weakness

Title Pending: What To Do With Criticism and Weakness

If you are anything like me, you won’t have to work very hard to remember negative remarks – they tend to stick to the lesser and weaker parts of my psyche like barnacles. And while I try not to allow negative feedback to derail me, I also think its a bad policy to simply ignore it. Sometimes I need to know that what I’m doing isn’t connecting, and negative feedback is one way (just one, mind you) to measure that. The first trick is to hold loosely to negative feedback and not let it define me or my work as a whole. The second trick is to give that negative feedback some context.

Here is something true: It’s dangerous to let ourselves be defined by our lesser parts in any way. Zeroing in on all the things you aren’t good at and spending all your energy to get those areas up to par will likely leave you confused end exhausted. Figure out what you’re best at and work from there.  Then you can narrow the specific areas you need to work on by their relationship to our natural strengths and gifts.

(For the record: I think your strengths and gifts are almost always better indicators of who you are as a person and an artist.)

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. 

 

Bob_Dylan

Title Pending: Starting Over, Over and Over

Bob Dylan began by picking up the acoustic guitar. He began again by putting it down and picking up the electric. And people lost their minds because they felt as if he was betraying his most actualized artist-self. But he knew better. He was beginning again. And eventually his people followed. The truth is that Dylan has started over almost sixty times, with every album he wrote, produced and released.

Couldn’t he have stopped with “Blood on the Tracks”? Is there a better collection of songs in American songwriting history? Likely not. Yet, Dylan wrote, recorded and released over thirty albums after that. And every time, he was starting over.

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. 

 

Critque

Title Pending: You Want To Be Critiqued

Mid-way through that songwriter retreat, one of the other contributing artists shared a story that, in my estimation, clearly detailed the danger of expecting niceness rather than seeking critique. Upon arrival, one of the participants whose song he had critiqued approached him, infuriated.

Student: “I don’t understand the feedback you gave me.”
Teacher: “Let’s take a look at it and see if I can’t be clearer.”
Student: “No, I don’t get why I got negative feedback at all.”
Teacher: “Oh, ok. Which song was it?”

The participant handed over the critique sheet for a song I can only assume was entitled “Glorious Song Of Exceeding Excellence.

Teacher: “Ah, yes. Well, like I wrote here, I felt like the bridge was really disconnected and that the melody wandered quite a bit.” Student: “Listen, I woke up with this whole song in my mind and put it down exactly the way I heard it in my sleep. God gave me this song in a dream.”

Teacher: “God gave you this song?”
Student: “Yes.”
Teacher: “Have you considered, then, that God may have given you this song because He didn’t like it, either? Maybe you were supposed to fix it.”

Thoughtful, informed critique includes specifics, handles to hold, sometimes even alternative suggestions. The difference between negativity and critique is like the difference between saying “You aren’t good at parking cars” and saying “Your car is currently parked in the middle of a busy intersection… and the engine seems to be running.” I can do something with the latter comment: I can move my car.

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. 

 

cliche

Title Pending: A Few Thoughts On Cliche

Theologian Walter Brueggemann’s “Hopeful Imagination” is a poetically-charged call to abandon dead words (cliché). In this essay he writes:

“Predictable language is a measure of a deadened relationship in which address is reduced to slogan.”

The use of cliché can be reflective of a tragic disconnect be- tween an artist and her subject. What may have been a living relationship at one time is reduced to a cold and mechanical trans- action of words and phrases. I am a living creature, creating art about living things. My work ought to feel alive.

Life consistently challenges cliché. Life surprises me and keeps me guessing. I want my work to do the same.

“I suspect that we lose vitality,” Brueggemann continues,“when our language of God is domesticated and our relation with God is made narrow and predictable.”

My experience of Love, God and War (the three things most of us write about) has been vital, unpredictable and varied. I want my art to reflect this. The use of cliché funnels my complex, human experience of life into formulaic, predictable and small spaces, where it suffocates and eventually dies. Good art gives life because it is alive.

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. 

 

propaganda
propaganda

Title Pending: Propaganda

Nobody likes propaganda and nobody wants to make it. But what if you’ve got something you really want to say? I don’t think the trick is keep your agendas and ideologies in the back-seat like troublesome children. Instead, learn to make art in which your ideologies and agendas have a place of their own without taking over and dominating your work.

Learning to clearly and creatively communicate things you care about (religious, social, political, etc.) is an art in and of itself. So is learning to create doorways for others to enter into meaningful engagement with meaningful topics.

The question for you, as a creative, eventually ceases to be “What you are allowed to talk about or engage with?” and becomes “How well can you treat, illuminate, critique or celebrate the things that move you?”


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

vangogh

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

Imitation

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. 

 

rothko

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. 

springsteen1

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.