The funny thing is, you don’t know when you’re at your best. You can wake up with a hangover and then go to work with three hours of sleep, and do great work. Or you could be rested up for a week and come down here and do lousy work.
This is Dale Chihuly, Seattle’s beloved glassblower, in Michael Apted’s 1997 documentary Inspirations. Chihuly goes on:
There’s no correlation much to how you feel and what happens. That’s the advantage of working as much as you can. Because you never know when it’s going to be just right.
This is true of your work day. This is also true of your body of work.
What distinguishes the viral flares who draw envy and resentment from the steady, sober pros who show up at the page or the easel or the camera to make their work, day after day? Now and then, that work might converge with public taste—as David Lynch’s did with Twin Peaks: The Return. A flurry of attention and an award. Then tastes diverge again; our collective attention wanders. What does the artist do? What else—pull out a fresh sheet of paper, sharpen a pencil.
How can you tell the difference between a one-hit wonder and a lasting creative talent? It’s in the moment you stop envying their success. All of a sudden, you can feel the weight of their dedication. They’re in it for the work. And I’m not talking about the retirement gig on the Vegas Strip. I’m talking about regularly facing down the tiger: the blank page. As far as you’re concerned, the artist is welcome to that burden. Deep down, we just want to get famous the one time, make Mom happy, stop worrying about it so much. We don’t think too much about what lies beyond.
You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.
—Philip Glass, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
Glass worked as a NYC cab driver until he was older than I am now. Then he could finally support himself with his music. Forty years later, he’s still going.
It’s no coincidence that Apted’s documentary also features David Bowie, another artist who never stopped pressing forward even as his audience wandered in and out of the stadium. In an interview in another documentary—I can’t seem to dig it up right now—Bowie muses on the public, saying, essentially, “Either people absolutely love what I’ve done or they have absolutely no interest in it.”
Nevertheless, he persisted. #hetoo
If you’re a regular reader of the Maven Game, you’ll notice I pay particular attention to these workers, the craftspeople who keep working with no apparent regard for the shifting moods of the “audience,” the so-called zeitgeist.
Laurie Anderson has her eyes fixed forward. My family sat mesmerized listening to the audio component of “Chalkroom,” her wild VR installation at Mass MOCA. I didn’t know what to make of it. Isn’t that wonderful? I know what to make of everything! And Anderson’s been doing this for decades. Outside any comfort zone.
Babies have to learn object permanence, the concept that things continue to exist even if they’re hidden for a moment. Mommy hides her face—where’d she go? I’ve learned artist permanence. Anderson keeps working even when our attention wanders…then, peek-a-boo.
This is the only kind of work that matters. You’ll never really know why something “succeeded,” even when it’s your own work. It used to be: you made stuff to please your tribe, then your patron. Then they invented “the public.”
[Jürgen] Habermas observed that, starting around the middle of the seventeenth century, the concept of “the public” (or le public in French, or Publikum in German) took on a new prominence in the languages of Western Europe. Before this point, people alluded to “the world” or “mankind” when talking about a general audience or crowd. But the idea of a public implied that there was a body of opinion and taste that possessed its own force and influence in society, potentially rivaling that of the monarchies and clergy. For the first time, people began talking explicitly about the court of “public opinion”; they began to seek “publicity” for their work or ideas, a word that originates with the French publicité. Habermas argued that the political and intellectual revolutions of the eighteenth century had been facilitated by the creation of this new public sphere, largely housed in semipublic gathering places like taverns and pubs.
This is Steven Johnson in his most recent book, Wonderland. (Johnson is a worker.) It had never really occurred to me before reading this passage that there hasn’t always been a “public.” Part of me wonders whether, one day soon, that public will cease to be—at least as we understand it today. The mainstream. Consensus. Real and fake news. The zeitgeist.
At dinner with someone the other night, I asked what they’d thought of Donald Glover’s astonishing “This Is America” video. Blank expression.
“Do you know Donald Glover?”
“Not the guy from Lethal Weapon.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking of art in terms of what I call works and taps. A work is a unified something you take in your hand and hold up to the light and try to appreciate on its own merits. You think in terms of the creator’s intention. You think about how it makes you feel. You consider it.
A tap has a spigot. You turn the spigot and consume what comes out to achieve a desired effect. Then you turn it off again and move on with your day. Hulu provides lots of useful taps. I use Hulu’s Good Doctor tap to feel sad and uplifted on demand. Then I forget all about that episode of The Good Doctor. I used Apple Music’s “Pure Focus” tap to write this essay. No idea what I’ve been listening to for the last couple of hours.
Donald Glover, though it’s still relatively early in his career, is making works. Over the last week, I’ve stopped envying his success. He can have it.
A book can be a tap. Sometimes, an essay sent to a mailing list can be a work—one can aim for that, anyway.
Make works. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott offers the reason:
Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.
The public isn’t real. Only the work is real. Fresh sheet, sharp pencil.