I haven’t written anything for a while. Even my daily journal from the past month looks awfully empty. My hands feel rusty going flicking across the keyboard. I have feelings I want to express, but I can’t seem to get them across the page right.
I’m listening to Ryuichi Sakomoto’s Solitude, and I can feel my heart beating with the solemn crescendos. The night feels darker this time of year. I watch the orange glow of a paper lamp cascade off the whitewashed walls. Cars pass regularly, creating a symphony with the soaked streets. I wonder how long it’ll take me for the words to come out as I wish they would.
Dan Flavin in Houston
My pen has been silent, in large part, because I’ve felt uncertain. You might have noticed the theme over the past few months: a pernicious, creeping doubt of my choices and commitments. In response, I reminded myself of my will to continue choosing and to focus on what I want. Still, it slithers back when I look away.
The thing that has helped most recently is thinking about what it means to cultivate a lifelong practice.
I’m prone to focus on short-term objectives. I want to release something so I can get the endorphin rush of getting something done. I like jumping from project to project, testing the limits of the range of work I can produce in a condensed period. Sometimes, when my momentum is strong, this is an overwhelming source of power. Other times, when I’m in the gap between projects, I feel like nothing will compare to the energy I once had. I think a better medium exists, one where I can immerse myself into the surge of momentum when it arrives, and when absent, I can put all of myself into the hearty work of living.
M told me about the idea of building spines the other week. The idea is to focus on building a foundation that will allow what you want to naturally emerge, rather than focusing on individual achievements. It’s playing the meta game. I’m reminded of Charles’ philosophy of slowness in building Are.na, with the hopes of becoming the next Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, one of the oldest businesses in the world. When you’re building for a horizon on the scale of decades, individual failures or day-to-day setbacks don’t matter so much as moving towards what you’re drawn to and what calls to you in return. There’s also a lot less pressure on finishing things at some artificial pace. Rather than filling out a list of accolades, what’s asked for is creating the right conditions that last.
winter shadows in the morning
Yesterday, I read My Trade is Mystery over the course of the day. JZ recommended it to me as something similar to Madness, Rack, and Honey, and Carl Phillips’ words felt like the exact echoes I needed to hear. Phillips shares what kind of life allows for poetry to emerge and the kinds of obstacles you will necessarily need to overcome. While ostensibly about poetry, his main “trade,” his words resonated with all my creative practices, both writing-related and not.
At the end of the first chapter on “ambition,” the kind that is “for the work,” “a steady drive, without expectation,” Phillips writes, “[A]s much as possible, let the work be everything; for the work will save you.”
You might think that Phillips is a workaholic, but he thinks of work in a different way. His work is his art, his lifelong trade, the thing that defines his purpose. Work, in this case, is his way of living. This form is completely different from the corporate work we’re accustomed to and even from the active labor of a craft (for example, writing). The work, for Phillips, is to live life attentively and write when life compels you to.
“Meanwhile, given that everything we write comes to us via the many lenses of the experiences we’ve accumulated across a life-we speak of trees, for example, according to what we know of trees by actual experience and through what we’ve experienced of trees in books, movies, nursery rhymes, and more-then everything we do is at some level research for the next poem.”
“Everything we do is at some level research for the next [thing].” When the work is something that we are compelled to with every fiber of our being, then we are always working. Even our waiting times fuel the research that gives us our next breakthrough. Art, or any kind of craft, is not the perfect result of years and years of polishing; rather, it is the “result of my having allowed myself to stray from any marked path and to become lost. The poem is the evidence—like tracks, or footprints—of my quest into and across strange territory, the shape I’ve left almost as if unintentionally behind me.”
This kind of work cannot be rushed. It cannot be forced out by pumping in more hours. It’s a slow task, a deliberate one. Movements without waste, consistently done are best. But how do you balance the urgency that arises without warning? Perhaps a distinction is needed between the kind that yearns for external validation—press mentions, likes and retweets, a warm email reply—and the one that demands energy for transformation. The former is nice, and sometimes even necessary, to press forward but is ultimately a distraction from the work. The latter is the invitation that only comes when you least expect it—the opportunity that we must always be prepared to dedicate ourselves to.
a mural in progress on the corner of my block in SF. It’s been lovely to watch it slowly evolve and take shape week over week, witnessing the foundation transform into San Francisco’s skyline.
Instead of jumping my focus from artifact to artifact as I’m used to doing, I want to build a tall, steady spine to support my varying creative outlets. I need to form a foundation for sustainable, consistent, and fulfilling creation, an environment strong enough to last for a lifetime.
I can no longer hide behind the premise that this period of my life is temporary—a diversion from the main “career.” I must make my life, this life, the thing I bet everything on. I’ll work carefully, but decisively. I’ll sculpt a home for my work, my art, my soul.
Meanwhile, I’ll define projects that I can consistently tend to1, the kind that can be my worry stones, ones that will stay for decades to come. And perhaps, when I look back years from now, I’ll reminisce fondly from a hearth I made with my own two hands.
You’ll receive my regular annual reflection sometime in the next week, and part two of my field notes on being a creative in the following weeks. If you’re subscribed to my tiny internets section, you’ll receive my next lab note next week as well. Hope this week is restful for all.
Thank you to everyone who is reading this, and welcome to all the new folks (now 567 of you!!). If you’d like to support my independent work, I’d appreciate if you shared anything I’ve made that resonates with someone who you think would enjoy it (and I also have a sponsors page for people to support my independent work and get inside scoops)! Thank you to the 11 people who support me with a monthly sponsorship (welcome to Crystal and James who joined since).
These feel like they are already starting to emerge. Playhtml is the cornerstone of a foundation to explore new definitional ways of relating to one another across the internet. Gather, an app for collecting what matters and curating your taste, is the cornerstone for personal data infrastructure. My work on html garden and subsequent iterations for its reading and exhibition feels like the foundation of my work as an artist, setting the stage for the kinds of questions I hope to explore and the interactive mediums I wish to push. ↩