Taking the Plunge: Part 3

It has been a slow plunge to take fully, but I am now solidly submerged. I just read an article in the New Yorker, so my thoughts are filtered through the lens of what it is like to be a twentysomething.

This past Thursday was the last day at my office job. I’ve been working two days a week for about 4 months now, which has been amazing but not perfect. I’ve been able to pay all my bills, and so not draw down my savings which I planned to keep me afloat for about the next year or so. The year or so starts now. Some imperfections of part-time: a gradual feeling of disconnect from the work, making it more and more rote as the weeks go by. A feeling of not-entire commitment to art and creativity. An excuse to not get a lot of other work done, because, hey, my bills are paid.

Already, life is coming into focus. I am twenty-eight. I have no income, but I have no doubt that I could have income if I needed it. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in geology, I’ve worked in sustainable agriculture, carpentry, and green building, and I have a feeling that none of them are where I want to put my life’s effort. I am planning to apply to art school in Iceland, but also have no idea how long I’ll want to do that. I am currently reading about five good books and have no conception (literally, zero) of where I will be in two or five or ten years. I am single and have been for a while, and I can’t really imagine what it would be like to incorporate another person into my life. I am not usually lonely. I spend between one and two dozen hours a week at coffee shops. I try to make art and play music everyday, but rarely manage for three days in a row. I am working on starting a tiny hummus business. I exercise twice most days and meditate about five times a week. I am about to take a 10-day road trip to Southern California because I have that much free time. I am completely at sea and full of contradiction, and I am the happiest I’ve ever been.

It is hard to say what is going on. I have always thought that happiness would come through some greater purpose, by some well-examined life on a direct path to some clear-cut definition of success. I have always been competitive and driven, but I have not always been happy. Now that I am relatively aimless, I feel present and alive and exuberant. I have the time to be inspired by life. I laugh when the sun is out in the morning (a rarity in wintertime Seattle). I also laugh when it is raining, thinking about all the people grumbling. I laugh at the way raindrops ripple a puddle. If you had a recording of my life, you would think I was crazy, laughing all the time and grinning while I walk around town in the cold and damp. There are some concrete things that contribute to this behavior: low but daily doses of caffeine, vitamin D supplements, consistent exercise, lack of internet/TV/media, good sleep. But it is the intangibles that really do the trick. Freedom of time and space in good measure (not so much as to be bogged down by choice), quality socializing, a clear mind (aided enormously by the lack of internet/TV/media), a desire for creativity, expression, and openness.

Will this happiness last? I don’t know. I do feel a push for something bigger, but a lot of the things I’m chipping away at now could be bigger at some point. I’ll probably start volunteering when I’m back from my road trip, which should help inre: purpose, community, socializing. But here’s why I think this all might be valuable even if I never become a successful artist or writer or musician. I feel like I am teaching my brain how to be happy. I’ve been reading a bunch of neuroscience-y books, and it sounds like this is possible. Maybe the most important thing I am accomplishing right now is setting up pathways in my brain that will persist beyond this expansionary phase of my life (although I don’t plan for this phase to end). I’m about to read Happiness, which I think will solidify these ideas and probably be life-changing in lots of positive ways. Also good: A General Theory of Love, The Geography of Bliss, anything by Rumi.

People seem to be worried about whether this life is economically feasible. I guess my response is, what’s the point of having an economically feasible life if it isn’t one you want? Is the purpose of our perplexingly short time on this planet to make ends meet? Of course not. To be slightly pragmatic yet thoroughly optimistic: if I am deeply happy and intensely satisfied with what I am doing with my life, and willing to share that with others, it will become economically feasible. If I make bad art long enough and love doing it, it will get better. If I am a terrible writer for ten years and put my heart and soul into it, at some point I’ll be a good writer. If my fingers are slow on the guitar and my voice is out of tune, but I do it every day because there is nothing I’d rather be doing, eventually I’ll play beautifully. I feel lucky to have a head start on so many good things, and to be in a place where I can focus on expanding my own awareness of life. So here I am, submerged.

Bold colors, drips

Art and Soul

This fall I decided to work through two new “how-to” books, one on creativity and one on kung fu. I thought this would get me going in two different directions since these two things are so clearly distinct. One is about art, one is about the body. I slowly realized, however, that I was essentially dealing with the same beast: energy, life flow, chi. This is one of those ideas that automatically makes whoever is talking about it sound hippie-dippy, like someone who has never picked up a science book and spends a lot of time waving around sticks, wearing overly-comfortable tie-dyed pajamas. I’m not saying I would never wave sticks around like that (and who doesn’t love comfortable pajamas?), but I do also have more than the average number of degrees in hard sciences (2). I’m pretty sure we have this mental image about energy flow because of the way the media characterizes it, maybe some remnant of a backlash against the 60’s spirit of free-love or something. I’m too young and un-media-savvy to know. But to the point.

Here’s what I’ve been working on. For creativity: The Artist’s Way. The subtitle reads “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” to give you an idea. Once I started this, I found out that it’s actually quite popular among certain groups, and there are meet-ups for people scattered on coffee shop bulletin boards all across the country. And for kung fu: The Shaolin Workout. Subtitled: “28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior’s Way.” I haven’t met anyone else who has seen this book, but I don’t travel much in martial arts circles.

I’m on week 5 of 12 in The Artist’s Way, and day 17 of 28 in The Shaolin Workout. I’ve been going about half speed in The Artist’s Way, often getting distracted for a few days and finding myself behind schedule. I’ve found that the “days” referred to in The Shaolin Workout are more metaphorical, along the lines of “four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, three in the evening.” This book contains a lifetime of movements to be learned and perfected. Many of the later exercises are near impossible without years (I presume) of focus on flexibility (“standing tall, kick one leg up to graze your toe against your forehead with control while keeping both legs straight” kind of stuff).

Here’s the basic idea behind The Artist’s Way. Creativity is not something we can simply focus hard on to produce. Rather, it is a flow that travels through us from some external force, some god or higher power or what-have-you. We, as artists, have to learn to disconnect our internal censors from this flow and just let it rush through us. Without our censor blocking the flow of creativity, we will be able to fill pages or canvasses or rolls of film. The important thing is that it doesn’t matter if you “believe” in where this energy is coming from. You don’t have to believe in God, per se. But thinking about it in this way will allow you to create art in a non-destructive way, a way that doesn’t require drugs or alcohol or addictions to silence the censor for you.

I’m not sure that I’m necessarily very far along this path right now, but even the short moments of clarity I’ve had with it have been wonderful. It comes with a feeling of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. It allows me to do one of the most necessary and difficult things to do when practicing something new: to fail. To make terrible art and trite writing. I’m starting to understand how important this is, and how I’ll never get any better unless I actually do it and work on it and slowly get better.

It’s good that I’m learning to be OK with failure, because kung fu is HARD. This is not something my body is used to. My hips and hamstrings are tight with a lifetime of sitting in cars and chairs. I cannot graze my toe against my forehead with a straight leg in a controlled way, or in even a wildly uncontrolled way. That’s going to take a lot of practice and stretching. At the end of each workout there is a meditation to focus on for the rest of the day. Things started to come together when I got to the Chinese proverb, “Be not afraid of moving slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” So I’m chipping away at the tightness in my hips, just as I’m chipping away at the censor blocking my creativity.

But here’s the thing. Both of these are actually working on the same thing. Kung fu focuses on releasing chi and letting that energy rush through me. The Artist’s Way focuses on releasing creativity and letting that energy rush through me. The tightness in my hips is constricting my chi, making it harder to stand up straight and tall, making my body a less-than-ideal place for this energy to pass easily. The creative blocks I’ve built up through years of being a perfectionist are making it difficult for me to sit down and paint. After doing the kung fu stretches, my body feels loose and energized, and I feel a sense of exuberance and life. When I actually do sit down and draw, my mind feels free and energized. As my energy flow increases, my head buzzes with openness, expansiveness, connectedness. I feel that I am (or at least am nearer to being) a fully empowered and creative being.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve read some books. I also don’t know much about energy flow, chi, etc, aside from what I’ve picked up through kung fu and yoga. But I think this all has something to do with the right side of the brain. I’ve written about the right side of the brain before, and this talk by Jill Bolte Taylor gets at a lot of what I think I’m talking about. It does make sense that martial arts would put you in your right-hemisphere, though. The movement of the body and spatial awareness that creates is exactly the kind of thing that shifts your focus from the analytical to the holistic. If this irrational, emotive hemisphere is also where the creativity to practice visual arts comes from (as it seems to be), then the two are perfect complements. More chi, more energy, more creativity, more flow, whatever that means. More kung fu, and more art. A life of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. Sounds good to me.

And drinking coffee

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

In addition to mustache appreciation month (yes, I am in), November is National Novel Writing Month. So I’m going to do it. Write a novel. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s going to be terrific and hard and all sorts of things I can’t predict. You can learn more about the event here:

My approach: haven’t made one yet. I’m going to write about 2,000 words a day, and see what happens. No editing until December. I’m sure an outline will come as I start pulling ideas together. Let’s be honest, it will probably mostly be about my life. It’s what I know best.

Well wishes and enthusiasm are welcome, especially around week 2, which is apparently the toughest. I won’t have time to manage skepticism, so save that until I’m done.

I plan to post updates fairly regularly. Looking forward to it!

Self-Help and Mentoring

About four years ago I was traveling through Italy, biking, farming, and just generally exploring life. I didn’t have a lot of direction other than south, but life felt good. As I started seeing more hamlets and monasteries on the tops of cliffs and mountains, I realized something: I needed a mentor. I felt that my life could go all sorts of wild places, and that it would be valuable to have a wise soul to guide me through the process.

This is actually Greece, but you get the idea. Same trip, at least. The Meteora.

I made a note of this in my journal and promptly forgot about it for several years. I never sought out any person or community that I thought would be able to guide me through my explorations, and nothing materialized on its own. I didn’t think about a mentor in a serious way until a few weeks ago. Instead of renewing my resolve to find a guide, however, I realized that I have already been seeking the advice and lessons from numerous mentors.

“Self-help” has a terrible ring to it. It is full of negative connotation, an admission that one isn’t able or competent enough to deal with the difficulties of life. It doesn’t even make sense – it isn’t self-help if someone else is telling you how to do it. And a lot of it is probably garbage, especially considering the number of shelves dedicated to it at the bookstore. Luckily for me, none of the sources I was using called themselves “self-help”, so I snuck in without realizing where I had gone.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been drawing from a number of sources, gradually improving my life and state of mind. I feel that I’m now reaching a new stage of contentment and freedom in my self, and I am excited to see where things lead from here. The other day I was describing to a friend that the daily vocal training I’m doing was creating all sorts of new openness and range in my voice. I realized that this was in fact true of my whole life.

So what have I been doing? I’m tackling some of the skills I’ve wanted to have for a long time, but never really practiced, and I’m being open to good advice where I find it. Some of the people I’ve drawn the most from are:

Jason Crandell for yoga. I do yoga almost everyday on my own, listening to his podcast. Little things like folding your palms in front of your chest and lifting the skin over your sternum make a huge difference in the practice. When I got these they were free, but it looks like you might have to pay for them now.

Ken Perlman for guitar. I came upon his Fingerstyle Guitar book by chance, and have followed it with his advanced book. I’m playing guitar in ways I couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. Also, what a mustache.

Betty Edwards for drawing and perception. I’ve written about Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain before (here and here), and it has allowed huge leaps in my perception and ability to recreate that on a page.

Steve Pavlina for consciousness and inspiration. This guy might be a wacko, or he might be full of wisdom (or probably somewhere in between), but either way his ideas have inspired me. His blog posts often sound hokey, but they have definitely got me thinking and actively pursuing life.

Timothy Ferriss for fitness, confidence, and life/time management. This is the 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Body guy. Not everything in those books makes sense for every person, but some of his suggestions are spot on, and his workouts are surprisingly effective.

Brett Manning for singing. I just started his speech-level singing course about 5 weeks ago. He’s super cheesy in an L.A./Hollywood way, but like I said, all sorts of new openness and range. Very expensive, unless you can borrow it from a friend.

This week I also started working through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. It’s a spiritual approach to nurturing creativity. I’m excited about it – even reading the introduction made me want to sit down and paint all day.

The fear with seeking advice and guidance from strangers is that their thinking will take over your life and you’ll end up joining a cult or something. This is more true of the life-coach type sources than the skill-specific ones. I think the key here is to take it all with a grain of salt and to draw from multiple sources simultaneously. Doing so makes it a lot easier to distinguish the good ideas from the fluff without necessarily buying into an entire lifestyle. The fact that they are mostly free (or available at a library) helps. I definitely don’t have plans to pay for this kind of advice any time soon. Again, specific skills are a bit different.

While I would still be open to having some kind of personal mentor, I feel that I’ve found a workable alternative through these various sources, and I’m sure there are plenty more I haven’t found yet (and I welcome suggestions – especially on writing, painting, and song-writing). I’m continuing to cobble together a kind of personal philosophy, and I expect to be doing so my whole life. It’s exciting and fulfilling. Still, I’d rather not call it “self-help.”

Copying the Masters

From my understanding, training for art by masterwork copy has come in and out of favor at various points in recent history. Masterwork copy is just as it sounds: creating a copy of a great piece by a master artist. Some teachers believe that this stifles creativity, perhaps suppressing a young artist’s own voice. Others think it’s a great way to learn technique and get deeply involved with a piece of art. I’ve worked through a couple of these, and I have to say I agree with the latter.

I did my first real masterwork copy last spring in an oil painting class. I chose an early Kandinsky, mostly because I like his work and I particularly liked the look of the specific piece. It was a 1919 work titled Moscow I, an abstract landscape of Moscow. It seemed perhaps a bit ambitious, but that is usually an enticement rather than impediment for me.

At first, painting the copy went about how I had expected it to. Matching colors, trying to match the stroke. As I became more familiar with the piece, I began noticing details in the paint that I hadn’t seen before. Much of the work would be impossible to reproduce on a single pass; it required successive layers of washes and covers. I hadn’t experienced this deconstruction of a piece of art before, it was almost like getting to watch over the artist’s shoulder as he worked through the piece. Eventually I decided it was more fun to paint in the style I thought Kandinsky might have been using than to try to make a photographic reproduction. I kept the brush strokes and didn’t worry too much if they weren’t in exactly the right place.

My version of Kandinsky’s ‘Moscow I’

Kandinsky’s Original ‘Moscow I’

Last week I worked on another copy, this time of a drawing by Courbet. His work is in charcoal and I used pencil, so I wasn’t expecting to be able to get quite the same texture. This exercise was mostly about light and dark, finding shapes and shadows. I actually started blocking out with the drawing upside-down in order to focus on the pattern of value rather than any discernible features. Once I had gotten the basic shapes defined, I flipped the work right-side-up again and began hashing out the details. As with the Kandinsky, my perception and understanding of the work continued to grow as I worked through it. I began to notice features that appeared to be just hinted at at first, and to a certain extent I began to gain understanding of the stroke and touch Courbet used in the work. Using a different medium than the original may have limited this somewhat, but the general idea was still there.

My version of Courbet’s ‘Self Portrait’

Courbet’s Original ‘Self Portrait’

After completing each of these masterwork copies, I felt I had gained new understanding of the components of the pieces, and more importantly, a sense of how these individual components work together to give a powerful sense of wholeness and beauty. If any of my own creativity was sacrificed while working through these pieces, I’m confident that it is made up for by the advancement of my technique and my improved understanding of the process of creating a serious work. I doubt I will do these masterwork copies often, but I definitely recommend them as an exercise for getting fully immersed in a great piece of art.