Saturday, September 22, 2012

Make Good Art

Yesterday, I finally had a moment of sheer clarity, the first in well over a month. And it was brought on, oddly enough, by a dead laptop battery and Neil Gaiman.

I was in class on a Friday, not the usual schedule, but this is what having every Tuesday for the next month impeded by Holidays does. Schedules get mixed up, things get moved around, and before you know it, there's no routine, and the world becomes a confusing place, and if you're already in a dark place, this can drag you down. That's the place I was in when I stumbled into my Judaic Studies class on Friday morning with a mostly-empty laptop battery and enormous bags under my eyes from the night not slept. I started listening to the professor, and typing notes.

Checking Facebook, wondering what the people I knew were doing, typing notes.

Checking Gmail, answering email, wondering why I was doing this, typing notes.

And I'd get distracted by things like the social life I was missing. I tried to take the advice so many people have been giving me lately: Live in the present. Don't think about the future. Don't worry. Don't plan. Focus on you. Focus on your work.

Sounds like great advice. And I've been endeavoring to take it. Work, my grandfather used to say, is the best narcotic. And I focused on work... until I finished my homework, my eyes burning from staring at a screen, and realized I was now too exhausted to eat and talk and needed to go straight to sleep before I thought too much, so I could be awake to work more tomorrow.

And every day, I got more depressed until I figured there would be no point to life until I graduate. I tried to think only about the present, and I spent that time wallowing in the fact that the present sucks.

And then a wonderful thing happened. My laptop battery died. Right there in the middle of class. There was no outlet on my side of the room, and no more on-screen distractions. So, being a super antsy person who can't just listen without moving, I took out a sheet of paper and started doing things the way I used to. I took notes by hand. And within two minutes, I had taken out another paper, and abandoned the notes. I started doodling.

All my life I've been a doodler. I used to get in SO MUCH TROUBLE for it in school. I've had more notebooks and sketchbooks taken away from me by angry teachers than I can count. I was so reprimanded for it that when several years ago CNN released a study from some big fancy university that proved doodlers tend to take better notes and participate better than other students, but ONLY when they're allowed to doodle, I stood up, shouted "HA!!!!", and wished I was obnoxious enough to email the study to my elementary school principal.

So Friday in class, I started doodling, for the first time I think since about July.

When I got into grad school, I was warned that I wouldn't have time for art anymore. I'd have to put that aside and work. It's true. I really don't have the time for my usual big projects and bedroom floor strewn with paper scraps and glue. So I stashed away all my art supplies.

I guess I must be a little strange, because it turns out I can't function by living in the present, focusing on my work and myself right now. I'm an artist. My mind is constantly whirring, thinking, planning, making lists, coming up with projects that most likely won't happen, writing stories, and creating. If you're an art person, you know what I mean. I'm not a RIGHT NOW thinker. I'm a future thinker. True, this does mean I have a penchant for worrying, but I've found in the past month that I worry most when I'm specifically trying not to.

And really, as I doodled more intricately, I started coming up with the first art project I've thought of since July. And I sketched, and the more I sketched, the more I actually heard the professor talk. And I found I had comments to make, so I raised my hand. It was the first time I participated in that class. And I continued to sketch, and continued to participate, until by the time class ended, I had been involved in a philosophical discussion (also my first in over a month) with the professor and had a full-page sketch for a brand new piece of art.

I was blown away. I felt, for the first time since early August, like myself again. I was letting my mind wander instead of rooting it in the papers I had to write and the sources I had to research. And a comic I'd seen on Zen Pencils (which I highly recommend!) popped into my head, a quote by author Neil Gaiman in his commencement address at the University of the Arts in May:

"Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong. In life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all other ways that life can go wrong.

And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.

Husband runs off with a politician, make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor: make good art. IRS on your trail, make good art. Cat exploded, make good art. Someone on the internet thinks what you're doing is stupid or evil or it's all been done before, make good art. Do what only you can do best. Make good art."

I found the comic where I'd first read this and followed its link to the speech itself. If you're an artist, or even if you aren't, I highly recommend it. Here's the link.

I'm not a fan of commencement speeches, but this was one of the most inspirational things I've ever heard. Maybe that's just because I'm an art person, but it felt very, deeply personal to me. As an artist, I can't function if I can't express myself. And when I'm feeling down or stupid or betrayed, all of those feelings are going to come out in one way or another. And they can either come in the form of tears that keep me up for hours, or they can become a cartoon, or a paper-cut, or a painting. I really think I like the latter option. If work is a narcotic, then art is a caffeinated megaphone, energizing me while I enthusiastically assault other people's senses.

A solid month of trying every piece of advice to be myself again, and it was doodling in class and a Neil Gaiman speech that finally did the trick. Right now, I'm typing this up when I should be composing my ten-page paper on Jewish superstition in the Middle Ages. But you know what?

In the two days since I started letting myself get distracted by art and let my mind wander into that toxic world of the future, I've researched and gathered all my sources for my paper on Neolog Judaism, read the whole book for my superstition paper, written the outline for that paper, emailed my professor, had a visit with some old friends, read a few chapters of a book FOR FUN (!), sang some Zemirot, studied Shir HaShirim, and planned my next paper-cut project. That is more than I've accomplished in the three weeks I've been in grad school combined, when I was focusing on my work and only my work.

And yes, the dark moments still come and go. I still sometimes feel like if I wanted to, I could curl up and cry about the things that have gone wrong in the present. But I don't really have the time. I'm too busy getting distracted by all those things I was told would keep me from my work.

I'm going to make good art.


  1. Aliza, you should be abnoxious enough to email that study to you elementary school principal ...