I had a fairly intense experience recently involving the intersection of art, spirituality, and drugs. The context: I have multiple artistic projects in motion right now which occupy a great deal of my mental energy. Each of these projects has faced a number of significant hurdles that I have had difficulty facing, and a recent candyflip provided an opportunity to examine these projects from a different point of view.
One of these projects is called CHERUB – the Vampire with Bunny Slippers (http://www.cautionzero.net/cherub/), a slapstick parody of Joss Whedon’s television show Angel. We’ve been releasing 4-7 minute episodes on the net for several weeks now, and working very hard to promote it with limited resources. My friend Stephen started a company called Caution Zero Network to help produce and distribute shows like this. My role as writer/director is limited simply to content production; I just make art, having proven a long time ago that I’m not particularly capable of managing a business. The challenge with this project is that a lot of creative effort goes into producing these shows, and we’re not sure if it’s worth investing in doing more of this one, or switching to doing something completely original that can’t get pigeon-holed as a “fan film,” but might also have an even harder time finding an audience.
Another project is an original role-playing game I’ve been leading for over a year now, based on a science fiction novel I wrote called interlace [falling star] (http://storage.comfortradio.org/Interlace_FallingStar.PDF). The game has reached Act Three, and I’ve been struggling mightily with the fact that the players are reaching a part of the game where free will is rapidly diminishing. The characters are currently escorting a mysterious woman on a tour through a set of divine realms that maps to the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, and as such, the metaphorical context is rich and engaging; but because I have a storytelling goal in mind for the game, at some point, the game will become a movie that the characters simply watch, and that’s become a point of frustration.
These projects and others consume a great amount of mental energy and actual time in my schedule, which occasionally creates conflict if I want to stay connected to my wife and my friends. Recently an opportunity to candyflip presented itself, and I chose to go ahead with it even though I would need to stay awake and drive to a noon singing rehearsal the next day; I wanted to show discipline to the members of that group, and couldn’t justify an all-night party as an excuse to cancel.
That night, we had an opportunity to view some fairly incredible art. The first thing we looked at was a video game called Katamari Damarcy (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0002Y2XXQ/), an absurdist masterpiece. In this crazy game, the King of All Cosmos has apparently knocked the stars out of the sky in a fit, and has sent you, the Prince, to go make new stars, which you do by rolling a sticky ball around and collecting things. The ball starts out small, but eventually grows to such a size that you can roll over people, buildings, and other parts of the landscape. When the ball reaches a sufficient size – and the King is constantly exhorting you to “just get it bigger!” – he will pluck it from you and put it into the sky. There’s nothing to shoot at and no villains to fight, although the people you run over do scream a bit.
We then watched a beautifully poetic film called Ashes and Snow (http://www.ashesandsnow.org/). The filmmaker, Gregory Colbert, traveled the world to capture scenes of elephants, tigers, whales, eagles, and other great animals interacting with people in a variety of contexts – swimming, dancing, praying. Ashes and Snow was a deep meditation on the delicate balance of nature; the watchfulness of the elephant who sleeps with one eye open “to best keep watch over us” is reminiscent of the spirit of aikido, a peaceful martial art I’ve been training in, and the whole movie generates both a celebratory quality and a stillness. We also watched Alex Grey’s new DVD, Worldspirit (http://basementshaman.com/worldspirit.html), allowing us a chance to see his paintings projected at a large size. From the fairly apocalyptic view of his earlier works to the complex depictions of the mysterium tremendum in later works, it seems hard to argue with Grey’s depiction of the spiritual underpinning of reality. And we watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (http://imdb.com/title/tt0338013/), a complicated tale addressing issues of identity and morality, examining the consequences of what your life might be like if you could erase a person from your memory – which felt curiously resonant given that the main character in my role-playing game and novel is a woman with amnesia searching for her own identity.
Experiencing such wonderful art, as well as experiencing such wonderful community with my friends that night, I was left to meditate on my own projects, and put them in a new perspective. When I was younger, I would use acid experiences to help generate story ideas, but now I found myself evaluating much bigger questions – the context of art, the reasons why art is important, the things that motivate me to create specific things. Each project seemed to have its own end in sight. If my role-playing game was no longer working, then I needed to bring it to an end; I saw a clear method for how I could end it right after the next session. I had still managed to deliver 3/4 of the story as a complex game, and if the whole story couldn’t be told that way, I could still be satisfied with achieving most of my goals. If CHERUB was too much work for too little return, then I should stop doing it, and free up resources to make something new; and besides, after seeing something as powerful as Ashes and Snow, it seemed clear that CHERUB was simply a trifle. It all seemed so clear and so painless; the candyflip was helping me process the notion that these projects all had natural next steps, and I shouldn’t stay so attached to what I had hoped the outcome would be. Besides, in the context of something as beautiful as Ashes and Snow, what was the true value of something as silly as a parody like CHERUB?
I went to my singing rehearsal the next day, still feeling a glow, but as I began driving home, it was time to start integrating the messages from the night before. Normally I don’t experience a “down” after doing MDMA, but this time, I noticed a severe depression settle in, which stuck with me for several days. My sober self wasn’t at all happy with any of the conclusions I’d reached so peacefully during my candyflip experience. I had worked a very long time on that game, and began to feel that I would be cheating the players and cheating myself by not fighting through to a creative solution for the ending. I had also worked very hard on CHERUB, and had been looking forward to doing another set of episodes, pushing the boundaries of how funny and how absurdist we could be; why was I so willing to walk away and just let it dissipate? And besides, why compare CHERUB to Ashes and Snow – why not compare it to the absurd delight of Katamari Damarcy, where the pleasure comes from the sheer comedy of how improbable it all is?
It almost seemed as though the candyflip had shown me that living as an artist without attachment to these specific projects might somehow be more peaceful, less conflicted. But my dissatisfaction with the idea of walking away from these projects before I was truly finished with them was demonstrating to me an ingrained discipline, and it was that insight that enabled me to redouble my efforts – to finish the game as best as I can, to make better videos and tell funnier stories with CHERUB. Later that week, I had a breakthrough while writing the game, a breakthrough that came from the sheer discipline of sitting back down to work. And coincidentally, that same night, I had a passing conversation with Stephen; I had feared that he considered CHERUB a failure because it hadn’t been an overwhelming success, but he pointed out that 1500 downloads a week was hardly failure, and he seemed ready to make a go at a better second season. I don’t know why, but right at that moment, it was the exact encouragement I needed.
The candyflip had energized me but in a roundabout way. Eternal Sunshine and Ashes and Snow are epic works of genius, inspirational sign posts that help me move forward. I wrestle with my own mediocrity all the time, but that’s just the way I try to grow myself as an artist – study the masters, try to figure it out, and do the best I can. I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I was the kind of person who could just walk away from difficult projects with difficult problems, and in this case it was a candyflip that helped remind me of what was important.