As I assume you’ve long heard by now, Stephen Sondheim (writer of Into the Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd among others) passed away last week. A hero and a pillar in American theater.
On a plane, two days after his death, I watched Six by Sondheim on HBO. A documentary covering the life and career of Sondheim. I was enthralled by this man whose art I had already come to love, and now I’d like to share some of his words from the film.
“Nobody goes through life unscathed. And I think if you write about those things, you’re gonna touch people.”
“I’m not interested in making people unhappy. But I’m not interested in not looking at life.”
“The songs I write don’t really reflect me in any conscious way. They all are about the characters that the book writer has made, and I’m getting into those characters. I never think of them in my own terms.”
“A puzzle, like art, is making order out of chaos.”
“I still get pleasure out of writing a musical phrase I think is really good. I still get a pleasure out of writing a line that I think really encapsulates what I want to say.”
“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously.”
“It’s all about getting into the character. And you start to make lists of what she would talk about… It’s very much about serendipity.”
“The only reason to write is from love. You must not write because you think it’s gonna be a hit, because it’s expedient or anything like that. It’s so difficult to write… You write it out of passion. That’s what failure taught me.”
Throughout the film, Sondheim stressed the importance of curiosity and teaching and learning. And since watching, I have heard many people talk about the great influence he had as a teacher, friend, mentor, and supporter (I found an Instagram account full of letters he sent, it’s delightful).
Sondheim, in many ways, lived a life I would like to emulate. He laid on his couch and wrote. He created things that moved people. And he supported others in doing the same.
A few days ago, I posted about a painting of a hand I’d done. It had been a few days since I’d worked on the painting at all, and the initial surge of energy had long passed, so I decided to send it off into cyber-space unfinished.
Just sitting myself down to write those few sentences took quite some effort. And yet, as soon as I finished writing and pressed publish, I looked at the piece again and pulled it up on my iPad. Just to change one tiny thing. Then, an hour or so later, I exported the final piece and put it on Instagram.
This series of events confirmed something I’ve been thinking about for a couple weeks. That my own creative energy doesn’t work the way my brain thinks it should:
Energy out leads to energy in. Creativity leads to creativity. And work leads to work.
Put another way: An object in motion stays in motion, and an object at rest stays at rest.
I often find myself having to fight with the heat of a thousand suns to sit myself down into a creative posture and actually do the work. The hardest part is moving the object (me) from rest (sitting on my bed twiddling on my phone, not enjoying my rest, or actually resting, but simply squandering time scrolling) into motion (doing something creative that I’ve deemed valuable). Once I’m in (creative) motion, I usually stay in (creative) motion. But getting in motion can be a bear. (This rule also applies to physical activity for me, too)
And I believe this “law of creative physics” can be true in micro and macro settings. That creativity spawns creativity. In spare evening hours, yes. But also in months of shifting seasons. And across long years. And through entire lifetimes. Because, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
I want to spend my life creating beautiful things and enjoying my time. And to do that, I must dislodge myself from (unhealthy) rest, and force myself into the rush of (creative) motion.
And to do that, I must get a chair. (I will talk about this chair in my next post)
This is imperfect, and I already have many qualms and qualifiers with these thoughts, but I will leave it there, because it is better to have something finished, not perfect.
In her brilliant book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott describes a piece of her writing routine that has had a great impact on me. She outlines, for the reader, a day of languishing at her desk, thinking about anything and everything but the book she is trying to write. “I start to think about learning to use makeup and how maybe I could find some boyfriend who is not a total and complete fixer-upper and then my life would be totally great… Then I think about someone I’m really annoyed with, or some financial problem that is driving me crazy, and decide that I must resolve this before I get down to today’s work.” This rambling goes on for quite a while, but then she breathes, “slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.”
And so, a couple days ago, in a sudden strike of inspiration, I drew myself a one inch picture frame, and put it on my desk. Ironically in a much larger, much less ornate frame. As a reminder. That will hopefully work.
All I have to do today is describe what I can see in that one-inch picture frame. That’s not so bad, right?
It is a lovely and mysterious moment when an idea strikes. Whether it be a video I might make, or a novel that I will never write, or a drawing I could finish.
Last weekend, I perused a multi-story vintage warehouse with my sister, and came across this small Band-Aid tin in the search. For only $4, it was obviously too perfect to pass up – I’ve got this odd attraction to trinkets and old things to place on shelves. It probably stems from the same part of my brain that likes vests.
I set it up on a shelf in my kitchen, next to a small glass tea-candle lamp and an old yellow Gurkin mustard tin. It fit right in. Each day since, I’ve glanced up and felt a sense of satisfaction seeing my new Band-Aid tin sitting up in its place, like it had been there for years.
This afternoon, I happened to glance up at it again, and I had one of those lovely moments. An idea struck – an idea for a poster. What would the Band-Aidof a creative life be? I jotted down some quick ideas in my notebook. “Sleep”? “Silence”? “Take a walk”?
Before deciding on a direction, I took my own advice and stepped away from my computer. Me and my roommate went on a walk down the lake a few blocks from our apartment, and as we walked across the footbridge overlooking Lincoln Memorial Drive, I told him about the idea. “Oh, yeah yeah yeah,” he said excitedly. We chatted back and forth for a while, throwing ideas out.
“I’m trying to think of puns that go with Band-Aid,” he said. “Hand maid!” We didn’t go with hand maid. We kept walking, enjoying the cool weather, then finally, walking through the front door, landed back at my original concepts.
Here is my poster for the day. It’s been a while since I made one, and it felt good to be back in it. For a while at the beginning of the year, I was making a poster like this every day. It’s nice to look back at past self and be stoked at all the work he did… But it’s also nice for present self to have the freedom to take a break without feeling too bad about it. That’s a balance I’m still trying to find.
His most recent post takes you through the title lettering of all the Oscar Best Picture winners. From the 1927 Wings to Parasite. It’s a beautiful scroll. Having it all collected in one, clean place, allows you to look and make new connections and think in new ways about the work.
Curation itself can be an art form – the act of actively looking for things you love, things that inspire you, and collecting those things from the corners of the world. That’s a gift for others to find. A place for others to find appreciation.
“An artist is now a curator. An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things.
Scrolling through my Pinterest boards, I see the collections of things that have inspired me visually. Flipping through my notebook, I see the quotes I’ve curated and documented in pen.
Looking through my movies-watched list, I can see patterns. Scrolling through my saved Instagram posts, I see phases of art as I scroll through months and years of saved artworks. Cartoons, then comic book illustrations, then lino-cut prints, then ultra minimalistic posters. Then architecture photographs, fashion illustration and logo designs. We are all curators in a sense.
Looking through your curated collections from seasons passed can show you what you cared about. What you liked best. What was making an impression.
What we curate doesn’t only help guide what we make or what we share, it also tells us about ourselves. It can invigorate us, or show us our own growth.
Curating doesn’t just document the world around us, it documents us.
I’ve had a couple tedious work days in a row. The kind that felt like I could not, for the life of me, figure out a solution to the problem I was working on. The sort of hours spent pondering how anyone could every possibly be so pitiful as to pay you for anything you ever make, because it’s all utter rubbish, and you should’ve been an electrician instead. These last couple days, I’ve taken to pacing around my kitchen when I hit the dead ends. It’s a better alternative to tearing my own hair out, but doesn’t come with the brute satisfaction. Sometimes I lay on the couch and toss my baseball up and down, over and over, seeing how close I can get it to the ceiling without putting a dent in the popcorn plaster. But these aren’t sure fire ways to clearing my head or finding a solution, or even alleviating the frustration. It’s in these moments that I wish I played an instrument.
I recently discovered that Einstein, when faced with a problem he couldn’t seem to solve, would pick up his violin, and play.
Apparently he even named his beloved violin – Lina she was called. He often talked about music as an inspiration and source of joy in his life.
“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. … I get most joy in life out of music.
This connection between Einstein and music seems an odd one at first, but this video beautifully describes some of the science behind it.
Recently, Austin Kleon – my favorite author of the moment – has recently taken up piano in his free time.
Playingan instrument can sort of be a super power. A super stimulus for the brain. Plus it’s beautiful and sophisticated and an excellent use of time. There are no downsides to playing an instrument. It is good for you in every way. But… it’s hard. And that’s where I get stuck.
These last couple days of tedious work, though, full of pacing and hair tugging and rubbing my palms into my eyes, may be enough to push me into a new musical journey. Maybe an instrument is just what I need. More music could never really hurt.
My favorite composer, Aaron Copland, said at a concert dedicated to him for his 80th birthday:
“I was able to spend my life at music, in music, with music. Not everybody is so lucky.
This is Nicole McLaughlin, 27 year old designer based in New York. She specializes in upcycling and sustainability in her bizarre and fantastical apparel.
This video dives into Nicole’s thoughts on sustainability in design and fashion, and her making-process (you can skip the in-video ad from 0:45-1:27).
I happened upon Nicole’s work within the last couple weeks, on one of my brief and shallow dips into Twitter, and was immediately captured by the playfulness and originality of her designs. Not only is she making things that are so clearly sustainably repurposed goods, she is doing it in a way that highlights the past lives of each item. Like a woodworker highlighting live edge of a maple slab, Nicole is beautifying the scraps of material. She is creating a sense of fashion in a place few people have ever looked before.
After gaining traction online with items like volleyball slippers and bread mittens, Nicole has become a voice in the fashion world for sustainable and eco-friendly design.
Her creativity and willingness to play with her work is inspiring.
You can read a more in depth look at her life and work here.
I spent a chunk of my evening alone in the apartment drawing these 18×24″ sharpie-on-newsprint scenes.
It was quite a fun process, and, as always happens when I pick up a pen or a paint brush, it made me want to do more traditional work.
But it makes me want to draw with sharpie and pen more often specifically. There’s something really freeing about completing a drawing with no ctrl+z. The inability to erase presents a higher bar of entry to the drawing process, but once you’ve forced yourself past the bar, it can be a much more enjoyable process. No more kneading back and forth across the same spot on the page over and over.
You’re stuck with every line, no matter what, so you start to let go of some of that tension, and just let the lines fall where they’d like.
This evening also helped to fortify my opinion on quantity masking crudity. These drawings are not beautifully crafted – and yet, as soon as you start building the quantity, the total picture starts to become more impressive.
A couple days ago, I had the opportunity to watch a conversation between Austin Kleon and Jessica Abel live.
Here are some of my key take-aways from what Kleon had to say:
“I’m a student who never went back to school.”
“The only way I can [write] these books is ask what I’m trying to figure out. They’re selfish.”
Everything that’s good for kids is good for you… Space, time, books, fresh air and walks.
Stop asking direct questions to find the answer, just figure it out.
“You’re just a mashup of what you let into your life.”
Every writer should work in a books store or a library to be forced to think about the reader.
Kids aren’t afraid of a blank page, because they have no expectations of themselves. And they’ve got some incredible confidence.
One thing I’d love to do once the world returns that I’ve never done before is go see authors speak in person. I never really recognized books tours as something I’d be interested in, but I’m certainly interested now.
Upon reading a recent post where I discussed pens and an old friend from high school, my sister Lauren pointed out her wish for a broader why? in the writing.
“As it stands,” she said, “it’s warm and innocent and beautiful.” Stop it, I’m blushing.
“But if I had a wish,” she went went on, “I’d love to read this with a little more about the why’s, the lessons, or a parallel into some other life truth or something weaved in.”
Well. Yes, she’s right. In writing, I so often find myself stopping at my original thought. But this often leaves my writing feeling unfinished, without depth. When I finish my original thought, I need to stop and think how does this connect to broader life? Why does this matter?
This is something that Hank and John Green do beautifully in the weekly videos on their Vlogbrothers YouTube channel.
Hank even describes this phenomenon at 2:55 in this lovely video about arbitrary human design.
And just for fun, here is another Vlogbrothers video, made by John this time. It’s one of my favorites.
I think the thoughts bouncing around in my head at present can be summed up in the words purpose and meaning. That’s what I feel I’m often missing in my work.
What is the purpose of this story? Of this drawing? The meaning of this video? What am I hoping for friends and folks to get out of this thing I’m making? If it is simply beauty, then great. But there is often more room than I think for deeper purpose and beauty to live side by side.
That’s something I’m trying to learn right now. How to infuse purpose and meaning.
Those are very abstract words that do not lend themselves to a very tangible goal, but I will work on reducing the thought down in the stew pot of my mind to a more understandable objective.