As our plane swooped down over Mexico, endless green filled the windows. My first instinct was to wonder what sort of farming this could be, dense, unbroken and stretching to the horizon in every direction. As the wheels touched down, I saw it was jungle, an impenetrable mass of unruly, complex life. The runways had been cut out of the wilderness but no attempt had been made to cultivate the creepers and trees. Nature was too vast, man too small.
Mexico is a mostly modern country with drive-through Starbucks and TGIFridays. But many Mexicans accept the unrelenting power of nature, impossible to dominate completely when the air is humid and the sun shines brightly all the live long year. Grasshoppers the size of iPhones, careen through the sky with chartreuse scales and hot-pink wings. Raccoons wander into four-star restaurants and take corn chips off the bar. Cars are sun-faded, concrete is cracked, donkeys walk slowly. It’s not a rich country, but that’s not the reason things seem shop-worn and resigned. It’s because Mexicans accept the inevitable encroachment of Nature, that it’s pointless to be fastidious when geckos will wander onto your kitchen counters and carpets of kelp will wash onto your freshly grouted patio.
I like it.
In New York, we have been beating Nature back for 500 years and we think we’ve won. So we can’t help but freak out when mice nibble on the organic granola box, when mosquitos find their way under our 600 thread count sheets, when Hurricane Sandy knocks out our wifi for a week. If Nature gains the slightest foothold, we take it as a sign that our entire civilization is crumbling.
I like that in general Mexicans are so much less uptight about perfection. They are cool if you do things that are a little risky — but hardly dangerous. Things that would have flocks of lawyers descending anywhere in the States. Unsecured seatbelts don’t have those annoying warning alarms. There are packs of cigarettes in the minibar. People build restaurants out of driftwood and light them with masses of candles. Some cars are missing fenders or bumpers and are painted patchily by hand. Most streets have no sidewalks or street lights so walking at night under starry skies can be an adventure.
We sat in a beachside restaurant that served food that would have been the envy of any entry in the NYC Zagat. But before our appetizer arrived, the waiters patrolled through with smoking pails, emitting clouds of burning citronella so chokingly dense we could barely see our $12 artisanal margaritas. The mosquitos and gnats were barely dissuaded but no one bothered to complain to the Health Department, pausing only to reach under our designer linens to scratch the welts.
Mexicans don’t value their lives less than their Northern neighbors. They just accept that we can’t control everything all the time. And that this acceptance makes life easier and preserves resources for more important things. Insisting on perfection makes thing a lot less interesting and spicy. It’s also a losing battle.
Maybe it was the heat or the Negro Modelo but my pen line was a little looser in Mexico. I did a number of scrawled pages in my journal, drawn half lying down, book propped against my spreading gut, mango juice on my unshaven chin. Maybe this was how Gauguin felt.
I am sloppy as a rule, but I’m not always loose. I value looseness because it feels more organic and expressive, more human, more natural, more the way life is. Less uptight, less gringo. Jack tells me his drawing teacher insists they draw standing up, with their pads on an easel, and that they draw from the shoulder, not from the wrist, to make bold and sweeping lines with their whole bodies. Flat on my back on my chaise, I am far from that, but I feel integrated, natural, in tune with my surroundings. My body, immersed in sweat and heat and verdant richness, feels sensual and at ease. My inner critic, the monkey is dulled too. He is chewing lazily on a mango in the shade, indifferent to my drawing. He can’t be bothered to nag me when we have the jungle at our doorstep. In Mexico, monkeys sit on your roof, squat on your car, hoot from the trees above your hotel window. But it seems they stay out of your head.
Over this past week in Mexico, I haven’t been as insanely productive as I might have been. But I have been more in tune with my nature. I’ve dismantled waves, I’ve counted grains of sand, I’ve listened to grackles eat French Fries, and I’ve felt the walls of perfection erode. Rules, goals and expectations, it turns out, may not help me make as much stuff as simply sitting in the sun and letting the world grow on around me.
While your inner critic, that churlish monkey, sits glowering in your head, he has allies all around. They are camped on the hill and are riding in from all points of the compass, waiting for their colleague on the inside to lower the gates and let them flood in and maraud. Most of these confederates are unwitting. They don’t know they are part of the army that can bring you down. But the monkey knows.
Some of them are driven by monkeys of their own. When you share your creative plans, your intention to start making art or to invest in yourself, they will start chattering from the trees, gibbering in fear. Fear for themselves. When you announce your brave decision to reverse the course of your life, to begin to make things again as you haven’t since third grade, you will set a shining example that will reflect back their own failures to live up to their dreams.
This isn’t universal of course. Many will applaud you and offer you encouragement. But skulking in the crowd will be those who are resentful and bitter and frustrated. And they will begin to lob suggestions, improvements, cautions, and advocacy for the Devil, designed to make you balk and backtrack.
Creativity is a particular magnet for this sort of monkey convocation. In my decades as a creative professional, I have encountered this spirit time and again. When I am awash with excitement at a new project or the possibilities of an assignment, these monkeys slink into my office, slump on to my couch and start to tell me the latest gossip, the latest management bungle, the latest reason to lose faith. They will complain about the assignment, the industry, the market. They will try to drag me into long sessions of venom and bile. They will splash me but I work to remain unblemished. Better to get up and leave that be infected with their toxicity. They are creative at coming up with reasons to stall and malinger, such is their monkeys’ gift of gab, and my own internal monkey howls with glee and joins the chorus. These voices get me nowhere and need not to be heeded. Cut the chat short and get back to work.
And, while I am busy pointing fingers, let me point them at the mirror too. For in my own moments of weakness and doubt, I have been equally capable of joining or even initiating these grumblefests, feeling insecure in myself, acquiescing to the primate within and dragging in to a colleague’s office, leaning on my hairy knuckles. It’s a toxic affair that makes everyone feel, not purged, but depleted and sick.
Another band of accomplices are the media. The monkey loves the mindless vegetation of watching TV, numbing you with celebrities and gossip. Not the stories of artists and creative inspiration but the mindless doings of fabricated and often malignant chitchat. Besides being a time waster and anesthetic, the media can also skew your perception of art, artists and the true nature of success.
The banker is another friend of the monkey, cajoling you to focus on the bottom line. So is the electric company and the credit card company. They can make you do the monkey’s bidding, downscaling your ambitions because you feel trapped. They don’t deal in might-bes, they want theirs and now. They warn you not to take risks, to keep your day job, to be sensible. Of course, they have the right to get paid. But not to decide your future.
If you are a creative professional, you had to overcome the monkey just to get your career started. The monkey probably warned you and your parents: Don’t be a designer, an art director, an illustrator, an architect, a programmer, a musician, etc. It’s too risky, too competitive, etc. but you did nonetheless. But maybe now you see that the monkey finally let you follow this professional path but now won’t let you pursue your true passion — making art, speaking in your own voice, being your own client. The monkey giveth and he taketh away.
If you are wrestling with this issue, stop thinking. The monkey wants to engage you, wants you to obsess about his heckling and turn your creative energy into a response ego him. Don’t. Focus instead on what you want to do. Draw something. Write something. Then don’t look at it. Don’t judge it. Don’t show it to anyone else. Turn the page and write some more, do another drawing, dream another dream. When the books is done, fill another. Just keep going. Don’t ask for feedback from anyone who might derail you. Better to work alone in a cave than throw your work to the monkeys. Distance and perseverance are the best antidotes to this scourge. Build up your ramparts and lock the beast in your darkest, deepest dungeon.
Then get back to work.
Do you find your monkey has allies? What do they say? How do you deal with them? I’d love to know.
I just finished reading a horrible story in the paper. Apparently a Romanian woman’s son stole a number of works of art from a museum in Rotterdam, paintings and drawings by Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Lucian Freud and more. Convinced that if the paintings no longer existed, her son could not be prosecuted, the woman burned them all in the stove. Experts analyzed the ashes and concluded that her grim tale is almost certainly true. These masterpieces are lost to the world forever.
As I sat in the kitchen reading this sad story, my mind wandered off on a tangent. How many works of art have I destroyed? Not literally in my kitchen stove, but in the furnace of my mind. How many paintings have I not done? How many drawings have I aborted? How many pots have I not thrown? How many films have I not made? I thought of all the times I thought I should do some drawing and instead watched “Real Housewives”. I thought about that etching class I was thinking of taking last year and didn’t. Poof, all those would-be etchings went up in smoke. Or that three-week trip I took to Japan when I didn’t do a single sketch in my book. Or that Sketchbook Film we planned to do about a fashion illustrator but never got around to.
This isn’t the monkey talking, brutalizing me for my indolence. It’s just a fact. Every time I find a reason not to create, the art I might have made doesn’t exist. It may not have all been great art, worthy of Rotterdam, but it would have been another step on the path to better art, more fluid, more expressive, more fun.
What have you not made? And how can we fight the fire?
I was served two giant helpings of insight this morning, both in my email inbox.
First, this note from Evelyn:
I recently ran a drawing class for adults – a sort of introduction to urban sketching, really. On the first day I shared the story of my own rediscovery of drawing, a rediscovery largely fueled by Everyday Matters. I talked about letting go of attachment to the outcome, focusing on seeing and the connection that is made with the world around us as we draw. I said don’t wait for it to be perfect before you share what you draw.
One of the participants then told me, ” I don’t have much confidence and I have no experience. The reason I signed up for this class was because the drawing on the flyer was not that good.”
It was a drawing I’d done with a bamboo pen and ink I didn’t know was water soluble, so the watercolour kind of ran into the ink and there are some pretty messy bits.
This woman’s words made a big impression on me. There is so much value in modelling joyful imperfection!!
When I teach in high schools, I don’t teach art, but the same principle holds. We need to help people to be able to love themselves unconditionally. To be self critical without anxiety and to create fearlessly.
With gratitude for all you have given, and my best wishes, Evelyn
And then, on a different but somehow related note, this blogpost from Jennifer: Live up to your full potential. It’s a lovely perspective on how to judge whether you are making the most of your gifts.
What if we redefined what this whole potential thing really meant? What if, instead of having to prove our creative selves in a particular area of art, we could reach our potential by simply living artfully? What if, instead of striving to make lots of money with our art, or show just how technically perfect we could draw… what if we engaged in our everyday lives with an artful eye, probing the moments for beauty? What if, we reached our potential by daily living the life WE HAVE, the good and the bad, the mundane and the magical, with open arms and full hearts, celebrating and capturing some of it in an artful manner along the way? What if living up to our potential as artists had MORE to do with seeing the beauty in all of life and sharing it with one or more persons, than with being able to say we have devoted our whole lives to making a career of x or y or z.
To me, these are both conversations about the monkey, about how we can cope with the incessant jabber of our self-doubt and -criticism that wastes so much energy and time. As Evelyn points out, our ‘failures’ are in fact our richest lessons. The most important things is just to start, to make, to move forward, and to shun the wimper within that woud keep us forever in the starting blocks. That voice isn’t just an impediment, it’s a cancer that chews on us, winnowing us down to smaller and smaller versions of ourselves, as we brutalize ourselves with doubt and recrimination. Be kind to yourself, and be creative.
Jennifer’s lessons comes from outside, from the larger world that uses the dollars as the only true yardstick, from the golden monkey now internalized. This monkey voice is just one of the sheepdogs of economics and really has nothing to do with us. It barks the simple cry of the market. For art to be valued financially, it must be a limited commodity. If everybody made art, it would be so common it would have no financial value. So our society is geared towards making art an exceptional behavior created by the few, a meager supply managed by the system of galleries and museums that turn human creativity into a market.
So it’s not surprising that when you graduate from crayons and want to continue creating art as part of your everyday life, you are discouraged from making at every turn. The only way that art can be sanctioned is if you pass through the system of art schools, galleries and critics that will cull the herd and protect the market.
Fortunately, the Internet has made it possible to share your creativity with other people and to get positive feedback and constructive criticism without financial transactions. The Internet has liberated us from the marketplace of art. It has restored the impulse for creative expression that has existed in our species since we painted bison on the walls of caves.
This isn’t anti-capitalist. It is pro-self-expression. And it is optimistic. Because no matter whether it is stifled by the government, by religion, by the marketplace or by snobs and bores, ultimately that impulse will return and prevail. Now more than ever.
One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that value and scarcity are no longer inextricably linked. Now good ideas are what are valuable and good ideas can be copied over and over and shared with billions and still retain their value. We live in the golden age of creativity, a new renaissance. Now making art will no longer be discouraged. it will be essential.
art with a small a is not a product. It’s a point of view. It’s a way of life.
art isn’t for museums. art is for everyday.
The Art world is about money. art is about passion, love, life, humanity — everything that is truly valuable.
Are you here for the reason that I’m here? Which is, I think, because I have a vague itching inside that says ‘make something.’ But the thing I feel I ought to be doing when that impulse arises, namely drawing something, is somehow not appealing right now. Maybe that’s because it’s after midnight, I’m sitting in the darkened cabin of an airplane flying to Tokyo, and the only thing I could draw at this moment is the dimly lit, freckled, meaty arm of the guy sleeping in the next seat. So I’m doing something else instead. Writing this.
But maybe a more honest reason why I’m typing instead of drawing is that I am afraid. I’m often a wee bit afraid when I start to make a drawing — yes, even now after zillions of drawings over a decade and a half. I’m afraid of the Voice. Not the TV show (though that can be scary too) but that teeny, nagging voice saying that the drawing will possibly (or probably) suck. The Voice isn’t always there when I uncap my pen, but it often pipes up once the first line starts to go down. “Oh, well, you blew that one. It’s all gonna be repair-work from here on.” Or “Better start cross hatching now, it looks flat and weak.” Or “Come on, let’s finish this one up and watch TV.” Or just “Puhleez … you cannot draw for beans, you worthless, posturing fraud.”
Whose voice is that?
I used to suppose it was my art/shop teacher from 6th grade. Or maybe it was my second stepfather. Or my father. Or my mother. Or a kid I knew in high school who was way cooler than almost all of us. Or a guy who thumbed through one of my books in a Barnes & Noble in Dayton and shrugged it back not the shelf. Or maybe it was your voice — maybe that was the real reason you came here today, to tell me how much this drawing will suck.
But I know now it’s not any of those voices. It’s one I know much better. It’s the voice that’s editing this blogpost as I write it. It’s critiquing my typing skills. It’s correcting my posture. It’s the voice of fear.
The voice that says,”Why bother? Why take a risk? Why put yourself out there? You suck, it will suck, and nothing good will come of it.”
It’s not Linda Blair’s possessed voice in the Exorcist. It’s not the sneering, sing-song voice of the bully that cracked open my head with a rock when I was eleven. It’s a voice that sounds just exactly like mine, though it whispers, hisses even, back there in my skillet darkness of my skull.
That voice doesn’t just concern itself with drawing. No, it has opinions about most things. Whether I should wear this shirt, whether I floss enough, whether I should have desert, what my client meant by that remark, whether I should write another book, teach another class, look for a new place to live, have another cookie. It’s a busy little voice and it can think of a good reason to be afraid of most decisions, of any impending event, big or small. It can give me umpteen reasons to do something tomorrow instead of now, to ask more and more people’s opinions before I make a move, can tell me what that stranger at the cocktail party will reply if I say hi. Despite its apparent rock-solid convictions about things, the voice is always willing to switch sides with alacrity if it will serve to unsettle me. It can say I’m not good enough — or too good. It can say I should settle for the easy way out — or tell me I always refuse to go the extra mile.
I imagine that voice coming from a smallish, hunched-over ape with bright eyes and twitching fingers crouching right behind the backside of my eyeballs. Sort of like Gollum, but meatier, furred. It’s the voice that tells me the water is too cold and too deep, the girl’s too pretty, the assignment’s too hard, the competition’s too stiff, the road’s too long.
This voice has the keys to the file room and knows the combination of the vault. It can use everything I know against me, push very button, pull every lever, and it is unrelenting. It is smarter than me and it has plenty of time on its hand.
Think about this — would the voice put so much effort into fighting me if it didn’t matter? Do dragons guard empty caves? Maybe it’s so hard to do this because it matters so much?
But don’t worry about that now. It’s time to silence the voice.
Because it can be hushed. It can be beaten.
The secret is so easy, so simple, it took me ages to figure it out. I tried fighting back, debating, fresh approaches, corroborating opinions. But the answer, plain is simple, is to out-dumb it. To not look but just leap. To make not a plan but a move. To get the lead, or the ink, out. Now.
I pick up a pen and mindlessly start to draw. I don’t try to figure out what I’m drawing. I don’t consider the anatomy of the eyeball or the laws of light reflection or where the vanishing point should be. I don’t think about whether my proportions are off, or whether the subject is interesting, or whether my butt is falling asleep, or if the ink is soaking through the paper.
I am the whistling mule, head down, shoulder to the plow, just here to draw, ma’am, pushing the pen on and on. If the voice clambers out of its grotto and starts to harangue me, I switch to humming and I keep pushing that pen. And when the drawing is done, I don’t stop to look at it, I don’t evaluate it or make a few changes. I turn the page and I start the next one. I am not here to have drawn, I am here to be drawing.
And after a couple of pages, the voice has fallen silent. Given up because it is a bully and it can’t face defeat. Poor little ape. See you tomorrow.
This blogpost is a demonstration of this secret weapon. I started writing with no real idea of what I wanted to say exactly but just an urge to say something. And somehow I managed to get all these words typed and, when I get around to rereading them, I think they’ll stand up (I was about to start making some self-deprecating, parenthetic aside apologizing for how second-rate what I ended up doing is in fact, but screw it, I stand by these words and that monkey better get back in its box).
So, if you’re here because you’re killing time, time to get back to work. And if you’re looking for inspiration, you got it. Now, put on your expensive, high-performance drawing shoes and just do it.
It may well suck, but so what? A bad drawing beats no drawing every time. And good drawings are just bad drawings’ grandchildren.
What do you think? Do you ever hear the Voice? What do you say to it? Share with us.