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For the past couple months I’ve been wrangling some artist’s block. (Thus the lack of new work.) I’ve come up with a decent number of ideas, but whenever I start working on one, it begins to rot and slough off before my inner eye. (Uncomfortably visceral metaphor in preparation for Halloween: check.)

I hope I’m near the end of this particular hiatus, but part of me can’t help but wonder if I’ve stumbled into the final block, the one that never goes away, the end of making art for me. And yes, I wonder this every time I get blocked. A precarious path, this is.

I see myself as building a corpus of work, not as guaranteeing a constant stream of new things. I care about stock; flow is incidental. So in a sense I’m okay with projects coming to an end (as we’ve seen with Mormon Artist, Mormon Texts Project, etc.). I’m a seasonal maker. And perhaps this season — the artmaking one — has concluded, making way for something else, something new.

But maybe it isn’t over yet. Maybe I just need to work harder and push through the block like a professional. Or maybe I need to change style or process or subject. Or maybe all I need is another month off to let my brain finish recharging or healing or whatever it does in these fallow periods.

I don’t know what happens next.

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Robin Sloan on Tolkien in his latest newsletter:

Tolkien, for all his vaunted designs, only got to The Good Stuff when he was IN it, really working the text of the novels (or novel, if you consider The Lord of the Rings one big book). He could not worldbuild his way into a workable story; he had to muddle and discover and revise, just like the rest of us….

In a single stroke, we get: a mythic backstory, a grand MacGuffin, a sense of language and history, the sublimely satisfying train of magic numbers — three … seven … nine … ONE! — plus something graphically weird and beautiful on the page.

It’s all just tremendous — the perfect kernel of Tolkien’s appeal.

And, guess what:

Not only was the inscription missing from the early drafts of LOTR … the whole logic of the ring was missing, too. In its place was a mess. The ring possessed by Bilbo Baggins was one of thousands the Dark Lord manufactured, all basically equivalent: they made their wearers invisible, and eventually claimed their souls. They were like cursed candies scattered by Sauron across Middle-earth.

Tolkien’s explanation of this, in his first draft, is about about as compelling as what I just wrote.

It’s fine, as far as it goes; he could have made it work, probably? Possibly? But it is not COOL in the way that the final formulation is COOL. It has none of the symmetry, the inevitability. It does only the work it has to do, and nothing else. It is not yet aesthetically irresistible.

There are several revised approaches to “what’s the deal with the ring?” presented in The History of The Lord of the Rings, and, as you read through the drafts, the material just … slowly gets better! Bit by bit, the familiar angles emerge. There seems not to have been any magic moment: no electric thought in the bathtub, circa 1931, that sent Tolkien rushing to find a pen.

It was just revision.

I find this totally inspiring.

I find it totally inspiring, too.

This reminds me of this Guy Gavriel Kay quote which I’ve posted before and will now post again:

I learned a lot about false starts in writing. I mean that in a really serious way. His [Tolkien’s] false starts. You learn that the great works have disastrous botched chapters, that the great writers recognise that they didn’t work. So I was looking at drafts of The Lord of the Rings and rough starts for The Silmarillion and came to realise they don’t spring full-blown, utterly, completely formed in brilliance. They get there with writing and rewriting and drudgery and mistakes, and eventually if you put in the hours and the patience, something good might happen. That was a very, very early lesson for me, looking at the Tolkien materials. That it’s not instantly magnificent. That it’s laboriously so, but it gets there. That was a huge, huge, still important lesson.

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I’ve adopted a new rule for myself: create before consume.

Each day, I have to do creative work for a set amount of time before I allow myself to consume (which I’m defining as reading books, since that’s what I care about).

It’s a gimmick, of course, but it’s working. It gets me past the “I’m tired and my back hurts and I don’t feel like doing anything except reading” that I’ve been struggling with this year.

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Links #32

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Links #23

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One of the most important tools in my productivity/creativity toolbox is carving out time to think. I’ve recently started being more intentional about doing this, and already I can tell the difference. It feels a little like a superpower.

The areas which I’m currently dedicating time to think about are: story ideas, art, HCI/toolmaking, school, and work. I’ve done something similar in the past where I would write down everything as I went along, but I’m finding benefit in making specific, separate time for each area, and in not writing things down by default (but I do of course write things down if I need to).

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Links #9

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Came across Andy Matuschak’s note on working in public:

One of my favorite ways that creative people communicate is by “working with their garage door up,” to steal Robin Sloan’s phrase. This is the opposite of the Twitter account which mostly posts announcements of finished work: it’s Screenshot Saturday; it’s giving a lecture about the problems you’re pondering in the shower; it’s thinking out loud about the ways in which your project doesn’t work at all. It’s so much of Twitch. I want to see the process. I want to see you trim the artichoke. I want to see you choose the color palette.

I love this kind of communication personally, but I suspect it also creates more invested, interesting followings over the long term.

Yes! I too love it, and I’ll be doing more of it here from now on. (I think long ago I used to do it to some degree, but somewhere along the way a fit of self-consciousness took it out of me.) No luck yet finding the original Robin Sloan source, but if any of you come across it, let me know.

I’ve also enjoyed reading through the rest of Andy’s notes, by the way. Itching to do something similar here. More to come. (I’ve already been planning to rewrite the backend engine for this site — it’s old and decrepit — so this is a fortuitous time to come across this idea.)

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I recently came across this quote from Martha Graham (which according to Wikiquote is from page 264 of Agnes de Mille’s The Life and Work of Martha Graham) and it’s been in my thoughts often since then (italics mine):

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.

When impostor syndrome is railing at me about my art or my writing, the italicized portion is what comes to mind. I find it reassuring.

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Brief update: still alive, doing fine, just staying home with my wife and kids in the hope of helping stop the spread (and ideally not getting COVID-19 either — one of our kids has a heart condition which makes this scarier for us than it would otherwise be).

I haven’t really worked on any art lately (not in the right headspace for it lately), but I have gotten back into writing, and that’s going well. Hoping to have some new fiction to post before too long. And new art, too.

Stay home and stay healthy, y’all.

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