Month: April 2014

How to create meaningful art, or: Why I don’t want (too many) followers on my blog

If you are a creative type, you are probably disillusioned with the way the world works. Because the simple, accessible content that you create will become very popular, whereas the layered stuff will go almost unnoticed. We live in a world where Kim Kardashian’s butt has a Twitter feed and a video about cats jumping off tables get 25 million views and news articles written about it, and a tour de force novel is pressed out in the author’s blood-ink to an audience of crickets.

But as a creative, you will also find that the process of creating the most unpopular content is what will satisfy the deepest part of you. Because it’s the real stuff.

In my writing education, it’s been pounded into me that the most personal things are the most universal. To create things that are personal and universal, you must notice things that are real and have meaning. You must notice your surroundings, your own reactions to normal and unusual events, and what’s going on between the lines of everyday life. You must question why things happen.

Those observations and thoughts prep your brain for the creative process. And when you end up hitting that nerve of creativity and start speeding down tunnels, there is nothing like it – it’s the crack that will remind you why you were born. No cat video comes close to that, and I’d wager that Ms. Kardashian has never felt it. If you only focus on gaining an audience, you will never hit that nerve. Your audience will leave scrolling comments on your videos, exhibitions, blogs, and you will wonder why you do not feel fulfilled by your own creation.

It’s because real art is created without any audience in mind; it is created to satisfy the artist’s desire. This kind of art is rare and dangerous, because it has a high probability of containing original thought. And the entire world fights against that originality by pumping out more and more stupid, distracting content.

Like I’ve said before: Find artists who ignore their own fame. They are the ones who make art that you have to gaze into for a long time before figuring it out (if you ever do figure it out), and music with lyrics you can’t understand without listening three or four times. That is time spent, not wasted. You’re processing all of the layers, and it will teach you about the world or yourself. You are one step closer to creating things that are real.

And when you create things that are real, people will find you – whether you want them to or not. It will just take longer.

Beethoven said all of this even better. This is directly quoted from Project Gutenberg:

The world is a king, and, like a king, desires flattery in return for favor; but true art is selfish and perverse—it will not submit to the mould of flattery.

When Baron van Braun expressed the opinion that the opera “Fidelio” would eventually win the enthusiasm of the upper tiers, Beethoven said, “I do not write for the galleries!” He never permitted himself to be persuaded to make concessions to the taste of the masses.

And unless you post funny cat videos for a living, you shouldn’t either.

The most important question to ask yourself before starting a project

A friend of mine is an entrepreneur. He asks himself a question before starting any project:

“How does this make the world a better place?”

Most people blog to make money or gain an audience. I’m not here to do either. I’m here to satisfy my own desire to create. My content will be as thoughtful as I can make it, so it won’t happen as often as the bloggers who pound their keyboards with fervor, into a vortex of explosive comments and likes.

Every creative has a choice: To produce a lot of content with very little thought put into it, or not as much content with a lot of thought put into it.

Thinking this through with my blog as an example:

If I produce a lot of content, I will have high page rankings, traffic, and probably ads. I will probably even make money. But most of my content will have little or no meaning, and simply add more digital trash to our world. There will be some oddballs and idiots who will show up, but smart audiences will ignore me. 

Most of all, I will look back on all of that work with shame.

If I produce occasional content – no matter how fantastic – I will be ignored by fellow bloggers and almost all SEO metrics and page ranking algorithms. Very few people will read what I’ve written.

The thing is, not many people want to read, look at, or spend time with things that make them think; this keeps my audience inherently limited. I’m also competing with many distracting things online. If you’re spending time with me, then I want to respect that time. If I inspire one person with anything that I’ve done here, I have improved the world.

And I will be happy with it – which is what matters to me. And ultimately, that’s what should matter to you – because you grow when you pay attention to better content, better writing, and better art. My ultimate goal is to create something that brightens your world and gives you ideas. I’d love for you to read me on a Sunday morning by yourself, with your first coffee.  

Along that thread, I have shut down comments. I don’t want to write with the goal of churning responses from people.  If you really want to tell me something about anything I’ve said here, send me an email. I’ll be thrilled to hear from you.

So, welcome to the inside of my head. I hope you like it here. Let’s make the world better.

A new way to think about saying “no”

For most of my life, I have been a good citizen. I apologize to waiters before I ask them to correct their own mistakes, I smile at conning salesmen who try to slide one past me. I never fought back – I have been polite, accommodating, tolerant to everyone for years.

So that I’m not rude, of course. The qualities make me an easy coworker, customer, and overall people pleaser.

And so people have messed with me, moving me around to get what they want. Pushing me to the side at workplaces, telling me it was too early for a raise and why don’t I let them lead this project, they’ll give me the next one that comes up. Talking overtop of me in conversations, and telling me to do it their way. I relented, and walked out of all of those situations without getting what I wanted. Instead, that other person – the person who pushed my buttons and my boundaries – got what they wanted.

Recently, I decided that was going to stop. So I tried something new with a particularly thorny asshole who I sometimes deal with. He has something perpetually shoved up there, and he doesn’t see anyone else in the tunnel vision of his life where he chases his own reflection in the mirror, like a dog gnawing on its own tail. He tried to push me to do something that I’d previously told him I wasn’t going to do. It was something that made me very uncomfortable, and he had no business asking me to do it.

I put my hand on the back of my desk chair and held the phone close to my mouth, and pushed the words through my teeth. “Not gonna work,” I said. “That’s not what we agreed on.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” he said. “I expected you to be flexible at least.”

A response like this typically intimidates and shames me. Oh no, I’ve been rude, I typically think. I respond that I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be inflexible. Let’s find a solution that works for both of us. But this time, I knew that I hadn’t been rude – he had. I stamped new words out with my tongue.

“I’m not being inflexible. I gave you the boundary, and you’re trying to push it. And the answer is no.”

He hadn’t expected this. “Wh–I mean–You–I don’t understand.”

I had surprised him, which surprised me. This new approach was producing a result I’d never seen before, so I kept going. “It’s simple,” I said. “I’m not going to do that. So come up with something else, or stick to our original agreement.”

There was a long pause. “Okay,” he said. “I will.”

And he did. After I hung up, I realized what I’d just done: Stand up for myself and get what I want for the first time. I said no, with conviction, without any apologies or reasons. Just no.

What a beautiful word to now have in my vocabulary.

How to be more creative every day

For the past 4 years, and particularly the past 2.5 years, I struggled with writer’s block. For all this time, I’ve been unable to create a single thing. I’ve been plagued with self-doubt and criticism, telling myself that my stuff isn’t good enough, that my stories and thoughts don’t matter, and nobody will listen to me when I have something interesting to say. I allowed people to cut me down creatively and I listened to people who laughed at my ideas. After such a long period of silence and repression, I thought my creativity was dead.

It wasn’t. And yours isn’t either. You are just burying it.

Over the past few months, a strange concoction of events has spawned a creative charge inside my head: Discoveries, creations and ideas that blow me away when I look back at them later and process the fact that they came from my own brain. I can’t go into the events here as this is a public blog post, but the important thing to remember is one simple thing that I have realized, remembered over the past few weeks. And that critical thing is:

Surround yourself with people who inspire you. Ignore the people who do not. 

Because when you are a creative, you must create or you will die. You may not cease to exist, but your soul will be stepped on, you will be constricted and you will feel this in every area of life.

When I say ignore people who do not, I mean ignore them completely. Give them no area of your brain. They are not creative, they do not understand your process, and they have never had one original thought in their lives. They cannot process anything new and you cannot change them. They will forever fail to experience life in a full way.

Just throw them into the trash of your brain and blow right past them. Keep going down that spiral. It’s there for a reason – you see things that other people don’t, and there’s something that you were meant to do. Chase it.

It doesn’t matter if nobody is listening. The real expansion comes when we create just for the sake of creating, just because that thing needs a channel to bring itself into the world. Because the truth is, if you do not open yourself as a channel for that thing, someone else will.

Right now, go:

  • Find a musician who you believe to be a genius and whose music puts you into a trance (mine is Maynard James Keenan of Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, and here’s an example of his work). Read about the person’s life, immerse yourself in that music and the headspace of that person. Read the lyrics of their songs and think about why the person might have written them. Listen to the music between the beats.
  • Read something by someone who you believe brilliant (mine is David Foster Wallace, and right now, this is my favorite piece of his).
  • Call someone who inspires you, who has a crazy passion that drives them. If you’ve been in a slump, you probably haven’t called them for awhile. Ask them to coffee or a drink and get them talking about whatever inspires them. Their inspiration will feed that thing inside of you that cries out to make things that matter. And you will realize that they do matter.

When you finally believe that – really believe that – you will be unstoppable.