On Noodling

photo-14Some artists want credit for every note, brush stroke, or word. Others see themselves as instruments of random instructions from the ether. For every Elizabeth Bishop, Bridget Riley, or Johann Bach there is a Charles Bukowski, Sam Francis, or John Cage. But most artists land between extremes, negotiating control and surprise anew each time, hoping to make peace between intentions and possibilities along the way.

I’m no Frank O’Hara or Jackson Pollock. I appreciate spontaneous, idiosyncratic expression, but hoping perspective and voice will carry me through every project—that just being myself and “doing what I do” will be enough—brings me face-to-face with my finitude. I imitate myself.  The accidental becomes incidental, the choice becomes a choice, another manifestation of familiar, eventually parodic, technique.

It’s hard to imagine Hemingway writing without his characteristic economy—and the influence of his style is impossible to measure—but I’ve long suspected his voice was his undoing. Artists working in a personal mode chafe against it eventually. After a career of writing spare, imagistic poetry, William Carlos Williams turned expansionist. Each time others settled on a definition of Picasso’s approach, he looked anew. I’d rather not be myself all the time.

Sunflowers copyYet exclusive attention to innovation, improvisation, and play—to being someone different each time out—seems no answer either.

This summer, I’ve been fooling around with iOrnament, an app for iPad. It works with the various forms of symmetry (apparently, there are mathematically only seven—who knew?), and the program allows anyone to transform a simple design into something dramatic as one basic line or shape or form or space radiates, mirrors, reverses, flips, and proliferates. I’ve experimented endlessly, playing “What if?” with bright or dull, variably saturated, thick and thin, blurry and sharp lines. I’ve tried something new with every attempt and created interesting fabrics and/or wrapping paper. Each time I’ve asked how much is me and how much is iOrnament making it easy to shake out possibilities until something hits. In other terms, what do I learn?

Paradoxically, taking a new route each time out can become as safe and devastating as using your one voice and one perspective. Improvisation excuses me from deliberation or consequence.

At her readings in the eighties, one of my poetry teachers used to crumple her work up and toss it at her audience, shouting, “Poetry to throw away! Poetry to throw away!” The audience obliged. The difference between innovation and gimmick is a lasting result, repeatability that opens new and viable roads of expression—new ways of doing—instead of achieving pure novelty.

image-4I like looking at what I produce on iOrnament but never feel responsible for it.

In the memoir Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, Mark Salzman describes his high school experimentation with Jazz cello, his (often high) application of years of cello instruction to produce wild and brilliant (at least from his perspective) musical inventions. After a summer of relentless noodling, his nearly infinitely patient social worker father puts an end to the noise in a moment of released fury, finally calling Mark’s music what he hears, “Bullshit.”

Progress in art means recognizing what happened last time, avoiding it, extending it, amending it to locate something fresh. I’m not sure what will happen to all I’ve produced in iOrnament other than decorating this post and stuffing the memory of my iPad. Eventually, I’ll have to decide what’s worth keeping and what the program teaches me, what it might help me do with my real art.

An artist who studies his or her work may seem to violate spontaneity and creating “in the moment,” but anyone initiating inspiring (and not so inspiring) approaches  stretches to greater altitude. Focusing and developing  talents, an artist diversifies techniques and adds to the range of methods available and discovers how to apply them.

Be relentlessly yourself or run away from yourself—you become stagnant either way. Look for a way to incorporate experimentation, you make what you learn a part of you.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, life, Meditations, Play, Revision, Thoughts, Visual Art, Voice, Work, Writing

5 responses to “On Noodling

  1. I LOVED this, David! I’ve been thinking about this very topic this past week. I happened on a book review (poetry), which led me to the poet’s site, where I was able to read from several chapbooks. At first I was intrigued and impressed with what I saw, because the poet used not only non-tradraditional form, she used very avant-garde ways/forms to convey her poems and while extremely clever, the poems quickly became tiresome– for what once seemed novel, now seemed gimicky, and what seemed deep, seemed formulated. I became disenchanted about ten poems in. Which pretty much echos what you stated regarding novelty, and that one must find new ways of doing, yet be true to ones voice. I think its safe to say that the poet I spoke of didn’t start out writing poems this way, and I got the sense that she was being true to her voice, but she had become trapped within the novelty of what she had discovered. There seems to be a very fine line here, and it’s difficult to know how far to cross it, if at all. I admit, I have different styles of poetry out there, lately I’ve been experimenting with forms, and I do wonder if one day (if Im ever prominent enough to matter), if someone would be able to recognize my work just from reading my work– because I’m always changing my work in an effort to *improve* it– or would the opposite happen? Would they recognize my work for its *lack* of voice? Maybe. But gimmicky– hopefully not.

    Lots to ponder here. Great post.

    • dmarshall58

      Between needing a consistent voice and needing variety, there seems no rest. I swing from one to the other. I want to speak as myself but then get bored with that. I experiment wildly and then think I’m just letting myself off the hook by doing something that only has to be complete. In my own case, I wish my desire for novelty inspired better work later. I wish I were more conscientious in thinking about what I’ve learned and how it might be useful later. An artist who relies on improvisation can be TOO unconscious. –D

  2. emitch

    Great food for thought. Someone far more cynical than I might observe that like the online universe itself, an app that doubles your stroke, mirrors your space, or yields an unintended pattern de nouveau, is a tantalizing surrogate for productivity or insight; another mode of blurring the contribution and dissemination offered by those with insight with those eager to be heard.

    Ideas I write down might be brilliant once I consider all the ways they could appear, doubled, reversed, and otherwise subject to formulae….blindly accepted, then transformed, by another.

    • dmarshall58

      Beautifully written, my friend.

      I’ve always had a distrust of electronic art. I know the skill in entails and, Lord knows, I have about a one-hundredth percent mastery of Illustrator programs that others do. At the same time, the surrogate hand isn’t my hand and somehow doesn’t feel (to me) as if it counts as much.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It always makes me happy to know you’re out there reading. –D

  3. Pingback: Poetics Serendipity | Margo Roby: Wordgathering

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