8 Ways To Be (Artistically) Out Of Step With The Times

"I meant to do that."

There are a lot of places where I and everything else in sight don’t make for a comfortable fit. Where the drummer has one rhythm going and my feet twitch to some other cadence entirely. Most people will eventually cop to the same. Once we drop our pretenses, we’re all a bunch of square pegs staring at a world of round holes.

The fun begins when you stop looking at this as something to overcome and instead start embracing it as a bonus. Maybe even a career requirement. Artists of all stripes do this all the time: reframe their inability to mesh as just another life-enhancement quality.

 “I passionately hate the idea of being with it; I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.” — Orson Welles

I’d love to know the greater context for that quote. I’ve only ever managed to find this much. (If you know, please, do tell.) The phrase “with it” makes it sound like a product of the 1960s or early ’70s, but the principle that Welles appears to be espousing is timeless: that one’s art shouldn’t merely reinforce the status quo, and bob along pushed in the direction of the prevailing winds.

It seems valid to extend this principle beyond what your work conveys and into the day-by-day backdrop out of which that work emerges. Parting company with the world’s habits, the better to see it and reflect it more clearly.

(1) Leave the earbuds out of your ears.

If future archaeologists were to find hieroglyphics from our age, they’d surely wonder what was up with those white cords unspooling from everybody’s ears. There was a stretch when I wore my iPod out for most solo trips — post office, grocery store, wherever — so I could listen to books and podcasts. Seemed like an expedient use of time.

I gave it up. Because I noticed that when I left the iPod at home I had a higher number of pleasant random encounters with people. Encounters that might not have occurred if those white cords had been telling everyone, “Leave me alone. You’re not as important as this recording I can listen to anytime.”

Art and the soul that brings it to fruition are shaped by random events. Be open to them.

(2) Stash the laptop computer for a change. Along with the Kindle, iPad, and smartphone.

Same deal, different technologies. A couple years ago I heard about a coffee house in … San Francisco, I want to say … distinguished by a radical new gimmick: no wi-fi, plus a ban on using computers at all. They were intent on returning the concept of the coffee house to what it used to be: a place where people might gather and, you know, actually talk to each other.

Tough call. I do love taking my laptop along for a mocha or a pint. But I look around at the other laptop-luggers and it seems like, for all the joy they exhibit, they might as well be in office cubicles. Then: Do I look like that?

With a little luck, you won’t be alone, as long as there are a few others like this fellow, quoted in an article from New York’s The Local East Village:

 “I never bring my laptop when I come to Ost or other coffee places because I like to see people,” said long time East Villager Hal Miller. “It’s the weirdest thing to walk by shops and see people just staring into screens. It’s so cold.”

(3) Cultivate friends of all ages.

Compared to most of the rest of the world, ours is an ageist and age-stratified culture. A generalization, sure, but we do tend to dismiss people much older than ourselves as out-of-touch, and those much younger as not having sufficiently lived yet.

A creator can’t afford these prejudices. Anyone can be a muse, a teacher, a window into another of life’s dimensions.

At the school where I practice Krav Maga, I’ve trained with everyone from kids in their early high school years to those who’ve long been eligible for AARP. It’s the most egalitarian environment I know. Nobody sees age, really, just other people. I can learn from any of them, and have. It’s a continual reminder not to dismiss anyone in the world beyond class merely because of demographics and chronologies.

(4) Cultivate selective ignorance of current events.

The 24-hour news cycle has created a breed of addict that couldn’t have existed a generation ago: the news junkie. Yet I’m astounded at the number of highly accomplished people I’ve read about in recent years who tune it out by default, all the better to focus on their contribution to the world. Even Dr. Andrew Weil’s 8 Weeks To Optimum Health recommends a once-a-week news fast as a part of the program, to take a break from the fear-mongering and let your sense of optimism recover.

(5) Disconnect even further.

Who are you without the barrage of media imagery and other propaganda trying to sell you, enlist you, persuade you, advocate for someone else’s view of what you should think and do and be? It can be deceptively easy to forget. Pick a day or two or a week or more and pull as many plugs as you can. Leave the TV off, the radio silent, the magazines untouched, and avert thine eyes from billboards. If you can breathe fresh air under an open sky, or beside the burble of flowing water, so much the better. As a 21st-century Thoreau, in your own private Walden, the remembering gets easier.

(6) In cyberspace, no one can hear you argue.

Did you ever wonder, if all the pie fights were deleted from Web, like draining a swamp, how much data storage space would suddenly be freed up? The Internet makes it easy to call anyone any name you want with no risk of getting punched in the nose. Just as easy to find troglodytes eager to roll in the mud with you, for as long as you’ll let them. Yet I’ve encountered exactly no one who claims to be left energized by this … just depleted and angry and wondering where the hours went. Time and energy that could’ve been used to create instead of pretending to destroy.

(7) Remember you’re not a machine without an off-switch, and stop treating yourself as though you are.

Every study on work and the workplace that I’ve ever seen reaches the same conclusion: expecting people (or people expecting themselves) to perform like machines, running constantly and required to produce more and more with less and less, is counterproductive to the point of stupidity. The results: burnout, increased job dissatisfaction, elevated stress levels, diminished health, and so on. Yet this is the default template for the average American workplace, and the default mindset for most would-be achievers. Why does it persist? Mostly inertia and because it delivers short-term results.

The approach that generally works far better for the long run: periods of highly focused activity (usually an hour or two) interspersed with short periods of renewal. Brain breaks, I’ve heard them called.

If you write full-time, this may help you get more done in a day, and if not, leave you with more for the page once you can get there.

(8) Explore old books, old movies, old music.

We often operate as if the world didn’t truly exist before we were born. It’s not a literal belief, of course … more that the world didn’t produce much of anything that mattered until it produced us. So we ignore most of the culture that came before, because it’s just. So. Old. But here’s the thing about gems: They don’t age. And I always love it when I see a kid wearing a T-shirt for some band whose heyday, even demise, came years before he was born.

Eight steps to out-of-step. You have nothing to lose but a few ruts.

***** In for a penny, in for a pound. Sidle on over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, whose latest, “To Be, Or Not To Be, A Writer Of Short Fiction,” appears to have struck some sort of chord.

[Photo by KellBailey]

3 comments to 8 Ways To Be (Artistically) Out Of Step With The Times

  • Thing about the Warrior Poet is he’s wall-to-wall meaningful, content and style. Brian, anyone else would’ve parsed these thoughts into eight columns. Really a superb list. And I wanted to quibble with it, but hell, it was like reading my bio to a greater extent. #1 & 2 do not even apply, because I don’t own those things, and #6 is another NA. Was all set to make a fine distinction with #4, your “news junky” caveat, but in effect, being only a closet specimen of that breed, I don’t carry it around into my world contacts. The other items are pretty much on the overt side rather than the Do-Not, and there be what separates fully functioning creative forces from minor ones. Without a voracious appetite to fill-the-well, grow and grasp the world around you, a writer is doomed to paraphrase, follow and repeat. Originality feeds on a customized diet of experience and insights.

  • Brian Hodge

    Thanks Sully … and quibbles are always welcome. I even quibbled with myself on some of them.

    It occurs to me that at least half of these are simply about being present in one’s here and now. Not off somewhere (or somewhen) else, via the conduit of various devices. Which certainly have their places. I love my gadgets … and it feels weird to get into this in the same week that Steve Jobs dies (on my birthday, no less). But a lot of us need to reestablish who’s the master and who’s the slave in this relationship, and reengage with the life that’s going on around them.

    Gotta throw in something I heard on a radio program a bit earlier: Researchers are discovering that children who overdose on technology, staring at screens more than people, are essentially crippled in their ability to read facial expressions and body language.

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