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God Bless Non-Linear Narrative & A Few Other Things Written On My Studio Wall
MFA in Experimental & Documentary Arts, Duke University, Commencement Address 2021
I recently had the happy occasion to have dinner with the phenomenal filmmaker and hilariously funny Margaret Brown. Her latest work Descendant is a must see. She was in town to deliver the commencement address to Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, a beautiful program which I much admire, helmed by Tom Rankin and Ted Mott. Tom is a longtime friend, whom I often call for project guidance. Sometimes it is along the lines of should I get my MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts? He always tells me the truest advice there is. I don’t need anything. I just need to keep practicing.
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I wish I could have heard the wisdom in Margaret’s talk. In honor of that happy dinner, and to remind myself how to practice, I found my own commencement address for the MFA graduates in Experimental & Documentary Arts from two years ago, when I was very happily in residence at Cassilhaus and diving into the work I have to finish this summer. I made a collage of stories and songs about whatever it is I’ve learned about process, practice, and living life as an experimental document.
Photographs by Tom Rankin. Much thanks to Tom Rankin & Ted Mott at Duke’s MFA EDA & the beautiful and generous Cassilhaus. Thanks also to Amy Unell.
Sing Stitch of The World
Nature is perhaps the greatest teacher, without any ego. A gentle, fierce maker. Congratulations on your work, on this milestone, but most of all on the tremendous decision to follow your questions by way of a medium, which is a really meaningful way to live.
I really love making an artist’s life; a life of listening and giving. I answer to lyricism and creative intervention, not critical intervention. But mostly, I follow a feeling before I know what it is — without empirical evidence, without proof of how it hangs together, with a good chance it might wither on the vine.
We know very little in this world. It’s an honest way to live.
Here’s what I know. I collect lyrical presences. I like putting what is difficult to say and overlooked into plainspoken worlds. I think it is a virtuous itch to make meaning, to make sense, to make stories.
For me, making work was a place where I could throw every bit of myself and my intensity and my love and my fear — with far less complicated consequences than in the real world. I could — on a stage — build a world of my value system and for a few moments invite other people to visit and show them a collection of pictures. My greatest fear was to be a mediocre artist so sworn was I to this purpose. I also passionately wanted to take part in my chosen family of predecessors — storytellers, singers, country singers, poets, friends and mentors who I’d never met who made me feel understood. Singing felt as much like pure freedom and exhilaration as anything I knew.
Sing Small Talk Relations
Maybe you are here because like me you never got the playbook that the rest of the world got. Music was my safe place. But the next step is where you try to make a living; you navigate the business and the industry and it is maybe even more heartbreaking to realize that your craft has to live in and find safety in the real world too, just as you do.
I could tell you things about the music industry — about all the too fat, too skinny, not-a-hit somethings, about sitting alone in a dressing room trying my hardest, but it isn’t really important. What is important is that there are gatekeepers and there are soul partners. You have to keep the conversation you have with yourself FREE OF NOISE. You have to know the difference, between real feedback and someone who doesn’t understand what you are doing. Process is the conversation that you have with your work. It is up to you to keep your prayer honest.
But it’s important to DEMYSTIFY keeping that prayer honest. Here’s what I wrote to myself on my studio wall:
Make a mark. I have something I call a blank page muscle. I just make a mark. There’s also the just-the-next-step muscle. The more you use it, the more it will be there for you.
Spend time with your instruments. Like the ongoing conversation you have with your spouse, your child, your beloved friend, spend time with your instrument in your hands. It will feed you in all the same ways.
Collect lyrical presences. I love to talk about lyrical presences — that liminal space that makes all the realms we experience - here and now, reality, the past, the vast — inevitable and simultaneous. I don’t have to invent them. I just have to see them, collect them.
Collect creative experiences. I try stuff without crucifying myself. I learn every time I have a creative experience, no matter the outcome, whatever the medium. Some pieces works better than I thought they would, other things fail. It’s not really a verdict on me, it’s about how things get made.
Follow questions without assuming an answer. My questions are affirmation of my own inconvenient instincts pointing me to the nuance I’m looking for. That is voice, that is point of view, that is the sacred thread you have to follow.
Sing Traveling Alone
I wrote that song in a moment where I felt like I needed a creed to sing every night to remind myself what I stood for. I felt like I’d allowed myself to get watered down; things were working out how I thought they were supposed to. I wanted to describe the geography of an artist moving through life, the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the lost and founds. I hope that creative process — as research — artists moving around in what they believe in and exploring context — can one day be as legitimate a line of thinking as scientific process but that’s another story.
What I want to talk about now is linear narrative and your most important canvas.
I had a child; I made a hard decision to get off the road. I felt like a failure. I was scrambling for projects, washed up, old, whatever. A funny thing happened.
I started thinking about my work outside the limitations of a tour and a three-minute song. I started going deeper. I made an object installation, looked for lyrical presences in historical archives, began exploring art as social practice. That allowed me to take on topics too big to fit in a three-minute song. I started thinking about juxtaposition and the power of throwing linear narrative away. Linear narrative has a lot of shortcomings; it can’t always hold the largeness of the story — not just in our mediums but in our lives. If you can trust your disappointments, if you can trust your questions, they will take you further than you ever knew you could go. Your definition of success may be a limitation you didn’t even realize. Your most important canvas — your life — is not a linear narrative. You will be richer for it. You will reinvent better. And you will get back to that place where you have a child’s mind.
No matter what is coming —
There is no award or dollar amount that will fill your empty places.
There is no stranger’s admiration that will ever feel as good as your own self-respect of having said what you meant to say, having made something worthwhile.
There is no spotlight moment that means more than the humble offstage moment that birthed it.
There is no better feeling that enduring with your integrity intact.
The reward is the work itself — the privilege of a life spending time with what you love, with your instruments, your prayer — and coming through it together.
There’s even more in that deep water than we imagine and it's there for us if we are willing.
LISTEN, GIVE, MAKE GOOD THINGS.
Lastly, your family must be really proud of you today. An audience is a transient group of strangers. Even if your family understands what you are doing even less that you do — they love you. These landmarks — days like today — are for them too, a symbol of their deep courage in you — supporting dreams despite the stormy seas as they send you down the not-well-lit path you have chosen. That’s unwavering love. That’s real love. Document that.
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