Miles ahead

toothbrush-and-the-devilI’ve been reading about jazz recently, specifically about Miles and his seminal album, Kind of Blue. Miles was intensely committed to what he did, brave in a way I wonder if I can ever be. He seemed to live without doubt. At one point, he and the author had an argument about what day it was. When he was shown a copy of that day’s paper, proving he was wrong, he said, ” See that wall of awards? I got them for having a lousy memory.” He didn’t dwell on the past, didn’t repeat himself, did what he did and kept on forging ahead.
What keeps one so resolute? Miles was successful, rich by jazz standards, but he was derided for how he behaved. People thought him arrogant, racist, mysoginistic, and uncommunicative. He would often play with his back to the audience and never spoke on stage. I don’t believe he behaved this way because he could. I think he was just being uncompromisingly himself. That was the key to his art. He was an asshole, but that was okay with Miles.
How do you learn from a person like this? How do you follow his example in order to become purely yourself? Does it mean being unresponsive to any input, being pigheaded, selfish and rude? Of course not.
Miles believed in his art. His commitment was complete and he worked enormously hard on his technique and ideas. Even if he wasn’t right (and by and large he was), he could tell his inner and outer critics that he did his very best and that he had faith in that . Perhaps that’s the point of one’s life. To discover what one loves, to pursue it to the utmost of one’s ability, and then to gauge the success of one’s life by how purely one has done that, rather than by the criteria others set.
It can be a rough road. One can struggle to make a living. One can fail to get accolades or even support from others. Personally, I wouldn’t be satisfied with a life that offended and alienated the rest of the world but maybe I am just a pussy. Still, I think if you can sustain Miles-like focus on your art, your chances are good. Van Gogh spent a decade drawing crap, but he kept at it, and then suddenly blossomed.
I’m sure many people will say: “Are you telling me that if I work hard enough, I will succeed? And conversely, if I don’t achieve the heights, it will be due to my lack of sustained effort?” I don’t know. I don’t want to paint such a black and white picture. But I think focus and perseverance are critical. The thunderstruck artist, whacked by the muse, and suddenly a huge hit, is a myth. You’ve gotta practice and practice and practice to bore to your core. Then you’ve got to have the bravery to be unflinching about exposing that core. You’ve got to be smart, figuring out ways to share your work with different people who will give productive advice and help share your stuff with others. It helps to be lucky (whatever that means).
And I believe that a positive outlook is essential too. That takes work as well. I am often my own worst enemy, my inner critic baying at every shadow. I can wake up at 4 am and keep myself awake with horrible images of my ‘inevitable’ fall from grace. In my churning mind, my foolish ways destroy my family, my savings, my health, my promise. Instead of being a grownup, I am dabbling in feeble, artsy things. Unwilling to suck it up and just do my job as a man and a provider, I am indulging myself in crap like this blog.
But, when I wake up, exhausted from the assault, I try to get to work to paint a sunnier picture. The fact is, I have dealt with harder things than nightmares and nagging internal voices. And I have done that by being positive and proactive.
The future is a blank sheet. I can try to catapult shit at it but that’s just making the present uglier. And a long succession of ugly todays will lead to an ugly tomorrow. On the other hand, I can impact the future by believing in myself, by working hard, by staying the course, by confirming my directions with those who have already travelled it, by purifying my expectations and intentions, by keeping my chin up.
Maybe Miles wasn’t actually all that confident. Maybe that’s why he put shit in his arm and up his nose, why he raged and sulked. But I know he was positive about his art. If he hadn’t been, he would still have had all that doubt and stress. But he wouldn’t have Blues for Pablo and Bye Bye Blackbird. And nor would we.

Serendipidity do dah

bryant-parkWhen folks undergo what, for lack of a less gooey term, I’ll call a creative reawakening, they often experience a surge of synchronicity. Opportunities bounce into their laps. Like minded people just show up. Connections are made, sparks fly, light blink on. Life gets spicy.
Some attribute this to a greater power: “God loves those who create”. Maybe so. I have a more down-to-earth hypothesis.
When you allow yourself to be creative, to make things, to smell roses, see colors, hear symphonies, dance fandangos, your antennas rise. You start to scan through new stations, to retune. Instead of trudging in your rut, you look up and see stars and bluebirds.
The world is always full of opportunity, of possibilities, of stimulus, and pots of gold. When you finally start to look around, to see clearly, to live in the Now and dump your baggage, you can’t help but notice. When you notice the world, you notice it notices you. You open up to people who you would normally ignore, and they open up to you, revealing how much they are like you and how much they like you too. You discover new pages of the menu. You hear lyrics to songs you used to fast forward. You read poems carved in monuments. You open your fortune cookies.
Small wonder the world suddenly seems to be flowing your way. It always did but perhaps you were too busy paddling upstream to notice.

Living well through bad drawings

gravestone

When some people see an illustrated journal, they say, “Wow, that’s great. I could never do that.” With some coaxing, they may be persuaded nonetheless to give it a try. Others say, “Wow, I’m going to do that.” And they start too. And quite a few say, “Huh, where do you find the time?” then use your journal as a coaster.
It’s comparatively easy to start. To bring yourself to draw your breakfast once or your coffee cup once and to keep it up for a couple of days. Ideally those first few days infect you with the fever and you’re compelled to carry a long series of journal books around with you for the rest of your days.
But more likely, your initial enthusiasm will wane. You’ll forget to do it one day, give in to resistance the next, then feel like you’ve broken the chain, the narrative is lost, a month’s gone by, and you drop it altogether. Why? Often it’s because you are disappointed with your drawings. You may say you don’t have the time, forgot your book, grew bored but it’s really because you aren’t that impressed with your drawing skill. You haven’t made something that looks like Art.
I don’t think that illustrated journaling is really about doing great drawings. You’re not out to make something that you could frame or give as an Xmas present. I’m not really into doing the sort of exercises on perspective and tone that you see in most drawing books, exercises that will move your skills to another level artistically. Not that you shouldn’t do them if they are fun or if you have some other goal in mind but I don’t think they are essential for the true purpose of illustrated journaling.
That purpose? To celebrate your life. No matter how small or mundane or redundant, each drawing and little essay you write to commemorate an event or an object or a place makes it all the more special. Celebrate your hairbrush and it will make you appreciate the intricacy of the bristles, the miracle of your lost hair, the beauty of you. Sounds sappy but it’s in there. Draw your lunch and it will be a very different experience from bolting down another tuna on rye. If you take your time (and we’re just talking maybe 10-20 minutes here, folks) and really study that sandwich, the nooks and valleys, the crinoline of the lettuce, the textures of the tuna, you will do a drawing that recognized the particularity of that sandwich,. That’s the point: to record this particular moment, this sandwich, not something generic. If you approach it with that attitude, you will create something as unique. reaching that place is just a matter of concentration and attention. A brief meditation and you will have a souvenir to jog your memory back to that a moment forever more. Imagine if you can keep doing that, keep dropping these little gems in your day, recognizing the incredible gift you are given each morning upon awakening. You will be a millionaire.
There’s a demon in your mind that will fight this, that will tell you your life is unworthy of acknowledgment, that today sucks through and through. It will tell you you have no time for this, that you are too harried, too stressed. Which brings me to Marybethd who wrote to me from Nebraska where she just had emergency eye surgery. For two weeks, she could only see the floor. She wasn’t sidelined though— she drew all of her visitor’s feet. She pulled art out of that tragedy, celebrated her visitors, created a positive memory that she will have to cherish long after her vision is back to normal. He nightmare became a lesson.
I have gone through my fair share of shit. My regret is that I didn’t celebrate all of it. I can’t say it often enough: life is short, art is long. Get the habit.