Be A Careless Artist

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In the first episode of a documentary series about design I’ve started watching, the filmmakers spend some time with an illustrator named Christoph Niemann – known best for his New Yorker magazine covers (20 and counting). In discussing his process and his craft, Christoph muses on the duality of creator and editor. The act of creating something (or at least creating something good) requires a free spiritedness and a letting go of judgement. The act of turning that creation into a fully realized work that achieves its purpose requires control and logic. This can be summed up in two short sentences: Be a careless artist. Be a ruthless editor.

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In all the creative work I do – whether songwriting, videography, writing or brainstorming ideas for new client marketing campaigns – I feel an ever-present tension in the the push and pull between these two personas. As a “responsible adult” who wants to be taken seriously in this world, I find it difficult at times to escape the pragmatic, criticism-wielding part of my brain and fully enter a careless, free-spirited headspace. [Even as I was writing that sentence, my internal editor stopped me from typing and started laboring over what word I should use – zone? dimension? space? Ahh…headspace, that’s it.]

But, the element of play is an undeniably essential component of creative work, and the most creative people I’ve known, even if they come across as serious people, have an uncanny ability to always let their minds be at play. I like to think of it as having a thought party in your head where all the ideas are invited and get to mingle as equals. Christoph has an Instagram account where he does just that: plays with ideas. And it’s delightful.

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This element of play also serves as the gateway to imagination and ultimately to problem solving. If you’re an artist or are in the creative industry, this applies to you. If you’re an accountant, this applies to you. If you’re a parent, this applies to you. Freeing our minds of the constraints of logic and “how things should be” can open doors to ideas and solutions that would otherwise be inaccessible. And the ruthless editor is not the archenemy but more like the parent helping a child as he takes off on his bike for the first time without training wheels. The editor guides, aligns a trajectory that’s not going to send the idea crashing into a curb, then – just at the right moment – lets go of the bicycle.

Wow, I don’t know how we ended up with a personification riding an idea bicycle, but hopefully it works. That’s the best part of play: you never know quite where it’s gonna take you.

Optimum Trajectory

I just finished reading a book by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons. One thing in the book that really stood out to me was when he writes about those initial moments when you start to pursue your dream. He says:

Whether you take that baby step yourself, or just allow yourself to be swept up, you’ll get a real sense of satisfaction and freedom the first day you start pursuing your dream…During that very first day you’ll get an ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this’ feeling. There will be an excitement that had been missing from your life. And when you lie in the bed that first night, that excitement will be replaced by a sense of relief. You will feel incredibly relieved in having used the energy God gave you.

After I quit my job teaching college, I didn’t have another job lined up, and I didn’t even know if any businesses would want to hire a guy with too much education and not much business experience. I sent off application after application and got no responses. After a couple months, I began to get really discouraged and had no idea what I was going to do if I didn’t get a job and start making money soon. The idea of going back to academia occurred to me, but because that had been such a destructive rut I was stuck in for so long, I decided that I’d rather be evicted from my apartment than go back to living a life I hated.

Another month went by, and I just kept on sending out resume after resume then improving my resume and turning it into a creative piece. I called on all my friends to see who they were friends with, then I got in touch with those people and worked to make a connection with them and plant seeds that might turn into an opportunity for me down the road (though I was hoping it’d be sooner than later). I finally got some responses from a few people in the advertising industry – an ad agency exec and a couple creative directors. They liked my stuff but they weren’t hiring. Then I got contacted by a CEO of a startup who was impressed with my writing – my writing on this blog, actually. The interview was going great but then he explained some major elements of the position that I’d not known about beforehand. I knew in my heart that this wasn’t the job for me, and I told the CEO and VP—after an hour of interviewing—that I was sorry, I wasn’t the man for the job.

To make a long story short, about a week later I read a job description in an job email list a friend had forwarded me, and I knew immediately that was my job. I wasn’t being arrogant or overconfident. For some reason, I just knew that was the job I was going to get. Out of a field of 65 and after five interviews, I got the job. And I started to have the feeling “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

This weekend, I gave the book proposal I’ve been working on for several months to a friend of mine who is the founder of the Publishing Institute at DU and is very well connected in the publishing industry. She emailed me back that same night and said that she’d sat down to skim it just to get the gist of it but then couldn’t put it down. She said she has a friend in the business in New York who she thought would like it, so she has sent my summary of the project on to him.

I feel prouder of that than anything I’ve ever accomplished in my life. I’m excited. And I realize that this is what I’m the best at. This is what I was born to do.

of Ribbons and Rebellion

I want a typewriter because I know I am supposed to be a writer. It’s what I’m good at, what comes naturally. Words and phrases flow from my fingertips and create paragraphs, pages and pathos. And if not pathos, at least noises, stirrings, whispers. All the things that are the beginnings of revolutions and rebellion through reticence and recalculations of how you thought of words before and how you will never see them the same again. Or maybe I’ve had one too many whiskey and 7Ups.

[written on May 21, 2007]