I started reading Just Kids yesterday afternoon, when Jimmy went to get his hair cut. 

I kept reading through the Astros’ World Series game against the Atlanta Braves and what I thought would be a constant interruption—Halloween trick-or-treaters. But the doorbell only rang once the entire night, enabling me to stay immersed in the story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance. My eyes were hurting and my vision was fuzzy when I finished it this morning. 

I get why it won the National Book Award. I was and am still unfamiliar with most of Patti Smith’s body of work. Now I know she is, first and foremost, a poet. There is so much great writing in the book, my usual habit of highlighting good lines would’ve rendered whole pages yellow.

I knew almost nothing about Robert Mapplethorpe either, except that I had once looked at his work and found some of his photographs too disturbing to face. In the book, Patti mentions feeling the same way about some of his work. “I admired him for it, but I could not comprehend the brutality. It was hard for me to match it with the boy I had met.” 

The boy she had met, in Tompkins Square Park in New York City when they were both around 20 years old, was kind and caring. He had been raised in a cold, non-communicative Catholic family. His dad wanted him to either enter the military or become a graphic designer. Robert knew he was an artist and rejected those paths. 

Patti has a reverential attitude toward artists. During childhood, her family made exactly one visit to an art museum together (there were 4 kids and her parents didn’t have a lot of money). Afterward, she felt changed. She wanted to be an artist, but she had a private concern. She mentioned a movie, The Song of Bernadette. She was “struck that the young saint did not ask to be called. It was the mother superior who desired sanctity, even as Bernadette, a humble peasant girl, became the chosen one. This worried me. I wondered if I had really been called as an artist. I didn’t mind the misery of a vocation but I dreaded not being called.” 

In their sweet, youthful relationship, Patti and Robert took care of each other. Even after they realized they were heading in different directions, they vowed to continue supporting each other until they both could stand on their own. They would draw, side by side, in their apartment, for hours at a time and into the night. Together, they shopped for dimestore trinkets and found “trash” that was elevated to treasure in Robert’s early collages. 

An especially enjoyable aspect of the book is the building suspense regarding how and when he would finally begin taking photographs and she would begin writing songs and performing with a band.

Interestingly, while he was making extremely provocative and polarizing work, Robert was urging Patti not to make work that was too confrontational or controversial. He wanted her to make hits–“music he could dance to”–and be successful. 

After they both had achieved some success, they had a joint gallery show of their work. For the show, they made a short film, in which Patti shared an idea that she and Robert had often discussed: 

“The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.” 

I was glad she mentioned this, because I’ve always wondered if it’s “natural” that one has to actually make the art. Shouldn’t it just appear, effortlessly? But that would require magic, right? So, I’ve always arrived at the same conclusion: apparently you do have to actually do the messy, real-world work of making the art. But reading the above quote was reassuring. 

When I finished the book and closed it, I resented having to re-enter normal life. I wanted to stay in the world she created. 

There are more passages I want to share, but I’ll choose just one. I hope it’s okay that I’m sharing it. It’s her description of having seen a swan when she was very young:

“The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage.

Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky. 

The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings. 

The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find the words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.” 

Just Kids is, for me, like that swan was for her. It’s magnificent, and it evokes a curious yearning—the desire to be able to express myself the way she learned to do.

https://courtneydanielsfilms.com/uncategorized/2516/

“Val”

Paramount/Kobal/REX/ShutterstockPhoto credit: Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

We liked Val Kilmer’s film about his life, Val. Have you seen it?

After watching it, I wondered, Why was that film so compelling?

To start, people who’ve experienced tremendous success are almost always of interest, right? Anyone who has scaled the mountain of their profession, not to mention managing to stay on top for a long time, is different than most people. We can’t help but be curious about how they did something that most people haven’t figured out how to do.

Movie stars are usually of interest, too, of course. You can’t help but wonder what it’s like to be them. And almost everyone wants at least one of the things they have: money, status, power or influence, or a great social life and unique experiences. But we also want to see if we don’t want what they have. Maybe we’re hoping it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, so that we don’t have to experience the discomfort of envying them. 

In fact, there are aspects of Kilmer’s current situation that are not enviable. If he were now a gently worn but easily recognizable version of the handsome, successful person he was when he was young and if he had had a relatively easy last couple of decades, a film about his life would possibly just be a victory lap. But because he has experienced significant setbacks, some of which have possibly been caused in part by his own actions and choices, he is a touching figure.

To me, the most impactful thing about the film is that he’s in a more difficult situation than most but he’s happier than many. 

He has said, “I feel wonderful, despite how I sound.” (You’ll find out what he’s referring to when you see the film.) Throughout it, his joie de vivre, gratitude for his family, and appreciation of the unique experiences he’s had are evident.

Another thing that makes the film compelling is that, because he has so much footage, from early childhood to later adulthood, you see his life play out before your eyes. It’s so rare to see the full sweep of someone’s existence on this planet, it’s awe-inspiring. It’s hard not to use the word “epic”—to describe anyone’s life, no matter the person has had a big life or not. The passage of time alone is epic. 

And the fact that we’re heading toward the same destiny unites us all. Whether you’ve played Batman or dated Cher or not, you’re going to die. Eventually, we all will be old, we all will have endured unimaginable losses, we all will exhibit physical wear and tear, and we all will face our mortality. As you look at footage of Val when he was young, all the way up to how and where he is today, you can’t help but think of your own youth, your own middle age, and your own imminent old age. You can’t help but think about your own life choices and what has gone well and what hasn’t. You can’t help but think of your own attitude and outlook when you witness his. 

Some things that elevate the film:

The drama of really good luck and really bad luck. 
The way he has turned his photos, experiences and memories into art, in the form of scrapbooks and more. 
The imaginative editing of the section about his mom, after her passing. 
His colorful and creative self-expression, through art, his choice of work projects, and what he wears. 
The contribution of his son, who is a talented narrator and whose voice adds warmth. 
His revelation about attending autograph signing events.
His ability to forgive and accept others. 
His exuberant love of his children. 
His experience of grace. 
The ‘closing statements’ he makes in the final moments of the film.​

After seeing Val, I felt like I had been transported on a journey of an alternative life I might’ve had. I felt like I understood more about the human condition for having walked in his shoes.

And I felt the full force of the miracle of life, that we each experience: great tragedy, incredible luck, overwhelming experiences of love, and the surreal drama of being on this plane of existence for a finite period of time.

The film offers everything I could want in a work of art.

If you’ve seen it, I’m curious to hear what part in particular stood out to you. Please let me know in the Comments.

xo,
Courtney


p.s. You can stream Val on Amazon Prime.

Who do you want to become?

Every time I hear “Hello” by Adele, I’m amused by the line, “It’s no secret that the both of us are running out of time.” (Here, at the 3:40 mark.)

How could she and her ex be running out of time? The album was called “25” because that’s how old she was when she wrote those songs. Obviously, at 25, you’ve got lots of time! 

Alright, whatever. It’s an incredible song and that line adds urgency and gravitas to it. Fine. 

Moving on. The other day I was sitting here on my couch thinking about how digital courses enable you to share knowledge with lots of people, efficiently, and they can be big money-makers. Then I thought about what a pain in the ass it would be to make a digital course. And that’s when it hit me: 

Probably you never get extraordinary results without an extraordinary amount of effort. 

Put another way, an ordinary amount of effort will likely only get you ordinary results. 

(But if you know someone who has attained extraordinary results with an ordinary amount of effort, hit “Reply”! Lol.)

Of course, “extraordinary effort” doesn’t necessarily mean a hellish sprint. An extraordinary effort can be a long, slow process of working day in and day out. THAT’S what’s extraordinary: Staying with it. Persevering. Making tiny progress on a project bit by bit. And then, usually, having binge work sessions toward the end, as you’re finishing it.

But getting back to the topic of age: For me, the overwhelming experience of middle age is endlessly debating whether it’s worth it to make an extraordinary effort.

Should I knock myself out? Why? What is my motivation exactly? Will I get the results I want? If the odds of success are 50/50, or worse, should I knock myself out anyway? 

I know, you’re not supposed to care about the results. “It’s not what you get that makes you happy, it’s who you become.” 

Who do you want to become? 

Decide what identity you want, says Atomic Habits author James Clear. Focusing on the identity you want inspires you to commit to the habits that’ll get you there.

It’s not good to start asking yourself whether this or that is worth making the effort for. You end up walking in circles. 

Better to take action, toward something. Anything, honestly. 

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. 

Don’t think about whether you’re in the mood. 

Just do it. 

Because—and yes, I’m going to say it—

It’s no secret that the both of us are running out of time. 

How to get through “the Dip”

I think the secret to enjoying the second half of life is learning new things.

Seth Godin says before you commit to learning something new, you have to decide whether you’re willing to get through “the Dip.” The Dip is the most difficult part of the journey, in which you’ll be tempted to give up. 

So how do you get through the Dip? It’s like Jeff Bridges’ response to people who want to know how to stay married for as long as he and his wife have: “Don’t get divorced.” The way to make it through the Dip is to not give up. 

Sounds easy. But it’s not. Just like staying married sounds easy, but sometimes it’s not.

During the past year, while taking painting classes with a group of people online, I privately announced to myself, at least 1000 times, that I was going to quit. 

I was on an emotional rollercoaster and I wanted off. 

When you’re learning a new skill and you’re in the Dip, you tell yourself, “Maybe I don’t really care about this after all. I thought I did. I mean, sometimes I do. But no—I don’t.”

This is b.s., of course. You do care. It’s just hard and you want to bail.

So, I was revising my stance on painting every other day.

“Making movies is my top priority. Art is a distant second.”

“Yeah, I’ve always painted, but so what? I don’t have to attain mastery. I’ll just keep winging it.”

“The problem is, I don’t really CARE about knowing how to paint. I don’t even know why I’m here or how I got here. It’s possible I bought a thousand dollars’ worth of art supplies just to avoid writing.” 

In fact, filmmaking is my top priority. But I still want to know how to paint. Even if I didn’t want to admit that on the bad days.

The bad days usually occur during the ugly “middles.”

The start of a painting is exciting. When you tone the canvas and map the composition, you’re full of hope and optimism. But as you move forward, you are bound to enter an ugly middle stage in which your painting is not looking so hot and you don’t know what you’re doing and you have no idea how you’re going to get out alive. 

It’s tempting to give up when you’re in the ugly middle stage of a painting.

But if you have grit, you keep going. And if you keep going, you develop even more grit. Sometimes you turn a corner quickly, and the painting starts to look good. But often not. For me, it’s usually touch and go until the very end. There’ve been times where I’ve wanted to throw in the towel even when I’m just a session away from finishing a painting!

To help you get through the Dip, you should take a class. Here’s why: 

1) Knowing that you have class on Tuesday, say, builds accountability into your practice and gives you a pressing reason to try “one more time” to finish that hideous painting you’re stuck on. You have to present SOMETHING, and it may as well be that painting, otherwise you gotta start a new painting. And you can’t do that, because you’ve already started 25 paintings that you’ve abandoned. Stacks of shitty paintings you didn’t get very far into are all over your house. Even you have to admit it’s time to finish something. 

2) Learning with a group fosters camaraderie. You’re in the trenches (the Dip) together! It’s fun to commiserate and share triumphs together, and it’s great to have people who’ll talk you off the ledge when you want to jump. When you’re down, someone else is up, and they will josh you out of your foul mood. You’ll do the same for them when they are losing faith. Plus, it takes time to become good. It’s a long haul. A slog. So, you’re going to want some company on the journey. And it’s nearly impossible to stay focused and determined over months and months without some kind of support, structure and accountability. 

3) For the same reason Alcoholics Anonymous is effective, seeing others who’ve done this difficult thing makes you think that maybe you can do this difficult thing, too. When you see your classmates steadily improve, it tells you, or your subconscious, that you will improve over time, too. 

4) Having an instructor give you assignments, lessons, and constructive criticism is key. Even if you tend to be a lone wolf and are self-directed and self-motivated, you might not be challenging yourself to do deliberate practice. Working alone, I had plateaued. For years! I didn’t realize what I needed was a TEACHER. Duh! And obviously, the better the teacher, the better your progress. (I started with “Oil Painting – Flow and Fluency,” from Kimberly Brooks, who is one of the best communicators I’ve ever encountered. Can’t recommend her enough.)

Here’s a description of a typical struggle in the Dip:

During one painting session, in which I was trying to paint a macaron, I kept saying, “I can’t do it! I quit!” And I’d jump up to go look for something to eat in the fridge. I was miserable. But I was so antsy, I couldn’t even eat. So, I would rush back to my chair, before I could change my mind, saying, “I’m going to try one more time!” I did this a few times, til finally, I stepped back from my work and was surprised to see my macaron looked almost real. It felt like a miracle. (My macaron is pictured at the top of this post.)

My younger sister, who is an educator, has since told me that that moment of intense discomfort when you’re about to learn something, and grow, is called “the zone of proximal development.”

A bigger miracle: Recently, I made it through the Dip. I know the exact moment it occurred. 

I had just finished a portrait of Blondie. The portrait is not perfect. But it’s not about that. And it’s not about my being proficient now. I’m not. It has nothing to do with whether I think I’m “good” or whether you think I’m good. What changed is that I no longer think it’s impossible to become good. I finally banked enough experiences of struggling terribly then making it to the other side such that I now trust that if I just keep at it, I WILL make it to the other side.

It feels so good to be out of the Dip. It seriously almost did me in. I could’ve quit at any moment. 

How do we find it in ourselves to keep on going, to make it through the Dip? Maybe it only happens when we really, really want what is on the other side. 

Blondie. Oil on canvas. 20 x 16 in.

The solution to chronic pain!

If you’ve been caught in the hellish cycle of chronic pain (ongoing back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, IBS, tongue pain (yes, this is possible!), mouth pain, eye pain, etc.), it may surprise you to learn that there’s likely nothing wrong with your body.

You are not damaged and you likely don’t have a life-threatening problem, despite serious-sounding diagnoses received from doctors or what x-rays show.

In fact, the author estimates that 90% of pain is not structural but neuroplastic. (!!)

“Normally, the brain gets signals from throughout the body and processes them. If the body experiences an injury, the brain generates a feeling of pain. But sometimes the system goes haywire. Sometimes the ‘pain switch’ in our brains can get stuck in the on position and cause chronic pain. We call this neuroplastic pain.”

“Fear fuels the brain’s mistakes and leads to an endless loop called the pain-fear cycle. Believing your body is damaged feeds into that fear and keeps the pain stuck.”

You are particularly at risk of developing chronic pain if you are a worrier or a ruminator, if you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be perfect, or if you tend to be critical of yourself.

When you have chronic pain, your world gets smaller and smaller—you become more and more focused on avoiding pain, and you do less of the things you love, for fear of exacerbating the pain.

If you are over it, and you are desperate to enjoy life again, get this book here. (Don’t like to read? Get the audio version!)

My new motto!

I think this holiday season really snuck up on people, because so far we’ve only received one card. From Dr. Bernard Markowitz. (A cosmetic surgeon who told me, in a consult, that my face is asymmetrical. Happy Hanukkah to you, too, Dr. Markowitz!)

Recently, I was sitting on my couch, fixated on the sensation of acid creeping up into my throat, because apparently I have GERD, and I thought about how stress was likely the cause. And it occurred to me, for the millionth time, that there’s really no good reason to feel stress. Because if times are good, you should be happy, and if times aren’t good, you’re undoubtedly growing. Suffering always leads to greater wisdom and compassion. “Pain is the gift no one wants”! In fact, some of the most memorably beautiful moments of my life have occurred when I was going through some kind of hell.

Anyway, while having these thoughts, I stumbled upon a new life philosophy. A new motto! And this motto is so good, it makes me wish I were a player in the jam-packed Online Motivational Coaching Space. Because any life coach worth their salt has a sticky tagline. But enough preamble, I’m gonna lay it on you:

Look forward to EVERYTHING. Even the “bad.”

Right?! I mean, how much better would life be if we didn’t worry about the future, didn’t dread anything, and instead eagerly anticipated EVERYTHING, even the bad, knowing that the bad, especially, will lead to awesome insights, connection to others, and our personal development?!

Excited, I wrote this new motto on an index card, and I look at it occasionally. Has it stopped me from experiencing stress? Fuck no. But maybe it’s because I don’t look at it often enough. I need to move it to my nightstand.

If you find this motto–“Look forward to EVERYTHING. (Even the “bad.”)–comforting, I’d be thrilled. Because that’s what I really care about: “Adding value,” as people in the Online Motivational Coaching Space say!

If you think a friend would find this comforting or helpful, please consider sharing it. Thanks!

Do we want kids to be consumers or creators?

Most kids are basic. Trend followers who buy what everyone else is buying, watch what everyone else is watching, and look at what all the popular people are posting. Same with a lot of adults, obviously. It’s natural to have tastes that are similar to your peers and to want to fit in. But should we support kids’ urge to simply be consumers of culture rather than creators of culture?

Instead of challenging them to make or do cool things, we often just agree to take them to cool locations so that they can take endless pics of themselves. Which will lead to what, exactly?

Creating worthwhile things and leading others forces kids to think. And encouraging them to do this forces us to think. Because in order to lure them out of their culture-consuming zombie state, we gotta be really clever. We gotta inspire and motivate them.

Or maybe we don’t?!

Maybe we just have to ban screen time for an hour or two and let them get bored. Give them drawing supplies. A musical instrument. A cookbook. Or even a little creative assignment.

“Invent a new recipe.”

“Create a vision board.”

“Write a 2-page screenplay and shoot it with your phone.”

“Compose some music on GarageBand.”

“Draw your dream bedroom.”

“Come up with 2 minutes of standup comedy material.”

“Think of a problem lots of people deal with and come up with a solution.”

“Think of a business you’d like to start.”

“Think of a change you’d like to see happen and how to get people on board.”

I have often mindlessly indulged kids. Either because I’m a people-pleaser and don’t want to deal with pushback, or because I relate to their desire for status (thus, IG posts that telegraph “My life is dope and I do dope shit”). But starting now, I am going to challenge myself to challenge kids more. They are worth the effort.

kids creativity good parenting parting tips parenting advicecreativity 

What type of work should you be doing?

I like career tests almost as much as I like personality quizzes*. And yesterday I stumbled on a really good one! The Sparketype Test.

The guy who created it, Jonathan Fields, has a podcast called the Good Life Project. He has interviewed all the usual suspects (another Brene Brown/Seth Godin/Elizabeth Gilbert interview, anyone? Sure. Why not? I always learn something new). I like his gentle, seemingly ego-free personality and the questions he asks guests. He always ends with, “When you hear the phrase ‘good life’–‘live a good life’–what does that mean to you?” GOOD QUESTION!

He’s worked with tons of people on finding meaning and purpose, particularly as it pertains to work, and after seeing patterns emerge again and again, he came up with a test for helping people identify the type of work that “lights them up” (thus, “Sparketype”).

I already know what kind of work I love. The reason I know, for sure, is because each time I finish shooting something, I make a list of other things I like to do that would be easier and likely more profitable, but I never can commit to doing any of them, so I suck it up and start writing the next script. But I can’t resist a self-test, so I took it. And I found the questions really interesting, and sort of surprising.

He has categorized types of work in a unique way, that I’d never thought about til I saw the phrasing of the questions on the self-test.

Before you take it, he tells you to answer honestly–don’t pick responses that reflect how you’d like to be, or how you think you should be. I was glad he said this, because I might’ve been tempted to side with some of the more altruistic statements in the test. Even though I of course like helping others, it turns out this is not my driver regarding work. In his follow-up “Sparketype Mastery Guide”–which I bought, because I’m a schmuck–he explains why this is not something to feel bad about.

If you take the free quiz, let me know what Sparketype you are. Mine is “The Maker” (making ideas manifest) and my secondary/shadow Sparketype is “The Maven” (driven to learn). Your secondary Sparketype is not necessarily a type of work you should pursue but instead an activity you probably perform “in service to” your primary Sparketype (i.e., I learn about a particular topic so that I can make better things).

If you don’t want to miss any posts, please click the Subscribe button. If you know someone who would enjoy these posts, please share my site with them. Thank you!

https://www.goodlifeproject.com/sparketest/

*The two best personality tests ever:

  • Gretchen Rubin’s “The Four Tendencies” (apparently, most people are either a Questioner or an Obliger. The rarer types are Upholders and Rebels. Rubin has figured out how to work around the challenges you face, depending on your type, so that you can attain any goal, finishing whatever you start): https://quiz.gretchenrubin.com/four-tendencies-quiz/

3 things that have been a surprise to me

Over the last two years that I’ve been shooting without a crew, I’ve been surprised by three things:

  1. If there is anything you really wish you knew how to do, it is possible to learn it. I spent almost the last two decades thinking I was not the kind of person who could learn how to operate a camera, light a scene, record sound and edit footage. I’ve never been a tech-y person. When I was in my 20s, my then 8yo sister sat down with a new digital watch and changed all of the settings herself, and I was amazed. But the cliche is true. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
  2. The dread I felt about learning new, “difficult” things was unfounded. Going outside of your comfort zone, taking the risk of looking dumb, being willing to suck at something when you are in that icky-feeling “just getting started” phase–it’s unnerving but it’s also exhilarating. You feel ALIVE. Like anything is possible. You suddenly have a vehicle to get you from here to THERE.
  3. Another thing that has surprised me is that, when you are completely immersed in learning something new or having fun using your newfound skills, it crowds out a lot of your bad habits. You don’t spend nearly as much time worrying, looking at your phone, being concerned about what others think, and otherwise wasting precious time.
  4. Okay, wait, there’s a 4th thing, and it’s the most surprising of all:  There comes a day when you look up and all of these activities that used to intimidate the hell out of you have become part of your daily routine.

Currently, I’m in a comfort zone again, somewhat. And once again, I don’t want to stretch and feel the discomfort of trying new things, to get to the next level.

!!!

I guess that’s just a testament to how hard it is to fight inertia.

When you think of the times in which you learned a new skill or pushed yourself to do something challenging, is it gratifying? Do you feel proud?

There’s a saying: “All happiness is growth.”

Maybe not ALL happiness is growth. But arguably progress is one of the most gratifying things we can experience, including observing it in others. For example, it’s really great to see a child you love overcome some difficulty or learn something new.

 

 

Saying “no, thanks” to reality

After experiencing a major setback early in life, why do some people scale back their expectations or even shrink from life while others go for broke?

The other night we watched the documentary above, about the Broadway production of the musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” by Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, in the early 80s. I had read that it was about “how we frame success and failure,” which is what made me want to see it.

In the film, director Lonny Price talks about how, growing up, he was not good at sports and did not fit in at school. When he took drama class, he found his place. At summer camp, he played the original cast recording of the Broadway musical, “Company,” so incessantly that everyone in his cabin memorized it. He remarked, “Somewhere in America there’s a 55-year-old divorce lawyer who can sing every verse of ‘Another Hundred People’ flawlessly. Whether he wants to or not.”

The idea of these 14-year-old boys at camp being subjected to a showtunes album just because Lonny loved it so much killed me.

Also, people who look at regular, normal life and say, “No, thanks” and immerse themselves in a world that is more to their liking, like musical theater (playing dress-up and make-believe)–that fascinates me.

We also watched the new documentary, “Jerry Before Seinfeld.” In it, Jerry says that when he was young, he bought all the hit comedy albums, and when he graduated high school and learned from friends that there was a growing comedy club scene in New York, he said, “Oh, I want to be in that world. I don’t want to be in the real world.”

I just realized that my way of opting out of the real world, when I was young, was to read books. Now it’s making movies and web series with friends. And I want to do that–“be in that world”–as often as possible.