Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: art

The Great Collaboration

There is an invisible collaboration between the artist and the consumer. The band does not make the music. Your mind does. They encode their message in vibrations in the air, markings on a page. You decipher them.

I once asked a painter about the meaning of one of her paintings. She asked me what it meant to me. Because the making of the work—the coding of an experience onto a medium—is only half the art. The rest lies in the power of the beholder.  If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, it doesn’t make a sound.  Sure, it vibrates the air, but with an ear to sense the vibrations and a brain to convert them into noise, there is no sound.

In a real way, by hearing and seeing and touching, you are calling art and creation into existence.

Sliding Up

All my life I was cautioned against doing things, not because those things were bad, but because they could have led to bad.

Don’t drink because you might become a drunk.

Don’t watch Nova because you might become an atheist.

Don’t have sex because that could lead to dancing.

Don’t open your mind because your brains may fall out.

Seeds of fear, sown from childhood on.  Not from my parents, interestingly enough, but from teachers and preachers.  You’ve felt them.  You’ve probably sown some yourself.  People live in constant fear and refuse to do things they’d like to try purely on the grounds of what they may want to try next.  Fear of the slippery slope.

But can’t the slippery slope go the other way, too?

If I walk to work instead of drive, could that lead me to a healthier lifestyle?

If I cut down on my clothing expenses, could that lead me to a less materialistic attitude?

If I write up a cheesy scene about a guy on a bus, could I write something bigger some day?

I’m not afraid of the slippery slope anymore.  I used to be.  I’d turn the channel whenever a science show came on, fearing I might become an atheist again and go to hell because I guess God hates it if you think the universe is as old as it looks.  I’d stay away from booze because, even though I have a normal person’s self-control, I figured I might become a raging drunkard.  I said ‘no’ to many good things, purely on the grounds of where they might possibly maybe lead me in the future.  It was a stupid fear.  A self-destroying fear.

I think the slippery slope concept is true, but mostly in the opposite way.  You want to excel at something?  Start it.  The slope will carry you.  Because your spirit wants to soar.  The universe wants to hear what you have to sing.  Just start sliding.  Walk to work one day a week.  Get up early to pray or meditate for a couple minutes.  Write that cheesy bus scene that’s been in your head.  It’ll take you somewhere.

Sometimes Art is Like…

Sometimes art is like the little girl who was drawing a picture in art class.  Her teacher walked over to her and stood behind her for a moment, trying to figure out exactly what her student was drawing.  It was nearly impossible to make out.  The girl’s crayons danced on the page, scattering colours and shapes all around.  In some places it was wild and frenzied.  In others it was sober and serious.  In a few places, it looked downright childish and silly.  Finally the teacher couldn’t be bothered to guess anymore.

“What are you drawing, dear?” she asked.

“God,” the student replied without looking up.

The teacher gave a wry smile.  “But no one knows what God looks like, dear.”

The student leaned in close to her page, sticking her tongue out as she laid down a streak of deep red.  “They will in a minute,” she said.

Sometimes art dares to touch the things that cannot be touched.  Sometimes it tries to see the things that cannot be seen.  Sometimes it succeeds and turns around to show it to us.

That Is Why You Fail

     I found out why you keep failing.  Why you can’t seem to get the things done that you want to get done.  Why you can’t pull yourself out of bed on time.  Why you can’t stick to that fitness routine.  Why you can’t write that novel.  Why you can’t reach that spiritual goal.  Why you just can’t.

     You believe the lie.

     You believe the lie that says you aren’t good enough.  You believe it so much that you continually tell it to yourself in some misguided attempt to make things better.  It’s killing you.

     It kills you because you set yourself up for failure every time you try.  You tell yourself that you’ll fail.  And your body and spirit takes it as a command.

     It kills you because it stops you from taking initiative and innovation.  Since you’ve always failed there’s no reason to believe that this time will be any different.

     It kills you because it pushes you down and kills all the impulses that want to lift you up.

     It kills you because it calls the positive ideas and motivations inside you vain, arrogant and even sinful.

     It kills you dead, friend.

     And it leaves you open to the real beast of getting things done.  Resistance.

     Resistance always wants to stop you from doing your work.  It pushes you down, slaps you around and tears at your heart.  When you agree with its accusations that you aren’t good enough, smart enough or skilled, you do the work for it.

     Don’t agree with Resistance. Agree with me. Because I believe in you. Seriously, I do. I think you can do great things. I think you can create worlds. I think you can commune with God. I think you can get healthy.

     Yes, you’re messed up. Sure, you’ve got problems. But I’d be willing to bet that your issues are not nearly as bad as you think they are. Stop convincing yourself to fail. Go win.

Tragedy of a Satisfied Soul

     I’m happy with the things I’ve done. I’m happy with my first novel. But, reading it over, I found I was not satisfied. I had to write another. So I did. And I am happy with it. Much happier than I was with my first. But still not satisfied. So now I’m a third of the way through my third novel. I like it. I’m happy. But I won’t be satisfied. Oh no. Never.

     Satisfaction kills art. I wonder if that’s why Prometheus and the Star Wars prequels could come from such great minds yet be such disappointments. I wonder if Mr. Scott and Mr. Lucas looked back on their amazing accomplishments and thought, “Well, I’m obviously great. No need to push myself on these new films. They’ll be great, too.”

     I love my most recent novel. It’s precious to me. Just like my daughter was precious to me when she was first learning to talk. I was happy that she was experimenting with words and I smiled when she said things like “I ate-ed my food.” Happy. But not even close to satisfied.

     You see, if she were to talk like that for the rest of her life, some of my happiness would fade. She wouldn’t be reaching her potential. She wouldn’t be expanding her potential. She wouldn’t be living the fullest life she can live. So I encouraged her to push herself. To learn more. To express herself more. To be who she really is.

     I’m happy with my work. I’m happy with the levels of love that I’m pumping into the world. I’m happy with my spiritual life. But not satisfied. Not even close.

Because I have no idea how strong my love is.
Because I have no idea how powerful my spirit is.
Because I have no idea what wonderful things I can create.
And until I see these things born in their full glory, I’ll always be reaching.
Always be pushing.
Always be groaning.
Always be shunning the tragedy of the satisfied soul.

The Skynet Zombie

     We love hearing stories about creations turning on their creators. Those stories have made it into movies, novels and religions. There’s something pervertedly fascinating about watching the computer that we lovingly and diligently programmed come of age and attempt to overthrow its creators. And when the movie is done, we sit back and thank our lucky stars that our own machines haven’t turned on us.
     Or have they? (Bum bum bummmmmm!)
     The two most frightening monsters from popular mythology are, in my view, vampires and zombies. The vampire is terrifying because of its malice, subtlety, and power. Zombies are terrifying because of their swarming numbers, mindlessness, and unworldly stubbornness. And the biggest reason to fear them both is because they come from us and work to turn us into them.
     That wasn’t just a random segue. Watch, you’ll see.
     Now, when we talk about creations turning on their creators, we usually think of a Skynet scenario. The computer realizes that humans are a threat, so it decides to completely destroy or enslave them. Skynet is like the vampire version of the creator-killer. And Skynet is not real.
     But the zombie version of the creator-killer, I think, is already attacking. And we have hardly noticed.
     Phones, TV, games, music, film. Wonderful, beautiful creations. We have taken rocks from the earth and bound up magic within them. But magic, it has been said, is like a sword without a hilt. It’s better than no sword at all, of course, but it must be wielded carefully.
     All our toys and tools and gadgets have the capability of turning into mindless zombie hordes, marching toward our brains, eager to devour them. Our minds are always being pulled and torn at by the crowds we made. Texts, songs, trailers, games, social networks, blogs, Internets, news, politics, more more more! And we keep begging for more! More ways to take our minds to any place other than where our bodies are.
     Mindfulness grows difficult. Soon we’re living lives that have forgotten what a clear head feels like. We feel scatter-brained and full of stress all the time. And in order to assage the brain-pain, we open our tech and play some more. They take hold. And soon we find that we allow them access to our minds all day, every day. We always have the earbuds on. We are always punching buttons into our phones and tablets. We spend most of our time on our asses, staring at a glowing screen.
     Things have gotten out of hand.
     What, you don’t think so? You don’t think it’s a problem? I dare you to try an experiment. Turn off your music and games and TV and Internets for a couple days. Then notice how your brain works. See if your art has changed. See if life flows easier. Twenty bucks says it will.

The Song That No One Has Heard

     I’m kind of a sucker for devotional music from all sorts of religious traditions. I’ll shove John Michael Talbot, Yusuf Islam, and Krishna Das all onto a playlist together. They get along on iTunes, I wonder if they’d get along if they were all in the same room…
     One of Krishna Das’s best songs is Heart as Wide as the World.

I looked away
Your beauty too much to bear
Where could I run?
Your eyes,
I found them everywhere
All I want is to sing to you
The song that no one has heard

     I follow a lot of aspiring writers on Twitter and blogs. Sometimes it’s a tad discouraging because often they talk about ‘essential’ writing subjects like self-promotion, knowing the market and replicating past successes. Many good, talented, creative people just want to write a story that will sell.
     How low.
     I don’t know about other creative people, but I’d do this work even if I knew I’d never make a penny from it. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve put time and money into it, but I’ve never gotten a cent back. Sure, I’d love to make some money. I’d love to be able to quit my job and spend my life writing. That’d be the cat’s meow. But that’s not ‘all I want.’

All I want…
… is to be a best-seller.
… is to be famous.
… is to get rich.
… is to be the next [insert successful name here].

     Low! Low! Low!
     I look up to the sky and to the infinite space it rests beneath. I look to the Hand that sparked it and all the glories that dwell within it. And all those petty desires fade like a fog when it is faced with the sun’s fury. One desire remains. One thought. One driving force.
     All I want is to sing to you the song that no one has heard.
     And I’m the only one who can sing that song.
     And you’re the only one who can sing yours.

Pacifism and My Violent Book

     I’m a pacifist. Not a passive-ist. A pacifist. I am against violence in all forms for any reasons. Strange, eh?

     I wrote a book that has a lot of violence in it. Bad guys killing and harming good guys. Good guys killing and harming bad guys. Alignment-unknown guys killing and harming … everyone. Blood and death and harm and stuff. It almost makes you wonder how I reconcile that with my beliefs.

     I also tend to enjoy media that has violence in it. Game of Thrones is probably my favourite show in TV right now. And if you’ve ever seen a more violence show, I’d be surprised. And I’d ask what kind of sick cable channel you are subscribing to. Most of the books I read have violence. Every video game I play involves blowing something up.

     So what gives, Matt? You some kind of ridiculous hypocrite or something?

     Probably. But not for that reason.

     I find violence reprehensible because of the suffering it causes and the damage it does to the violent’s soul. But I cannot deny that violence has been a part of the human experience ever since we crawled out of the goop. I’d be willing to bet that everyone has an ancestor who took lives through violence. It’s engrained in us. That’s one of the reasons most people find the idea of pacifism so repulsive.

     Art is not idealized life. It’s elevated life. Art (literature, paintings, performances, TV shows, etc) needs to show every true aspect of life. And one of the most basic and foundational truths about the lives we live, is violence and death. Like Hemingway said, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

     A writer, or any other artist, has no right to keep from his or her reader those things he disagrees with. That’s one of the reasons why I find it very difficult to reader Christian novels. They are sterile. There is no shit, only poop. And it’s not poop that ever hits the fan.

     I hate violence in any situation. But it’s a part of life, so it needs to go in the stories I make. Just like I hate malice and conflict and suffering and sickness and cancer. These horrid things are all around us. The writer who leaves them out of his book had better have a good reason for it.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius

     Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a great TED Talk about where creativity comes from. Watch it.

     For years I have thought that genius and creativity was from the outside. The artist does not generate her art, she translates the whisperings she hears onto page or canvas or sound.

Plot, Character and Bags of Wit

     I recently finished The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. It reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

     I think every Literature Major across the planet just shuttered.

     But hear me out.

     I was asked what the plot to The Sun Also Rises was. It took me about twenty minutes to answer. And I think I answered it wrong. I sometimes feel the same way when people ask me what The Hitchhiker’s Guide is about. There’s not really much of a plot to it. People complain about holes and the absurdity of every single character and story arc in The Hitchhiker’s Guide. But characters and story arcs are not the point. The story and the characters are just the skeleton to which the massive muscles of wit are attached. Just the bag in which the wit is stored. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a big, beautiful bag of wit. The wit is high and lovely. And if you understand that when you start, you’ll love the book and the lack of coherent plot won’t bother you at all.

     I feel like The Sun Also Rises is similar in a nobler way. The story is the characters. It’s Brett and Cohn and Jake. You cannot put anyone else in their place.

     Other stories are devoted to plot. Replace Harry Tasker with James Bond and you’ll still get a neat movie. But put Robert Langdon in Robert Cohn’s place and everything falls apart.

     Hemingway created real people. And real people don’t need plots and gimmicks to be interesting. They are interesting and beautiful and ugly and tragic and glorious all by themselves.