Title Pending: Maturity Is Not About Arrival

In a scene I find both challenging and encouraging, Irving Stone depicts Vincent Van Gogh conversing passionately with his brother, Theo concerning his personal creative development. Pacing the floor wildly, breaking glasses and trashing his own hard-earned work as he rants:

Vincent: “Must I give up? Am I through? It looks that way, doesn’t it?
Theo: “Vincent, you’re behaving like a child…”
Vincent: “But Theo, I’ve let you support me for six long years. And what do you get out of it? A hopeless failure on your hands.”
Theo: “Listen, old boy. When you wanted to draw the peasants, did you catch the entire trick in a week? Or did it take you five years?

Vincent: “Yes, but I was beginning then.”
Theo: “You’re just beginning with colour today! And it will proba- bly take you another five years.”
Vincent: “Is there no end to this, Theo? Must I go to school all my life? I’m thirty-three! When in God’s name do I reach maturity?”

Here is something true: Maturity is never about arrival. You never get anywhere and you never “arrive.” Yes, you can (and should) improve and grow, but not toward some “end,” as it were. There is no best version of you out in the cosmos somewhere wait- ing to be discovered or achieved. There is no glorified version of your artist-self out there who is fully realized and fully actualized.

There is only the next song, the new piece. Every follow-up album or body of work, every new melody or stroke or lyric is another beginning.

Title Pending ImageThis is an excerpt from my book Title Pending, which will be released this Fall/Winter. Join the email list for more like this, news about the release and content no one else gets. 


lauryn-hill 2

Lauryn Hill And Love For An Audience

This past summer, Lauryn Hill showed up late to a show in Chicago. Someone in the crowd made note of it during her performance. She responded that she didn’t “owe” him anything and that, instead she “did this for love.”

The encounter stirred up some very interesting conversation about the relationship between an artist and her audience. And while I’m not entirely sure what I think about an artist “owing” anything to an audience, here’s an angle on the same conversation I am a bit clearer on: I think an artist greatly benefits from a relationship with her audience.

In my experience nothing has drawn out the best out of me like other people. Whether it’s CrossFit culture, which pairs me up with others to work out, or it’s fatherhood, it is the responsibility and privilege of passing myself onto others and sharing my life that often calls the best of me forward. I am simply not motivated sufficiently within myself to do my best work. It is always been that I get to offer my gift to listeners or viewers and readers that has drawn the better artistic work out of me

Friends in Alcoholics Anonymous tell me that, at some point, it’s not so much having a sponsor that keeps them sober so much as it is that they sponsor someone else. I believe the privilege and responsibility of relationship draws out the best in us. And I think an artist’s relationship to her audience not only helps to keep her on the rails at times, but also helps draw out the best in her, artistically.

I look a bit longer at this idea in my book “Title Pending,” which is available for pre-order now


Title Pending: Imitation

Inspiration is a wonderful place to start when making art. But we often move too quickly from being inspired to innovation—making our own thing with (hopefully) our own, unique signature. I believe that imitation is a missing link in much of our artistic development. So, don’t just be inspired by someone’s work. Make it part of your work to learn how it is that they do what they do.

My wife studied studio art in college. And as part of her coursework, she spent a good chunk of time not only looking at but re-painting or re-sculpting pieces by master artists. On the wall near my desk is Amy’s study of Wayne Thiebaud’s “Black Shoes.” I find Thiebaud’s original piece particularly remarkable because the artist painted black shoes, with black laces on a black background—without using black paint. Instead, Thiebaud em- ploys varying shades of green and blue and even the occasional stroke of white. The execution of such a thing takes a considerable amount of skill and vision… the kind of skill and vision characteristic of a master artist like Thiebaud. By re-painting That piece (and others like it), Amy learned at least some of how that master achieved the effect. By imitating him, she learned a few of his skills and caught a glimpse of his vision.

In the practice of art, there are very few formulas. A Master Study, imitating the way of superior artists, is one practice I’ve found that consistently bears fruit.

Title Pending ImageThis is an excerpt from my book Title Pending, which is available for pre-order now.

Join the email list for more like this, news about the release and content no one else gets. 



Title Pending: Stay In Love With Art

If you’re like me, you loved art before you started making it. In fact, your love for art is, in large part, what probably led you to make your own. I think that ought to always be the case; that my love for art should remain close to the heart of my creative process.

Which leads to something of a dilemma.

As much as I enjoy music, I have a tendency to think and talk shop about music—meaning, my love and appreciation often take a backseat to analysis and critique. But that’s harder to do when I’m looking at work I know I can’t make— work by artists like Rothko or Vonnegut. Because I cannot do what they do, I can sim- ply take it in and enjoy it as a viewer and reader. I can be inspired.

It is easy to fall out of love with art if I am constantly in the grind of making it. One way to re-awaken that inspired love is to step away from our own creative process for a bit. Another way is (as is discussed earlier in this book) to make something outside your primary discipline or craft. I would add to that list the joyful discipline of listening to, reading or seeing art you know you can’t make.

Title Pending ImageThis is an excerpt from my book Title Pending, which will be released this Fall/Winter. Join the email list for more like this, news about the release and content no one else gets. 


Title Pending: Make Bad Art

Tennis star Andre Agassi initially learned to play the game from his dad. Legend has it that, during those early lessons, Emmanuel Agassi (who had been an Olympic athlete himself) encouraged the young Andre to worry less about the accuracy of his strokes and instead, hit the ball as hard as he could. Someday, he told his son, the ball would land in-bounds. And eventually it did… often. Agassi became one of the greatest players in tennis history.

Here is something true: Many of your efforts, especially early on, will miss. Don’t let that keep you from putting everything you have into your work. You’ll have to make bad art in order to make anything better.

Title Pending ImageThis is an excerpt from my book Title Pending, which will be released this Fall/Winter. Join the email list for more like this, news about the release and content no one else gets. 


Title Pending VIDEO: Lacrosse, Joy and Learning When To Quit

“Part of the hard work of being a good artist is learning when to put something down.”

This is an excerpt from “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” The book, a look at my creative process, will be available later this year.

The music is by Eluvium, whose magical work accompanies on many jogs.

Title Pending: Keep Your Encouragements

Over the next few months, I’ll be posting short, video excerpts from Title Pending, the book I’ll release later this year. Title Pending is a look at my creative process and history. It will be available later this year.

The above video is a few paragraphs from the book. I hope you find these thoughts helpful in your own process.

I’ve also created a video series exclusively for folks on my email list, highlighting key moments in my creative process over the years. I’ll touch on every album I’ve made and if that interests you, be sure to subscribe to the email list.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.07.54 AM

Title Pending: Have Something To Say? Say It All

Later this year, I’ll release a short book I’m calling “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” Between now and then, I’m posting previews of the book here at this blog and elsewhere, like the Art House America blog or On Pop Theology.  Below is the third installation (the first is here, the second here).

I don’t believe, at all, that every piece of art needs to make some kind of statement. But, in the event that part of what you want to do with your artwork is to say something you think is worth saying, then say it entirely. Write it all the way out. Sing it as loudly as you can. Paint it as broadly as your arms will allow.  And if you do it all with both excellence and courage, I guarantee there is an audience willing to receive, engage and consider your idea or your critique,.. even if they disagree.

Give your readers, viewers or listeners the credit they deserve. They are whole persons whose lives are as nuanced and conflicted as yours. They can handle you being human and having human passions. In fact, they may need your art to be angled and slant and nuanced and conflicted so that it might help them give voice and shape to the lives your work touches. 

For more in-depth previews of Title Pending, as well as for special access to unique content, sign up on the email list

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.38.05 PM

Robin Williams, Inspiration and Depression

Here is something true: If it weren’t for the work of Robin Williams and Steve Martin, I’d most likely not have taken the stage. I loved music as a listener and like the idea of making it personally, but what Robin Williams did from stage moved people. His comedy captured listeners and his stories inspired. Very early on in my life, watching his “Live At The Met” performance, I decided I wanted to do the same.

Here is something that seems true: If Robin Williams had seen the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation following his death, he might have had second thoughts. But he’d lived in that glow for many years and, as is the case with so many brilliant women and men, there is simply no telling what kind of actual impact the celebration of their work has on them. If it is true (as it seems to be) that he was wresting with depression, then there also no telling what would have pulled him out. It’s awful, depression is. Depression often means forgetting everything of value in, around and about us – we lose connection with life.

At the tail end of that 1986 performance at The Met, Williams does a short bit on the future – whether or not it’ll end when some decrepit world leader mistakenly hits a nuclear launch button or it’ll go on in technological wonder for years to come. The whole thing is frantic and silly and hilarious… and then he turns a corner, talking about his son.

Sometimes,” he says “my son looks at me and gives me that look in the eyes like ‘Well? What’s it gonna be?’” Williams responds to his son (in the imaginary dialogue he’s having), saying “Hey, Zach, it’s um.., I dunno. But maybe along the way, you take my hand and we’ll tell few jokes and have some fun.

And everything he’d done in the past hour and a half on stage took on a different tone.

Because comedy, like all great art, is about connection – The connection between cultures and races, between family members and neighbors, or even between myself and my own life. When we can laugh at our disconnect and discrepancies our failures and follies, we can receive ourselves and one another as human. Robin Williams’ work did that as well as anyones and better than most.

Depression seems to have stolen from him the kind of vision and connection he helped to create for fans of his like me.

May you and I never lose that vision or connection. May we always take the hand of some Great Love in our lives, the way he asked his son to take his – with little assurance of what the future holds but an invitation to face it together.


*WARNING: The linked clip contains foul language… cuz… it’s Robin Williams)

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.07.54 AM

Lacrosse, Joy and When To Quit

Later this year, I’ll release a short book I’m calling “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” Between now and then, I’m posting previews of the book here at this blog and elsewhere, like the Art House America blog or On Pop Theology.  Below is the second installation (the first is here), this one written in response to questions about when to quit working on a project. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

One of my best friends in college was a lacrosse stud. I was, on the other hand, a Philosophy Club nerd who didn’t know what lacrosse was. So, Carrie tried to explain her beloved sport to me. “It’s just the best,” she said. “It’s like… I don’t even know… it’s just so great! You should come see me play.”

I had to leave a meeting called “Existentialists Who Love Ice-Cream But Can’t Justify Their Feelings About It” early to catch the second half of the game, which had started just before I arrived. Nearing the field, I saw Carrie trotting to the sideline, waving to me and shouting, “You came!” She halted on the sideline and what at first seemed like a design flaw in Carrie’s uniform came into focus. A brown and red stain roughly the size of Rhode Island covered the upper-left half of her white, collared jersey.

I gasped, “What the hell happened to you?”
She tugged at her jersey and the mess covering her shoulder glistened, still wet.
“What can I say,” she called back, “I’m a bleeder.”

A few of her teammates chucked.

“I got smacked in the nose a few minutes ago. I’ll get her back.”
“How’s it going besides that?” I asked.
Carrie laughed, saying “Oh, man. We’re getting slaughtered. Hey, listen, I need to focus. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s talk afterward.”

Carrie took joy in playing lacrosse. And in that joy, she loved the work of it, even when that work came in a losing effort during which she was injured and bleeding. When I can’t see the work in front of me that way – when I lose joy in what I am doing – I have to seriously consider putting it down, maybe for a long season but more likely for good. Here is something true: the absence of joy is the only justifiable reason I’ve found for quitting a work.

I have set projects aside for a time in order to regain perspective or grow in the knowledge and skill required to do it well. I have unhappily slogged through days or weeks of project work, wondering if it would turn out at all. But in most of those scenarios, I still found meaning, hope and purpose in those works. I still felt connected to them. In short, I still found joy in the work. On the other hand, when a project has become little more than a chore and I’m only tinkering with it to get it out of the way, I probably need to put it away and probably for good.