dance to your own music

I was at a party recently where a professional DJ was curating the music on the dance floor.

He wasn’t a particularly good DJ. No one seemed to be into what he was playing.

It didn’t matter though: he was the most excited person in the room. He danced to his own music. He waved his hands. He clapped. He whopped and hollered.

“He’s not very good at this,” a friend of mine said.

“Maybe,” I replied. “But he’s also really excited about his music. And that’s something…”

After a little while, people started to dance. This made the DJ even more excited, which made the people on the dance floor excited. It became a feedback loop of joy. After a little while, the whole room was dancing.

Sometimes, you’ve gotta dance to your own music. Be patient. Give it a little time. The right people with join in, but only if you’re dancing first.

See also: If you don’t hang up your own artwork, how can you ask anyone else to do so?

tomorrow

I recently stumbled upon a letter E.B. White wrote in response to another man’s despair and loss of faith in humanity:

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

I love this sentiment: tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow, we can be new again.

Years and years ago now, I went to a Twenty One Pilots show. They were a three piece act making noise in the local music scene. A friend of mine had send me their demo, which had profoundly impacted me.

back when Twenty One Pilots was three guys ripping up the local scene

After the show, I went up to Tyler Joseph and told him, “Your songs saved my life, man.” He got quiet and asked me if I was okay. I told him I was. He looked at me and said, “The beautiful thing about the morning is, it’s a chance to start over. You get to be new again.”

Here’s to tomorrow. Here’s to the morning. Here’s to being new again.

studio time

One of my favorite conversations ever took place in a donut shop on a fall afternoon.

I was there with a musician friend of mine. We drank coffee and ate donuts and talked about creating stuff.

I told him I was jealous of him. I’d always wanted to be a musician because I loved the idea of “studio time.” I wanted to spend time in a designated creative space where you play and make things and fool around with your collaborators in the pursuit of an idea. I suppose this picture in my head came from the “Fallen From The Sky” sequence in the film, Once.

“But dude,” he shot back. “You’re a writer. The whole world is your studio…”

Amen.

something to lose

I’ve spent a good amount of the last few weeks trying to hold it together. This seems to be the case for most of us these days.

Something I’ve found distressing in the midst of it all has been my inability to engage with certain media. Watching TV is often difficult, despite the fact it’s a medium I want to work in. The same is true of watching movies. So often, the things most people use to relax stoke anxiety in me. They feel like work.

Reading fiction frequently stokes this feeling as well. It’s difficult to pick up a novel and turn off the noise in my head long enough to really engage with what’s happening in someone else’s.

Non-fiction has become a quasi-remedy for this, as it’s a form in which I have no aspirations. Chewing on a 10,000 view of the Marvel comics canon or medical findings regarding near-death experiences offers me a moment’s peace because it’s harder to find myself in these things.

I was listening to an episode of The Moment with Brian Koppelman the other day, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt expressed a similar feeling.

“I read non-fiction books now,” he says. “That’s what holds my interest. The last few books I read were like, a history book, a macroeconomics book, and a science book. And I find them fascinating. They’re page turners for me. And I try to open up a novel and it usually loses my interest. What the fuck is going on with me?”

Brian Koppelman responds immediately with some profound insight.

Brian Koppelman

“Fiction, when you allow it to, fucks your shit up,” he says. “As you get older and you have children and you have things you can lose, the stakes are so great…Fiction is about death. That’s just what fiction is about. And so, it forces you to be willing to grapple with what matters in the deepest places, where it’s really so primal and almost beyond intellectualizing…[Fiction] is the grown mechanism. And growth is painful.”

“It’s easier to read nonfiction because you get to be smart,” Koppelman continues. “When you read nonfiction, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is grown-up stuff, I’m able to be smart.’ The truth is that’s not the grown-up stuff. The grown-up stuff’s the other stuff.”

The conversation then pivots to Camus’s The Stranger, a book Koppelman cites as one that touches a primal place.

Koppelman: The Stranger is the best. Go read The Stranger. It’s a really good time to read Camus.

Gordon-Levitt: I mean, I read it when I was probably twenty or something like that.

Koppelmen: Oh, yeah. It’s different at forty.

Gordon-Levitt: I bet…

Koppelman: Read it at forty.

This conversation speaks to my own reading experiences, as I’ve discussed on several occasions that sixteen was far too early to read The Great Gatsby. It was impossible for me to comprehend the weight of delusion, the sheer magnitude of the emotion, and the profound tragedy of a book like Gatsby so young. Despite all the posturing, no sixteen-year-old has the depth of soul for that book. It’s different for me now, at thirty. Just as I imagine it will be different again at forty.

But what strikes me most about this conversation is the sense that my shying away from fiction means I’ve woken up inside. I’ve reached a level of emotion I didn’t know was coming. I’ve assessed that my life means something, that I’m holding on for dear life during these turbulent times, that maybe I know now I’ve got something to lose.

“inviting in”

In a recent piece for Variety, Seth Rogen writes how Mills’ most recent film, C’mon C’mon made him rethink the old adage that good artists borrow and great artists steal.

“[Mills] made me realize the best artists include,” Rogen writes. “Mike is the first filmmaker I’ve seen to actually credit other artists for their work in the body of his. He’s neither borrowing nor stealing. He’s inviting them in.”

Mills echoes this sentiment in a discussion about Christopher Plummer’s performance his the 2010 film, Beginners: “My dad is not Christopher Plummer at all. Christopher made that character. It’s Christopher’s instincts, blood, brain, soul, history that’s making what you see. Christopher got stuff from me and my dad, but it’s Christopher.”

Of all the things we summon in our work, perhaps one of the most important is the spirit of our collaborators.

summoning something

Here’s a great interview Mike Mills gave on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, in which Mills discusses how working on his most recent film, C’mon C’mon, was almost an act of summoning something otherworldly.

“I don’t think I’m in any control of what I make or what I do. I feel like you summon things, but you summon…whole beings. The film, the script, the cosmos of [C’mon C’mon], it kinda came from me and my kid, but it’s like its own weird entity…I think Mr. Fellini would say this too.”

In the book, Fellini on Fellini, the renowned Italian filmmaker does, in fact, agree with Mills. He writes, “a film is a living reality: sometimes its orders must be obeyed, sometimes one must recall it to its own internal rhythm…I go to a story to discover what it has to tell me.”

“It’s learning how to ride that wave,” Mills continues. “Or understanding that it’s not totally under your control and that it is this kind of from-the-cosmos, spiritual entity blob that you’re helping fertilize and bring forth. And it’s part you, but equally not you.”

Perhaps ideas do come somewhere else. Or perhaps that come from deep within consciousness (as David Lynch claims). Either way, surrendering to an idea when it wants to take charge seems to yield the best result.

the 2021 playlist project

I just finished compiling my 2021 playlist for The Infinite Playlist Project.

This collection of songs was the soundtrack for:

  • blogging for 100 days in a row
  • sending my best friend and his wife flowers to celebrate the birth of their kids
  • getting drunk and praying during an assault on the US Capitol
  • finishing a draft of a new play, hosting a table read, and deciding to scrap the project
  • kissing a girl I’ve had a crush on for half my life
  • laying low at my parent’s house
  • leaving my childhood home for the last time
  • moving into a one bedroom apartment to live alone for the first time in my life
  • recording another Christmas card album
  • starting therapy (yet again…)
  • getting stoned at a Bayside concert and knowing exactly who I was
  • receiving fashion advice from the drummer of The Strokes
  • getting the Covid vaccine
  • starting preproduction on a short film I wrote
  • watching my little sister get engaged
  • taking photos atop the ferris wheel on Navy Pier
  • taking a boat ride on the Chicago river
  • seeing Green Day, Fall Out Boy, and Weezer play Dodger Stadium
  • dancing at a Patti Smith concert
  • buying my parents dinner at Jon & Vinny’s
  • starting work for an indie book publisher
  • teaching ten-year-olds about World War I, biomes, and the government
  • applied for a grant for my first play
  • getting rejected fro Ivy League graduate schools
  • starting to go to a new church
  • finally giving up writing a book I’d spent six years on
  • buying a first edition copy of On The Road
  • making brunch to celebrate a Presidential Inauguration
  • drawing pictures at the Cincinnati Art Museum
  • packing meal kits with chefs in a professional kitchen
  • hanging out in the Sheats-Goldstein House in Beverly Hills
  • listening to a panel of art critics talk about Basquiat and Warhol
  • overhearing Hollywood execs and agents talk shop about “the business”
  • hanging out with a rocket scientist from SpaceX
  • going on a walking murder tour of downtown Los Angeles
  • getting an American Idiot tattoo
  • taking up painting
  • seeing Andrew McMahon play the Chicago Theater
  • mourning the first wave of my peers to die
  • turning thirty

Cheers, 2021. It’s been a ride.

Show me whatcha got, 2022…

Kleon on collage and discovery

Austin Kleon on how one creative effort leads to the next:

“That’s the beauty of collage and working with real materials: when you don’t have a plan, when you don’t know where you’re going, you end up somewhere you didn’t anticipate. It’s real discovery.”

As my dad is so fond of saying, “a plan is just something from which we deviate.”

lessons learned in 2021

It’s become my practice to spend the last day of the year reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last twelve months.

Here are a few of my favorites lessons:

  1. Create from the heart, never the head. You get to the best parts of yourself on accident. The job of an artist is to orchestrate these accidents.
  2. Failure is the greatest way to propel yourself forwards.
  3. The work is always better when you’re having fun while doing it.
  4. Process > product (Easy to comprehend, but difficult to implement. This is a lesson to be learned again and again, as it’s both true of living a life and learning a craft.)
  5. “It is very dangerous to try to be a farmer when you’re really a pirate.”
  6. “Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization. No matter who you are. Only you can authorize yourself….No one else can authorize you. No one.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg
  7. Sometimes, the miracles happen because we’re not paying attention.
  8. “At some point, when you create yourself to make it, you’re either going to have to let that creation go and take a chance on being loved or hated for who you really are ~or~ you’re going to have to kill who you really are and fall into your grave grasping onto a character that you never were.” — Jim Carey
  9. You have to let yourself be awful to wander, to play, to explore.
  10. “…things that start out poorly don’t always end poorly.” — Mike Nichols

Here’s to another empty page where we begin…