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April 20, 2009

parenting your brainchild

by sven at 11:59 pm

When you produce a piece of art, it could be called your "brainchild." I think it's a really rich metaphor… So here is my exploration of the implications.

conception, pregnancy, birth… and beyond

Lots of struggling artists ask "where do you get your ideas?" It's sort of like they're dating… And they think all the hot muses are already taken. But maybe if you just go to the right bar… What kind of pick-up lines work on ancient Greek chicks?

Where do ideas come from? Well, when an artist and a muse love each other very much… Generally you start with juxtaposition (innuendo intended)… And then things grow from there.

After conception, there's frequently a "gestational" period where you walk around with this thing inside you quietly growing…

Until ultimately you're ready, and go into labor. It can be painful and prolonged -- but seeing a newborn brainchild is a miraculous experience. I made this!

And that's generally where the metaphor ends.

But wait! Don't just leave the newborn in the crib and walk away from it! Its life has only begun!

growing, maturity, finding a career

If you just put your brainchild into a drawer, it dies. A work of art lives and grows by finding an ever-expanding audience.

When a brainchild is born, the first thing to do is call your family… That is, your circle of peers who have a shared love of the art form. Let them know that something new has come into the world, let them come over to your house to meet the thing.

At first, you only introduce your brainchild to the people you trust the most. But still, when company comes over, you put some clothes on your offspring: formatting. If it's a film, burn a DVD. If it's a play or a short story, put the text into a zine-style binding. A stack of papers without a cover, or a video that doesn't have a case… Is naked. It's unseemly.

Showing the brainchild to your peers is its infancy. In its childhood, reach out to a wider audience: email friends who you're less close to, make it available for sale on your website, make it available through local stores. Let the art get to meet people outside of your immediate family.

In the project's adolescence, send it to finishing school: use print-on-demand services to create a book that's perfect-bound or a dvd that's professionally printed and available on via createspace or through indieflix.

You've done all that you can to introduce your child to the world and make it socially presentable… Now it's time to send it to college: playwriting contests, film festivals, the like. Places where the work will get tested and graded. Why? Not because the grades mean anything in themselves. It really doesn't matter how you do in school -- what's important is getting recommendation letters.

You can show your brainchild to everyone you know, and then do as much promotion as you know how to do… But ultimately what's going to launch your book or film on a successful career is how it gets reviewed. See, most of us don't just randomly pick up a book or go to a film we've never heard of -- we check things out because someone we trust (who's a fanatic for the art form) thinks they've found a real gem. There's so much crap out there -- it's a valuable service they provide!

And so this is the career of your artwork: to be seen by as many people as possible. It wants to be seen -- your job as a supportive parent is to give it as many opportunities as possible.

Maybe your artwork will even find a high profile employer: a distributor that adds your film to their product line, a theater that produces your play, a publishing house buys the rights for your book. If that happens, then congratulations!

But remember: you don't have to be a doctor or lawyer to have a worthwhile career. Your art may have a very humble career, only reaching a dozen or so people… Do what you can to help it go as far as it can, reach its full potential, even so.

To summarize: A brainchild grows as you put the naked work into increasingly pleasing physical formats. It reaches maturity when it finds its maximal audience. Its career is the length of time that it's alive and active in the world, meeting new people.

the decision to be a parent

Few parents -- I mean artists -- really belabor the decision to have brainchildren. It's just in our nature to create/procreate.

But once the brainchild has left your body… [insert image of Athena bursting from Zeus' forehead] …Then the real challenge begins. It is in our artistic DNA to give birth -- but raising a brainchild takes thought, courage, and perseverance.

Let's take a step backward a moment and consider the subconscious reasons why people want to have brainchildren.

I think most artists have some combination of these values in their heads. And I don't mean to say such goals are bad or wrong… Even when taken to extremes. (Personally, I know that my weakness tends to be for the immortality fantasy.)

But here's what I notice about these options… It feels like the brainchild is getting exploited. I want my child to make a million dollars so I'll be rich. I want it to be famous so I'll be famous. I want it to be remembered so I'll be remembered. I'm a bit alienated by the world, and so want the art to stare back at me and say "I understand."

Is that fair to the art?

parent-child boundaries

If we hold on to the metaphor of art piece as child, then these desires all sound like unhealthy relationships. The alternative? Boundaries. To see the art as a separate person. To do what you can to help it grow up strong and true -- but know that ultimately it is its own person.

Translation: Let go of your brainchild and let it leave the nest. It may not be perfect, or an ideal money-maker, or reflect well upon your reputation… But it should have the opportunity to go out into the world and meet people nonetheless.

But why would you let your brainchild leave the house dressed like that? Two reasons: unconditional love, and the fact that we may be poor judges of our own work.

Your art may be lumpy, awkward, misshapen. Even so, don't abuse it (and thus yourself) by calling it names or casting it out. Do everything you can to help it. Take it to the orthodontist and get some braces if you have to. Help it grow by giving it attention and care. And then, when you've done all you can do and have to call it finished… Show it to your peers without apology. Stand behind your work, even if it's an ugly child.

Frankly, it's probably not nearly as ugly as you think, anyway. In general, I think we're fairly poor judges of our own work -- at least in terms of guessing what other people are going to like. The piece you think is awesome doesn't seem to connect with the audience… But the piece you felt ho-hum about turns out to be your smash-hit. It's humbling… So embrace the humbleness.

be fruitful and multiply

One bit of unsolicited advice for potential brainparents: have lots of children. Big families are a good thing.

When you have an only-brainchild -- the masterpiece -- there can be such pressure on it to live up to all your expectations. The brainchild gets lonely… And when you get into fights with it, there's no one else around to help break the tension.

When you birth a couple of children in rapid succession, you learn to mellow out pretty quickly. Whereas you wanted to do everything perfectly with the firstborn, and were a strict parent -- as more come along, you're content just as long as no one breaks a bone. You'll be happier both with yourself and with the kids when you've gotten over that initial "perfect parent" thing.

And, you know what? I suspect that you're more likely to become rich, famous, remembered, and self-loving when you're known for your whole family -- your body of work -- rather than for your one, solitary honor student.

the adoption option

Even if you're able to view your artwork as a separate entity from yourself, there's been an assumption throughout this exploration that what the brainchild is made out of is your own personal Artist DNA. The art is a little piece of your soul that's been pinched off and reshaped into… Adam.

Well, lately I've been exploring what it feels like to instead be a foster parent. That is, rather than looking for the divine spark deep inside of myself, I'm searching the streets looking for orphans who need a good home and some love.

Perhaps the metaphor's become opaque; let me drop pretenses.

What I'm doing lately is using "intuitive collages" as the foundation for image and story generation. I collect huge numbers of images from magazines or online. I select whatever appeals to me in the heat of the moment, without trying to impose meaning. Then I play with juxtapositions until something new starts to appear. When I glimpse some exciting combination, I develop it through writing and then begin work in my final medium (drawing, sculpting, writing fiction, etc.).

The remarkable thing about this process is that even though it doesn't draw directly from my imagination, my imagination is nonetheless engaged and responding. So, while the germinal idea -- the seed for the brainchild -- doesn't come from my own DNA, through the process of developing the material it comes to feel very much my own. Like a child I've adopted.

a finder and a helper

Perhaps artificial insemination is an even better metaphor there? Maybe so.

The thing I like about describing these ideas as fostered or adopted children is that it helps me give up possessive ownership.

I recognize an idea that wants to be born because it has an organic form to it. I love that sense of finding. It's as if the idea has always existed -- it's my job to play midwife for it, then to help it find its way out into the world. But while I may have spotted the idea first, in reality anyone could have discovered it and put their own spin on it. The idea belongs to itself. I'm a finder and a helper.

So, ultimately, this is a way of looking at art that has an altruistic spin to it. No, it's not the audience that you're doing a favor -- it's the idea itself that wants to be born and to have a life. A pleasant anthropomophization.

All those selfish reasons for doing art…? Absolutely, I still get a hit of satisfaction when my work succeeds in those ways. But there's something about this caring detachment that seems to keep me in the right headspace -- dutifully doing the work that needs to get done.

It's joyful.

posted by sven | April 20, 2009 11:59 PM | categories: writing