Compression

“To put it another way: having gone about as high up Hemingway Mountain as I could go, having realized that even at my best I could only ever hope to be an acolyte up there, resolving never again to commit the sin of being imitative, I stumbled back down into the valley and came upon a little shit-hill labeled ‘Saunders Mountain.’

“Hmm,” I thought. “It’s so little. And it’s a shit-hill.”

Then again, that was my name on it.

This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more, too—it’s small and a bit pathetic, judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.

What we have to do at that point, I think, is go over, sheepishly but boldly, and stand on our shit-hill, and hope it will grow.”
― George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

In his excellent book “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” (I’ve previously recommended in a post here and here), George Saunders teaches his students a cutting exercise…

Take a piece of text and eliminate as many words as you think possible. Then ask yourself if the cutting improves or worsens the text. (He describes the exercise in detail in the Appendix. Get the book and read it. You’ll become a better writer and gain a deeper appreciation for Russian literature.)

Here’s another writing exercise you can do. Maybe even have your kids do as well? (You’ll likely have to bribe them to do any kind of extra academic work)…

Write a three page essay about a topic you care deeply about.

Compress it down to two pages.

Compress it down to one page.

Compress it down to three paragraphs.

Compress it down to one paragraph.

Compress it down to one sentence.

This works especially well if you’re thinking of starting a new business and want to hone your “elevator pitch.”

P.S. – While you’re at it, practice your compression on this blog post. How many words can you eliminate? Send me your thoughts and results!

P.P.S. – Hat tips to Ron for recommending the Saunders book and Bruce for recommending that Little Red Schoolhouse writing class in college.

Picked Or Produced?

Do you want your art to be picked?

Or produced?

I know, I know, you’d like both. Who doesn’t? Institutional validation is a powerful thing. And let’s face it, it’s far easier (and cheaper) if someone else does the heavy lifting of producing.

The first question to ask…How important to you is this particular piece of art that you created? Is it disposable? Meaning, you finished this one and it’s on to the next. Which is perfectly acceptable.

Or…Is this one so important, so personal, so meaningful, that even if it’s not chosen by an institution for production, you’d still produce it yourself?

If yes, why not pursue two paths at the same time and set a deadline. Submit to those institutions you admire and respect and think would do a kickass job with your art. But if by the deadline date your art is not chosen, be ready to step up and produce it yourself. (And when you do, make sure you send a thoughtful invite to those institutions you first sent your art to. Play the long game.)

Take Notice

“The greatest gift one can give is thanksgiving. In giving gifts, we give what we can spare, but in giving thanks we give ourselves.” -Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer

“Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Before you can express any kind of gratitude, you first have to notice. Notice things. Notice your thoughts. Notice life. All its profound beauty. Notice. Notice. Notice!

The bird chirping outside your window.

The sun shining on your face.

The birch tree branch swaying in the wind.

The click clack of the dried leaf as it ambles down the asphalt street.

The dog splayed out, napping peacefully under the big, bay window.

The ferocious and never-want-to-let you-go hug from your child.

The infectious and all-is-right-in-the-world laugh from your spouse.

John Lennon’s voice in your headphones asking you to “picture yourself on a train in a station with plasticene porters with looking glass ties.

The magical town of Shermer, IL and the genius of John Hughes.

The metronomic beating of your heart against your chest.

The cool air your breathe in. The warm air you exhale out.

That you can see, smell, taste, hear, feel.

That you can walk.

That you’re alive!

Notice and be grateful for ALL of it. (Even the suffering.)

Happy Thanksgiving dear reader. Know that I notice and am grateful for you every single day.

“I Wish It Need Not Have Happened”

“The Master allows things to happen. She shapes events as they come. She steps out of the way and lets the Tao speak for itself.” –Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu (Tranlsation by Stephen Mitchell)

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

You didn’t ask for this negative situation to happen. Nor is it your fault that it did happen.

But it’s now your responsibility. Good. Own it. (And realize it can be a tremendous opportunity for growth and learning.)

Remember, with great responsibility comes great power. (I know, I know. It’s the inverse of the Peter Parker quote. But it’s true nonetheless.)

When You Arise

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Today I will be master of my emotions. The tides advance, the tides recede. Winter goes and summer comes. Summer wanes and the cold increases. The sun rises; the sun sets. The moon is full; the moon is black. The birds arrive; the birds depart. Flowers bloom; flowers fade. Seeds are sown; harvests are reaped. All nature is a circle of moods and I am a part of nature and so, like the tides, my moods will rise; my moods will fall. Today I will be master of my emotions…I will also understand and recognize the moods of him on whom I call. I will make allowances for his anger and irritation of today for he knows not the secret of controlling his mind. I can withstand his arrows and insults for now I know that tomorrow he will change and be a joy to approach.” -Og Mandino, The Greatest Salesman In The World

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive-to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” -Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

“The Sun himself is weak when he first rises, and gathers strength and courage as the day gets on.” -Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop

“Every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone, the one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not ‘What’s wrong with this person?’ but ‘What does this irritation tell me about myself?’ Do this right now. Think of some irritating person and you know and say this painful but liberating sentence to yourself. ‘The cause of my irritation is not in this person but me.’ -Anthony De Mello, The Way To Love

“You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”  -Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

So that you have a puncher’s chance of a good day…when you arise every morning, remind yourself of the following:

One. No one person or thing can make you happy. Only you can make you happy. Get rid of your attachments.

Two. The reason you train, you meditate, you study philosophy, etc…is to be prepared to deal with all people (especially those who haven’t trained) and all circumstances. Not to control them. But to flow with them.

Three. Be grateful. You’re breathing. You’re alive!

For Want Of A Nail

“Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall there was this one: ‘Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.’ Master Ittei commented, ‘Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.” -Excerpt from Hakagure, The Book Of The Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Translated by William Scott Wilson

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost, And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
-proverb, “For Want Of A Nail”

Fail to correct minor issues when you can.

Prepare for them to compound into major ones that you can’t.

Habitual Outcome

“Life is easier when you know what you want—but most people don’t take the time to figure out what they want. It’s not that we are completely lost, but our efforts are often slightly misdirected. People will work for years and ultimately achieve a lifestyle that isn’t quite what they were hoping for—often, simply, because they never clearly defined what they wanted. An hour of thinking can save you a decade of work.” -James Clear

“Most studies find somewhere between 44% and 52% of our happiness is genetic. Let’s just say half. Half of our happiness is related to what we get from our parents. And that leaves the other half that’s in the other two big categories of what brings happiness. One is circumstances and the others habits. Now, I don’t want that to be true. As an American, I want all of my happiness to be under my control, basically and completely having to do with my habits. But I have to recognize the truth. So 50% is genetic. About another quarter is circumstantial, so the good and bad things that are happening in my life. The thing to keep in mind about that is that it’s a quarter, it’s a lot, but it doesn’t last, and so good things don’t last for your happiness, and bad things don’t last for your unhappiness. The part that endures, that we can truly manipulate, that we can truly affect is our habits, which is about a quarter of our happiness. And that’s based entirely on how we live our lives. And that can be extremely enduring. And that’s what we should therefore be focusing our energies on.” -Arthur Brooks

“Don’t explain your philosophy, embody it.” -Epictetus

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” -Albert Einstein

If you’re wondering why you aren’t where you want to be or why you aren’t happy, look closer at two areas of your life. Perhaps the only two areas that are within your control:

(1) Your definition of success. Do you have one? Is it clear, specific, actionable and measurable? Is it aligned with your values? Do you know what you want and why you want it? Are you attached to an old definition that isn’t serving you any longer?

(2) Your habits.

STEAM

We’re all aware of the importance of teaching STEM in schools.

I’d like to buy a vowel and add the letter “A.” Promote a new acronym…STEAM.

Science

Technology

Engineering

Arts

Math.

We’re not gonna solve the interesting problems of today and tomorrow without the Arts and Arts Education. They teach empathy for the human condition and encourage doing things that might not work in service of others. If we integrate the arts with those other categories?…Can’t lose. Sky’s the limit.

“We did it ourselves!”

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists…The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” –Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu (Stephen Mitchell Translation)

“For me, being a director is about watching, not about telling people what to do. Or maybe it’s like being a mirror; if they didn’t have me to look at, they wouldn’t be able to put the make-up on.” -Jane Campion

Even though they’re miles ahead and can probably tell actors exactly what to do on day one, the best directors let actors struggle. They give them space. They ask questions rather than giving answers. Because they know it’s way more powerful and lasting when actors take ownership over their character. When they make their own discoveries. When the actor thinks “Aha! I figured it out all by myself.”

Get Out Of The Way

“The Great Way is universal; it can apply to the left or the right. All beings depend on it for life; even so, it does not take possession of them. It accomplishes its purpose, but makes no claim for itself. It covers all creatures like the sky, but does not dominate them. All things return to it as to their home, but it does not lord it over them; thus, it may be called ‘great.’ The sage imitates this conduct: By not claiming greatness, the sage achieves greatness.” -34th Verse of The Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu

The more you realize that your job as an artist is to just get out of the way and let things happen. To channel the magic. Be the medium.

The less need you’ll have for credit or thanks or praise.