7 surprising truths about creativity

Surprising to me, you see.

 

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1. Do it all for the joy.

It’s okay and normal to enjoy and feel energized from validation and praise.

I actually think that trying too hard to rise above that totally human impulse can be a form of self-abuse. You’re not Siddhartha Gautama, and I don’t want you to be. I want you to be a flawed, insecure but lovable mortal like the rest of us.

But come back to the joy of making stuff, because it’s fun. Because it’s a great way to pass the time, just puttering about, you and your tools and your creativity.

Orienting yourself again and again to joy, like in a GPS.

“Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating.” Destination: the pleasure of making. Already there.

2. Constantly cringing at your work is a good thing.

I hate the essay I submitted to my editors this week. Though I worked on it for many hours, all I see is flaws.

I hate the drawing I did yesterday. I have such an exquisite passion for children’s illustration and my little effort seems like the utmost embarrassing amateur hour.

And I am no longer taking these as signs that I should put the fucking pen down.

Hating everything you’re doing is a great thing. Being aware of the gap between where you are right this second and where you want to be means you have good taste and are primed for learning. If you keep reminding yourself to not be impressed by the discomfort, I guarantee you will still be cringing 3 months from now, but you’ll be cringing at a higher level, about more advanced stuff. 

And that’s what we want.

Ira Glass said this better, and his talk is worth revisiting again and again.

 

3. Follow your curiosity instead of fear.

I straight up took the tagline of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, and made it a life motto. It encapsulates everything for me, and when I was finally able to truly internalize it, I became the real creator that I’d always been.

The absolute best way to work through fear is not to fight it or battle it or try to “overcome” it, but to totally turn my attention elsewhere — to the objects of my curiosity.

And there are so many things I’m curious about, always. Mushrooms. Cuba. How to draw animals. The fact that toilet water spins in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. Symbolism and dreams. Ancient animism and violence. And on and on.

One really useful question I’ve taught myself to ask: what does my fear want from me? 95% of the time, the answer comes down to, “STOP TRYING SHIT AND KEEP YOURSELF SMALL.”

That’s not useful. So I notice this, and without beating myself up, quietly re-orient to what I am curious about. Curiosity leads me home.

4. You’ll figure it out.

You’re a smart person with the cognitive capacity for processing new information.

You’ll figure it out.

I don’t know how to write good plots.

I don’t know how to do oil painting. Never done it before.

I don’t know how to write highly structured poetry.

I’m an intelligent grown-up human who can figure stuff out. I can follow a recipe. I can make associations. I can type shit into a search engine. I can develop muscle memory. I can take advice.

I’ll figure it out. 

5. You don’t need to be schmoozing.

I think getting out of New York and its non-stop-schmooziness is one of the best things I did for my creative life.

(For my very specific life context. At this particular juncture of my life. Not generalizable.)

Freedom from influence can be a marvelously powerful thing. In solitude, your unique mindscape has the opportunity to reveal itself to you. You shed a lot of fears and false assumptions that never belonged to you in the first place, but which you accidentally picked up from other people, from the air. In my almost-complete, intentional isolation, the most unlikely and magical mentors and co-creators appeared, seemingly out of the blue.

But I know it’s not out of the blue. When I get clearer, muses and helpers can find me more easily. Solitude is the first ingredient in clarity.

(For me. At this juncture of life. Not generalizable.)

6. Make the thing you want to see in the world.

What do you wish existed in the world for you to consume?

To me, this means feminist coloring pages.

This means baroque, Old World style, fairytale children’s illustrations with a fresh twist.

This means fiction about deep ecumenical religious themes.

This means outrageously imaginative self-portraits.

This means book criticism that combines erudition, passion and humanity.

Visions of the things I want to consume propel me forward like nothing else.

7. Start from dialogue. Lean into conflict.

My friend, the writer Joe Loya, taught this to me.

Some of the best advice on writing I’d ever received. I said I don’t know where to begin writing a story, and he told me to start with the dialogue. Get into the heads of the people, make them say things out loud to each other. Make them real, not merely vehicles of ideas.

You know, this advice kinda translates to visual art, too.

What do I want a painting to say? Literally, if the painting were a person, what would the person be saying? Maybe it’s not one person saying something, but a dialogue. Then what would those words be?

How can I bring the conflict/irony way into the foreground, make that the focal point, instead of pussyfooting around it, trying to blur it into something blander?

That’s where the juice is. That’s what we want to look it. That’s what we want to be inspired and provoked by.

 

Willy Loman, Mary Oliver and the real story of joy

I’ve been collecting notes to do an essay on the theme of suffering in art.

For it, I had the scene of Jesus’ entombment painted by that fastidious German master of the grotesque, Matthias Grunewald. I had Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait as a leaping stag, pierced by a dozen arrows. I had a Modigliani titled, quite plainly, “A Suffering Nude.”

I was going to write about how I read these, the mutilated body of the Son of God, self-conception of the wounded artist, interior pain made visible, etc.

I might still write that essay, but it’s hard. It’s hard to contemplate suffering rendered unto art when my heart feels so raw.

Nowadays, my energy field feels porous, like my empath tendencies are magnified to the utmost. Today, on my way to do some Christmas shopping, I saw the poster for a production of Death of a Salesman (in Korean) on a train platform and felt overwhelmed to the point of tears.

 

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Looking at this photo, snapped on my iPhone, I am near the point of tears once again. Goddamnit.

The Korean Willy Loman’s funereal, ill-fitting black suit hangs off his slouched shoulders, sapped of pride or energy.

His gaze is both confused and resigned. The deep creases and the shadows on his weary face mirror the dramatic, blurry chiaroscuro of the background. Others pass him by in a hurry like indifferent ghosts, busily headed everywhere and nowhere. I almost hear that whooshing of the trains, muffled announcements, the sound of people looking away from each other.

My heart aches for the midcentury white American that Arthur Miller’s original Salesman was, and it aches for his incarnation nearly 70 years later on a different hemisphere.

I am not a salesman, nor am I any kind of a failed patriarch, but I am a student of alienation. And deep alienation has followed us Koreans in our pursuit of wealth and happiness. It is the shadow of the American dream, which begat the post-war Korean dream.

I wondered if Willy Loman is Don Quixote’s grimmer descendent — both succumbed to fantasy and death as a response to the absurdity of life, but the former is rendered without much humorous irony.

Is it that modernity has sapped us of the will to irony (let’s say, der Wille zur Ironie, in place of der Wille zur Macht)?

I had to turn away. I cannot go and see this place. Nor do I feel hardy enough to write that essay on suffering in paintings.

Nowadays, I see the darkness and sharp-edged inside me, too easily mirrored without.

Reading the news, both American and Korean, feels surreal. I doubt I have to do much explaining about the surreal despair of observing the Orange One Who Shall Not Be Named occupying the place he’d just been elected to occupy. In Korea, though, the president is embroiled in an impeachment scandal that is rocking our sense of civic solidity to the core.

Anger, suspicion and hopelessness abound. People’s emotional wounds are in the air and swayed by the wind, raining on creation like allergenic pollen at springtime.

At times like this, I have taken to turning to Mary Oliver.

I recently took a wonderful writing course (which actually is code for mind-body-spirit integration course) with Nadia Colburn. The course, Align Your Story, is a quiet, shimmering and softening invitation to carve the space out of our busy-busy lives for creative contemplation. It asks us to lean into wholeness as the principal way of becoming artists, which is an integral truth I now fight to keep in my heart all of my days.

(If the course sounds completely amazing, it is! And I cannot recommend it more.)

In it, there is a lovely module focused on the idea of Joy, which I find myself returning to time and time again.

Wouldn’t you agree with me that it is somehow so much more challenging, disruptive and subversive to study joy in the current environs than rage and despair?

Hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded of Yeats’ great poem, The Second Coming, the eerily, depressingly ever-relevant, muscular indictment of human folly. Is the engagement with joy somehow a negation of all the legitimate and justifiable anger and disbelief we feel at the state of the world?

Is engagement with joy a betrayal of those who have been profoundly wronged and mutilated — in our own hearts, in our homelands, far away in Aleppo?

Is engagement with joy more puerile than the fastidious study of sadness? Does it require less courage?

Nadia has reminded me to study who, to me, is the Poet of Holy Joy — Mary Oliver. I picked up my beloved copy of Why I wake Early and found myself totally arrested by the following poem. (Bold is mine.)

 

 

Breakage
by Mary Oliver
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
dock

Poems like this make me feel that Oliver was such a consummate artist of Joy. (And how joyful her language is to read, her short-syllabled American English, radiant with the acuity of love.)

Oliver’s eyes never look away from anything. This is a quality I most admire about her: her absolute insistence on looking at everything unflinchingly, including the scarredness, including the death and decay, and also no less curiously at that which is beautiful, blessed. There is a certain elegant discipline to this way of being and seeing.

You learn from Oliver that joy isn’t a state of “la-la-la”.

Joy is not a choice toward childish insouciance, effervescent and unweighted buoyance, or denial of the hard what-is.

Instead, Joy is the story of wholeness. Joy is the story of seeing that everything is broken and also not ugly; tattered but also shone on by the sun. Joy is salty.

Joy is the story of patience, of taking the time and the breath to not stop at each little word, but to weave together the many thousands of words, of knowings.

Joy is a kind of sober decision to wait to find out. Joy is the story of there is more, and that is always true.

And this is the best news of all. It means joy is possible — yes, even now, especially now.

 

Henri Rousseau and the tropical heart of darkness

Why you should care: A French dude by the name of Henri Rousseau (not to be confused with Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Enlightenment philosopher) painted all these fascinating jungle scenes… except he never left France. What’s with that?

There was an impulse in the late 19thC/early 20C for European artists to envision faraway lands and to attribute certain spiritual qualities to the foreign flora and fauna. I think most of us can probably relate to imagining faraway places and constructing powerful narratives around them.

It’s worth our time when someone makes the resulting output so visually arresting. The paintings of H. Rousseau is witness NOT to what the actual jungle looks like, but the fertile imagination of an unusual Frenchman who influenced no less than the likes of Picasso and, as we see, Frida Kahlo. 

 

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One of the first things I notice about Henri Rousseau is his plants. The colors and shapes of his characteristic landscapes conjure some hot faraway jungle. He supposedly spread rumors about spending time in Mexican expeditions, but in fact, he never did. All of the scientific evidence and imaginative inspiration for his wildlife came from  children’s books and the botanical gardens in Paris, as well as tableaux of taxidermy wild animals. Indeed, it is not hard to see a children’s book-like lyricism in his paintings.

The green leaves of his trees and shrubs are always in claustrophobic layers. They are dense, impenetrable, nearly to the point of being menacing. Even in paintings set in seemingly unthreatening, urban settings, far from the exotic jungles, like one we see below, trees are incredibly thick and dark.

 

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The Avenue in the Park at Saint Cloud

 

One running motif in his paintings is hidden scenes of predatory attack. Here is a leopard attacking a man, then another painting of a jaguar (?) tearing into his prey. Notice how the principal actors are hidden in the thickness of plant life, thoroughly isolated from any potential source of help. The victim might wail and screech, but no one will hear. The scene of animal savagery is incidental to the overpowering dimension, vitality and beauty of surrounding trees.

I have written about the cross-association of qualities related to plant and animal life in a novel, Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”, in which the protagonist, in the grips of madness, sees trees as hulking beasts. In the review I wrote of the novel, I also invoked Baudelaire’ poetry in the Flowers of Evil, in which plants become sinister accessories to violence. In Rousseau’s paintings, too, the brilliant green of the jungle is complicit in killing. It shields the killer and masks the cry of the prey.

This is a delicious subversion of the romantic idea of nature, in which green life represents a kind of return to benevolent origin, pastoral peace, maternal warmth and healing. FASCINATINGLY ENOUGH, the other Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, was one of the most famous proponents of such a view of nature.

Mais Henri dit non!

 

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To me, to debate the ecological correctness of Rousseau’s landscapes is totally besides the point. I don’t care that he has never seen anything tropical with his own eyes; in fact, I prefer the truth that he never left France. My impression is that he was after not scientific authenticity but capturing the qualities of mystique and risk associated with a notionally foreign terrain. His jungles are compelling insofar as they present a decadent, fantastical vision — fruit of the primacy of his imagination.

The tightness of the composition and lucidity of lines in his paintings bring to clear visual order the prehistoric murkiness lodged in our subconscious.

Consider now, against this visual backdrop, the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, whose life overlapped with Rousseau in France by about 4 decades;

(French original)

Quand, les deux yeux fermés, en un soir chaud d’automne,
Je respire l’odeur de ton sein chaleureux,
Je vois se dérouler des rivages heureux
Qu’éblouissent les feux d’un soleil monotone;
Une île paresseuse où la nature donne
Des arbres singuliers et des fruits savoureux;
Des hommes dont le corps est mince et vigoureux,
Et des femmes dont l’oeil par sa franchise étonne.

(Translation by Jacques LeClercq)

On autumn nights, eyes closed, when, sensuous,
I breathe the scent of your warm breasts, my sight
Is peopled by far shores, happy and bright,
Under a sun, warm and monotonous.
A lazy isle which nature, generous,
Stocks with weird trees and fruits of strange delight,
Men with lithe bodies, powerful but slight,
Women whose candid eyes flash luminous.

Hmmm, pretty poignant, right?

 

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The marrying of tropical flora, fauna, brooding storybook figures and violence typical in Rousseau’s work invoke, to me, the art of Frida Kahlo. After I had this thought, I looked up their names together and was glad to see that, indeed, other art historians have drawn the line from Rousseau to Kahlo, who worked a few decades after him. Noted the irony of Kahlo, a fierce patriot, being influenced by a Frenchman who depicted Mexican nature without leaving Europe. Although of course, the Coyoacán-born Kahlo had greater legitimate claim to “authentic” Mexico, she was also characterized by immobility (due to lifeling, tragic ill health), which also gave her a unique and eclectic imagination that translated into a distinctive and mystical artistic vision.

 

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Seurat and Signac: Where does the pointilist lens aim?

(I keep hearing people don’t care about high art. I don’t really buy that. I do think that art education is shit. If visual literacy is taught better, I believe firmly that anyone with a pair of eyes will find much to care about. So, every time I write about high art, I will try to sum up my highly subjective and non-professional opinion of why another layperson should care.)

Why you should care:  Because 19th century artists foresaw pixels and painted, essentially, pixellation. And that’s cool. And with this idea of expressing color through little dots, they captured the natural light of beautiful outdoors as well as intimate, very indoors-y settings of ordinary women at work. These questions of “What do you find interesting to see? What do you find interesting to reproduce for others to see?” are exciting because they encourage us to see familiar things differently. 

 

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I first learned about La Grande Jatte when I took an art history course during my semester abroad in Bologna. I forgot nearly everything else I learned in the course, but remember how much I was struck by this painting. I love the scale of the work (2.08 m x 3.08 m), though I’ve never seen it; the masterpiece by Georges Seurat lives in Chicago.

Notice the postures of the people. Notice their motionless profiles. It is said that Seurat was inspired by Egyptian and Greek art; one finds the rigidity and geometric precision that they have in common. The people enjoying a leisurely day at a public park mostly look water-ward, looking placid, almost bored. I find this so interesting, given that it is juxtaposed by the cheeky, frolicking movement of the animals (two puppies and… a monkey????) in the foreground. I think the painting would have carried a very different energy without the animals.

Also, pointilism is cool and feels like a precursor to this age of EVERYTHING IS PIXELLATED.

Seurat contrasted miniature dots or small brushstrokes of colors that when unified optically in the human eye were perceived as a single shade or hue. He believed that this form of painting, called divisionism at the time but now known as pointillism, would make the colors more brilliant and powerful than standard brushstrokes.

My head hurts to think about the two years of painstaking, scientifically-minded mental and physical labor that went into constructing these colors. Seurat took great pride in the objectivist accomplishment, but there is much more to appreciate in this painting than the pointilist technique and mastery of color theory.

The overall warm and luminous quality of the painting comes from the distribution of sunlight; the entire front third of the canvas is in a shadow, which means that the viewer is looking out from the perspective of being under a shadow, onto brightly lit palette of — it must be either Spring or Summer. The way the shadow is cast, the movement of the sun in a leisurely aftedownload-2rnoon is made implicit, the vanishing promise of day. I notice also the almost sprayed-on, dreamy quality of the tree leaves against the blue sky on the top left corner of the painting. The water shimmers and sparkles, reflecting trees, boat, people.

When you examine a pointilist work closely, all you see is dots. It is slightly dizzy-making. But once you step away, you see a cohesive, brilliant color. Pointilist work shares something with life that way; the way stepping away from something allows us to see something more clearly.

Though, the zoom-in version could be a stand-alone painting, and its mosaic-like abstraction very modern.

 

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This is quite a different example of pointilism, The Milliner by Paul Signac. 

Here, a milliner dropped her shears and is bending down to pick it up. I immediately fell in love with this painting because, aside from just thinking that the idea of a milliner is so romantic, I love when paintings capture really random moments, which the protagonist might almost be embarrassed by.

It feels intentionally voyeuristic, like peaking into someone else’s private moment. In this case, it is not the finished, beautiful hats we are interested in, but what goes into the sausage, so to speak. The intimacy is fun.

 

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There are materials (thread, and… scraps of fabric? felt? I don’t even know) thoughtlessly strewn about on the working table and on the floor, as it so happens when crafts(wo)men are busy at work. We see the daring red of the hat, to which our eyes are naturally drawn, contrasted against the sober blues, browns and blacks elsewhere. The red hat which will presumably be sold to a woman of a different social station than those in the painting; what a story it tells.

If in La Grande Jatte, same technique was used to capture the dynamic of light in open air, camera zooming out, here, we zoom into a somewhat claustrophobic setting indoors.

I love that Paul Signac thought this mundane scene worthy of the technical and effortful rigor of the pointilist project. I love what he was able to achieve with the textures of:

  • the wallpaper
  • the woven tablecloth
  • the woman’s tightly coiled bun and the curls cascading downward, the black hair reflecting the light with strands of blue sheen
  • the wooden floor.

 

 

 

 


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every once in a while, I’ll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I’m reading.


 

Full-length, English-subtitled Operas on Youtube

Vincenzo Bellini – Norma

Bizet – Carmen (not great quality due to being from the 80’s, but worth it for Berganza’s bewitching performance in titular role, which draws you in so much you forget the crappy quality)

Gaetano Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

Gaetano Donizetti – Don Pasquale 

Gaetano Donizetti – La Fille du Regiment

Cristoph Willibald Glück – Orfeo ed Euridice (bad video quality, but good sound!)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky – Eugene Onegin (not a lot of pageantry or pomp and circumstance; this is domestic romance, which, if you call, the Russians do well. En plus, Russian costuming FTW!)

W.A. Mozart – Le Nozze Di Figaro 

W.A. Mozart – Cosi Fan Tutte

W.A. Mozart – Don Giovanni (super HD and awesome)

W.A. Mozart – the Magic Flute (featuring my favoritest soprano, Diana Damrau, in the Queen’s role)

W. A. Mozart – Idomeneo (annoying double subtitles with Italian but if you’re like me, you can try to read both and feel depressed about how much Italian you’ve forgotten)

Giuseppe Verdi – Nabucco (um, questionable avant-garde costumes, but at the magnificent Arena di Verona)

Giuseppe Verdi – Aida (Production by Bob Jones University. There’s art everywhere!)

Richard Wagner – Tristan und Isole 

Richard Wagner – Tannhauser

Richard Wagner – Der Ring Des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold

Gioachino Rossini – The Barber of Seville

Gioachino Rossini – La Cenerentola

Giacomo Puccini – Rigoletto 

Giacomo Meyerbeer – Les Huguenots 

 


Get Missives from Our Lady of Perpetual Fuck Yeah (i.e. the patron saint of this website)! Every once in a while, I’ll email you a benediction, links to new posts and probably appraisals of sex scenes in whatever books I’m reading.


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