream view of the world has a skew.
Moving back in history, think of the deconstruction Galileo caused when his evidence pointed, against all odds, that the universe did not revolve around humans and their planet. It’s probably hard for us to understand how much identity and theology had been built around this mis-information. This simple scientific observation triggered de-construction for many and potential de-capitation for one.
Among authors through history, how many have taken to the pen to describe their movement out of or into faith (To name a motley few: Augustine, Christian Wiman, Bob Dylan)? Without too much analysis, this includes many biblical writers as well, though some like St. Paul were writing during a time of surety, reflecting back on ‘where they once were’, almost as if their painting would read from right to left. But then we are gifted with Job and David too, left to right, from answers to questions, from delineated to deconstructed.
Like the artwork above, faith and life look different as time moves by. But still we see the same colors on both sides, mixed or pure, calling from the canvas. Asking us to consider if some of the lines we thought un-crossable, might serve our faith better with a little leeway. And when some of the blurry lines are tightened up, we then hold it in the humility of understanding they will be questioned again.
Newport Folk Festival
With Dylan on my mind, I’m thinking about the legend of the Newport Folk Festival in
1965. Breaking with folk music tradition by playing an electric guitar, he was booed by the purists, left the stage and didn’t come back to Newport for 37 years.² “No acoustic, no folk; know acoustic, know folk!”, the crowd might have chanted, as Galileo’s critics might have shouted onto his stage, “no geocentric, no faith; know geocentric, know faith!”.
Dylan saw there was a deeper truth to folk music that wasn’t defined by the instrument being played. I can’t resist wondering if, standing on stage with his electric guitar splashing light into his fans’ horrified eyes, the ever-prophetic Dylan was smiling, “Someday this will all make sense.”³
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
♦ weekendswell ♦
If you like music, you might also enjoy reading Cover Songs. Get notified of next post by clicking “Follow”
¹Jonah Lehrer’s ties some of these pieces together in his well-researched book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.
²There are of course different viewpoints on the booing that day, enough to have its own wiki page
³ Hard not to think of Marty McFly’s Back to the Future moment after breaking from Chuck Berry style electric into a more 80’s style solo, “Guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… but your kids are going to love it.”
I was a little wary when I dozed off with a spider on the wall but when I woke to find it crawling on me. Panic. Get it off. I can’t think straight with this thing on me.
Only when I get some distance can I see the benefits of its fly-catching webs, and can begin to imagine living symbiotically, me and the spider, the spider and me.
I was born into the church and chose the church but then I woke up to find the church under my skin.
I’ve spent this year writing in frustration about that big bad wolf outside of me, but at some point I have to admit the wolf lives in me, and that’s why it bothers me so much. If I were immune to its power I would be indifferent and have no reason to write about it.
Find and Replace
Unlike old typewriters, modern writing software has a “find and replace” feature that can search for any word (for example, “Indian”) and update it with different words (“Native American”).
As I look back on my writing this year, I could surely use such a feature to replace each complaint about the “church” with “that churchy part of me”.
Here’s an example: “How could the church be so sure about everything?” (see more on this) to “How could that churchy part of me be so sure about everything?”
Or, “How could I let that churchy part of me have such a big say?”
Or simply, “Why didn’t I ask more questions?”
I am finally learning to do this at the doctor’s office, so why not in life? How many times have we taken a family member to the doctor for some minor thing, accepted the doctor’s first diagnosis and left with some ointment and bandaids only to get home wondering if we can get it wet or how we’ll know if it’s healed?
I think we have some implicit trust that the doctor has told us everything we need to know.
It’s time to start trusting that my questions are an elemental part of the doctor-patient relationship. (In fact the doctor expects this, and if they don’t, it’s time to find a new doctor.)
I’m going to try writing more from myself, making honest art and making art honest. But even if I don’t, the reader can know that whoever I am angrily writing about is triggering some part of me I wish weren’t there.
I want to write a letter of peace but the frustration seizes my fingers. This year I am learning to write out the frustration in order to find the letters of peace underneath.
Writing has been so beneficial to get this out, to point the finger without actually poking. All along I’ve wondered whether to mail this letter or just keep writing the letter over and over, until finally the letter itself changes.
Defining and discussing frustrations puts them in their place. Instead of keeping faith in a narrow box with frustrations swirling around – let’s turn the tables by putting frustrations in a box, and letting the joy run wild. Instead of keeping the chickens in a cage so the wolves of the world can’t get them, let’s put the wolves in a cage and let the chickens run wild.
♦ weekendswell ♦
For a new vision of church-to-world, see A Wasteful Embrace. Click Follow to be notified of future updates
Featured image by Dave Morrow, see more work at DaveMorrowPhotography