Soldier, student, seer: it doesn’t matter. Looking into the void we can't help but marvel, ponder, feel something shared and private at the same time.
Ideas often come when I least expect it. When they burst into mind unannounced or unescorted by linear thought, they’re often my clearest creative lights, regardless of the subject. The obvious dilemma is figuring out how to keep a grip on what I was doing a moment before without losing the details of the new thought that’s just appeared.
The creative process is one of figuring something out that has little to do with gaining popularity. Politics, conversely, is all about popularity. Politics is about getting enough people to like you so that you can do things to perpetuate the trend of people liking you. Creativity is about solving problems.
In the main hall the ceiling will soar above everyone, underground, with near magical light shining on opportunities and courageous perseverance and solidified resolutions of city officials, consultants by the score, and financiers. The transit station will declare the power of some, but it will profoundly serve the diverse needs of all.
Authentic rituals provide a solid place from which to push off. After than, anything is possible.
Aboard that rocket is the accumulated effort of many diverse people, spanning years and miles. As it rises into space, the major engineering phase ends and the operational scientific phase begins --Photo by Bill Ingalls, NASA
Perfection isn't real. Perfection only exists in mind. Therefore, for something to be a perfect depiction of anything else -- a feeling, an image, a sound, an idea-- it must be imperfect.
That paradox gets my heart going every time I think about it.
Say it: wabi-sabi. It's balanced in the mouth like an aged cabernet. It's rhythmic to the ear like controlled breathing to a long distance runner. There is no perfect translation from the Japanese, it's source, but the measure of it's aesthetic is deep and profound. It speaks of balance and peacefulness, imperfection and beauty, and above all, life.
Nothing lasts forever, but in the digital age we're often led to believe otherwise. Everyone's heard that every bit of data we enter into our various electronic devices persists, eternally discoverable. There's always a record, we're told, always a copy backed up on a server, somewhere. Everything is searchable.
Wabi-sabi says otherwise. Impermanence defines all things. Wabi-sabi says that perfection is an unattainable goal. What we create––as individuals and as cultures--exists in finite time. In the digital world those lifespans may be artificially extended but ultimately they reach an end. All things are finite, and as such, all things are imperfect.
It's essential to realize that there's always a new creative discovery, a new idea to pursue, even if nothing lasts forever. But the moment a creative person thinks his or her invention is so important that it can transcend time's infinite reach is the moment creativity fails to understand it's own finite heartbeat. Nothing lasts forever, and an embrace of that melancholy thought confers vital license for creative people of all stripes to take passionate risks and dare to reach for greatness.
Perfection may be unattainable, but it is an asymptotic goal, and we can eternally approach it. To achieve the sublime, perfecting imperfection becomes one of the most fabulous koans of all.
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It always happens. Days, weeks, sometimes even months of grinding work suddenly reach a crest in the shadowed road and then pass over the rise into exhilarating bright light. Intangibility turns solid. Ideas become real. Light floods the space and suddenly something exists in the world in a way that didn't exist a moment before.
That transformative jolt is not simply an epiphany suddenly making it's presence known. That jolt is akin to the lighting that reanimated Dr. Frankenstein's monster. Hard, incremental work prepared the space, with little emotional resonance. Hard work yesterday turns into hard work today, with the promise of more to come tomorrow. Intellectually we may understand the trajectory of an undertaking, but emotionally it's hard to believe that tiny steps taken day after day will actually amount to anything useful. But then the lifecycle of a project reaches a mid-point, and something must transform somehow, or at least make room for new components. When it's clicking some sort of new, élan vital enters the body, takes a breath and fires cells to life…
…and here's the crazy thing: those moments are hard to predict.
But sometimes you can get a hint that they're coming.
I'm writing this blog entry sitting in a recording studio in Athens, Ohio while our music master Andre (Hey! Check the rest of our website for a photo and bio!) is hunched over the piano working on a score for our new Science On a Sphere movie WATER FALLS. I think I speak for the whole team when I say that we all look forward to this phase of a big production, even as we're all starting to feel the strain of exertion and fleeting time. The work is serious and hard but simultaneously joyful. The process is a complete embrace of the best parts of life. It creates matter from void; it declares emotional resonance from nothing but memory and inspiration. For WATER FALLS, months of effort have led us here. We finally have a rough cut of the film capable of supporting serious dialogue between itself and musical ideas. No doubt that music will re-inform the visuals, and we'll be in a sudden pas-de-deux between the two, pictures influencing audio, audio influencing picture.
I've been doing this work for decades, and it still makes my heart rate pick up the pace. A moment ago, something that never existed before suddenly sprang into being, achieving enough mass and complexity to transform from a pile of matter into a gleaming structure, a temple, a town, a soul. There's music behind the pictures, and an a flooding list of notes running off the the pages in my notebook, and though the hour is late, I am wide awake and scribbling as fast as I can.
Moments of discovery are rare. The do not come easily. They are milestones along long, often forced marches, and they do not, by themselves, pay the rent. But placed against the endless labors of ordinary days, they are gleaming cracks in the often opaque facades of what we're all forced to endure in ordinary days. Moments of discovery shine light on what we all so desperately want to believe could be great, meaningful, shimmering substance of lives worth living.
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PS -- Yes, yes, here's where the good people of 1AU ask our dear readers to share what you've read with friends and colleagues. And here's the place where you think, "Oh, sure, one more imposition of my precious time." Well, we're asking. It's something we value above rubies, above gold: if you like an idea enough to give it a moment's thought, then consider giving it a measure of freedom. When you share an idea with another person, you release an idea to grow freely in the world.
Like what you see? Set it free.
Modern electronic media and traditional art are not synonymous, although they both draw water from the same well. Creative media always seeks to establish a relationship with an audience, while art may be the product of other motivations. Both inevitably require substantial creative energies to come into being. Both may invest a great measure of personality from their creators. But above all, creative work of all types inevitably demands a sizable measure of time on the part of the creator focused in his or her own head, often alone.
The irony here should be obvious. Whether by force of a pen inscribing a few precious lines of poetry, or a stage director looking to send shivers all the way into the back row of the theater, most moments that convey meaning and emotional response stem from intense, focused, often private labor. We understand the poet immediately, quietly scratching out verse while leaning thoughtfully against the trunk of a tree. If you're wondering about the stage director, remember that long before he or she meets with actors and set designers and lighting techs, a director must do the work of refining a vision. There's reading and there's often writing, too. There's research and study, and like your parents always used to tell you about homework, no one can do it for them.
The same is true for those who produce soda commercials and magazine make-up advertisements. Even as more billable creative work tends to operate inside the forum of larger organizations, the day- to-day effort of writing scripts, drawing storyboards, or processing digital images from photographic memory cards comes down to one person leaning in to the work, often for many hours alone.
Of course, creative types often DO work with other people; most disciplines demand it. But I find those to whom I pay most attention are capable of motivating themselves outside the pressures of groups.
Make no mistake: I love working with teams. The energy and invention and even bonhomie camaraderie of creative teams has rare equal, even if it occasionally comes with intense interpersonal challenges. The pleasures of sharing ideas, of finding growth that always surpasses the limits of what any one person could singularly invent, imbues resonant satisfactions. People are interesting! The best experience from working in groups is the reflection of larger humanity's historical sweep of achievement, of culture. In a narrow microcosm, we recreate the best of our own shared triumphs as a species and celebrate it with re-enactment.
But like all performances, the lights ultimately dim. Even after standing ovations, audiences always go home. Players who live for the applause often don't survive. Applause is fleeting. But those who can take pleasure and satisfaction in the intense world of singularly creative mind return to quiet spaces and dream again. If they're good, applause may very well return. If they're perceptive, they may even be aware that applause is something they can court. But if they care about their craft, whatever it may be, that time alone is something they're not going to trade for anything in the world.
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Silence has it's place. Noise has it's place. They don't often belong in each other's space, and learning to respect the differences that separates each presents valuable fuel for invention and clear thinking.
Try it like this:
Ice cream is good. Pickles are good. Together? Not so good.
It's tricky. In terms of a creative process, the juxtaposition of disparate qualities often sparks life into a new idea. But generally I find the combination of disparate qualities something that must be undertaken with care. Driving a monster truck to a monastic Zen retreat strikes me as a philosophical discontinuity. It doesn't reconcile easily.
This all has to do with a process of making good aesthetic choices, at least superficially. But superficiality does not confer irrelevance. Superficial presentations of ourselves and our creative work are often the only interactions we will have with a majority of others. Presentation matters, and if you're hoping to present something to an audience beyond your spouse, your parents, and your children, you're going to need to polish it up.
But beneath the surface, we enter a dialogue about the nature of things--the essential, deep, honest nature of things. This is the book judged for what's beneath the cover. This is the person regarded for the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. This is why some software delights us, and some software exasperates us. This is why amateur performances of great music are not the same as great performances of great music. This is why paintings of ostensibly the same subject can have profoundly different merits. Transcendental truth presents hard to define boundaries. People of good intention can disagree intensely about the nature of an ordinary thing or idea. But my point is that in a world of seemingly effortless information transfer, and a seething churn of ideas and cultures, it's important that the potential for all combinations does not overwhelm good decision-making. Just because something is possible does not therefore mean it should be done. Pickles do not go well with ice cream.
And there it is: everything…is not everything. Discretion is not the same as prejudice. Decision is not the same as exclusivity. Merits of good invention spring from respectful evaluation of source material. Rock 'n roll is great…if you're in a rock 'n roll frame of mind. But to play it at a Zen retreat is to miss the innate nature of each thing.
Do I think there will never be a way for them to brush shoulders, rock music and zen meditation? Not at all. While nothing lasting about that particular pairing springs to mind (and I'm not clearing my afternoon to await an epiphany on this juxtaposition), I most certainly remain open to some unexpected, delicious frission. That's because a respect for each element individually affords the potential for new relationships. Respect for the essential nature of ingredients makes it possible to consider new combinations.
After that, anything's possible.
PS -- Yes, yes, here's where the good people of 1AU ask our dear readers to share what you've read with friends and colleagues. And here's the place where you think, "Oh, sure, one more imposition of my precious time." Well, we're asking. It's something we value above rubies, above gold: if you like an idea enough to give it a moment's thought, then consider giving it a measure of freedom. When you share an idea with another person, you release an idea to grow freely in the world. Like what you see? Set it free.