Will the New Year bring a new You?

Here are some thoughts for the New Year, as we prepare to reinvent ourselves in the form of New Year’s resolutions.

If you’ve been following me along this garden path for very long you will know that I get worked up about issues touching on the pressures that potters and artists experience. Really, anything that puts a limit on how we feel we are able to express ourselves. Among those pressures that put a burr under my collar is even what I would call “the pressure to conform to oneself”. Or, to put it another way, the pressure to have an identity and to stick with it, hell or high water, no matter what comes. In other words, no matter how much we ourselves may change or desire change.

Many artists don’t suffer this pressure and simply do whatever they want to do, growing and changing as they naturally evolve. Others are content with who they are and what they’ve got and don’t experience much in the way of wanderlust. But we can’t deny that the system where we practice our art in many cases does demand a trumped up consistency. The way it often gets talked about we are encouraged to think of consistency as a somehow natural or essential manifestation of our authenticity, brand, voice, or signature identity. It gets talked about as ‘owning what you do’, as if we can only own one particular thing. As if we only are one thing. And there is a world view that supports this notion of monadic self identity. In very few circumstances are we encouraged to jump the tracks. We are instead encouraged to be predictable.

And predictability is comforting. Predictability is safe. There is nothing inherently wrong with being predictable. But, on the other hand, its not the only way, and its not for every person. In recent days there has been some excellent thought on how necessary or even valid this picture ultimately is. In the last week in two days alone I found four separate blog posts that treat this question.

I will start with the inimitable Chuck Wendig’s post  “Authors: Don’t get burned by branding”:

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“Been thinking a bit about “brand” recently in terms of being an author.

For illumination, we turn briefly toward Wikipedia, that cultivated encyclopedia of the commons, and there we discover that the American Marketing Association defines branding as:

“Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.”

Of course, you might look to an older definition –

As a verb, you might mean, “To be marked with a branding iron.”

You might further look toward one of the synonyms of the word: “stigmatize.”

Suddenly, I’m thinking less about Coca-Cola and more about a white-hot iron pressing into a beast’s flesh, the fur smoldering, the skin charring, blisters popping up like the bubbles in bubble wrap.

Not coincidentally, I now want a hamburger and a cold glass of Coke.

But that’s really neither here nor there. What I’m trying to suss out is, where does this leave an author in terms of branding himself or being branded? Is this more a symbol of what the author represents to customers, or is it instead an indelible mark scorched into the author’s metaphorical flesh?

I gotta be honest: I’m starting to lean toward the crispy char-mark than the marketing strategy. Because here’s what can happen: you write a handful of books of one type, and then you, as an author seeking to explore new territory, seeking to grow and change and spread your penmonkey seed wings in other genres and styles and biblio-realms, discover that, uh-oh, you’ve been branded. You’re suddenly That Guy — you’re the Guy Who Writes Splatterpunk Horror or the Girl Who Writes Scientologist Steampunk Space Erotica, and soon as you want to do differently, even once, nobody wants to hear it. More specifically, publishers don’t want to publish it — you’ve got your niche, you’ve built your fence, so now isn’t the time to stray, little pony. Don’t make us get out the shock-prods. Bzzt.

That’s not a rail against specialization, mind you — you want to forever write Hard Sci-Fi in Epistolary Format, hey, fuck it, find your bliss, little word-herder. But the moment you want to do differently, you’re going to find that brand starts to itch and burn and next thing you know you’ve got the loop of a catch-pole tightening around your neck and dragging you back to where you came from.”

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We can see this pressure on potters as well. Take this excerpt from William Brouillard’s video:

“My work has been called eclectic, sometimes not in a nice way. I once sent a group of work to a gallery in Detroit. I was really proud of them. And again I like to work on a lot of different things. The gallery director sent some of the work back along with a note that says “This looks like the work of three or four different people, and I can’t show it together as the work of one person.” That really made me think for a while…. At the same time I learned that when I was a full-time studio person that the only way you could be happy in the studio was to deliberately incorporate change into your work. And that was the only thing that made full-time studio work really viable, that otherwise you would just stagnate and burn out. And I saw a lot of people that did that. They were commercially very successful, but they were so bored by what they were doing that for them working looked like it was painful.”

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Its true, often we do choose the course of consistency. But there are outside pressures that also bend us to this direction. We don’t always do it voluntarily, and we don’t always do it knowingly. Not knowing our other options its all too easy to acquiesce or turn a blind eye. But we are deceiving ourselves if we imagine that we aren’t being herded (as The Great Wendig puts it) by shock-prods and catch-poles. Sometimes its a stick, sometimes its a carrot. Sometimes its a sweet lullaby that soothes us, and sometimes its a strong narcotic. ‘Incentive’ comes in many forms, often most insidiously by calling it ‘the truth’, ‘fate’, ‘inescapable nature’, or accepting without question, taking for granted, and simply toeing the line….

So I would still question how necessary or even important this devotion actually is. The outside pressures can be overwhelming, and fair enough if we agree to play the game according to those rules. But sometimes we rationalize that things work out this way because of some internal determinism. Are we being true to ‘ourselves’ by manifesting our work only according to one voice, one brand, one signature style? The easy answer is “yes”, but it may not be the correct answer. For instance, conformity may have as much or more to do with familiarity and habit than anything else, and I’m not sure the folks pushing the ‘authenticity’ agenda have only that in mind.

Lets take a quick look. Here are some of the other things that flashed by my inbox last week:

“We sleep, and believe we wake with the minds we carried into bed with us, bearing them as a bride borne in her groom’s arms, the lifted, the treasured, the threshold flier; so we believe.
But we do not. That weary mind has been dispersed in sleep, its myriad parts left behind on the tracks, lying upon the infinite concrete ties between endless, gleaming steel rails.
We wake, and compose for ourselves a new mind (if some other does not compose it for us), a mind compounded of such parts of the old one as we can discover, and of dreams, and of odd snatches of memory—something read long, long ago, possibly something sprung into thought from a tele listing, the skewed description of a better presentation, the show as it existed in Platonic space. From such trifles as these and more we construct a new mind and call it our own.”  —Gene Wolfe, Home Fires (2011)

“The derivation of the word ‘character’ comes from an ancient Greek term referring to the indelible marks stamped on coins. Once character was pressed into your mind or soul, people assumed it was fixed. But what modern science repeatedly shows is that this just isn’t the case…. [E]veryone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted.”  ~ David DeSteno

“Personal identity is, strictly speaking, nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there. That means we’re forever changing.”  ~ Julian Baggini

This last was excerpted from the fascinating video below:

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And if that’s not enough to cast suspicion on our sense of undeniable fixed identity, here’s yet another way that we are perpetually divided, even against our own selves:

“We don’t actually choose between experiences but between memories of experiences. Even when we think about the future we don’t think about the future as normal experiences, we think about the future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this as a tyranny of the remembering self and you can think of the remembering self as dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.”   –Daniel Kahneman, from the fascinating video below:

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And last but not least, this tidbit from the author Kurt Vonnegut: “I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I am myself a work of fiction.”

Lots to ponder, eh?

So in conclusion I will give you my New Year’s resolution that instead of playing it safe, doing the same old same old, every week I will do at least one thing significantly different in the studio. “Deliberately introducing change” as Brouillard puts it. Not just playing with a variation (although some weeks that might prove acceptable), but departing from the known and venturing off into uncharted areas. If there’s something I want to try I will try it. If there’s something I’ve been dreaming of doing I will find the time to do it.

Like most New Year’s resolutions its liable to flame out at the starting gate or grind to a ponderous and slow death. We’ll see how it goes.

Happy New Year! May your anticipated memories and your remembered experiences be stupendous!

Cheers!

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About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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18 Responses to Will the New Year bring a new You?

  1. Cara says:

    Great blog! really love this one, I need to chew on it a bit…. but don’t want to miss comments in the meanwhile. So glad you posted this! Happy New Year!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Intriguing post! I like the idea for the weekly project, and it seems like it could pay dividends in many ways. I aspire to try something similar, although probably on a smaller scale.

    But I have to wonder about the nature of the overarching identity who will be enforcing the consistency of doing this planned divergence. ( The phrase *every week* really jumps out of that italicized line near the end. ) If you’ll pardon my poking around at your plan with my devil’s advocate pitchfork — Might this approach solve the problem at one level, only to rediscover it at another?

    • I get your point: Any hint of consistency surely must be attributable to the same source, and even the attempt to break away implicates it.

      Its the nature of the source that I’m questioning, not that we actually do the same things over and over. For instance, you could take the opposite end of that argument and say that because we eat different foods for each meal, like to listen to different music at different times, watch one movie and then something different the next time, read one book followed by something different, that we are entirely unstable, that there is more that is inconsistent than consistent. And if you look at it in that way it can almost seem like our consistency is this besieged scoop of jello in a torrent of flux, and that it actually counts for very little. Almost as if it were an illusion. The structure that gives us consistency can almost always be seen as coming from the outside: The time on your clock, your job, various institutions and roles (marriage, parenting, neighbor, citizen), the program schedule on the tele and npr, etc. Its almost as if we are endowed with consistency from the very structure of the world around us, and the question is whether in its absence we would exhibit anything remotely as consistent. Is our identity merely an artifact of culture?

      The truth is obviously somewhere in between. The Baggini video had some great points to kind of flesh that out. He sort of suggests that we are more profitably looked at as collections of ingredients that cohere, but that the individual ingredients are neither necessary nor sufficient for our identity. Any ingredient is subject to change. And the collection from one moment to the next is never completely identical (interesting word there. It suggests something with diamond-like hardness and precision) with what it was and what it will be over time. At most what we share with our selves from moment to moment is a family resemblance. This means that it is obvious that our selves can be grouped in the same group (the issue of schizophrenia and dementia is another matter, obviously), but without necessary or sufficient criteria.

      Its only because we use our words the way we do that we are under this spell of a necessary core identity. The truth seems much more changeable and contingent. But because we use the words this way we set up the world to exact this consistency from us. And the question is whether this overload of discipline is truly good for us. Some consistency, yes. But how much, how often, and when? When its mostly being enforced from the outside, you can’t just take the ways of the world for granted. You have to look deeper. Fitting ourselves into the world is always a matter of compromise. And if we simply suck it up and do as we are told, just how ‘true to ourselves’ are we really being?

  3. Scott Cooper says:

    You had me at, “…our consistency is this besieged scoop of jello in a torrent of flux…”!

    Seriously, thanks for indulging my devilish poking around. Up to my same old tricks; could stand to learn some new ones.

    I’m really intrigued by the idea that our sense of identity is, perhaps, mainly illusionary… That there’s less actual pattern than randomness. Reminds me of quantum mechanics. And so, if my outwards-looking view of my own identity is largely a reflexive bit of narrative shorthand, a habit and convenience to minimize cognitive dissonance, what’s the value in defending its consistency? Especially on the first day of a new year, when the opportunities to practice random bits of kindness seem abundant and so graspable?

    • I guess the way I’m seeing it these days consistency doesn’t need to be defended. If we can acknowledge the natural state of affairs as including a minimum of some consistency but not at the expense of our variability then defending it is a non issue. The defenders of consistency are simply the folks threatened by change. So I would say the important thing is to embrace our variability, pick the change we want, set the ramparts up around a few important bits of jello, and let the rest flow over us.

      Possibility is an open door, and its up to us whether we walk through it or not. Its hardly ever that we can’t change. Its more often that we do change, and sometimes despite our intentions to keep things the same. Change is easily more inevitable than consistency. In fact, change is necessary if we wish to grow up from the child we were to the adult we become (as you pointed out in our phone conversation), get an education, get married, raise kids, etc. We don’t start out preformed. We’ve just been talked into a position where we feel we have to defend consistency, despite the welter of contrary evidence we produce on a daily basis.

      And as artists (who have the task of remaking the world) our first and most important work of art should be ourselves, an ongoing project to craft who we are. Its a work that is never complete, but which ends only at our release from this life.

      Geeze! More droning on from OverKillGillies. Lets see if I can change that habit in the new year….

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Doubtful. Especially not if I can’t change my habit of goading you into it.

        Yeah, the idea that change is constant and necessary reminds me of a favorite pair of words: entropic vs. negentropic. The first is the tendency of things to fall apart; the ongoing, iinevitable heat death of the observable universe. The second is anything that resists that process – organizing, building, assembling, creative endeavors. Life is negentropic.

        Not sure if or how that relates to the topic at hand, but I’m embracing the randomness…

        • Sounds like an admission of responsibility. I knew I wasn’t to blame: Dr Cooper made me do it! Hah!

          Actually, I think that distinction is totally relevant and makes a whole lot of sense in this context: Organizing principles and the chaos of the unknown/unfamiliar (disorganization), association and disassociation, have everything to do with how we see ourselves. Identity is often achieved through the narrative of “us, not them” and places us into groups and stereotypes, divides the believers from the infidels.

          Part of why our identities seem so solid is that we DO belong to groups. There are others just like us. Grouping (negentropy) is a fundamental law of the natural world. Its the basis of all things social. How we dress, how we talk, and how we think, etc., are mostly all qualities instilled by culture. Imitation and copying are, in fact, a huge part of how we learn the world, pick up language, and learn about/invent ourselves.

          So we fit quite naturally in groups and create new groups to help define more subtle shades of our identity. And the solidarity of numbers adds the weight of membership to how we see ourselves, gives us guidelines and role models, makes our identity seem more substantial, more ‘real’. By fitting into an already established category it almost looks like we are embodying some Platonic Form: The Techie, the Jock, the Artiste, the Scholar, the Nincompoop, etc…. We are caught by labels like flying insects on flypaper, and the comfort of a new home almost always means we struggle to live up (or down) to these ideals. We struggle to belong. So on that level I would say that labels are negentropic, in the sense that they form building blocks of personality.

          All this just seems like an important part of what it means to be human. The thing I have trouble with is the notion that we are stuck, that the flypaper won’t let go of us. What we really are are high flying gymnasts, super heroic spider men and women, and the fly paper is just a place to rest, to set up shop temporarily and then use as a spring board to something new. If it defines us it defines us for that moment. We are not the prisoners we often think we are.

          Cooper, you did it again. Are you keeping score on how many times you can provoke my blathering? Talk about the fly being caught! You cast a mean spider’s web, Dr Cooper!

        • From this morning’s blog reader inbox: “Character isn’t as stable as we think it is. You are influenced by the actions of those around you more than you’d like to believe. Even our private sense of identity depends on context…. You have to embrace that when it comes to even our innermost thoughts instincts and decisions context matters.” This courtesy of the ever interesting Brainpickings blog from the video clip.

          More: “Debunking the myth of character, or what sitcoms have to do with the mysteries of personality.

          “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire,” Charles Bukowski famously wrote. We walk through life and its fires along narrative paths that define who we are and what our personalities are like. We speak of the “architecture” of character as if it were as rigid and unmoving as a building. We often perceive others as sitcom characters — static and unchanging from episode to episode. Yet ordinary contexts, from where we are to what we see around us to who else is with us, influence and transform how we behave and what character traits we exhibit — who we appear to be. Coming to terms with this idea, argues Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers in Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, gives us a more profound understanding of not only ourselves but also the people in our lives and the complex interpersonal dynamics that underpin our world.

          “We’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do is driven by the situations we’re in, yet we remain blissfully unaware of it.” ~ Sam Sommers

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Keeping score? Yes. But not of the times I can goad you; rather of the ratio of short, haphazard paragraphs it takes on my part to get so many long, well thought out ones from you in return. It’s the best bargain on the Internet!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Yes, I like that stuff about the importance of context, too. It’s like the brain is hard wired to assume that every moment is the norm, right now and now and now… and to then tune outmor twke for granted even the aspects that are very temporary, like being full or rested. From the standpoint of perception, we’re all tremendous narcissists!

  4. Jared says:

    ‘I changed by not changing at all…’
    -Eddie Vedder

    • Two thoughts about this one: 1) If you are used to change then not changing is different, and 2) keeping the same but in a different context is also a change. Off the top of my head I’m not sure what the other ways of interpreting this are, but both these versions seem interesting.

      The first example could be someone who never finishes a project but always jumps around to something else suddenly sticking with what they were doing. So consistency in this case would itself be a change. The follow through would itself be a change of pace.

      The second would be sort of the opposite, say a confirmed vegan suddenly needing to get a job at a Ryan’s Steakhouse. They are still the same dedicated vegan in their own life, but the outside pressure of needing a job puts them in a different/conflicting circumstance. Maybe also a person who has skill making something specific, then when the technology changes the person goes from being useful and successful to being outdated and no longer relevant. Staying the same itself produces a change. (People who can’t see the value in pottery often make this accusation of anachronism)

      That was a good quote!

  5. Sequoia says:

    Happy New year Carter! What’s new this week??

    • Ahoy there Sequoia! Happy New Year to you as well!

      So far I have lamed out on the wet work side of things, but I can report that there is SOME change in progress. I am in the midst of reconfiguring my cluttered studio, and am about to bring the old ‘stand up’ treadle wheel out of storage. Its the wheel I had used in grad school which I was allowed to purchase for a pittance when I left. Unfortunately at one point years ago I had some projects that needed the power and wheelhead space of my Brent electric and I never went back to the treadle. So maybe this counts for partial credit?

      But the main reason for my studio overhaul right now is that I am looking to add a wood stove to help heat my work space. Right now there are just a few electric space heaters that are ridiculously inefficient in my drafty uninsulated studio, almost not worth the effort of turning on…. The kerosene heater is just too expensive to run on a daily basis. Can’t complain about some of the nice weather we’ve been having in GA though.

      But my fingers ARE itching to get back to work. I do have several ideas that I want to explore that should keep me busy for the first part of the year at least. I’ll keep you posted!

  6. I suppose this is as good a place to archive related thoughts, so I will dump this nugget here:

    “in the famous words of Susan Sontag, one of my big heroes: “I write to define myself — an act of self-creation — part of my process of becoming.””

  7. And another tid bit for the archives:

    “Branding is a form of morbidity so torpid that if we don’t change things up periodically we will ultimately die of boredom.”

    This was something I said in response to the Oscar Wilde Quote “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

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