Thoughts on creative rut

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 29, 2013 – 12:00am

When it rains, it pours.” So the saying goes. And we have all experienced this both literally and figuratively. Sometimes, there seems to be an overabundance of stuff going on in our lives. When it is good and pleasant, one can only be thankful. When it is not, then we wait and sit it out until it passes and some sort of balance is restored.

Lately, I’ve been in some sort of doldrums. I catch myself losing my cool too easily. I have a hard time being patient, paying attention long enough to allow things to happen, unravel and get resolved. My equilibrium does get shaken a bit easily these days.

I am talking about my creative output mostly. I am having a hard time getting things done lately. I have tons of music I must write and there is this weekly column I must do every week, which gets done, thank God, but more often too close to deadline.

I know I have always been quite creative. I have been so, especially the last 44 years. I can often pull magic out of a hat with little effort. And some of the stuff I have made I am proud to say is worth sharing.

But I feel that in my continuing creative journey, I am walking at the moment in arid territory. The lush creative vegetation once common and accessible is quite sparse right now with just a few small remote patches here and there. While I generally trust my creative capacity, I sometimes (though rarely) entertain the possibility that I could lose it. There are dry spells, after all.

I have heard of artists who drop what they are doing for days, weeks months, even years. They stop painting, writing, performing, playing, acting or whatever it is they are doing for some unexplainable reason. They just lose their mojo.

I read a book written by a psychiatrist who had as his patient a big jazz artist. The musician was in a depression. The author described how this creative genius just suddenly seemed to contract into a silence and retreat into a dark corner where he seemed lost, insecure and helpless. He could not snap out of it. He had gone so far down the road of depression that he had lost touch with the best of what was in him. He had lost his confidence. When the shrink played some of the artist’s most brilliant recorded work back to him, the musician actually asked him who was playing.

I know a local brilliant songwriter with an impressive catalogue of hits who seems at the moment to be in a similar situation. He has hardly written anything in years, maybe even more than a decade. What was once an activity that gave him delight has lost its attraction. When I asked him why, he said it was because he felt like he was already old hat, a has-been. He could not identify nor compete with the new music young people were making. He felt so out of it. In frustration, he asked me what use it was to continue to write songs when it would not be played on radio, or television anyway. His feelings are completely understandable.

I asked him what got him to writing in the first place. He said it was because it gave him a great sense of relief in expressing deep emotions. It was a release valve that helped him cope with life. I asked him what he does now to take the place of songwriting to help him cope with the emotions he must still be feeling. He answered that nothing has replaced songwriting. No wonder he feels frustrated.

I am nowhere close to suffering a serious creative crisis such as the two examples I mentioned, thank God. But there are two valuable things I learned from two separate sources about handling creative rut. One of them is something I learned from my own experience and that is to show up for whatever it is you want. If you are not there, then nothing happens. This is absolutely true. It is not enough to have intentions. One must be there to animate one’s dreams into being. As Stephen Sondheim says in the song Putting It Together:

A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head.

If no one gets to hear it, it’s as good as dead.?

It has to come to life.

I have learned to always show up in whatever condition I am in. And, almost always, it seems that just being there is already half the work done.

(As Woody Allen once said, “Half of life is just showing up.”)

Sure, there are days when I do show up but without the full presence of my being. I am there physically but minus my usual enthusiasm, curiosity and can-do spirit. That happens, too, which brings me to lesson No. 2. The second lesson I learned is something that I picked up from a recovering alcoholic. He says there are days when he is so tempted to drink. To thwart the urge, he uses a strategy that he calls, “fake it to make it.” Basically, he pretends to not feel like drinking until the moment of temptation passes away.

Applying it to creativity, it is pretending you are enthusiastic, positive, open and willing enough to do what you must do until you do begin to actually feel all of the emotions you need to do it. In short, you talk yourself into doing it. You internalize what needs to be done. This to me is a very powerful tool that has helped me turn negative feelings and situations into more positive ones.

These past months, I have been procrastinating a lot especially when it comes to writing. Getting myself to sit and write this particular article is the result of these two practices I have learned and used through the years. I was in my resistance mode before sitting down a while ago. But I notice that once I show up and commit, I almost always end up writing something, anything. I almost never end up frustrated because a blank page is staring back at me.

The reason why an artist does what he does is because he is an artist. And making art is what artists do. It should be that simple. While it is difficult to ignore it, public approval should be looked at as a secondary aim, or maybe even best considered as merely a serendipitous result. In other words, it is a bonus. Fantastic as the feeling can be when one is acclaimed, it is not the primary aim of being an artist. If that is the main aim, then one may get trapped in shallowness and soon enough lose his ability to enchant, surprise and delight even himself much less his own audience. An artist creates new things. He does not tumble because his audience wants it.

I would like to end this with a very snobbish, presumptuous comparison. I would like to compare being a creator to being THE Creator.

God is The Original Creator. God did not and does not need anything or anyone to create. God certainly does not need our approval to continue creating. What He gifts us everyday is not based on how we react. If God did, then the wonders of sunsets, molecular physics, and the beautiful processes of physical science should have ended long ago since we do not seem to show enough appreciation for them. God would have simply stopped doing them by now if he cared about our reactions. God is as God was/is/will be. God simply creates. All creators must simply strive to do the same.

My favorite philosopher Ken Wilber was asked one time why he thought God created mankind when He/She did not need to. His succinct answer was simple but profound. He said, ‘Because no one wants to have dinner alone.’

Maybe that’s how artists should look at their audience so they don’t feel too intimidated when doing their work.

New rules

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 22, 2013 – 12:00am

There are new rules.

No, you and I were not consulted. No one was. But for the few who were astute enough to observe them while they were being written, the new rules are less of a surprise.

Take the weather. The unbelievable amount of rainfall happening in many parts of the world is unprecedented. Photos of the Colorado floods taken from space went viral a few days ago and it showed a huge portion of the state overrun by dangerous rushing waters. Guangjou in China experienced something similar a few weeks back. It looked like the Pacific Ocean which they been claiming to be part of China was suddenly theirs — except that it was right inside their own country!

We don’t even have to look that far. Our weather patterns right here in the Philippine have been going crazy. Extreme weather, which used to happen rarely, is happening now every three to five years. Massive flooding in many parts of the country will be more common. This is one of the new rules. Extreme weather is the new normal. So we better plan our cities, our architecture, agriculture and the rest of our lives around this.

In our own Gotham City that is Metro Manila, things like payday, Midnight Madness sales in malls, Baclaran day, Divisoria day, a rainy day, rush hour, rallies, strikes, the heavy presence of trucks, buses, a few stalled cars, a shootout between cops and criminals can create a standstill in our major thoroughfares. And it can happen in just a few minutes. It seems like we are living at the edge of chaos. There should be new MMDA rules now about scheduling events in EDSA that will ensure mobility is not too curtailed or hampered.

A lot has been happening lately.

Zamboanga woke up two weeks ago to a siege by MNLF terrorists. They have been making life miserable for everyone there. They have also enraged the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, 38 people, including senators and congressmen were charged with plunder and malversation of funds last week. There was also the uproar about Vice President Binay’s so-called “ceasefire” which never came to be.

All these may seem unrelated but the conspiracy theorist in me is suggesting they may be telling us something important. What is going on?

There are new rules quietly playing out and we may not be aware of them. New ways of doing things are being suggested and they are not fully evident yet. And the confusion will continue because people are not ready to sweep the old rules away.

I have listed above some of the problems we have, namely, traffic, the new weather patterns, terrorism, corruption, insensitive and corrupt public officials. There are many more.

I also mentioned some new rules that are already playing out. Here are some more:

1) People now more than ever want and expect things to function as they were meant to.

For example, streets, roads, highways, waterways were made for movement of people and goods. They must be kept that way. Rallying, occupying streets, or building on places like esteros that impede the flow of traffic or floodwaters is now a clear no-no. The relative ease of moving informal settlers to other places and the general public support for this seems to bear this out.

Notice too how many people went to the anti-pork Million Man march in Luneta. It was popularly supported not just for the reason that people care intensely about the issue, but also because the organizers took pains not to inconvenience anyone by holding it in a park instead of a public thoroughfare. That was well appreciated by the public. They even encouraged the picking up of litter and garbage after.

On the other hand, people did not go in big numbers to the EDSA shrine rally last Sept. 11 partly because they did not want to burden fellow citizens by contributing adversely to traffic in EDSA. People want to express themselves but do not want to inflict suffering on others while doing so. It also seems to suggest that people want things done more orderly and with predictability.

2) People want better governance that delivers solutions quickly and effectively.

While we still live with a lot of mediocrity and even downright lousy government service, it is clear that people are demanding better accountability and governance. The days are disappearing when people simply grin and bear the hardship, or sigh passively in frustration at news about inefficiency, scams and corruption by officials. They now want things solved quickly and effectively.

And people are not asking for martial law or any drastic disruption of the democratic process for things to get done. What they want is for the existing democracy to perform up to speed with the times and their growing expectations.

The generally positive response to the charging of the first batch of officials involved in the PDAF scandal shows this. They appreciated the relative speed and determination in filing the cases against powerful people. Hopefully, the next few weeks will further strengthen the confidence people have in our legal system.

On the Zamboanga siege, I sense that more people want the situation ended conclusively — meaning they prefer the rebels caught and brought to justice, or even killed rather than having a “ceasefire” or cessation of hostilities in exchange for free passage for the MNLF. They have caused too much trouble already. People want real solutions that solve problems with finality.

For the same reason, people are also supportive of the peace talks with the MILF and other factions because the roots of the problem are finally being addressed. We have seen ceasefires played out so many times before between warring forces that did not bring a lasting peace. People feel that this deal, through painstaking effort and goodwill from government and MILF has gone farther than any attempt in the past. As of now, it is seen as the best hope for a real peaceful settlement.

There are many reasons why people saw VP Binay’s ceasefire overtures in a suspicious light. Rightly or wrongly, the people saw it as a blatant attempt at engaging in “epal” politics.

They also saw in it an opportunity for the rebels to once again escape the heat of war giving them a chance to possibly regroup to fight another day. People want justice. Unfortunately, the Binay ceasefire, at least in the eyes of many, had all the makings of what previous administrations had done, which ended in failure. Netizens especially were turned off as they watched with disgust at what seemed like old discredited politics rearing its ugly head.

People are tired of ad hoc solutions. People want to see the proper authorities, the chain of command including the military and justice system perform their jobs within the framework of a lasting and just peace.

3) People want participative democracy more than ever.

More and more citizens are now discussing issues and expressing opinions, thanks to the Internet. As of last year, there were already more than 40 million Filipinos on Facebook and Twitter. The politicians had better take time and effort to listen or suffer the consequences.

Winning elections every few years is simply not enough. People want more engagement with their leaders. They want to express approval or disapproval of their leaders’ actions in almost every issue now. And they do so with speed. Note that
Enrile was a hero last year during the Corona trial. Revilla and Jinggoy were popular. But only a few months later, they are all reviled for the pork barrel scam. Opinions can change in a snap. And so can political fortunes.

4) While participative democracy is here, it is also important for everyone to be more informed.

Most information anyone needs is a few clicks away. There is nothing more insufferable than to read tweets, posts and rants coming from pure ignorance of facts and processes and a severe lack of understanding of the proper contexts involved.

The Internet is not a one-way street where we talk and our leaders must listen. We must also listen, even if critically, to get a greater grasp of the depths of our problems and the solutions open to us. The dialogue must be constant, dynamic and meaningful if we are to get anywhere.

I know these so-called new rules have been in existence in other societies for quite awhile already. But it is time for us to now adapt them and make them work for us. It’s time to make our democracy more mature, responsive so we can ensure a more egalitarian, efficient and orderly future.

Surviving the social media jungle

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 15, 2013 – 12:00am

I once sent out this tweet: “The upside of the Internet is that everyone can express and be heard. The downside is that everyone can express and be heard.”

You hear from the best and the worst people on the Internet. It is a marketplace of ideas, but it is also a Tower of Babel. There’s a lot of noise dished out about every possible thing but few take the time to understand the really good points of view.

I follow a lot of people on Twitter who are smart, funny, provocative, inspirational, informative or have unique points of view that are not racist, sexist or offensive in other ways contrary to my tastes. I also follow friends, relatives and some people I have discovered whom I like.

With the long hours (too long) I spend on social media, I have learned enough about certain people on Twitter and Facebook who I have never met, so that I can almost relate to them as friends. I have seen them react to local and world events, pass on articles to share, re-tweet certain tweets, and express their opinions on a myriad of topics. I have also seen pictures of them — enough to feel I know them already.

But it is an amazing experience meeting them in person. Despite what I’ve read and experienced online, they come out rather different in real life. They are larger than their tweets and posts. They break the imaginary mold in your mind when you hear their voices and see them in action. You can even feel some kind of bonding with them. Oh, and they laugh, too.

I have also seen in real life, people I have blocked online. Although they may have appeared somewhat powerful or large enough to have annoyed me at one time, they actually are smaller in real life, less threatening and less annoying. They appear to be “lite” versions of what they are online. If I open myself to a greater understanding and acceptance, I can even see that they are not the demons I imagined them to be. They are mere humans like myself who get caught up in the heat of discussions or arguments, but perhaps with fewer manners and less patience.

I have had my share of trolls, paid hacks that insult and say nasty things to me, even as I try to initially answer their queries with politeness. But by the second round of comments, when I can already sense their mean-spiritedness as they rant rather than argue, I position my cursor on the “block” button and click. I draw the line when they resort to insults and name-calling. When that happens, I reply with a rebuff and immediately block them, depriving them a chance to retort. I do not mind arguing in an atmosphere of civility. But once anyone becomes uncivil, I tend to reciprocate.

I have learned to detect these trolls who exert great concerted efforts to bully people. I imagine some of them are paid hacks. They almost never use their real names. Rather, they use “official” or NGO-sounding names like Filipino Masses and the like, which gives the impression of authority. They almost never use their real photographs, but show pictures suggesting militancy or populism, or sometimes, an attractive face. Lastly, from their timeline, you can see that they are newly made accounts. They follow very few people and direct most of their tweets at them. Sometimes, different accounts even tweet or post the same venom (word for word) to common people on their target list. And of course, the company who follow them, and those they follow are an easy giveaway.

This is the cyber world where self-proclaimed messiahs, evil villains, bullies and victims, real and fake people, the rich and famous and the ordinary, the smart and the stupid, the cream and the puff, liberals and conservatives meet, shake hands, share a laugh, exchange views, argue, cross swords, engage in word combat, or become each other’s fans.

One of the questions I ask myself is: How tolerant or democratic do I want to be when I engage people on the Net? I do not mind seeing comments I do not agree with on my timeline so long as they are not disrespectful or insulting. The biggest lesson I still have to master though is when to engage and when not to. I really want to come from a place of openness and rational discussion but it can get very tiring discussing with people who can’t tell reason from imagination and suspicion, and are dismissive of facts.

The structure of the Internet and social media is designed to give a voice to everyone. In short, practically anyone can express his or her views and can potentially become a power center. We have seen this happen every time something goes viral.

Now that more people are using the Net and are already feeling quite at home with it, they are inadvertently showing more and more of their natural selves. Sooner or later, character, breeding, education and temperament will out.

That’s how it is, and unfortunately, it is not always a pleasant experience.

It is pleasant when you discover people who are illuminating, profound, charming and funny; people who can readily correct themselves, or apologize for offensive or factually wrong remarks they have made. It is wonderful when you unexpectedly encounter brilliance, surprise and delight, and an openness and tolerance you did not expect.

On the other hand, it is unpleasant when you see the ugliness of hate, bias, faulty reasoning, or plain bigotry and intolerance. Facebook is filled with followers of fallen dictators and dubious politicos, the lunatic fringe, who want to “save” or convert you, among many other weird characters. There are ranters, whiners, negative types who prowl the net looking for people to bully and harass.

I can understand if my observations, especially the negative ones, are seen by some people I do not like and who don’t like me, as representative of me. I can concede that. No one can really please everyone. And one should not try.

I would like to end this piece by sharing a Zen koan which goes:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”

The other replied, “The wind is moving.” Huineng overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

If you ever get into an argument on the Net, stand back just a bit then sit back and philosophically accept that more than who wins or loses, more than the quality of the discussion, you are actually experiencing it all only in your head. After all, no one really knows where the argument is physically taking place.

But if you are not philosophically inclined, then take advantage of the true egalitarian character of cyberspace which gives everyone the virtual power to block negativity. And it is okay if you do so with wicked laughter as you gleefully imagine them trying to unsuccessfully get the last word in, and failing.

And lastly, don’t forget, we have the power to simply sign out and get back to our real, non-digital lives.

Defying gravity

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated September 8, 2013 – 12:00am

Last night, as I passed along The Fort at Bonifacio Global City, I marveled at the lighted buildings and the pace of construction going on. The whole place has a feel of a new city being born. Since eight years ago when it was acquired by new management, it has added more than a hundred skyscrapers to its glass and steel landscape.

Buildings today take a much shorter time to construct compared to just 25 years back. Not only are they made faster, many are architectural and engineering marvels, some defying what seemed impossible just years ago. Amazing!

On another arena, I also like watching athletes — bikers, tennis players, racers, runners, basketball players, skiers beating world records and their personal bests. I find that inspiring as well.

It seems that in every field of human endeavor, the quest to learn, do, achieve ever-greater feats has always been the expectation and the end goal of all. Extending the frontiers of what is humanly possible is what it is all about. This is why we are in awe when we send humans to outer space, make stem cells to delay aging, create new amazing technologies, etc.

I have always asked myself why people do these things with great obsession. Edmund Hillary, the first person to step on top of Mt. Everest when asked the question why he did it supposedly answered, “Because it’s there!” While I can understand the answer on one level, I’ve often tried to go deeper in grappling with the question of why we do what we do.

I am especially curious since we live in a world where entropy rules. Entropy has four definitions in the dictionary, but I would like to concentrate on just one of its meanings, which is the “inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society.” For this article, I’m adding one more word to the definition and it is “everything.” In short, entropy means systems, societies, everything will eventually break down, deteriorate, be destroyed, corrupt and vanish. Nothing lasts forever. It is not a cynical opinion but a true, factual statement. It is a rule of life in the material plane.

In many ways, we can say gravity largely causes entropy.

Think about it. Everything material or physical has an expiry date because of the non-stop, 24/7 pull of gravity. Gravity weighs in on everything animate or inanimate. Steel will rust and disintegrate. Mountains will turn into flatlands eventually. Stars will implode. Everything that rises will eventually fall. To use a theological metaphor, gravity is the “original sin,” the main cause of why immortality in this material world is impossible.

Through science, we may all live longer, move faster, achieve ever-greater gravity-defying feats like building taller edifices, or experiencing ever-greater speeds in doing things. But in the end, gravity will still rule. The material effects of everything we do we do will eventually wear down and wither because of gravity.

Gravity makes aging through the years a tough experience. Aging is when the body simply gets tired defying gravity. And so skin sags, facial features droop, a paunch in the tummy develops, the knees weaken and muscles get tired and weak. This alone should give us enough reason to give up and not strive for anything and just go with the deterioration of everything.

And yet, to our credit, we do dare defy entropy each time we can. From the time a person is born, the defiance of entropy and gravity already begins. In fact, we are nurtured, cared for to protect us from harmful exposure of entropy, and raised in a healthy manner to eventually learn to control, manage and live with gravity. As we grow up, we become more skillful at handling these until it almost seems like entropy and gravity do not exist, at least for a time.

All endeavors — athletic, engineering, architectural, medical, cosmetic —everything including the theological and religious constructs of mankind is an attempt to defy gravity and entropy. Think of monuments made in honor of dead men. Think of the promise of eternal life in all religions. To be quite simple, everything we do is about defying the inevitability of death. The not-so-hidden aspiration behind everything we do is to extend life as long as we can in the hope of achieving immortality in some form or another. This brings us to another rule of life which is, life will always try to defy the impossible and the inevitable.

But one might ask, if that is so, then why are we building bombs and manufacturing killing machines? Why are we destroying the planet, or even building anti-human institutions and practices if indeed we are born to defy entropy, gravity and death? Don’t these weapons and practices promote the exact opposite?

These are valid questions to ask. And the answer is simple. Many of those who make bombs and hold the levers of power over the life and death of others do so to assure their own safety and lives. They want to live at all costs even if everyone else must die. They are stuck in some tribal phase with a Them-versus-Us mentality that makes them myopic in their view. Their allegiance is to their inner circle, family, clan, neighborhood, class, nation, sex, ethnic grouping, etc. In short, they have not awakened to the next big thing that mankind must learn, and that is, that we are actually all just one.

While there are dangerous people in the world who launch chemical weapons against their own people, and there exist social structures that degrade women, children and humanity in general, there are reasons not to feel hopeless. If we look at how mankind has evolved during the last 1,000 years, we may see some bright spots.

There was a time when fathers were allowed by law to kill their own children. There was also a time when slavery was okay and seen as a natural state. There was/is discrimination against races, sexes, religious beliefs, etc. True. But more than at any time in our history, these issues are being brought to light and people who believe in their abolition are speaking louder than ever and doing something about them. This is proof that humanity’s consciousness is expanding, evolving.

These advocates, activists, good samaritans and bodhisattvas are doing the job of fighting entropy in the thinking and attitudes of societies still bogged down by their dark histories. These thought leaders have been liberated from the shackles of small tribe thinking and have expanded their identities to include the whole of humanity. They no longer subscribe to primitive values where laws such as an eye for an eye, and survival of the fittest still rule in their most blatant, crude and oppressive forms. They are the ones who are pushing the evolution of humanity upward.

Defying entropy is a heroic human act. And we do it all the time. It means constantly standing against forces that are betting on humanity’s failure. Instead of giving up or folding up against these relentless forces, mankind refuses to go quietly without a fight.

And that is the paradox of being human. We hope against hopelessness. We challenge what seems inevitable. We bet against great odds. We spit on the gods of limitation. Why, because even a brief lifetime in the continuum of space/time when lived with purpose is actually a chance to defy death and push the boundaries of what humans can do.

Like a comet, we shine briefly in the hope that we may be remembered forever, even as the hum of the entropy in the universe continues uninterrupted.