I Can't Get No

Issue #10

I am dissatisfied.

I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve made so far, I’m dissatisfied with how long it has taken me to make it, I’m dissatisfied with my level of stress about the whole thing.

I’m documenting my process of making the first series of Threshold with the intention of giving other makers a glimpse of the unvarnished, behind-the-scenes reality here. And this week, this is it. I can’t get no satisfaction.

Past experience with big projects tells me that this is to be expected, that it’s good and necessary to feel this way, that I can’t get to feeling satisfied without a long slog through this muddy trench. My job, I think, is to be honest about my dissatisfaction but not to freak out about it.

But that’s hard. I want to like what I’m making. I want to be proud of it. I want to listen to a draft and think, “yeah, now I’m getting somewhere!” But I don’t, yet. And that sets off alarm bells in my brain. They all chime in different tones: incompetent! not creative enough! not fast enough! not free enough! working too hard – lighten up! not working hard enough – quit dawdling! etc.

But really, they’re all singing the same tune: what if it never gets good? What if I can never make this into something I like, something I’m proud of, something that I believe is worth your time to listen to? What if it always sucks as much as it does right now?

This is possible.

This is terrifying.

This is not a productive line of thought.

But I’m sharing it with you because it’s part of the deal. It’s been part of the deal every time I’ve cared deeply about something I’m making, and poured my whole self into it. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m the only one who becomes a neurotic stress ball full of intense self-criticism in the midst of a big project. But I kind of doubt it.

If we only look at the results of a creative process, it’s easy to imagine the maker was in control the whole time – that she knew where she was going and how she was going to get there. Brothers and sisters, I’m here to testify that this particular maker does not. I’m confused and dissatisfied, and part of me wants to react to that with a whole lot of drama and fear.

Another part of me is saying:

Deep breaths.

Don’t freak out.

Don’t quit.

That’s the part of me I want to feed.

Back to it,

Amy

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Making Pie

Issue #9

It all started with apples falling on my house in the rain.

It all started with apples falling on my house in the rain.

Hmmm... I thought. So many apples.

Hmmm... I thought. So many apples.

They're pretty tasty...

They're pretty tasty...

...and beautiful.

...and beautiful.

But with THIS many apples...I should make a pie!

But with THIS many apples...I should make a pie!

A few weeks later...

Friends are coming over! Apples continue to fall! It's pie time, baby!

Friends are coming over! Apples continue to fall! It's pie time, baby!

Image_00548.jpg
I got a bit nervous when my crust looked like this.

I got a bit nervous when my crust looked like this.

It's not beautiful, but at least it fills the pan.

It's not beautiful, but at least it fills the pan.

Looking into the compost bin.

Looking into the compost bin.

Clean dishes. Ahh.

Clean dishes. Ahh.

Oooo! That actually looks edible...

Oooo! That actually looks edible...

Some burned bits, which I was happy to dispose of via my gullet.

Some burned bits, which I was happy to dispose of via my gullet.

Briefly cooled on the porch, then served.

Briefly cooled on the porch, then served.

The jury weighs in.

The jury weighs in.

Only one piece left at the end of the night = success!

 

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The E Word, part II

Issue #8*

Last week, I laid out my criticism of the E word. This week, I want to focus on solutions. How do I avoid the trappings of this paradigm I've grown up in, which puts “environment” into one category and “people” into another? Can I craft Threshold in a way that helps to heal this false divide?

I'll try to bring this abstract question down to earth. This first series of Threshold is all about our relationships with wild bison. In the environment vs. people paradigm, the way to frame these stories would be, “here are the people’s needs, and here are the bison’s needs – which should we prioritize?” From there, it's a very short leap to "these people are bison haters, and these people are bison huggers." Instantly polarized. Someone has to win, someone has to lose.

But the deeper, more interesting story (at least to me) is the way in which bison and people co-evolved on this continent; the way the fates of these two species have been so intertwined, for so long. Given that history, what does it mean that we have decoupled our future from this animal so thoroughly? How did we get to this point where bison actually feel like a threat to survival to some people, and a distant decoration on the landscape to most? Rather than framing it as people vs. bison, can we ask how rupturing that connection between the two species damages both? And how rebuilding that connection could benefit both? Or has the duality become a self-fulfilling prophecy: have we now created a world where it truly is a zero-sum game, where it really is people's needs vs. bison's needs, and never the twain shall meet? Is there any way out of that box? Is it worth it to try to find one?

This is where the real work waits to be done, I think. Not inside the paradigm of "people vs. environment," but questioning that paradigm itself. This is true with bison, with energy, with almost everything that we think of as an "environmental issue."

So that’s what I’m going for. Non-zero-sum game thinking. Non humans vs. "the environment” thinking. Not because I want to avoid conflicts, but because I want to document and investigate the real conflicts -- not the superficial and often stupid ones we've inherited. If all of our controversies happen inside the fiction that humans exist in some separate sphere, independent of all the life around us, then we're doomed to never resolve them. And we're also doomed to tell a lot of boring, dead-end stories.

I want to do it differently. I want to tell good stories -- stories that take real risks and open up possibilities. Stories that at least offer the chance of taking us into new territory. I'm not going to get there if I stay trapped inside the crusty old E word mentality. I have to start from a different place.

Here’s hoping I can manage to do so.

 

* I have to surrender my goal of 300 words or less. It's just takes me too damn long to keep it that short. The new limit is 500 words or less. Mostly, I'll try to be quite a bit under that.

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The E Word, part I

Issue #7

I’m planning a series of Threshold which will be called “The E Word.” Meaning “environment,” and all of its variants: environmental, -ism, -ist.

That word really bugs me. It’s like the Continental Divide, it parts the waters. Over here, we have people. Over there, the environment.

On one side flows our thinking about economics, education, government, art -- all the human-made stuff. On the other side is...everything else. Everything that’s not us. (Which is a lot.) Tomatoes and the rainforest. Cicadas and whales. Air, water, soil, minerals. This rock we’re all standing on.

It makes no sense, and I’m hardly the first person to notice it. Start trying to define exactly what the "environment" is and is not, and you get into hot water right away. Are dogs who live in purses part of the “environment”? What about people who live in caves? It's a construct, and not a very good one.

But despite my ranting, the E word has infected our language – and therefore our thinking -- like a virus we can’t shake. And when I say “our” language, I mean mine.

To wit: my current tagline for Threshold is “deep dives into big moments of environmental change.” I’ve been using it as a placeholder while I try to come up with something better. It’s too long. Too many adjectives. And worst of all is that big clunker there at the end: environmental. Blech. Using this word says, “I’m going to tell stories about nature.” And that immediately sets up that silly divide – we’re going to talk about nature, not about people. And according to the frustrating (and factually incorrect) limitations of our language, people and nature are two different things.

Grrr.

There’s my complaint. Next week, thoughts on solutions.

 

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Making It Still

Issue #6
by guest contributor Stephanie J. Frostad

One of the thrills of being an artist for me is making something out of nothing, turning a blank, white rectangle into a palpable space. Every composition is a chance to make a new world of beauty and meaning. While there are inevitable struggles, sometimes even tedium in the process, this generation is ultimately empowering.

Another, quieter, thrill of being an artist for me is holding still. Instead of acting upon the world -- real or imagined -- allowing myself to be acted upon by it. Intent observation and reflection are as crucial to the artworkʼs development as motion with graphite, brush and paint. There is a certain vulnerability and humility in looking unguardedly, with no purpose but to perceive the visual truths and potentials of the subject, whether it be a weed, a human figure, a color or shape. This receptive aspect of image-making is exhilarating too. I am enriched by what I see.

We celebrate the most conspicuous aspects of artistic process: the mark, the expressive gesture, the signature style or touch of the artist. And rightly so, since these are concrete elements of craft. Between the lines, so to speak, is evidence of the choice to be formed and informed by what is seen and experienced. Though harder to discern in the creation, this receptive and reflective aspect of image-making is just as crucial to the power of art. Visions must be held, still and carefully, in order to be manifest and shared.

See Stephanie's amazing paintings and drawings at her website, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

 

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Stubbornness

Issue #5

Last weekend I went on my first hike here in Colorado. I made a wrong turn on the drive. Then, when I got to the parking area, there was a long line of cars. I discovered I needed $10 – cash only – to park. I didn’t have the cash, or the patience to wait. So I parked where I was. It looked like I’d just have to walk a couple of extra miles. No biggie.

But...I took another wrong-ish turn, and so instead of walking two extra miles, I walked three. By the time I arrived at the trailhead, it was late. Too late to summit, probably.

But the weather was perfect, and I was excited, so I started up the mountain. I felt a spring in my step, despite the thin air. And a few hours later, I was on top of a 13,300-foot peak. The weather had held. The view in all directions was stunning. I studied the map and the landscape. I took pictures. I blissed out.

There were so many points in this hike when I could have decided to turn around: when I made wrong turns, when the parking situation surprised me, when the altitude walloped me. Or, I could have just never started – I was too late, after all. So many ways to stop myself, or never start. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to any of them.

Next January, when the first season of Threshold is done, I’m guessing I’ll feel the same way.

At the start of a project, or even part-way through it, every little mishap can feel like a reason to quit. One of our key tasks as makers is to resist that urge.

This thing we call creativity? A lot of it is just stubbornness.

 

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Goldilocks

Issue #4

I have 25 weeks left to complete the first season of Threshold, and I’m thinking about my relationship with pressure. The pressure I put on myself to get things done, and done well.

It took me a long time to become aware that I tend toward the high-pressure end of the spectrum. Even into my early 20s, I thought everyone tried as hard as they could, all of the time, on everything, no matter how insignificant the task.

It turns out not everyone does, which is a very good thing. In addition to being annoying, working this way is not very efficient. A therapist explained it in terms of combustion engines: if you’re making an engine work as hard as it can, all the time, you’re going to waste a bunch of fuel and quickly wear down the parts. Applying less force can actually get you farther down the road faster in the long run.

But.

Sometimes pressure is very useful. Essential, even. Creating takes intensity, force, fire. So although I don’t want to rev my engine higher than needed, I also don’t want to putter along, never feeling the heat. I want to Goldilocks it: to find the “just right” amount of pressure to apply at strategic times. Not too much, not too little.

Even as I write that, though, I can hear a little internal growl. Pressure is part of creating, and as such, it resists control. Maybe it needs to be messy, and to make me a bit of a mess, in order to be what it is, and do the work it needs to do.

How do I let the reins out enough for pressure to play its part, but not so much that it wastes a bunch of my energy?

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Making News

Issue #3

I’ve listened to radio news stories since I was 12-ish. In college, I started learning how to make them. Threshold isn’t going to be a news magazine, but my vision and passion for creating it began with my love of news written for the ear. Homage is due!

Economy is the defining characteristic of radio news stories. This is what makes them wonderful to listen to and difficult to create. Basic news pieces are a minute or less, features are usually five minutes or shorter. That’s some crazy math. After days or weeks of research, the reporter has to take me to a place, introduce key characters, give background, convey new information and make me care. All in the time it takes to cook an egg.

But it’s more than math – there has to be magic in it too. It reminds me of playing scales on the piano. If you can do that well, everything else you play is going to sound more fluid, more at ease. Or maybe a better analogy is writing haiku, those three graceful lines of 5 – 7 – 5. Radio news is storytelling stripped down to its skeleton. In the hands of a master, it can be a work of art.

There are hard limits to what you can explore in a news story, and I’m creating Threshold because I want to do things that radio news can’t. But I don't want to lose the discipline and efficiency of the news form, even as I color outside of those lines. More words does not necessarily mean more better. Or, as a lot of people have said, “if I’d had more time I would have made it shorter.”

~ Amy

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I Don't Know

Issue #2

I tried to write books as a kid. Novels. I still remember some of the concepts and characters.

I also remember being steamrolled by doubt. I would sit down full of excitement, and soon I’d be overwhelmed. Things that seemed clear just moments before – who would say what, what would happen when – became complicated and fuzzy. In my head, it was awesome. On paper, it looked confused, childish, and unartful. I was ashamed. I was sure I was doing it wrong.

I bet my writing was confused, childish and unartful. (I was, after all, a child, and confused.) But my biggest problem wasn’t lack of skills. It was lack of tolerance for the unknown. My American upbringing had taught me that knowing was good, not-knowing was bad. Simple. But left alone with a blank page and a head full of ideas, there was no way to ignore that yucky feeling of uncertainty, no clear path to the safe ground of knowing. The idea that sitting in my soupy confusion could ever lead to something positive never entered my head. Instead, I just figured I was flawed.

I kept trying, but I didn’t finish those books. Feeling ashamed really steals your mojo.

It’s taken me decades to shift my relationship with “I don’t know.” It still scares me, still has the power to paralyze. But slowly I’m learning that not-knowing is where making begins. It’s the vacuum that creating seeks to fill.

"I don’t know what this feeling is, this idea, this story. I don’t know how to move it from inside my head out into the world. I don’t even know why I’m compelled to try."

These feelings aren’t reasons to stop. They’re why I start.

I don’t know.

Possibly the most important words for making anything.

Maybe.

I don’t know.

~ Amy

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I'm A Jerk. (But I'm Making It.)

Issue #1

When I made music for a living, people sometimes came up to me after shows and said, “Wow, I think you’re gonna make it.”

It was kind. Flattering. And it always sort of pissed me off. 

“I am making it,” I wanted to say. “I’m writing songs, recording them, and I’m here, playing them for you. This is what making it looks like.”

I know. I’m a jerk. They were forecasting success for me, that’s all. But there’s so much baked into that concept – making it – that I want to dismantle. It pushes us forward, out of the act of creating, into some imaginary time when we’re rewarded in glorious fashion.

Rewarded by whom? We don’t know. Somebody in L.A., maybe. Or large, anonymous crowds. But not us, not here, not now. This making that we’re doing here together, in this small, imperfect way – this isn’t making it. It’s just the preamble. It’s what you do before you arrive at that gilded shore.

Folks, that’s bullshit. 

If you’re making, you’re making it. 

This newsletter is about what making it actually looks like. Making anything. Songs, stories, computer programs, cabins. I want to think with you about that process. Why it’s so hard, and so wonderful. 

I’m starting this at a pivotal moment in one of my projects. In 28 weeks, I’ll be releasing the first season of Threshold – my new podcast/public radio show, featuring deep dives into big moments of environmental change. If you’re inclined to come along for this ride, thank you. You’ll help me stay focused. And hopefully hearing about my process will inspire yours a little.

Three hundred words, delivered weekly.

Also: guest contributors!

Welcome all makers, and makers-in-the-making.

Now then. Back to work.

~ Amy

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