I have always believed that all artists go through cycles of experience and interpretation. It isn’t that those are mutually exclusive activities, rather, it is that when we are deeply immersed in one, the other tends to slide onto the back burner.
If you have just spent the day prowling the strange, wonderful, confusing views of Venice, topped off by some squid ink pasta and local white wine, the odds are that you won’t be able to do much beyond stashing away a few random thoughts and images before you crash. And that is fine. And on the flip side, if you have managed several high-energy, creative hours word-smithing, painting, composing, choreographing or whatever your muse dictates – it is equally unlikely that you will seek out activities that demand your “artist focus.” Rather, some meditation, mindless dancing, or something that lets the creative juices rest, regroup, ferment for the next focused effort.
So if you hit a time – a day, a month, a year – when the muse seems to have taken a vacation, that is perfectly alright. Go walk the Appalachian Trail or maybe just a bit of it. Buy a puppy and teach it to talk. Buy a parrot and teach it to bark and roll over. You get the idea. I have always told my students that no one chooses to be artist. That life can – and often does – make you crazy, but only if you let it. If the muse has chosen you, realize that it is a partnership. The muse will make demands of you, but you too can make demands of the muse.
And it is important to realize that the muse is the art, not an individual. Oh, I know history is rife with tales of one artist’s muse or another. Manet's Victorine Meurent, Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse Walter, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe – though who was the muse and who the “musee” in that relationship remains an open question. But I wonder if the person was truly the muse? Or was the "human muse" the person whose relationship with the artist enabled him/her to enter a transcendent space in which the essential muse, in the guise of a particular medium – poetry or prose, paint, music, dance, stone, clay – was manifest in the joint creative actions of artist and muse.
The point is that experiencing the world around you is a mandatory stage in the life of any artist – without experience, what becomes the subject or object of your art? We all have had a mentor, if only in middle school, who told us, “Write what you know.” And you cannot truly know something without experiencing it. [I will back off here a bit. I do not advocate cutting off your ear, or engaging in other destructive behavior. Remember your muse can make you crazy – but only if you let it.]
Another important aspect is we can easily forget the “message of the moment.” To quote a well-known scholar of literature and art, Willie Nelson, “Pickin’ up hookers instead of my pen, I let the words of my youth fade away.” The more general, less hooker-oriented message here is "don’t trust your memory." And here, technology can really be an aid. I don’t generally advocate for a particular software application but I will make an exception in the case of Evernote. Evernote (Green square with a black elephant head in the center. Get it? Elephants never forget?) is a note taking app that lives simultaneous on all your devices. Mine currently resides on my phone, my iPad, and my MacBook. I am rarely without at least one of those three devices, and on all three I can enter notes via keyboard or voice. I can then later access those notes on all or any of those three devices.
True, my notes are often too cryptic for me to understand. There is one there now in the “scratchpad” file that says, “Existential product design flaw. Only one front burner. Hundreds of back burners.” I’m not really sure what I meant, but at least that much is there for me to mull over.
I would also like another technology tool to help with writing, and I am trying to find a grad student to help out. I call it My Boswell. Here is what currently exists on its Evernote file:
My Boswell or Fishing in the eddies of the Internet:
As older media are drawn into the converged digital stream, their original form is often appropriated by hobbyists and artists. For example, when the instant photography niche was appropriated by digital cameras and then smartphones, the previous "king of the mountain," Polaroid, quickly fell into obscurity. However, photographers who loved the unique polaroid palette, banded together in a group called Project Impossible to create cameras and papers capable of producing "polaroid" images in sizes up to 24 x 20 inches. And though it seems that, after a few years, Project Impossible proved to be just that, there is no reason to believe that such repositioning of traditional art forms will cease as the internet continues to evolve.
It might seem strange to view writing as a traditional form that is being repositioned. But I believe such a case can be made. Polaroid was repositioned not because pictures had fallen from favor – far from it. Literally billions of photographs are uploaded to the internet everyday. Rather, Polaroid was repositioned in order to assure the survival of a particular type of image, of a unique form of artistic expression.
Similarly, there are probably more words generated every day now than in the hundreds of years since the invention of movable type. But, the technologies that support the creation and distribution of those words are overwhelmingly slanted in support of fast and short bursts – tweets, texts, and other evolving forms.
I am interested in developing an application that acknowledges that word-processing has become the preferred platform of many serious "long form” writers. And so, it makes sense to develop a digital app that can advantage writers who wish to create long form works in a digital environment.
One of the hats I wear is that of an essayist. In current parlance, that is often seen as the same thing as a “blogger." That is not quite right. A blog really just defines a niche in digital space where the owner of the space can post a variety of messages – messages which may share only the fact that they are distributed via the internet. So, a video blog shares digital video. Ello is a social media platform that shares a variety of two dimensional works. By asserting that I am an essayist, I affirm that I write essays. Essays are text messages longer than tweets or social media posts, but shorter than short stories or, certainly, novels, but always based on the written word. I have been writing my primary text-based blog for more than a decade.
The total page count for my blog over that period is well over a thousand pages. So, the problem becomes that I will be mid-essay and suddenly become convinced that I have said this better before. But where is the file that holds that earlier, perhaps better version? Clicking the magnifying glass at the upper-right-hand corner of my Mac simply launches an exercise in futility. If I enter a search term into the search tool, it will return too much information – documents, files, applications, weird truncated things from anywhere on my machine, my back-up drive, etc.
I want to scream “Boswell! Get in here!” James Boswell, the 19th Laird of Auchenlech, was a biographer and diarist. His biography of his contemporary, Samuel Johnson, is often pointed to as the pinnacle of the biographical form. Boswell knew everything about Johnson’s voluminous papers. I need a Boswell for my computer; I need an app that will find the files I need, but ignore the ones I don’t need. I have learned, from an old friend who spent his life among such critters, that what I am talking about is an “automatic indexing tool.” Several proprietary ones exist – LexisNexis and ProQuest.
I want My Boswell – and yes, that will be the app’s name – to be sleek, powerful, unobtrusive and inexpensive, if not free. A quick click, and there are all the files to which I have given Boswell access that contain my search terms. And I write on – editing, including or ignoring.
So, for an artist, the experience and the expression are simply two sides of the same artistic coin. Both necessary, neither more important than the other. We may feel that we are spending an inordinate time on heads. Not to worry. Tails will turn up in its own good time.