Winning, Losing and Novelty: Art is not a competition

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When I was eight years old I ran with a pack.

Wolves, bears, bobcats – these were the icons of pack success, and as with the other packs I was subjected to as child, this one was based on a broad scale of achievements, predetermined and established for all members regardless of individual interests, needs, or talents.

The seasonal kite-flying challenge presented itself as yet another opportunity to fall in line with the rights of passage for becoming not just a cub scout, but eventually a full boy scout. But by the time I arrived with my diamond of yellow paper, embossed with the Boy Scouts of America eagle-superimposed-over-a fleur-de-lis, the competition had already begun. I was behind from the get-go.

I watched the other kites dance up vesper ladders dozens of feet overhead and felt immediately hopeless. There was barely a breeze at ground level, and my heart was hardly into the task, but the press of expectation spurred action. I quickly secured my kite to a spool of cotton string and took off running over the sloping grasses of the hillock where everyone was gathered. The stiff, short-sleeves of my blue scout uniform chaffed my arms, and the yellow neckerchief scratched the edges of my neck as the sun’s heat pressed down on the efforts I made to launch my kite.

My effort was embarrassingly futile. While the other kites flew, some reaching half a spool of thread or more in their victorious climb skyward, my kite could barely sustain a meager hover. The contest was over by the time my kite achieved lift off. With their day finished the other scouts peeled off while I remained behind to finish the flight barely begun.

Then something remarkable happened. In the absence of the other kites it was as if a lane suddenly opened. My kite flew. As the wind carried the kite higher the spool of string spun in my hands and the kite became inspired. The sky relinquished its downward force allowing the kite to soar like Icarus rushing to meet the sun’s embrace.

The line ran to the end of the spool, the cardboard tube lurched in my hand. An erotic ting electrified my body as I nearly lost grip on the kite line. In a nearby bag I fished out another spool and, struggling through sweat in the windswept sunshine, I affixed the second line to the first. Once secure the kite twisted and climbed even higher, the friction heat of the second spool spinning in my hands.

I was at first disappointed to see my kite reach such a great distance. All of the other scouts, peers and competitors alike, had left the scene. I had no witness. Then by chance the competition judge passed by.  A middle aged woman with dark hair and a masculine air, she confirmed with a patronly nod and a word that my kite had indeed bested the day. My kite had flown higher, gone farther, than anyone else’s. Thus dawned one of my first epiphanies – I had, in my way and in my time, surpassed everyone. I’d stood out from the pack . . .

As human beings we are taught from the beginning that we should compete against others for prizes designed to elevate the few above the many, in this way to earn the right to be part of the collective whole, and to fill a niche by being a winner, a competitor .  .  .  a loser.

As creatives, however, there is something that exists beyond the pack. When we create in our unique way there are no rules. The birthright of the creative person is the freedom to do things our way and in our time. The message here is simple: when the crowds have exhausted themselves trying to best one another, and the lanes are open, the creative person is then able to work in a limitless environment, and to the extent of their full potential.

As soon as anything becomes a competition it has lost its novelty. The goal of the artist is to create novelty in pursuit of an effect, and in this process each must operate within his or her own sphere. By stepping away from the pack the creative is free to explore the means of their process, and to produce something original, something beyond the scope of a moment.

There may never be awards at the end of this process – no badges or placards or trophies. But at a minimum there will be the satisfaction that a sincere effort can bring great individual freedom from the pack, freedom from the oppressive need to win, freedom to fly to the end of the line.

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Plum Picking – A tale of unexpected rewards

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I used to live on the edge of the desert in southern Idaho. In the summertime the fields behind my house were covered with great green carpets of alfalfa under an ocean of blue sky. The gravel-voices of pheasants called from the tall grass that grew along deep canal banks, and the hot days simmered with the steady ring of insects in the still and stifling air.

By fall the fields were trimmed into brown rows, and the shy pheasants scampered over the ground between the long lines as if auditioning for the upcoming hunt. The air turned cool, the insects died away, and the light changed from golden to white.

For five seasons I hunted the fields of my back yard. I could walk for miles across farm land carrying a double-barreled twenty gauge shotgun, often my dog being my only companion. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those treks out into the farm lands and to the desert beyond taught me a lot about thinking, about discovery, and a little about danger, too. Things I didn’t realize I would need to know about until years later when I reflected on them in quieter times.

Of the many discoveries I made in that time, one in particular stands out as the greatest. Despite the hours spent climbing over haystacks, walking the trenches of dry canal beds, spooking weasels and partridge, mice and pheasants, the greatest discovery I ever made was that of a lone tree standing in a dirt patch on the edge of civilization between the last farm field and an expanse of high desert scrub. What made the discovery of this tree so special was that at the time I discovered it, it was bearing fruit, and being the unprepared youth that I was, I never brought food with me on my expeditions and was always famished by the time I returned home. Here, then, was this tree.

The encroaching fall had begun stripping the foliage from its branches, and each limb was laden with the ripe and untouched ornaments of its yield. I hardly dared touch it for fear that the fruit might be poisonous. I had never actually seen such a tree, and considering the virgin status of the fruit I knew I needed to proceed with caution. I thought a long time about whether I should risk it. The hike back home was easily an hour. If I were to end up sick there was nothing between me and rescue at the end of that long walk. But the temptation was so great that in the moment I embraced the failures in the Great Garden of legend and indulged the sins of my forebears.

Reaching into the branches of that tree my fingers slid around the smooth skin of one of the red fruits and pulled gently to dislodge it from its anchor. I brought it to my face and studied the dull, waxen coloration. It looked like a plum. My stomach rumbled, apparently encouraged to take the risk for its potential reward. Still, I wasn’t a fool. I pierced the skin of the fruit with my thumb and tasted the juice that broke through. It was devilishly sweet. Emboldened to continue I bit through the skin and took some of the flesh of the fruit into my mouth. Still sweet – it was a plum. It had to be a plum! I took the chance further, eating more of the plum until it was gone. I plucked another. To be rewarded for having taken a journey, and for having found at the end of the road a harvest of sweet plums, a treasure perfect at the apex of my travels, was the greatest prize of any of those years prior.

I am reminded when I think of this story that the creative life is also travel. At times we are thirsty and starved, with many more miles to go. But we began the trip for the purpose of discovery, and the rewards often surprise us. When I am in the midst of this travel, be it via essay, story, poem, or painting, I am aware that the rewards are all around, like the fruit of that plum tree, waiting to be discovered by a traveler who had the will to find it.

This is what I seek as a creative; the unexpected treasure at the apex of a long and committed journey.

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