Life as art, and what art teaches about life

A rumination on how creating your own life is like art, and what art teaches us about life.

This evening, sitting on my zabuton (this is a zabuton, in fact I love Blue Banyan on the whole), rolling out my tight-as-the-virgin-mary’s-nasty left calf, it struck me that in a bid to follow the song in one’s heart, one turns one’s life into art.

Earlier today I had the dawning realisation that, while writing is an art in which I excel, and love passionately, and dream constantly of doing more (fiction, you understand, the type of writing I very rarely indulge these days), the art of my focus – since the turn of my 30th decade at least – has been physical. In dance. And music? Well, I haven’t played any instruments for about a year, and I listen to enjoy rather than to work these days.

Two nights ago I had a dream that taught me something profound: That given I am learning to control my experience of time, surely I can control the experience of other elements of physical life too (like dance).

Earlier this evening, I spent something like two hours watching videos on YouTube about two of my favourite things. One is Australian Dance Theatre, as a company. The other is that inspiring woman, Larissa McGowan. If you know the relationship between the two things, go to the top of the class.

One thing struck me about the coalescing points of all of these random events. And it was something that Larissa kind of talked around in a filmed interview for an arts doco. It was that the expression of emotion in the physical act of dance, and connecting emotionally with an audience of dance – exploring notions of physical and emotional self – are big themes for her.

And if you’ve ever seen her dance, or been in one of her classes, you already know that. This is one of the reasons why, if I could have this woman in every day of my life teaching me about dance, that would be simply magical.

It’s all about the feel

As a kid, connecting music, and expressing emotion and feel in music is what drove me when I was a young music student. Sure, I was a perfectionist, but for me the perfectionism was more in getting the notes right to the point where the feel was actually the point. You can’t bring soul to something when you’re struggling to play it, right?

Studying classical flute, I learned that feel comes from your approach. Pieces of music are fluid, like water. They create images for your mind, experiences for your inner self, and that the composition – played with intuition – repaints the vision that a composer once had. One of my favourite pieces to play has always been Haro No Umi, or The Sea in Spring, by Michio Miyagi. It sounds like the sea in spring, played well. It’s such a beautiful thing to create.

It’s for the same reason that Charles Dickens has always been my greatest influence and mentor in fiction writing: The connection with character, that nobody else has ever achieved to the same degree. Studying the works of Dickens, I learned that character expresses itself in mannerism, in the little flashes of insight. The things that bring realism into an otherwise farcical or fantastic or grim situation are the littlest, most apparently meaningless things. The tiny little gestures, comments, words, sounds that people make. Further than this, Dickens teaches so much about place. About how the tiniest, noticed things about place are what creates a place. Places have gesture and mannerism too, and this is how that places become characters.

In my life, I’ve been shocked – yes, shocked – to be around people who, to me, walk around with their eyes closed. They don’t notice what goes on around them, or how things change, or the little changes of the light, or the people, or the environment. You may as well not be alive, in my opinion. What a shitty way to live.

Drawing has taught me a lot about what I don’t see. I notice a lot more things than many people, and yet what I see I don’t truly see. I make assumptions about what I see, taking for granted what I see in light and shadow, and turning that into objects. It was only in studying light and shadow that I learned how much of what I see I really don’t see at all.

Dance has taught me more about myself than any other art form. It has taught me about how much I am attached to a notion of myself. It has taught me that even if I am doing things fabulously well, one tiny change can throw me back to the beginning. It has taught me that persistent pace becomes comfortable, but that paces must and always will change. But, more importantly, dance has taught me that in order to truly express emotion, convey character, and create an experience, I have to trust and reveal myself completely.

No other art is like this. Not writing, not visual art, not music. Dance is so goddamned personal.

That realisation of exposure of self came to me on Saturday. We had a couple of posés at the end of a sequence, and after I performed one, Larissa gave me a small correction about not dropping my hips back when I do it. And it was only then that I realised I hadn’t committed to the step enough, and that this lack of commitment came from not wanting to let go enough. That not letting go is, in its purest form, emotional baggage in the form of poor self-esteem. Of unwillingness to be forwards enough, exposed enough as a person.

And I got that out of a simple correction about not being on my leg enough.

Isn’t it amazing what we get attached to?

Last week I had yet another person tell me that they thought I was amazing or inspiring or something equally ridiculous, because I came back from three days in Melbourne (work rather than pleasure), organised travel to Perth for next month, had some home time with my wonderful other half, and then went off to a dance class. An advanced class, one that I really had to step up in – mentally, more than physically.

It’s ridiculous, because to me this is just my life. And I say it’s ridiculous because it annoys me when I see people who build walls in front of themselves constantly, while dreaming of things beyond those walls. They stand there, bent over, slopping cement into the wall, and wriggling bricks down into the wall, while saying things like,

“Wow, that’s amazing. I would love to,” – scrapes cement off the side of the wall where it’s oozing out – “love to be able to do things like that.” And they pick up another brick. “You’re so inspirational.”

Well, not really, not if you’re just building walls. Inspiration is related to action, but action is never the thing people take. Implied in comments like this is always something like, “…but I can’t”. Now, sometimes it’s because they’re in a rural community and there is no opportunity. But then, there is also no tendency to improve the community by finding out whether an opportunity can be created.

And so, perhaps it’s those of us who create our lives by following the ways in which our souls sing, that turn our very lives into art. By saying, yeah I’ve always wanted to do X, so fuck it, I’m going to.

The advanced classes I’ve picked up recently, for example, are actually properly terrifying. The first class I managed half, and felt like a fucking wanker the rest of the class. The second, I threw myself into without getting much of it right, and also less of an attachment to getting it right. By this week I’ll start to have chunks of it down enough to be able to bring my self into it, and a stronger sense of just walking in and going fuck it. In the context of things, my technique is terrible and I can still barely dance. But it makes my soul sing, so I do it. The thing I work at is saying fuck it and doing it regardless of the bad technique and how bad I look.

Working for myself, as much as lately it is causing me to be tied into knots of concern, juggling fifty thousand balls at once, and trying to scale up while keeping customers happy (largely by myself) is also something that makes my soul sing. It’s such a far cry from the crushing experience of employment.

On weekends I get my hands dirty, think up crazy choreographies, read books, listen to music, exercise, cook, ride a bike, and laugh at everything, because it makes my soul sing.

Why would you live at all if what you do doesn’t make your soul sing? And why persist with your path if it’s that shit?

Expectations are tough to deal with, but dealing with your own attachment to other people’s expectations are even tougher. I totally get that. But at some point you have to put yourself first, and create your own life, and to hell with everyone else.

Emotion, spirit, self, physicality. They’re all so deeply the same thing. Your mind is in your body is your mind, so to speak. Therefore, creating your life is an expression of artful and creative thought. If I thought that what I do is amazing I’d never leave the house. It’s not about being amazing, it’s about being me.

And that brings me to the magnificent Jim Rohn, who is someone that you really need to listen to:

I started making a list of what got me turned off. And once I got that settled, and then started making a list of what turned me on, and what would turn me on in the future, my life has never been the same. It was like a revolution. A personal revolution. A 180-degree turn. Wow. I can’t say it strong enough. It’s easy to get lazy in designing the day, and designing the year, and designing what you want to accomplish, and just cross your fingers and hope it’ll all work out. That the favourable winds will blow it all your way.

I’m tellin’ ya, it’s not gonna happen. So this is part of the exercise is just this buckling down, making this list. And you got to continue this long after we’ve turned out the lights and we’ve all gone home. Keep this up. And one of the best ways to keep it up I’ve already covered yesterday – it’s what? Teach it. The key is to teach it. You don’t need recognition. Just go give everybody you can think of that deserves it recognition. And your own self-satisfaction is recognition enough.” — Jim Rohn

Let me repeat that: Your own self-satisfaction is recognition enough. In this is the key to everything that you do. If you do things for other people, the attachment to feedback will stop you from being as successful as you could be.

Imagine what you could achieve if you didn’t care so much about the outcome.



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