Off-Roading

Almost exactly a year ago, Jenny and I drove from Los Angeles to New York City. In the months before, we talked a lot about where we might go and drew up lists of places to stop en route. We weighed the pros and cons of going north and driving the length of the Canadian border, of drawing a straight line from LA to NY and beelining across the Midwest, of meandering through the heat of Texas and the Deep South. I consulted web sites about cross-country drives, downloaded a half-dozen apps, and reread On the Road.

A couple of days before we left, we had a big yard sale and emptied the cottage we’d occupied for a year. Then we hit the road with 666 dollar bills in the glovebox.

Despite all our discussion and planning, we ultimately committed to just one decision: that each day we would  decide where to sleep that night and that decision could be postponed until the sun was setting. Sometimes we booked our hotel while sitting in its parking lot. This was pretty atypical behavior for Jenny and me — she’s a producer and I’m a Virgo, organized and methodical people who like a sense of control. But this trip was to be different. We intended to get New York in roughly two weeks — and that was all we knew for sure.

It was a risky and brilliant strategy. We meandered all over the map and saw things we had no idea even existed. We made monumental plans while driving, then scuttled them over dinner. We acted impulsively and took many roads less traveled. When we pulled onto our street in Greenwich Village, we knew we’d had an adventure that we would always remember. It was epic.

The core of my brain (and yours, hopefully) is the limbic system, the ancient part that sits under my cortex, deep in the most protected part of my skull. It manages my emotional reactions, its gnarled, primitive fingers fidgeting on the buttons that trigger my reactions and form my most salient memories. It is primitive and essential, making me happy, angry, hungry, horny or terrified. This part of my head is me at my most impulsive.

Sitting astride is my modern brain, the source of higher function, the part that cracks the bullwhip, straightens the cutlery, talks to my accountant, and imagines itself superior. I have relied too heavily on this ultra-rational part of my brain for most of my life. It has helped me think my way out of feeling too intensely, providing Mr. Spockian rationales for my baser yearnings, keeping me in check. It has helped me succeed — but I wonder how many roses it has kept me from smelling.

I have published a dozen or so books by now, and each one has started with a road map. Sometimes my editor has asked for it, an outline to include with the proposal she submits to her editorial board. But always my frontal lobes have insisted on it, wanting some clarity about the mission ahead. Believing that I can’t build a building without a scaffold or a monument without an armature, I have arranged bullet points and sub-points into neat staircases with sturdy handrails to lead me to the summit and safely back down again.

And then I have sat down at this machine and kicked the blueprints under my desk.

Outlines and bullet points are one thing but writing or painting something that lives and breathes are something quite other. No one wants to dance in the moonlight with a sturdy skeleton. Flesh and blood are lissome, moving under your finger tips, breathing and changing shape. And so it is with art. A sketch is meant to be done in pencil so it can be erased as better choices emerge.

All this preemptive planning just gives me the courage to turn the key in my driveway, the balls to say, let’s drive three thousand miles and trust that we’ll eventually get where we’re going. Even if I draw the route in the thickest Sharpie, I still plan to listen to my gut, to my amygdala, to the songbird at the crossroads who says, hey, let’s take a left here and see what lies around the bend.

We have GPS and we are safe to wander.

Friend of a friend

So, recently, a business associate told me I should further develop my network on LinkedIn. I know that’s sort of a horrible sentence but there you have it. I have business associates and they advise me to do things that probably have some purpose beyond my understanding. Generally I am okay with following their directives so long as they don’t involve public nudity or large amounts of money. They know more than me about some stuff.

The way LinkedIn works is by burrowing into your address book and your resume and your underwear drawer and pulling up long lists of names and smiling portraits and you are supposed to click on people who you know and want to link to. When you do, each person’s links are then joined to yours in an ever-expanding gyre of connections until every man, woman and Chihuahua on the planet is arrayed in concentric circles around you.

Let me now confess something else to you. Despite how garrulous I may appear within the confines of dannygregorysblog.com, I am not an especially outgoing person. For much of my career, I was the person standing in the dimly lit corner of the office party, gnawing carrot sticks and clutching a bottom-shelf gin and tonic. I was not glad-handing, back-slapping or table-hopping. Over time, as I grew older and slunk up the ladder, I knew more and more people who didn’t seem to despise me so I would allow myself to slink out of the safe zone and talk to people. But I was never and never will be a ‘networker.’ Fortunately for me, I have been in love with two women who were quite the opposite and dragged me into various social circles where I could mumble and make self-deprecating remarks to ever-increasing numbers of people.

When Linked In began to present me with long lists of smiling faces, I swallowed hard. Some faces looked familiar, some names looked familiar, and I began to click on the faces and request to be connected. Some people were easy, the ones who I knew well and who were outgoing. Some were harder, people I knew well but who I was embarrassed to be asking, who I assumed would scoff at such a fawning request, surprised that I was not, like them, too cool for school to network.

My associate prodded me to further expand my timid circle and so I delved deeper. I began to click on the faces of those I had not shot the breeze with in their cubicle and not invited to lunch, but had sat with in endless meetings, sometimes with dozens of others, people in other departments, of other ages and ranks, like soldiers in adjoining platoons, veterans of the same wars but not aways the same battles. People who I might nod to as we motored past each other in the hall, who I might have had that one long talk with as we waited for a flight to Columbus or Wichita for another regional committee meeting, people who I might have even had one drink too many within a Holiday Inn Express lobby on the eighth night of a shoot that seemed it would never end and shared opinions and revelations that I woke up the next day to regret.

And then there were those faces who I knew and who I knew knew me but who I thought hated me for one slight or another — a layout I hadn’t approved, a suggestion I had dismissed, an opinion I had contradicted. I winced reflexively thinking about what they might think years later when I appear on their virtual doorsteps, hat in hand. I assume these requests would be junked, that I would never hear from the person whose meeting I had twice arrived ten minutes late for, the person who scowled that one time when I interrupted in a briefing, the person whose coffee mug I had taken by accident.

But masochistically, I clicked their faces nonetheless.

In the next few hours, I received emails, confirming that even these outliers were willing to open their chains and link to mine. I reached out to a few with InMail™ messages, tail between my legs, wishing them well in their new endeavors. And they responded, tails aloft and wagging hard, sometimes with their paws stretched out, ready to play.

I’m perplexed and dismayed that someone who spends so much effort thinking about and writing about and drawing himself can be so self-unaware, that I often have no idea how I appear to others. I can think I have offended someone and they have no idea what I mean. I can think I have been a pal to someone and they will reveal a long-held grudge. I can pour over a blog post and get a stinging response from some reader, dash off another one unthinking and hear it has helped someone else a lot.

Despite my quest for seeing myself objectively, I have come to terms with the fact that it is pretty much impossible. In part, because no one else sees me objectively. In part because there may not be any absolute truth there. In part, because my monkey still lurks back in that dark hole. But most of all because I am a work in progress.

I try to do my best most of time, to avoid being a selfish dick, to contribute where I can and to take others’ feelings into consideration. But beyond that, I have to stick to my own knitting, to be true to what I know of myself, and to hope that those who are in my newly expanded network of links will see and value those things that I am.

It’s important to connect with others, to engage, to be of service, and not spend ones’s days crouched in a shadowy hermitage. But it’s just as important to link in with oneself.

Rusty beans and dusty gold.

One evening, you go to a friend’s house and she has rented a movie. She paid for it, but you get to watch it for free.

You notice a bestseller on the table and ask if you can borrow it. Your friend waves it away and tells you how disappointing it was. Instead, she urges another book on you that you never knew about. That book changes your life.

You have coffee with a friend who offers to introduce you to a colleague with professional experience that dovetails perfectly with yours.

You are on your phone, about to jaywalk. A bicyclist zooms past you and through a red light, almost getting clipped by a taxi. Your heart spasms with adrenaline as you step back on the curb and swallow hard.

You read a memoir of a man who went against the herd to start a business in an industry others had long since abandoned. He struggles, backslides, struggles some more, but by using certain surprising skills, he reverses the trend and creates a successful, beloved business. His book is full of specific descriptions that you can use to pursue your own dream.

You read a review on Amazon for a product you have been considering for a while. The review points out three unusual criteria you had never considered which make you act immediately.

Your mother-in-law smokes like a chimney. At sixty, she is dead of lung cancer. You used to have an occasional cigarette with your second martini. No longer.

You had a parent who withheld affection to the point of abuse.  When you have your own children, you use his behavior as a yardstick, a warning of things never to do.

Distracted, you say something unthinking to your spouse — who gasps aloud. You look up, suddenly aware of what you’ve said, and grow shocked at your own insensitivity.

Your grandfather survived the Great Depression. For the next sixty years, he counts every penny, then dies alone in a shabby house, its basement full of rusting canned goods and thirty pounds of gold bullion.

Every day life offers you a lesson you may or may not notice. What did you learn today? What did you teach someone else?

(Can’t think of anything? Well, that’s why there’s this.)

Keeping the fun in fundamentals.

Teaching yourself to make art is a lifelong endeavor. Books and courses will help but it’s up to you to keep the work interesting and relevant.

Look for creative ways to keep practicing the basics, like contour drawing, proportions, foreshortening, tone, shading, volume, etc.

Don’t make drills dull. Find ways to mix things up. Draw things that mean something to you.

Instead of setting up artificial subjects like bowls of fruit or vases of flowers, draw the contents of your fridge. Draw the roses you got for your birthday and write about how you feel getting a year older. Instead of drawing naked strangers in a life drawing class, draw your naked spouse, your cat, your boss. Rather than doing “Drapery studies,” draw the shapes your feet make under the covers on a Sunday morning.

Be inventive. Be fresh. Be personal. It’s an adventure, not a chore.

Spare the rod.

My second stepfather was quick with his fists. He would escalate disagreements with waiters into brawls in parking lots.  He threw chairs in parent-teacher conferences. He wouldn’t hesitate to pull the car over and reach into the back seat to swing at me and my little sister. He was six feet tall with meaty forearms covered with red hairs. When I was ten years old, his right hand left an imprint on my left cheek which I wore to school for a week.

We moved a lot when I was little and, as the new kid, I was an easy target for bullies. I was tripped, teased, and occasionally had to get stitches. I was told to just walk away or to stand up for myself or to name names, but nothing made much difference. I was a wimp and a weed.

I’m no longer the new kid. And my second stepfather has been dead of pancreatic cancer for over a decade. These days, the only likely sources of physical violence I encounter are drunks and madmen. I live in Greenwich Village so there are a fair number of each around but I haven’t been struck since a large, intoxicated man appeared out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground in Washington DC. That was during the first Clinton Administration. Except for 9/11, the Bush and Obama years have been without incident.

It’s pretty unusual to see an adult strike a child in public these days. When it happens, it seems so barbaric, like witnessing a street fight. No doubt family services will soon be called, courts, foster care, but when I was a kid, it was an everyday thing, never discussed with outsiders, a family affair. I can’t imagine striking Jack. He’s taller than me these days and goes to the gym all the time, but even when he was knee-high, I would never have turned my frustration into any sort of physical response. It just wasn’t in me.

But what is in me is the battle against the impending threat. While I haven’t been physically assaulted in this millennium, a part of me is ever vigilant, waiting for an attack. It’s the part of me that bruises too easily. My ego. The slings and arrows of garden-variety disagreements and critiques can still sting disproportionately. A blog comment, a client request, a passing suggestion from my girlfriend, all can raise the specter of my second stepfather, his shadow on my doorstep.  My only weapons are flimsy and malfunctioning: defensiveness, sarcasm, withdrawal — the sorts of things that do me more harm than good.

I have long been working on toughening up. I’ve had to. I spent decades in the trenches of advertising where curt dismissal was part of the job, where hard-earned ideas would ride out of conference rooms on their shields, where creative competitions are called “gang bangs.” I have spent decades on the Internet too, where anonymous trolls are free to lumber in, 24/7, and empty their bowels on my creations with the click of  a mouse.

Here’s what I tell myself, not always successfully:

A) Everyone has the right to an opinion.

B) Each critique is an opportunity to better my work.

C) My second stepfather is dead. Even if he does live on in my head.

I force myself to first take a deep breath and try to clear the fog of emotion. This is now. It is not the past. (I know, I know. Easier said than done).

Then I consider the content of the input. (God, even the way I wrote that last sentence shows how tightly I clutch the reins). I look at my idea as objectively as I can, as if it was not mine, unvested — and then I apply the critique. Is it helpful? Can I use it? If so, all good. Thanks very much for saving me from myself. Now I can do better.

But if I am unsure of the critique, if it seems not to fit at all with the way I see the situation, then it’s time to consider the intention behind it. Is the critic there to help? Or to throw a fist? Do they want me and my idea to succeed? Or will they profit in some way from my failure? Will it make them bigger? Will it prop up their vanity and insecurity?  Because if their motives are suspect, maybe their criticism is too.

This is easier said than done, but I think it’s right.

Whatever sort of childhood you’ve had, being creative thins your skin. You take your work so personally. You have to, that why you care enough to make it good.  Not because of the money or the acclaim but because it’s a part of you that you are putting out there.

But remember that the world is essentially kind and welcoming. The people who matter want you to succeed. They will collaborate with you to help you make your work as good as it can be, because good work makes the world a better place for all of us.  And the assholes? They see your success as further proof of their own failures. That’s not your concern.

Unfortunately, I have long given my second stepfather a sort of immortality by letting him enter my dreams. But I won’t let him crush them too.

No returns, no regrets

Getting what you want out of any creative form takes work. You have to make a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. You invest time. You tussle with the monkey. You doubt yourself.

Why bother?

It’s easy to avoid being great. In fact, the world seems to want you to avoid it. It bombards you with temptations and distractions. It seems not to understand why you are wasting your time. It fills your browser with zillions of example of people who are doing what you should be doing, only better and seemingly without effort.

But being great at what you’re good at has lots of benefits. And they’re not the benefits you imagine. The goal is not numbers: not more $ in the bank, more Twitter followers, more awards on your mantle.

The goal is to be who you are meant to be: a person who is living a life of fulfillment, who is working for something bigger than themselves, who is helping, who matters.

You have gifts to give to the world. But it may just take some sweat to unwrap them.

The Stare Master.

What were the very first things you ever learned? Unless you are Mozart, they were probably things like walking, talking, using a spoon and a sippy cup. You learned these skills from someone who knew how to do them well, like your mum or your older brother. And you learned them by watching, watching intently. Check out how a baby or a toddler watches — it’s like a lion on the veld or my dachshunds as we unpack groceries. Unblinking, rigid with attention.

Oh, and speaking of Mozart, how do you think he became a prodigy at three? He watched his older sister take harpsichord lessons and he watched his father play the violin. It’s no coincidence that so many prodigies, from Michael Jackson to Wayne Gretzky, were the youngest kids in large families. Lots of people to stare at and learn from.

When you learn this way, you create a vision of yourself performing the skill, a mental video you play over and over. As the scene loops, it is burned into your brain, creating new neural pathways and locking in the nuances of the skill. You notice not only the steps the experts take but the intensity and rhythms with which they perform the action, the way that all the component parts of actions come together into one cohesive and coordinated whole. In time, these observations lead to fluid and confident motions.

Learning a physical skill is a very complex process, most of it nonverbal. You are programming your head and body to dance together in a thousand little ways. You must keep refining those dance steps, polishing them until there are no hitches or hesitations, until they run like greased, teflon-dipped clockwork. That’s how you learn to walk, to dribble a soccer ball, to drive a car, to play the guitar, and to draw. You program neurons.

If you want to improve your golf swing, watch Ben Hogan on YouTube. If you want to improve your jump shot, watch LeBron during this week’s NBA finals. If you want to improve your drawing, watch any of my Sketchbook Films or the demo videos on Sketchbook Skool. Watch them again and again. And don’t watch passively, like you were dozing off in front of a Seinfeld rerun. Sit forward, engage, focus, mimic, stare. Let your body respond as you watch. Feel your muscles tense, your fingers twitch. Throw yourself into it and absorb the rhythms, the linkages, the unspoken logic behind the scenes.

Your meat computer takes longer to train than silicon chips, but it lasts longer too. Once you have forged these connections, they will last a lifetime. Neglected, they may get rusty and overgrown, but, with a little practice, you can prune them and get them up and running again, like a long forgotten stretch of railroad track. You never fully forget how to ride a bike. And the same holds true for the network you’ve built between your brain, eyes, and hands so your pen will make lovely marks in your sketchbook.

Stare, engage, mimic. And repeat.