You invited the children to make nametags with your childhood art teacher. You gathered seven thousand and assembled them to read, love thy neighbor.
You responded to requests that had been conditioned out of us when we were younger than these children. Such as, let me wear more sequins, doilies––dolls, too! Such as, why can’t my Tuesday skin be a pelt of dyed furs? Such as, I want to put that gramophone on my head! And tomorrow, may I wear only living birds.
Let the wild things out, you implored, let’s have a rumpus! Then, you dressed your dancers with the care and intention of the samurai preparing for battle.
When you called us together, I thought I loved my neighbor well enough, but my gestures were anemic. I only knew this when you dressed me in a costume of inflatable lawn ornaments, and my neighbor in a rainbow of Fraggle Rock fur, and invited us to dance.
You amplified the drums and brought others in, and we threw our arms wider in our spinning, to compensate for the weight and momentum of our fabulous suits.
Love louder, you sing, louder now––all in!
Inspired by the purpose-driven work of Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, who is best known for his soundsuits.
It takes not only humility, but vision and skill to deskill the presentation of a work. To see a great dancer’s performance of clumsy is very different than watching an ordinary pedestrian fumble around.
A sense of humor is also necessary, to appreciate the way a good laugh laughs harder against the shattering of a coming end.
Art is so easy to love when it showcases skill. A common litmus test: Can my kid do this? But most have little idea what their child may or may not do, because we only ever see a sliver of possibilities for becoming.
What are the skills no one is listing? Perhaps we need these now. Thanks to any artist that offers pause over the question of what a child’s hand might render, by separating creation from the tired showcase of established measurements of our worth.
Inspired by artist John Baldessari’s praise (as presented in an interview with The Met, as part of the museum’s Artist Project series) for Philip Guston’s Stationary Figure (1973). And by his invocation of the classic advice, “Don’t be a showoff.”
You can’t say they didn’t warn us, those eye-level oracles whispering above the chewing gum we didn’t need, the candy bars we secretly craved, the batteries we were always forgetting to buy. It’s not like they weren’t persistent. They offered a bounty of answers, endlessly. But, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water––
Secrets would be revealed. Why the it girl could never marry, what the bachelor of the year could never refuse. How to win against the crooks, not to mention important updates: recent developments in a high-profile rivalry, what happened to the kids you still remembered. What was fumbled, what went bust, who was at the end of their rope.
It was a bombshell. It was graphic. It was a must see. It promised: Your questions finally answered! The secrets, the how to, the life hack you don’t want to try living without. The bags of apples moved ahead; the cereal was scanned. There was always something we were forgetting until it was too late. In this way they knew us, these oracles.
Look away at your own risk, they chided. We slid forward, replied with banal comments about how our days were going. Buttons were pressed, money exchanged. A receipt was handed over. We turned to exit, offered the usual thanks. But the things that we carried could not be the things we were here for, could they? They had called our bluff, these fantastical fortune-tellers. We exited through the sliding doors, into the asphalt flatland, squinting against the glare.
Inspired by a recent survey of magazines featured by the checkout station at the local supermarket.
The artist used the scraps of the day to dance angels on his fingers. He wanted his son to have playmates free of history, open to unknowns, without the knowledge that cultivates fear. Here is the glost of a scarecrow, here the electrical spook. Once upon a time this was a napkin, but now it’s Mr. Death, live on a shoebox stage, fielding questions from all sides. The wine cork becomes the old man, the devil is a ringed glove, and the monk wears a luchador’s mask.
Let’s play, he told the child––animals playing comedy; tragic heroes dressed as children playing proud birds. Make the cat a bull for the land where the only constant is that everything is constantly morphing into something else.
Watch the big eared clown, ecstatic with the solemn poet and the absolute fool. Only the fragile are powerful here, arms up to highlight where their hands might be, in display of delight: Look, no hands and nothing to hold! They will dance as soon as they wrestle, these angels, and every blessing is also a wound.
Inspired by this article about the hand puppets that Paul Klee (among my favorite artists ever) created for his son.
Even as the tutued dancer balances on a tightrope of sidewalk cracks, minding the squirrel’s tail, a careworn mutt holds up his end of the line in unfashionable duty, watching out. Elsewhere, a grade-school gremlin sneaks a bite of manhole cover between meals. Later, a mouse in PJs reads Proust in the lost light of a terracotta pot, and from the oldest brick wall in town, the youngest new dragon peeks from a weep hole by the light of a small flame at the end of her tail. It becomes clear that a penguin of unknown origin has led a young hedgehog through the end of the garden hose, into the South entrance of the tot lot on Broadway, and there’s no putting them back now. In related news, another pig is flying, on wings transplanted from the rescued organs of books.
What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance.
This is the second installment in the Monster Mash series, in which I profile some of the monsters that may get in the way of creative work. The purpose is to identify the minions working for the Machine (or Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it) that can threaten creativity when allowed to go undetected.In part one, I profiled Nothing, the shaggy, one-note solipsist who goes around declaring It’s Nothing! whenever I am trying to do or listen to Something. I am happy to report that he’s been much quieter since I called him out on his shenanigans.
Today, we move on to another character, Dr. Blob. Dr. Blob is a monster-in-disguise. The disguise is the danger here. Dr. Blob is a skilled analyst with an impressive C.V. He’s an informed expert, well versed in all technical aspects of craft, structure, literary theories, New Criticism, Old Criticism . . . You name it, he has an opinion, and is happy to share it, along with a phonebook-sized research prospectus, in case you are inclined to doubt the validity of any of what he is saying.
In fact, you are not inclined to doubt the validity of anything he is saying. He knows what he’s talking about. He may even be the best in his many fields. The problem is simply that he doesn’t stop talking. All he can do is analyze, and this means that the people who are trying to create are suddenly thinking about what they are doing, and even if it’s something that once felt like the most natural thing in the world (“Cliché!” announces Blob here, and of course he’s correct), they are now choking and unable to work.
He’s great when it comes to analyzing the relative advantages and disadvantages of one structure over another, one setting over another, one point-of-view over another, and so on. His expertise is wide-ranging and can be applied to any aspect of a work, at any time: completed, not yet begun, or in-progress.
He is, in fact, an invaluable member of any creative ecosystem. What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance. He was supposed to be on call as an independent contractor, as a consultant whenever needed. But he either didn’t get or didn’t read the initial memo about his duties, so he tends to think of himself as CEO and creator-in-chief of the whole operation.
He means well, and he wants nothing more than for the work to succeed. But he’s not a creator. He wishes to be, but anything he makes tends to land like a lead balloon (“Another cliché!”), weighed down by too many footnotes, parentheticals, and additional structural tiers. He’ll build so much scaffolding onto a structure-in-progress that no one can see what it’s trying to be. And he makes the little creative sprites (who do actually create great work) get very nervous, because he’s always clicking his pen, tapping it against his clipboard, and announcing the time. Intimidated by his administrative presence, the little sprites go hide in the closet or run down to the park to play on the monkey bars, leaving me alone with Dr. Blob and his endless analysis.
But for all the disaster Dr. Blob can wreak on any project, he is (like many of these monsters) a gentle giant. It is quite possible, come to think of it, that his misunderstanding about his role is a result of my not having delineated its boundaries.
Fortunately, a simple formal letter, issued as a reminder whenever needed, should be all that is needed to get him out of the way. Dr. Blob is highly receptive to formality and has a high esteem for official mandates.
Something like this should do the trick:
Dear Dr. Blob, Although your services are extremely valuable to our operation, we are currently undergoing a series of internal restructuring protocols and will need to relocate your office and adjust certain terms of your contract. Rest assured, your compensation package will not change. As a reward for your exemplary performance, we are upgrading you to an executive-level corner office in a newly remodeled building, with a fine view of the park down the street from our current workspace. It has wood panels, room for a vast library, numerous filing cabinets, and a lovely swivel chair. Mainly, it affords you space with which to consult with other clients in need of your services. We will contact you from time to time as needed, mainly upon completion of work, and for advice with synopsis, cover letters, reading lists, and the like. Until then, enjoy your new office and be sure to wave at any sprites if you happen to glimpse them playing on the monkey bars.
It’s a win-win. Blob gets his own office, and every time he waves at the sprites, they come running back to play here, in the actual workspace, reclaimed from the domineering analyst who means well. Now we can play, discover, and be free to give ourselves over to the process of creating, until the next monster comes rumbling through.
Writing gives me all sorts of excuses to go looking into cool things like a little kid on an extended break.
Sometimes, when I’m all out of sparks, I open one of my magic books. I have about five of these, acquired a few years back when I had a magician character in mind.
That was my stated reason, anyway, but I confess that it is also true that I just think magic books are cool, and writing gives me all sorts of excuses to go looking into cool things like a little kid on an extended break. To the dismissive voice that might be lurking in the shadows waiting to shout, “Dilettante!” –I can call these pursuits Research (note capital ‘R’). This because I call myself Writer (see capital ‘W’). It’s a title ripe for claiming, apparently, somewhat like Napoleon’s crown, but with much less bloodshed. All you have to do is keep it is keep showing up, writing pen in hand, and move it along.
One of my favorite writers of all time is Percival Everett, and I was delighted to learn, in an interview I listened to last year, that while he found the process of writing books generally difficult, angst-ridden, and unpleasurable (while also unavoidable), he found research to be a lot of fun. I was grateful that he dispelled the myth of writing as a grand old time. I have heard that it is for some, and I don’t think they are lying, but I’ve only rarely found it to be anywhere close to unpainful, much like necessary exercise. That’s probably because my idea of fun is getting a bunch of margaritas and waxing loopy while making up song lyrics with friends, speaking in tongues and accents if with small children, or, if alone, laughing at cat memes.
Point being, research has benefits. Among these is that when one of the horsemen of distraction come in (Thank you, Sarah, for sharing this “Four Horsemen of Procrastination”meme with me after I wrote about the challenges that come when the muse gets replaced by “That Guy“), to ask, while I am trying to work out some interpretation of a proverb or philosophical paradox, something like, “Do you know any card tricks?” –– I can open an as-yet-unopened resource and compose an answer primarily of found passages and annotations. Such as this one, culled from the introduction to The Royal Road to Card Magic, by Jean Hugard and Frederick Braue.:
Modern magic is a vocation, a national convention conjuring an art. In return for time and effort, reap friends and spectators.
There are many whenever a pack is uninitiated, dumbfounding with impressions of skill.
There is always something in the effective sleight, unless striking feats from wonder to wonder.
I wait for some response. The dark horseman of distraction slinks off. He was apparently hoping I would join him in some sort of illicit internet foray into all manner of card tricks.
Here the internal voice gets a moment of jubilation. “Hah!” she erupts, “Another point for research!” Gentle reader, forgive her this cocky jubilation, as she is an endangered creature riddled with doubt. And to the retreating back of this hooded gangster, she now shouts: “I told you I was trying to get to these proverbs! Now what?!”
And now I may get back to writing this thing I am meaning to write.
You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
BIG I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.
And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?
Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?
I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.
What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?
This is the end of the time when we rhyme. But wait! Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road.
A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?
LITTLE Remember how we used to play the guessing game?
Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.
From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!
At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.
Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!
BIG Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?” Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.
Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me: Laugh!
You pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears! Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?
TO: Hieronymous Bosch
CC: Anyone else who might be wondering
SUBJECT: That Garden You Painted
also: The way your work is frequently invoked
as an experiential reference point.
As in, This year is feeling very Hieronymous Bosch.
Your name as an adjective–– as with Kafka, or Dali.
How one might want to inquire as to your thoughts.
You: pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears, Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?
We look on, knowing nothing, about what you “probably meant.” And yet: You likely lived six decades or more in the house your grandfather built.
You watched, at thirteen, the burning fire of four-thousand homes in your town. You didn’t always favor Flemish style; the transparent glaze concealed.
You wanted revelation, went impasto; rough, to point to your hand. As if to reject the presumption that it was God painting the forms.
You even signed some; most were lost. The God of your garden was youthful. How big the fruit! What a menagerie, waiting to explode back home.
It welcomes a memory, of taking great care with a painting of marker on white. I filled the page with detail; this was first grade, we were asked to draw the garden I could not wait to be seen, for I knew. What a marvel. I could not wait, to share in its delight! Butterflies cocooned in my center of knowing; I would explode out, soon.
I filled the page with detail in first grade; we drew the garden. Nobody asked me for a unicorn; I knew it was perfect like I knew drawing breath Butterflies cocooned in the center, like promises, I would reveal myself soon. Teacher made the rounds and paused at my desk; I drew in breath, feeling her moved.
Nobody asked me for a unicorn. There were none in the garden, she told me. Those are pagan, she said. This was confusion. I thought garden was everything good, and unicorns the best of all time.
She was moved to remind me that everything I ever wanted was exactly the reason for the fall. I was a mute, infant Eve, holding my half-eaten fruit. It soured quickly. I did not draw for her again.
Dear Jerome, your work here raises questions about ambiguity. Others see total alignment with orthodoxies of your time. Still, isn’t it ironic, at least somewhat, how much heaven in your hell?
Heavens from earth, the third day, enter this paradise lost. Come in, now! Rabbits dance behind Eve, suggestive of mating; cautionary tale? Or just good loving? And what about the dragon tree: eternal life?
Here giraffe, here elephant, here a lion eating prey. Pray, what’s that?! The cat has the lizard! And who is that cloaked figure reading, right there? Is that a duck, behind a fish? Without shame? Only curious now.
Hey teens, don’t eat cherries with great lords; they’ll throw the pits in your face. Truth! Women carry fruit on heads; acrobats ride camels and unicorns. Ladies strut with peacock pluck. Dance, dance, dance! Who waits for their entrance, here?
See winged fish, strawberry! Come inside this shell, land on constant youth! No child or aged person in sight; they fly in tandem on eagle lions.
They fly trees of life. See bird of death perched on branches. The gallant knight wears a dolphin tail, scratching the back of his head; as above, so below.
Then comes damnation, or does it? The dark and cold are over the top, Waters frozen, fire waits: a bestiary for feasting on bodies.
City’s burning, river’s blood; crucified on instruments, the choir sings. Rotting trunks for tree-man’s arms, his body a broken shell; his gut pierced.
Beasts have at it; wolves eat the last knight; the dragon has run out again. But Jerome, does it get annoying; everyone speculating about what you
meant; does it get old, everyone asking about the rules of the game, and all the fine print, forgetting that the point was to play?