Mucking About

Hello Everyone:

In my recent show, Starting from the Wrong Place, which I am happy to say, sold out and was a satisfying success, Neal Hellman and Adam Stanton were musicians who joined me in the second monologue. Their music brought a deepening and beauty to my words that enhanced and enriched the piece without overwhelming it.

But it didn’t start out easily for me: I usually work alone, so this was a new adventure. I remember one of the first rehearsals: Neal had worked hard and written a great deal of music, and I thought I had my piece memorized. But when I sat down next to Neal and he started playing, the dulcimer was loud and only about two feet away from my left ear and suddenly I couldn’t remember my lines, and the music seemed jarring and threw me off and I couldn’t see how it was going to work and, and, and . . . I started getting anxious and frustrated. Well, what to do. Well, of course, take it out on the dulcimer. Interior monologue: I hate the fucking dulcimer. Well, if you saw the show, you know it all works out fine in the end. And if you didn’t –– well it all worked out fine in the end. More than that. I came to love what Neal offered to my work. I/we just had to get past that first day, and I had to sit further away, and learn to interact with the music, not pretend it wasn’t there. The minute I understood that, everything started to work.

And then we added in the sax. And, damn if the same thing didn’t start up all over again. At first I couldn’t see how it was going to work and I was ready to pull the plug. But then, suddenly Adam’s music connected with Neal’s and then they both connected with my words and suddenly a little magic. And we were all surprised that a sax and a dulcimer could be so beautiful together. Who knew?

Point #2

Be patient with yourself. And, I was reminded over and over by my director Bill Peters, to enter into a relationship with the music. To turn to it and interact. How often in our creative work, do we just want it to work out without having to deeply engage somehow? It’s odd, because that deep engagement is what is so satisfying, but we live in an age and a time when we are constantly being pulled into  “continuous partial attention,”(http://lindastone.net/qa/continuous-partial-attention) and it is harder and harder to settle down and settle in. At least for me. But the moment we get quiet within, and ENGAGE, then the magic can happen. And that’s what worked here.

Which brings me to point #3

Sometimes it is important to get help, especially in the areas where you don’t shine. It’s ok not to know and understand everything. I can’t design flyers to save my life: I am a good artist, but have no design sense on the page. So, I hire someone who is good at that and let her take over and then I can go about doing what I do well.

I had a professor at UC Irvine (the late Robert Blanchon), who said to me once: Your job as the artist is the have the ideas–you don’t have to have the expertise in every technical part of executing the final product. This was a new concept for me and it has been so useful. If you bake terrific cakes, it doesn’t mean you also have to know how to grill well. Someone else might help you with that. Or, if you want to try it, be prepared to make messes, to throw some of it away ‘cuz it doesn’t always turn out well. But get in there and try things. Muck about. Be surprised. And let yourself have fun. By the way: I love the dulcimer now. And the dulcimer with a sax—oh yum.

The Art of Seeing

The photographer, Ansel Adams, used to have his workshop students set up their tripods and large format cameras, frame their image and just when they were ready to click the shutter, have them turn around and photograph what was behind them. What was he up to?

We all develop our habits, our tics, our frames of reference, and over time we tend to rely on these more and more. Last night a friend and I were telling a new acquaintance about the joys of eating popcorn with brewer’s yeast on it. The new guy in town, unfamiliar with some of Santa Cruzan’s culinary habits, said he was kind of a traditional guy––plain popcorn, same flavors of ice cream, and so forth. The idea of brewer’s yeast sprinkled on his popcorn was not at all appealing, although he did say, perhaps under duress, that he would give it a try.

It is important to know and honor our preferences; I return again and again to coffee almond ice dream, and to the landscape of the desert. But as an artist, I want to learn how to pay attention to everything and not let habit narrow my vision, or my possibilities of engaging with the world. Of course one can’t really pay attention to everything; we have to make choices, select out from massive amounts of sensory input, but we can cultivate our skills of perception and of receptivity. We can learn to be open to what is both in front of us and behind us, what is all around us. Ansel Adams was teaching this skill when he had his students turn around at the last moment and bring into focus what they had turned their backs on.

What are you not paying attention to? This might be a practice question for the next month in all of your affairs, be it art-making, writing, cooking, the art of friendship, the art of daily life. Whenever I am stuck now with my work, I ask myself, what am I not paying attention to? This simple question re-directs my intention and my focus, often with surprising results. I once spent over an hour looking for the Yellow Pages in a friend’s house I was vacationing in while she was away (there was no internet service, so I was not able to go on-line to find whatever it was I sought). Frustrated I gave up. The next day, feeling determined, knowing she must have such a thing, I went looking again, and much to my chagrin, found the book lying right where it ought to be, next to the phone––only the Yellow Pages were blue, not yellow––that’s why I had not found them. This is a bit embarrassing to share, but my guess is that you can relate.

So my friends, try it out. What are you not paying attention to? Just notice. You don’t have to change everything. You can still photograph what’s in front of you, but don’t be afraid to turn around and look at what else is there.