play our way

Friday, March 15th, 2013

An artist begins his or her artistic life with inspiration guided by instinct. After a time, inspiration is replaced by daily commitment, and instinct gives way to calculation. The work you did before you knew how you did it has an innocence and spontaneity about it. After a long apprenticeship, you realize that your best work has somewhat those same qualities, but now there’s sturdiness and restraint, an elegance that wasn’t there before.

In our attempt to assert our place in the world we gather material for self-expression and play our way into those forms to try and make sense of it all. Our “Beginner’s Mind” is quick to trust and slow to judge. We defend our scribbling with words like “true” and “inspired.” We know little of re-writing. We don’t know how hard it is to write a good song. If we continue, this loss of innocence is inevitable. We are no longer shielded by our inexperience. We listen more critically, begin to compare, and in the process, we become self-conscious, second-guess our choices; start “aiming our shots.” We've learned the difference between accident and intention.

During this middle period of instruction, quantity does equal quality. If we succeed on one or more levels, we learn from it; if we fail, we learn a good bit more. One way through this period is to connect to long-range goals. Not the (too) easily imagined goals of recognition and success, but those that require our higher powers to achieve: assimilation of tradition, technical mastery- innovation even. There’s comfort in acknowledging things greater than one’s self, and these become the ropes that tether us to our future aspirations. But we will never see the seemingly unending mountain range until we’re willing to reach a point where assessment is even possible. The resulting paradox of this perspective is freedom- freedom from self-consciousness, ultimately, for the artist, the greatest goal of all.

If we stay at it long enough and a brain starts to develop and live in our fingers, like an athlete whose body becomes a mind in itself, we learn to relax. The more we do it, the more it does us. This conversion of craft into art is evidence of a superior working method, the result- a relaxed inevitability. We are, strangely enough, close to where we started out, but the experience has given us knowledge, skill, and insight that our “Beginner’s Mind” could hardly conceive of. This is what Yeats called "an achieved innocence." The many choices before us now, the wide range of creative options, all “the moves” we can make, have taught us that complexity leads to simplicity, and that limitations are liberating. The mysteries of artistic creation reveal themselves to be residing in paradox, and we’re grateful for the lessons we’re taught.

With this power comes responsibility, and we can choose to serve the art form first and the industry second, or the other way around. Slanting for the market can be a limiting thing- sometimes sans liberation, but we do what we can do, show up to the page and believe that someone, somewhere, needs to hear what we have to say.

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"How can I know what I think, until I've seen what I've said?" -W.H. Auden
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