On the magic of patience
I often feel frustrated with myself for not having the powers of a wizard. No kidding. The voice within me thinks I should be able to have an idea, then make it real, no problem. So when I start something and then lose steam, it can be maddening. I want instant gratification. I want everything I write or paint or say to come out perfectly the first time. But it doesn’t. Often I don’t even finish the thing I started. So why do I have this expectation for myself?
I have a theory: Great art casts a spell. The magic of the finished work is its aura of inevitability—it appears simple and natural, as though it materialized in the world fully formed and shining. My brain thus perceives the successful artist, writer, or entrepreneur as a wizard, pulling magic out of thin air. And in the comparison, I see myself as behind, slow, and unaccomplished. But I shouldn’t. I’m making progress.
So how to overcome this frustrated psychological state? Lately I’ve started shifting my expectations, trying to see my whole life as one long creative process. Making something from nothing — be that art, a book, a business, or anything that holds personal meaning — is a long-term investment. Having ambition is only the first step. So I’m making peace with the fact that the truly magical things I really want to make might take years or decades. By the time I’m satisfied with my own work, I might be old and grey — like an actual wizard.
I would say Book of Mutter has been a sort of love affair and also represents the agony of my trying to be a writer. It’s also not like I worked on it exclusively for 13 years—I was working on other books as well, and all of these ended up informing each other. A book is like a tremendous site of yearning for me. It’s like an itch I have to work on until I’ve figured something out, or until I can get rid of it or try to publish it.
In the beginning, it didn’t have a name and I wasn’t sure what it even was. I began trying to write about my mother—and about trying to be a writer—when I was 25. Very soon after that, my mother died. It went through so many stages of trying for it to become a book. I think at any time during those 13 years, I could have published Book of Mutter and it would have been a different thing. It was a book of vast incarnations and multiplicity for me. There are other times I could’ve published it, but it would have been a vastly different book.
If you’re doing anything artsy, the rest of the world’s job is to say whether it’s any good or not. Because you’re making art. You’re trying to be a magician. You’re trying to be an illusionist. Literally, you’re trying to create a unicorn, a good song. If you put out something that’s like just a horn taped to a goat, people are going to say, “Nah, that’s not a fucking unicorn, man,” but occasionally somebody can make a unicorn, and it’s like, “Holy shit.” It makes you believe. You’re making art. People are going to tell you you suck most of the time, but a couple of other people might be like, “I don’t know man. That might be a fucking unicorn. I kind of like it.” The truth is, everything is just a goat with a horn taped to it, but sometimes that’s fucking even cooler than a unicorn.
Those are the weird mind games you have to play with yourself. You have to go to bed and tell yourself it’s all going to work out, every night, one way or another, because then it will. If you don’t tell yourself that, it probably won’t. Delusion is very healthy—up to a point.
One of the things you learn pretty early on is that, no matter where you are in life, there’s always going to be someone behind you looking at where you are right now saying, “Oh my god, if I could only get there.” At the same time, there is also always someone in front of you who you are looking at and saying, “Oh my god, if I could only be that person. If only I could get there.” The fantasy is that you just keep working that way, further and further up the chain, until eventually you’re Scorsese or Bergman or something. For me the feeling is something like the slow drudgery of crawling through the mud and getting bloodied up in the process of trying to get to the next station. Then, when you finally get to that next station, being told, “Oh no. Actually, you have to go to the one that’s right down the hill over there.” That’s the process of work. [laughs]
One thing I related to, and that I feel applies to my process, is the feeling of dread you get when you think you’re never going to be able to make something great again, or something that you love again. That’s kind of gone away for me. I used to have that all the time.
The drive to make music has always stemmed from wanting to make something that I loved, and so I was always sort of making it for myself. But that good feeling, once you do that and you have a finished product, was always clouded by this fear that I’d never be able to do it again.
As I’ve gotten older, and made a bunch of records, that’s sort of gone away. Experience, and maybe just a little bit of wisdom, has made it go away. That’s definitely progress.
To a lot of people who are my age, who may have stopped making music or being creative or just lost their spark somehow, I say, “Get the guitar back out! It’s good for you. You need to keep making things and being creative because it’s good for your brain. It’s good for your soul. It’s never time to just stop.” And for younger people I think you just have to figure out specifically what it is you are good at rather than copy someone else. You want to stand out from everyone but not because of gimmicks, but because you are an original. Oh, and be realistic about what your talents are and be true to them, whatever they are.
I’m 73. So I looked at things in my 20s very differently from when I looked at them in my 40s, not to mention when I look at them now. One of my very favorite songs is Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time.” I love it because she could never have written “Nick of Time” when she was 25. She would never have been able to do it.
That’s exactly what we are: moving on, but we keep finding wonderful things in the nick of time. That’s what time teaches us. It’s a song I listen to a lot. I probably would not have liked “Nick of Time” 40 years ago.
Every poem is not going to do everything. Poems are like food. I’m a foodie and a good cook—at some point, you are saying to yourself, “Well, I know that this meal is all right.” That doesn’t mean that tomorrow I’m not going to do something else.
I have a very organized mind. I was always very goal-oriented, and I think maybe that’s why I have to be able to picture it in order to know where I’m going—getting from step A to point B. So much of making a concept into reality, it’s about hyper-organization. It’s about being able to plan your steps in order and figure out what e-mails and phone calls to make. They’re quite banal things, but it’s all those little banal things that blossom into something big.
In that respect, I enjoy coming to the office and tapping away on my computer. We sit here at the office tapping away. We accomplish so much by doing that. Again, these are sort of banal things—the endless emails, the endless inquiries. It’s not very glamorous or exciting a lot of the time. We’re not always making any huge movements, but all those things added together become something big.
For me it always comes in waves. I’ll have a real barren period as far as writing, and then I’ll hit on something and I’ll write a LOT of songs in a somewhat short period of time. Once the writing wave goes by there’s always a little bit of panic of like, “Oh, it’s never going to happen again!” but I’ve had that panic now so many times in my life that it’s like, “Yeah, it’s going to happen again.” You need to be patient and you need to create that mental space or whatever that just allows you to think freely. For me, I need to not be living in the details or stuck somehow in the mundane parts of my life, but to let my mind wander into other territories. I feel like when I can create that space for myself something usually happens.
I know a lot of people who are like, “It’s a discipline. Nine o’clock every day I’m at the desk.” To me it’s not that at all. I don’t have any discipline. I just know that I have to wait and eventually it will happen. I know that I have to be patient.
People often ask me, are you a curator? What are you? I say no, I don’t consider myself a curator, but I also can’t consider myself an artist. When I am sitting here I don’t feel like an artist, but I do feel like I am generating something that goes beyond an economic position, since that’s not my focus. I am interested in talking to artists. I like that. I didn’t become a closet artist. It’s just that the gallery required more and more of my time. My work became more site-specific, so if they invite me to a show, since I don’t have a studio practice, I have to look at how to insert myself in the space.
What I do here in Lodos has always been parallel to my practice, but I’ve never seen a crossover, beyond the conversations. When that connection happens, you learn so much from the artist. You put into question all you’ve done. It makes you question why you did this and you start building new ties with other artists and you start to think again about something that excites you.
Willa Köerner is the Creative Content Director for The Creative Independent, a growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for artists. Before TCI, Willa directed editorial and content strategy initiatives at Kickstarter, and before that, she managed digital engagement at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is currently a NEW INC mentor, and was formerly a founding member of Grey Area Art + Technology’s Cultural Incubator. Willa has worked as a creative strategist for a wide range of arts organizations including the Smithsonian, Electric Objects, and Art21, and has been known to write, edit, curate, and create art for all sorts of cultural projects. She’s also currently working on a long-term plan to establish a futuristic, artist-centric foundation in Upstate NY.