A few weeks ago, I released this.
PLEASE NOTE: Spending nearly ten minutes watching my face do things is not required to enjoy reading this blog post but, if you have the time and the inclination, you will find it provides a fuller picture.
I am still following my questions:
Why this habit of sharing art in an inconsistent, self-obstructing way?
Where did this pattern of cyclical reveal and retreat and reveal and retreat come from?
Between February and December 2017, when I had started A Little Much but was no longer making it, the first thing that would arise in me when I'd dream about going back was fear — fear and an achey memory of succeeding by only-just-about-not failing. A feeling of making something I loved and was proud of, but whose central activity was almost never fun.
When I was first making the show, I felt myself in constant conflict. I was enjoying the free-flowing creativity of writing each episode, and loving the slow, solitary craftspersonship of editing them. But the act of filming, the performance, the thing that is supposedly The Main Thing and My Calling, was just one hell of a struggle. For the most part, filming ALM season one was damn unpleasant. And this is consistent with the vast majority of my on-camera moments, be they filmmakings or “say cheese”ings. I do not like being on camera. And, for some reason, here I was, putting a sizable portion of my time and energy into a very camera-centric activity.
Each episode in season one is somewhere around 8 minutes long. And each of them is edited down from about an hour of footage. Only a small percentage of that extra footage is actual other content that I decided not to use and cut out. The vast majority of the extra is me not being able to get a full sentence out without stopping myself and starting over. Over and over and over.
It was...It was...It was like...It was…It was like thi….It was like th….It was like this. It was like this.
So most of what you see in those first episodes is not The Best Most Honest Delivery of a Line chosen from several Good and Honest options. Most of what ended up in the final products were That One Time I Managed To Get It. Filming ALM season one was like a perpetual high-speed Charleston-like dance with Mortal Fear my partner.
As my desire to make more A Little Much grew stronger than my resistance, I knew I could not go back to the same pattern if I wanted the show to be a nourishing creative experience. So I asked for help from an old friend, one of my closest advisors: the Curiosity Carpet.
The game is simple. The Carpet is imbued with an intention, a spell. A curiosity spell. You place the Carpet on the ground, you breathe, you step onto it, and you become curious. In other words, you step on and make curiosity your central inner focus. Those are the only rules. The game is open-ended. A lot of the time I step on and simply ask something like “What’s going on with me right now?” or “What is it to be curious?” (That one’s bonus points cuz it's being curious about being curious). Or the question can be more specific. Like “Why am I still anxious about that thing that person said to me weeks ago?” or “What’s the most effective way to ask the world for this thing I need?” or (for my fellow actors out there) “How does this character walk/talk/feel/think/etc?”.
The well-tested principle behind the game states that easeful, focused curiosity about a question draws in answers like a whirlpool. “Answers” being a tricky word for the things that come. It’s never that cut and dry. If I step onto the carpet and ask, with true curiosity, “What’s going on with me right now?” and listen with openness, I am flooded with all sorts of thoughts, feelings, movements, gestures, images, stories—many of which are often unclear or contradictory.
Because I am by nature a storyteller and an actor, these “answers” often take the shape of stories and characters — the characters being all the various Gabriels that live in me in near-perpetual conversation. I hypothesized, for A Little Much episode 6, that if I practiced with the Curiosity Carpet WHILE filming the episode, WHILE feeling the feelings that stopped me enjoying this process in the past (and cause me to dislike having cameras pointed my way in general), I could uncover important information. I could use my imagination as a scientific instrument to perform vital inner research.
Two days before I had planned to release the results of this experiment, something large happened. On January 22nd, 2018, Ursula K. Le Guin died at the age of 88. She was and is an author and a poet. She was and is my patron saint, her work my most closely-held scripture. It feels like a telling serendipity that Ursula — the prophet of my personal religion (who, like all true prophets, had no interest in prophethood) — passed on in that particular week.
“Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption, and make us look up and see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”
“There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids—they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians . . . One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice.”
Ursula taught me to respect the imagination, to revere the imagination, to develop the imagination, to practice the imagination. She taught me that the imagination is not only passive, not only a movie theater in our heads. She taught me that it is also active and engaged, a mode of investigation and inquiry, an intangible tangible means of uncovering. She taught me that the imagination has weight and efficacy, that it is a medium by which we participate in the creation of the world.
And she taught me that the imagination is real. This is how she describes writing the people and events in her Earthsea Cycle: “I drew the map of Earthsea at the very beginning, but I didn't know anything about each island till I “went to" it . . . The fantasy writer must “believe in" the world she is creating, not in the sense of confusing it in any way with the actual bodily world, but in the sense of giving absolute credence to the work of the imagination — dwelling in it while writing, and trusting it to reveal itself.”
She taught me that the imagination is real, despite having no physical existence. That our culture’s way of claiming words like “imaginary” or “myth" or “story" as synonymous with “fake” or “supplemental” or “unimportant” is limiting, corrupting, even dangerous. To conceive of the imagination as frivolous, or extra, or ineffectual — as anything other than fundamental, elemental — is to give away our greatest power, to risk letting a poisonous story be told about us, and forget that each human being is a born storyteller, no more or less than any other.
That’s the kind of storyteller she was, she is. That's the kind of storyteller I want to be.
In episode 6 of A Little Much, I am in the process of learning to become that storyteller, to translate that belief system into a performative form. All those people I am in that 8-minute span: The clear-eyed seeker of truth, the stiff fearful neurotic, the grouchy bitter wounded warrior, the mischievous giggling sprite, the mocking good-natured bully, the gentle patient caregiver. These people are all me. There is no one of them that’s got a body of its own, but each of them is entirely real, and speaks through the language of the imagination.
As I write this, I realize I went into the experiment hoping for the easy, surface answer: “I make art this way cuz I’m afraid of failure! Just like everybody else! Okay fine! Solution is keep going anyways! My art is fine so everythings gonna be fine PROBLEM SOLVED YOU GUYS LA LA LA LET’S GO EAT COOKIES.”
But thanks to Ursula and all the other beautiful teachers I’ve been blessed with, I was able to enter myself with my agenda relaxed, with my eyes and ears open to surprise, with a trust in the reality of the imagination, and discover something new. Before filming episode 6, I was unaware that part of me simply DOES NOT WANT ANYONE to see my art. Ever. Because any reaction anyone has to my art causes it pain (in the video, you clearly see the exact moment I learn this). Which perhaps means that my current artistic pattern is — partly, at least — a psychic survival mechanism.
My foundational inner conversation is between the part of me that says “I want to be alone—I want to be quiet, I want to be still, I want to be at peace” and the part of me that says “I want stories—I want you to tell your story, I want you to be whole, I want you to walk the world freely”. Both Gabriels are vital. Each has its own way of helping me to live beautifully. And each has its own relationship with fear.
Quiet-and-Still Gabriel is a hermit, an anchorite, a witch in a hut in the deep woods. It keeps its own counsel. It wants to walk in the forest and hop from rock to rock, up and down a bubbling stream. It wants to talk to trees. It wants to read good books. It wants solitude. It wants meditation. It would be perfectly happy to be alone, forever. If it must be in a social situation with other humans, this would ideally be sitting and reading silently in a room with one or two other people who are also sitting and reading silently. When this one is afraid it becomes hard and contracted, ruthless and distant. Cold. It sees other humans as distractions, nothing other than disturbers of the peace, to be dealt with efficiently and escaped from promptly. “Please just leave me alone,” Quiet-and-Still-and-Afraid Gabriel says, “I don’t need anything or anybody but myself. And I never will.”
And it’s not wrong. It’s just not the only Gabriel.
Walk-the-World Gabriel is a student and a teacher, an entertainer and a seeker, a storyteller. It wants to go everywhere and meet everyone and learn everyone's story. It is hungry for story, and for audiences to tell them to. It wants to serve people and help them wake up. It wants to make people laugh lovingly and cry healingly. It lives for that moment during rush hour, walking with the crowd from the subway car to the platform to the stairs to the street, being part of human flow. It loves sex. It sings VERY loudly. Its ideal social situation is a one-on-one conversation, many hours long, each person invited deep into the other’s story. When this one is afraid it becomes frenetic and jagged, grasping and enveloping. Possessive. Nearby humans are problems to be solved. Faraway humans are potential abandoners that need to be pulled back by any means necessary. “Please just stay here with me,” Walk-the-World-in-Fear Gabriel says, “I’ll help you, I’ll tell your story, I’ll make you feel good forever. Just don’t leave me.”
My most acute inner conflicts come down to these two Gabriels doing their dance, engaging in their ancient arguments. Most of my interpersonal conflicts come down to a person in my life being assigned the role of one of them, so I can play the role of the other (Bonus points if that person’s doing their own version of the same thing).
Much of my spiritual growth has come down to these two Gabriels learning to love each other, to trust each other, to work with each other. The closer their friendship has grown, the more alive I’ve become.
We hear a lot these days about how wonderful and important self-healing and self-growth is, but rarely do we talk about how freaking WEIRD it can be too. There are often those wounds to our wholeness that it is our journey in this life to carry, where the healing work is about learning to live with the wounds with more and more tenderness. But it is also equally possible to transform, to metamorphosize. To identify a way we block ourselves or mistreat ourselves and others, to heal past it, and to really, fully, actually, STOP. To actually be on the other side of it, able to ask the question, “Who is this me who does not do that thing anymore?”
Pulling that off is not about becoming a different person, it is becoming more and more deeply oneself. And this feels both super good and SUPER WEIRD. It can feel like a kind of psychic amputation, the healed-away parts becoming phantom limbs. Lately I keep finding myself in situations where, in the past, one Gabriel would’ve become shrinking and reticent or the other become clawing and manipulative. And, instead, I don’t. Instead, I’m somebody else. It’s like walking up a staircase and thinking there’s one more step than there was. You stumble and look around like, “Wait, who am I again?” I like it. It’s funny. I’ve devoted my whole life to this work for years now, and I still get surprised that the work actually works. And then also, I keep forgetting about the mourning that comes with it. It's a death. And saying goodbye is hard. I get wistful about it, like, “Aaw...I'm gonna miss being that particular kind of shitty..."
The past few years have been a season of Quiet-and-Still. This is not to say Walk-the-World hasn't had any opportunities to play, but Quiet-and-Still has been my definite default. My central focus has been traveling deeply inwards and creating a safe space to heal many wounds. I've gotten in the habit of considering Quiet-and-Still my “True" self, with Walk-the-World as a disruptive but (sometimes) welcome visitor.
My current artistic pattern seems to be a result of this. My intention to change this pattern seems to be a result of me entering a season of Walk-the-World, where those aspects of me feature more prominently than they have in a long time. My resistance to this change seems to be a result of fear that, as I walk the world, I'll lose my quietness and my stillness.
I am struggling to admit to myself that Walk-the-World is just as much of a “True" Gabriel as Quiet-and-Still.
The grouchy bitter wounded warrior from episode 6, who does not want anyone to ever see my art, serves Quiet-and-Still Gabriel. Quiet-and-Still has no interest in me being a performer. The recognition I've always received through the fact I am, in this life, unavoidably a performer, has been a hard journey for Quiet-and-Still. I believe the wounded warrior was born to help me live that struggle.
It’s actually an excellent coping mechanism. I don’t have to dissolve into an anxiety attack whenever I am the center of attention. The warrior brings strength and resilience and dutiful, soldierly follow-through. “Alright, master, I'll fight your war," says the warrior, “I'll protect you when the invaders come and makes us tell stories." There's a kind of world-weary glamor to the warrior that I like. It makes me feel badass. When I'm the wounded warrior, attention doesn't have to make me feel afraid. My resistance makes me feel like a hero.
And being caught on film — whether its casually with friends or making the numerous films I dream of making — is the warrior's greatest battle. Live performance is ephemeral. It rises and falls away. Film sticks around. When the camera's pointed at me, the warrior is certain that this potential attention will have to be defended against until the end of time. Thus the stiffening.
But the thing is, this way no longer works. I refuse to live a life where every experience someone has of my art feels like a wound on a battlefield. Here, in this new Walk-the-World season, Quiet-and-Still and Walk-the-World barely ever fight anymore. I am learning to carry quietness and stillness within me as I walk the world. I am learning to live in solitude only when it's needed — to practice a solitude that is also a form of service. I am learning different ways to be strong and resilient and dutiful. Nourishing ways. Peaceful ways.
The war is over. The bone-tired warrior is laid to rest.