I’ve been getting a lot of utility from meditating on Everything Is A Remix. It’s a simple yet incredibly powerful idea. Everything we learn, we first learn by copying, by imitating. All artists of all kinds begin by replicating (often poorly) existing work, then by doing derivative work. It’s only after a significant amount of remixing do we begin to be described as “original”. Nothing is completely different, everything is either some variation of something that came before it, or even something that subverts something that cames before.
Let’s put it this way- even if you come up with something that you think is totally original, it’s still a consequence of tapping into your knowledge and awareness of everything that exists, and everything that you think ought to exist. Your random inputs are still within a contained range, and your interpretations of those inputs fall into many patterns that preceded you. You work really hard to write a song that you’ve never heard before, and somebody else will point out to you how that progression has been done before, by some artist you’ve never heard of.
Put another way- anything “new” that comes into the world can be described in terms of things that already exist. Nothing is literally indescribable. Something might be a complete inversion of X, but we’d then describe it as “a complete inversion of X”. Whether or not the artist knew about X is irrelevant- his work is still, in a sense, derivative of X. It will be painfully obvious to anybody who has deep experience in the field.
I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of what exactly “derivative” means- I could try, but I feel like that’s irrelevant to what I want to describe. I want to talk about my own environment, my own creativity, my own brain, my own process. I’m not interested in being original- I think if you meditate long enough on the fact that Everything Is A Remix, you’ll likely cease to desire credit. If other people want to take credit for my work, fine, I’ll just remix that fact into my subsequent work. If you “steal” from me by plagiarizing, I’ll just make more art and draw attention to the plagiarization in a fun way. I think that’s how art ought to be, how ideas ought to be transmitted. Maybe I’m too naive and idealistic and all of this will be struck down one day. We shall see.
In the mean time, I’m just going to keep creating, and my response to anything negative is to create more. This is what I’ve done so far, broadly speaking. I had comments in 2010 or so telling me that I ought to quit writing, because I was apparently so bad at it. Now I’ve got some pretty nice comments from some pretty famous/popular/influential tastemaker types. And yet the art remains fundamentally the same. I’ve gotten better at it through sheer practice, revision, reflection, output. And I want to just keep doing that, do more of that. (There’s a ZenPencils comic about this that really hit me hard– Gavin is just getting better and better at HIS craft. He’s remixing quotes and visuals and tropes to produce some really wonderful work.)
So. If everything is a remix, what are the implications?
1- PROLIFIC OUTPUT. I should stop trying to be smart, clever, original, cool, all of that stuff. I should just produce as much output as I possibly can. I won’t know in advance what’s good and what’s not. I just need to be prolific. I got into writing because I have taste as a reader, and I can tell when I’m going through my own vomits which are the good ones and which aren’t. The cool thing is, I didn’t always know when I was writing them. Sometimes I wrote something in excitement that I’d later look at and go “Hm… I don’t really need that anymore, I’ve internalized that.” (Which means it was good to have written it, but I don’t need it anymore.) Sometimes I wrote something that seemed messy and painful and difficult, and I’d slog through it and think that it was a total waste of time- and often I’d be right about that, but sometimes there will be something in there that’s worth unearthing- and sometimes that thing triggers a whole bunch of good stuff further down the road. I’ve written about this before in Letter To A Young Songwriter: Be Prolific. So nothing new here. I’m just revisiting this idea so it rolls off the tongue.
2: QUALITY INPUT. This is where things get more interesting. At the simplest level, it means consuming a lot of stuff. Reading as much as possible. There’s a certain “running lean vs running fat” thing that arises… I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing about input, like output, is that 1 is better than 0. It’s better to read something than to read nothing. It’s better to write something than to write nothing. If you can, you should aim for quantity. Read as much as you possibly can.
The problem is that ultimately there’s a limited number of hours in a day. And the problem I was personally running into was that I was reading a lot of junk and crap. I was reading about other people’s lives on social media- twitter, facebook, instagram. Now, I don’t think social media is worthless. I think it can be an incredibly useful utility, and I also think it has a lot of opportunity for art and all sorts of valuable creativity. My problem is that I started getting very caught up in the lives of others. My brain was getting filled up (I’m oversimplifying- I don’t actually know precisely how the brain works in scientific terms, but I can tell you what it feels like) with thoughts about social relations. This makes sense to me- we have big brains to begin with because we had large social groups, I believe? Dunbar’s number and all. So it makes sense that identity performance is a huge game.
Sorry, I’m writing about this in a roundabout way. Let me lay it out bare. What I’m saying is that I found myself spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy worrying about the identity that I was performing and projecting to friends and peers from a young age. I was concerning myself with the thoughts and opinions of guys I had met when I was 13 or 14 years old, when we were little children really. And it was taking up valuable headspace. A part of me sought their approval. A part of me wanted to make them jealous. And I’d just waste time thinking about this…
So lately I was thinking a lot about how I was carying this strange duality within me- this strange double-life where I was getting featured on popular publications and getting into real positions where I have some sort of credibility, some sort of influence, and this other part of me where I worry about the approval of people who became a part of my life almost completely arbitrarily.
I started to realize that if I want to get to the next level, I need to make some drastic, dramatic changes. I can’t devote 100% of my focus towards working on super-challenging, super-interesting problems if I’m also worrying about the local news cycle and other distractions like that. I can’t afford to start thinking about say, the social lives of some old friend’s ex-girlfriend. I’ve tried doing the stay-away-from-social-media thing- I went on a complete fast last year in August, but I found the solution to be a little… suboptimal. I might no longer have been interacting with Facebook, etc, but I was still thinking in terms of it. I was still thinking of the status updates I would write when I eventually re-activated. It was like “quitting smoking” but constantly looking forward to the next cigarette, yearning and craving. It’s a pretty shitty way to live.
So I realized that I needed and wanted to make a change. I have a bookshelf full of amazing books that I haven’t read yet, and I really, really want to read them. For me to read them I need to devote more time to them, carve out time for them. I also want to be more focused at work, and get more work done. And so far, “stay away” hasn’t been a good enough solution for me. I literally needed/wanted to do a scorched earth thing.
It’s been about 24 hours since I completely cut everything and everyone off. And it feels liberating. I don’t need to care anymore. I log into Facebook and there’s nothing to look at. I’m not 100% sure how this is going to play out.
But for some reason, I feel incredibly relieved. I feel free. I feel like I’ve put some distance between me and all sorts of petty concerns, trivial nonsense, like I’ve dived beneath the choppy surface and found this deeper calm underneath.
Excited to see how it goes. Excited to read more. Excited to care less. Excited to write more.