what to do when you’re stuck

In no particular order.

1) If working digitally, make a copy project. Mutilate the copy, mercilessly.

If the project has sat for too long, if you’ve stared at it too much, it has become fixed in your mind. you need to change it to make it flexible in your imagination, get it unstuck.

If working on a physical project, take photographs of it. Edit the photographs. Redraw, trace, change its context. Write about it. Get your thought process about it out of your head.

2) Take the thing you know you hate about the piece, and amplify it. I did this with a student recently – she has an acute sense of what she dislikes about her photography. Reviewing each photograph, I asked her what she really hated about each one. Together, we pushed that element – usually through cropping. The hated aspect, when transformed and amplified, made much stronger, clearer images that she loved.

3) Cut out the parts you love the most.

If you are attached to your beautiful children, save those snippets in an envelope or text file or something. Or photograph the thing before you do the removals.

Later, on an unrelated day when you believe in your own failure, look at those abandoned jewels. Remind yourself of your strength.

4) Remember, making the thing is not about you. It is about the thing. Take everything about you out of it. Your story about this thing has nothing to do with what other people will think about this thing you’ve made. Other people have their own stories they are projecting into the thing. Let the fuck go of controlling the audience’s reaction to the thing. Just make it.

5) From art school. This one’s so old they named a blog after it: can you make it big? If that doesn’t help, can you make it red? If that doesn’t work, can you make it shiny?

For musicians, I think this means: can you make it super-loud? Can you add an orchestra or chorus? How about a light show?

6) Translate it into some other form. Is it a painting? Can it become a drawing, a print, a photograph, a scan, an animation, a mobile, a short story, a bad poem?

7) Remove an arbitrary element. If its music, take out all the sixteenth notes. Writing? eliminate all punctuation, or all capital letters, or all participles, or all proper names. Painting – fuck with your palette.

8 ) Change the underlying structure. Music: the key – from major to minor. Or the meter – instead of 3/4, switch to 5/8. Anything switched to 5/8 will loosen the music to a ‘something else’ enough that it will allow you to work differently.

Painting is tougher depending on the particular medium. Instead of editing a particular work it may be a radical change in structural approach – start painting on unstretched canvas, or, do the more ‘religious’ priming and mounting approach. Or, change painting surface.

9) Find an analogue process, and learn that.

Today i taught someone who likes to make watercolors how to deconstruct digital photographs using a hex editor program on a computer. She was fascinated by the image results, with how the jpeg color pooled independently from the linear or shape-edge structure of the image. The data file alterations gave her results visually similar to watercolor painting.

10) Hack your own head: don’t sleep for 48 hours and then work on it. Or, sleep for 48 hours and then work on it. Or, get hammered and work on it. Or, hang out with mary jane and work on it (though i am not a fan of this approach since one of my students died of a drug overdose from something tougher in 2000, and drugs/alcoholism mostly turn creative people into parasitic assholes). Or, get hyper caffeinated and work on it.

11) What happens when you cut it into pieces and re-order it? Collage turned some of my worst paintings into awesome little drawings and prints in the past. Cutting up and re-organizing a score can do interesting things to music.

12) Can you loop it?

I mean, can you introduce repetition into the work in any way.

In poetry, its repeating the 3-word phrase at different positions in the lines in succeeding stanzas or paragraphs. The rhythm of that phrase falls in different locations of the poem, creating internal reference points, internal rhythm. Or, in poetry, its the repetition of a particular phoneme (two or three letter element of a word – not the whole word, just the ‘et’ from ‘repetition’ for example). that petulant repetition weaving a subtler poetic word-set, less with rhyme on the ends of lines . . .

In a painting, its the rhythm of brushstrokes. Van Gogh has that rhythm – starry night is the result of the looped gesture of dotting the canvas with a brush loaded with paint. The staccato brushstrokes gesture as looped physical hand gesture.

In film and video – can you loop the footage itself, or a symbol or element in the footage – an image that repeats in the film (accidentally or on purpose).

13) You are going to die.

The thing’s continued existence depends on forces beyond your control. It is incredibly unimportant that you make the thing.

However, our pleasure and amusement as human beings demands that we make things. This activity keeps us amused amidst the horror and destructiveness facilitated by the governments in charge of this theater in which our lives play out.

So make it. Make it for you and me right now. Make it with the respect for all of us that it gives us something excellent to consider, to talk about, to share with each other. Make it so we have something instead of the shit-for-news provided by the awful economy, ongoing war abroad and domestic violence at home, cardboard politicians, digital culture spying on us to sell us shit we don’t need, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Treat you and me with some respect. Give you and me something good, the best you can.

14) For durational media – by durational I mean it takes the audience a long time to experience the work – film of any kind, music, anything that is experienced in a sequence like reading a novel or story where information unfolds over time.

(This is as opposed to looking at a painting where an image arrives all at once, and the viewer can then optionally invest more time in looking – the painting may reward the viewer as the viewer spends more time with it – but the painting does not depend on a series of small actions related to listening or reading in order to be experienced, as does film or music or reading a book).

Anyway – for durational media – make a storyboard of the whole thing, out of ONLY PICTURES. Or ONLY WORDS. This works awesomely if you are making a film – do your storyboard as words only. writing a story? Storyboard it without words.

Taking it further – one adapted from Lucas McNelly which i really enjoy as a strategy for freeing up how you’re thinking about a narrative – write every shot, or extended moment, or action, or image, or gesture that are the links for the narrative on notecards. Lay them out on an end-table, the floor, or a desk. arrange them. Take pictures of your narrational arrangement. then rearrange them. Take another picture. then rearrange them. etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

15) Ask questions for which you have no answer. Make things, or pictures, or stories, or artwork, or graffiti, or movies, or music, that are your answers to those questions.

Because questions that don’t have answers are the only questions worth asking. Questions that can’t be answered in words can usually be answered in music, or poignant artwork, or films that aren’t made of explosions and muscle.

16) Make a hundred of the thing. Or fifty. Or ten.

I am stalled in writing my first fugue – mostly its an issue of time, I work full-time and have some other priorities coming in first, so the fugue is waiting for me to come back to it and finish it. It is a 32 bar composition. It is not very good. I figure by the time I’ve written 18 or 20 of them, I may have written one decent one. I should probably write at least forty.

Novels might be tougher because they seem like really long things, and as such need a lot of time. But if you think of a novel as 15 short stories, it becomes easier. If you’re Chuck Palahniuk its really like 5 short stories, so it can’t be that much work.

It also seems easy to write a bad novel, mainly because I worked at barnes and nobel for 9 months in 2004 and saw an awful lot of crap on the shelves there. So you may as well do that once, just to find out. I don’t know, a friend of mine has written three and they’re amazing, each one better than the previous. Just make more of whatever it is. Don’t stop.

When you make more, you are free to fuck up the one you are making now, and let it go. It becomes unprecious. Paradoxically, its when you give up the idea of preciousness in your work that you make something breathtaking, almost as if by accident.

17) During dry spells, the pile of what you made during hot streaks can compost and become something else. Remember those cut fabulous bits? roll ’em back into the dough. Like sourdough starter.

18) Give the work a place to go, and it will arrive. Keep the tap open to keep the flow coming.

When I moved to chicago, the boxes of filled-up sketchbooks weighed more than all of my clothes. When I was living in Pittsburgh, I always had a sketchbook or notebook with me. Always. All those 15 minutes of scratch I made waiting for my friend to show up for coffee, poems written waiting for the bus have become thousands of pages of my own personal gold mine to work from if things get dry.

The church of inspiration is only open when you’ve got the making tools in hand. Show to the page, to the canvas, to the paper, to the editing suite, to the text editor, grab the camera, get the tools in hand and make the shit. All the depressing news of the world mentioned in 13 above will be there when you get back.

19) Can it be turned into playing cards?

20) Set an alarm clock to wake you up at 3 AM. Set a notepad and paper next to the alarm clock, and a light you can turn on quickly. As you’re going to sleep, consider the work. Think about what it is, and ask what you should do for it next. Expect the answer to be there when the alarm wakes you up. write everything down. Use that when you return to the task the next day.

21) Make one a day. stella untalan does this. I enjoy watching her commentary about the experience of making. It’s refreshing.

I do this in streaks, mostly for poetry (most of the forms i work with now take longer than a day to complete a ‘thing’ – poetry is my daily dose). It does something to you to submit to the process of making like that – it becomes about the process of making, and changes you as a maker, to have that kind of mindset.

22) Can it be turned inside out?

23) Consider the synaesthetic aspects of the thing : what happens if this artwork were on menu in a restaurant? What color is it, what flavor, is it bitter or tangy? What beverage would you serve with it – wine? Beer? What kind of wine, gallo? Or that bin whatever from Australia, that Penfolds? Or maybe Champagne? Champagne’s not wine, technically, but I think you get what I mean. Does the work need more salt? Is it deep-fried, can you buy it at a bar? A diner? A country club?

24) Solicit feedback from a total stranger who is uninvested in what you are doing.

Does the audience need a special education to appreciate the work? Is it coded in a secret language? Have you dived so deep into the process of making that you have accidentally made work that is incomprehensible to someone who stumbles upon it? Have you built up an echo-chamber of ‘you’re awesome’ people around you, people who don’t confirm your suspicions when something you’re working on is crap?

I found a twitter project today that was so incomprehensible I gave up trying to decipher it after ten minutes. Something about handing access to one’s twitter feed over to 10 other people. It was couched in all sorts of 25-cent words about ‘constructed identity’. It read like a schizophrenic twitter feed. Eleven people participated in this incomprehensibility.

Show the thing you’ve made to a complete stranger. Watch their reaction. That will tell you more than any words that come out of their mouth. Ask them what they think about it. Accept what they say. Remember, there is no ‘supposed to’ in another person’s experience. They’re just having an experience of something you’ve made. And that can tell you something about what you’re doing.

25) Turn the thing into a collaboration. Play ping-pong with ideas, pushing the thing to become something else. Let go of your attachment to ‘your’ idea so it can grow in someone else’s hands.

My friend Jack Wilson and I did this recently. I sent him a loop. He turned it into a spoken-word track. I made us a lil’ video for that track.

* * *

Thanks to my friend, working musician Jesse for pushing me to write this post.

Sometimes, you’re sitting looking at the thing, and you’re not happy with it, and it has sat for too long, and so have you, and you believe in this thing in front of your face, in its failed state, and you have to put that shit mindset down and make something, instead.

Enough! Or, too much. ~ William Blake

thanks, mr. postman : on time, thought, and peer critique

Recently completed a round of critique on my film-in-progress. The artist-crit-group lives in MA, CA, PA & Canada. We did everything by mail.

Since I requested handwritten feedback, I thought my response should be composed in kind. That writing process – careful cursive – assists an ordering of the mind no keyboard typefest supports. Slowing down speeds up the making process – the content produced comes clearer, better.

The 6-week critique round made space for the kind of depth of thought I needed to really make use of their insight. The artists I queried, each brilliant in her own right, each in different career moments, provided sharp, hard critique. The best kind, the kind that helps kill the vain starting point so you can turn it into something really good (writers call it ‘murdering my darlings’ I think).

The next round of editing means deep structural change, cutting and focus. The  decisions came over consideration of rolling incoming critiques. Such an unique process, especially in our “busy-busy deadline-deadline” world.

on finding “Mistake” in my mailbox

They sent Mistake on purpose. Mistake, the poetry chapbook they published, the title of the collection they chose.

Make stuff, send it out. Sometimes I send the stuff itself – poetry manuscripts, DVDs. Sometimes I send the plans to make it happen – descriptions, to do lists, sketches. A feedback loop of non-response, acceptance, rejection.

I keep a semipublic sketchbook on this blog, on flickr, bits and pieces go to google+, to the Facebook page. The undialogue of ‘like’ing and +1-ing. The undialogue of no negative feedback. People are afraid of hurt feelings, people are afraid of alienation.

I found Mistake in my mailbox. Meredith Stricker’s manuscript won the 2011 Caketrain poetry chapbook contest. My entry did not. Glancing at a poem here, a poem there, her manuscript won it worthily, the work looks excellent. Right up my alley, too. I’m looking forward to reading it.

The nice thing about submitting work to poetry markets? So often they send content to read later. Not so much with the art shows, or the galleries. What did they do with that proposal, I wonder? That’s the non-response black hole the polished, tightly edited paperwork and supporting documents and DVDs go to. I have the delivery receipts. Blank refusals of no answer.

The editors, curators, gallerists I have enjoyed working with most have a useful etiquette for critique, for saying ‘no’. They provide some insight into why – “the inconsistency of your punctuation use tells me you haven’t figured out what that communicates yet”, “we like to publish work with stronger emotional punch”. That provides some insight into how to adjust my approach. At least, my approach to them.

What do I want for the work? Do I want it to be that way? I fold the critique back into the dough, as it were, and keep making.

A young musician struggling with how to get his creative life moving asked me what to look for in a creative relationship. I said, “Find a bass player that can tell you ‘no’ in a way that works for you”. He thought about it pretty hard. Apparently the kids these days like to take their ball and go home when the friends they play with give critical feedback.

I found Mistake in my mailbox. I had the privilege of starting to learn how to make at a very, very young age. I was four. Violin is hard. I was lucky, I had really patient teachers who validated my person while teaching my clumsy hands and wrists. I was lucky. I decided that my hands made the mistake, not me, when I had a tough teacher from second through 7th grade. (Thanks Mrs. Brandenburger!)

Mistake. Does mistake carry blame so our hands don’t have to? Its cousin, Accident, also a common target for our negative emotions keeps our egos blameless. Both mean our skills lack, not us. They can be a common foil for not developing our skill. We have to come back to the workbench, the practice room, the studio, to keep making.

Keep practicing. Keep sending. Excellence will follow. Or, what is good will find the right pair of eyes, the right set of ears. Some day, I will find my chapbook in the mailbox.


refreshing the the poetics of annihilation

Sometimes the mistake comes from seeing it all the way through to the end, without having begun.

The ease of overplanning facilitated by computers kills work the cradle. Once the imagination knows what the trip is going to be like, it doesn’t want to take it.

The drafting process is the first third of the path to having the work exist outside the mind/body. Editing is the second third. The audience meets the work, ‘publication’. The last third.

Each stage has its own demands, its own peculiar kind of sweat.


I live in a culture steeped in violence. There is violence in the work. Or there is consideration of recovering from violence, contending with it. I have made work that is psychologically or spiritually violent, yet I sit on it. Right now, I do not want to inflict it on an audience.

I am an American. Like other Americans I walk around with the blood of indiginous people on my feet, with the blood of slaves on my feet, with the blood of domestic violence on my feet. History soaked our nation’s birth with blood. We consume images and stories soaked with violence.

We can create peace. How do we create peace from a violent fabric? How does the transformation happen? Does it start with forgiving the past we have inherited, in order to simply let it drop, in order to make something new?

The poetics of annihilation are my name for looking at the violent stories of the 20th century, looking at our inheritance, and figuring out what to do with those stories. There is so much: the US government infecting african-americans with siphilus. The German government killing millions of civilians. The US dropping atomic bombs on Japan. The hundreds of millions of acts of war that individuals perpetrated at the behest of their governments.

How do we choose to witness this? We have our methods of recording, our films, our books, our internet. How can we face the weight of that violent fabric woven by those who went before us, and move forward without re-making that?

How can we, the talking monkeys, see, but not do?


Its funny, the whole concept of failure is related to judgement coming from outside of the self, some consequence of rejection come from the other. And when it comes down to it, the evaluation of our work is not left to us. Even its value socially. Even this capitalist-materialist notion of social status or competition between artist is an incorrect notion of failure.

That’s not the function of art, it does not compete; rather, it speaks. Good art has voice.

We have to let go and trust that the spark that the universe has placed in our chest is fuelled by the process of making. Trust that the work will find its way into the right other person’s hands and coax more fire into their spirit, too.

Milton Glaser on Creativity and the Fear of Failure

Will Marion Cook’s advice to Duke Ellington

He [Duke Ellington] had begun to record and managed to sell some of his tunes to the publishers of Tin Pan Alley. But he was still not satisfied, and he confessed his unhappiness to his friend Will Marion Cook, a classically trained conductor and Broadway composer.

During long taxi rides through Central park, the two men talked about music. Cook urged Ellington to get formal training at a conservatory. Ellington didn’t feel he had time for that. “They’re not teaching what I want to learn,” he said.

“In that case,” Cook told him, “first find the logical way. And when you find it, avoid it. Let your inner self break through, and guide you. Don’t try to be anybody but yourself.”

It was advice Duke Ellington would follow all his life.

“Duke Ellington knew how to take what could be and make it what is. He understood what it took to make something invisible visible.”


From the second episode of Ken Burns’ monolithic documentary, Jazz.