Mario Villalobos

No Fee and No Interference

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was in his mid-thirties, he started a series of biography lectures where he began to examine the lives of others with increased interest and scrutiny. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, the author Robert D. Richardson writes that in Michelangelo Emerson

saw “the perfect image of the artist,” one who was born to see and express the beauty of the world… He loved the disinterestedness and spirit of the deal Michelangelo offered the Pope for his work rebuilding St. Peter’s in Rome: “no fee and no interference.” Emerson emphasized the sculptor’s interest in ideal beauty, how “he sought through the eye to reach the soul,” but he knew that the test of the artist and writer alike is not in intent but in execution.

For the longest time, this is how I’ve tried to work on my craft, by trying to express and execute “what the mind has conceived” and without outside interference. “Happy is he,” writes Emerson,

who looks only into his work to know if it will succeed, never into the times or the public opinion; and who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale—who always writes to the unknown friend.

I was reminded of these quotes—these passages that I very happily transcribed in my notebook—when this morning I read this very sobering article in Ted Gioia’s newsletter:

How creative can you really be if you need to please an enormous mass-market audience? When you go down that path, you need to stick close to all the familiar formulas—and that’s exactly what you see in much of our culture nowadays.

Earlier in the article he wrote that “only 19% [of survey respondents] made more than $50,000. In other words, their arts degree was more likely to put them below the poverty line than in the middle class.”

What really struck me was that “only 10% devoted 40 hours per week or more to their art.” I’m surprised at both how high I think 10% is and how much 40 hours a week spent on working on one’s art is, too. Both of my reactions tell me how unbelievably sad and disappointed I am at how the modern world works.

Just yesterday I started to wake up at 4am in order to fit an extra hour of writing time into my day. And even then, I’m maybe working 15-20 hours a week on my art. I would do whatever it takes to double this workload if at all possible, but I need to go to work in order to to pay my bills and buy food to eat. And Ted Gioia understands this, too:

So my advice to students interested in the arts is based on my own practice: namely, that they should pursue their craft but also develop at least one money-earning skill before they reach the age of 30. It doesn’t need to be an elite career, merely something that will pay the bills in a pinch.

I wish I could be like Michelangelo and tell the Pope not to pay me as long he doesn’t interfere with my art, but I can’t. I wish I could look upon my “work to know if it will succeed,” to be one “who writes from the love of imparting certain thoughts and not from the necessity of sale,” but I can’t. This is the 21st century, and the best I can do is to wake up hours before the sun rises so I can fit a bit more time in my day to work on my art, and to go to bed when the sun is still shining brightly in the sky so I can wake up early and with enough energy to be able to work on my craft to the best of my ability.

I wish things were different, but I have to admit, I love what I’m doing, and that’s the point of art, isn’t it? To feel the joy of simply being alive to experience this? This world, this universe, this moment?

10 Years

Ten years ago today I moved to Montana, and the only thing I have been able to think about is how soon I can leave it. Ten years is a long time to live in a place, but I’m ready to move on. All I’ve been dreaming about for the past few years, and most strongly the past few months, is leaving this state and embarking on another adventure somewhere else. But I feel stuck, like if Montana is a giant sinkhole that traps everyone that sets foot in it. When I first boarded that plane ten years ago, I didn’t imagine I would have lived in Montana for an entire decade. It’s ten years later and I still can’t believe I’ve lived here for that long. Montana is a beautiful state. I’ve met some incredible people here, and I’ve made some wonderful memories, but I can’t call Montana home. Those words simply can’t form in my mind no matter how hard I try. I wish they could—they would make my life so much easier. Instead, I’m writing this with so much anxiety in my chest because I don’t know what comes next.

Why can’t I call Montana home? I think it began when COVID-19 shut the world down two years ago. Back when Trump and his supporters infected everyone’s psyche with their idiocy and illogical thinking. Back when a virus that didn’t care about ideology killed everyone it could, from the rich and the poor, to the old and the young. But if I’m being honest with myself, I think it began before that.

It began the moment I landed in Missoula. It began the moment I grabbed my two bags and loaded them into my sister’s car. This trip was supposed to be temporary. A year, two at most. That’s what I told people; that’s what I told myself. But then I started to make friends. I started to go on dates. I started to get some weird attention. I moved into my first (and so far only) apartment without any roommates or family to live with. I became a firefighter. A licensed EMT. An IT Director. I made more friends. Made more memories. Started taking photography seriously. Started to learn the guitar. Became vegan. I paid off my debts, and before I knew it, an entire decade had passed. I went to bed yesterday in my mid-20s; I woke up this morning in my mid-30s. I woke up to a greying beard and an aching back. Where did all that time go!?

It went into building up these experiences, into preparing myself for whatever comes next. By paying off my debt, I fulfilled one of the original goals for coming to Montana, and with that goal accomplished, what does Montana mean to me now? More than anything, a lost opportunity, I think. I’m not where I thought I’d be personally or professionally. I wish I was married. I wish I had kids. I wish I had written at least one good story, something I know I’m capable of but haven’t quite achieved. It’s so easy to focus on the things I don’t have instead of the things I do. What about my health? My good friends? All my experiences from living in Montana for a decade? The friends I made and lost, all the fires I fought, the knowledge I’ve accumulated? Did I ever think I’d be a firefighter or a licensed EMT? Did I ever think I would actually learn German? So why do I want to leave Montana?

Because, even after all that, Montana still doesn’t feel like home. It still feels like I’m passing through. Like I’m a tourist. Like I’m at a crossroads. Returning to California feels like I’m regressing, like I’m going back to my past when all I want to do is move forward. So, to the east? To Chicago? Or New York? Or Boston? What I miss most about California is the diversity. What I didn’t realize until I moved out of California is how rare it is for people here in Montana to be fluent in more than one language and how much I would miss listening to Spanish every day. I’ve thought about going to Europe just to be around all types of cultures and languages, and I’m still dreaming about one day going there. So, Europe? Spain? France? Germany? I don’t know.

At work, I have this map pinned to the bulletin board inside the main office. I randomly tacked five pins to the map and created a route of places to visit for a road trip I wish to take soon. My wanderlust is real and it hurts. But if there’s one thing I know I’ve gained from living in Montana these past ten years, it is courage. And for that, I am truly grateful. Montana may not be my home for much longer, but I did grow into the man I am today by living here, and for that, I am forever grateful. What will the next ten years bring? I don’t know, but I’m hopeful it begins with a road trip and ends with one last great adventure.

Productivity Is a Trap

A few months ago, I wrote a reminder to myself about taking things one at a time. Since then, I learned about the book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, a book about “embracing finitude.” I started this book today, and in the introduction, he writes that:

Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

I point this section out because I’ve battled with that feeling, too, that feeling of trying to “get through” my tasks like they’re some obstacle to overcome before I can get my prize. What’s that prize? In the end, I guess, the prize is death.

But before then, I want to enjoy my life, the two thousand weeks or so I have left (I hope). Earlier in the introduction, Oliver writes that:

The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

I’m a firm believer that sometimes there’s a universal force showing me the things I need to see at the time I need them, and I feel like this is one of them.

Bitte?

It’s been about three months since my last post on my German studies, so how’s it been going? Great, I think. I haven’t taken a day off this year, and quite frankly, it’s one of the things I most look forward to each morning. I love loving German, and I’m having a blast learning it.

It helps that I have a native German speaker nearby. Not too long ago, she made me aware of a meme that I’ve thought a lot about since. It has to do with the word bitte. Just look (and laugh):

A Pound of Pictures by Alec Soth

Earlier this week I received Alec Soth’s newest book, A Pound of Pictures. This book represents a few things for me. The first is that it’s both my first Alec Soth book and my first photo book, and because of that, I had to get it signed.

This is a massive book, one of the biggest books I own. I’ve only seen the first few pictures because I want to clear an entire day to slowly go through the entire book. Going through his YouTube channel last month taught me so much about photography, especially about building and reading narrative projects, so I want to give the book the respect it deserves, or at least, as much as I can give it.

This book also represents my intention to climb up a new mountain. I look at myself in the mirror every morning and seem to find new grey hairs and wrinkles. I look at the calendar and think, Damn, it’s already March? I look back at my days and think, Am I really living? So I want to do something new and challenging, something that scares me, something that I can look back on and be proud of. So—what is it?

I have no idea.

Okay, sure, I have a few ideas, but I don’t want to reveal them publicly. I don’t want to set some sort of imaginary expectation in people’s heads. I don’t want to set an intention to the universe and not follow through on it, because I’ve done that enough in my life, and it doesn’t feel good.

I’ve been quietly working away in my notebooks this year, and my thoughts feel clear for the first time in a long time. I can see a path opening up in front of me, and I hope I have the courage to walk down it. These ideas are crazy. They’re insane. They scare the shit out of me, but oh my god am I eager to see them through. I have to do the work, and none of this, this life, this existence, matters if I don’t do the work.

I’m getting way too old to leave so many projects unfinished. Every day I wake up thinking if this is the end, and every day I live my life in mediocrity. I’m sick and tired of living this way. I need more. I need to do more.

So I bought a book. And now my life will be better.

Right?

Cormac McCarthy Is Publishing Two New Novels This Fall

They’re called The Passenger and Stella Maris:

Cormac McCarthy is publishing two linked novels this fall: The Passenger on October 25 and Stella Maris on November 22. (Or you can wait until December 6 to get your boxed set.)

I’ve read every McCarthy novel, and I’ve been waiting years for something new to read from him. He’s the type of writer I wish I was, and I always look to him for inspiration and guidance. I. Am. Excited.

Also, apparently, he submitted drafts for these two novels eight years ago. Unbelievable.

That Which Admits of Being Counted or Reckoned

I’m somewhat obsessive about numbers. It’s not something I’m consciously aware of, but they are something that quietly rules my life. I add page numbers to every notebook I write in, count every book I’ve read, and log how much I weigh every week or month. Recently, a few more numbers have emerged that I want to note.

The first is that yesterday I completed my thirtieth consecutive day of practicing my guitar. In 2021, I had stopped my regular practice, and I wanted to change that for 2022, so I decided to do Austin Kleon’s 100-day Practice and Suck Less Challenge. I printed out the PDF and pasted it to the inside cover of my notebook, and after every practice session, I would mark an X over the current number. After 30 days of this, I can truly say I suck less at playing my guitar. My callouses have returned, and my playing has improved greatly. I’m happy about my progress and eager to finish out the next 70 days strong.

One hundred days ago I hit my move goal 1,100 days in a row, and this morning I hit 1,200. My health is a big priority for me, so seeing this number keep getting bigger every day is validating. I notice when I don’t move around much, which has been happening a lot in the mornings as I get work done, so my evening workout routines are a great way to wind down for me. It relieves any pent up stress I’ve accumulated, and it helps me sleep well at night.

Which brings me to the final number I wanted to note. Ever since I purchased the Apple Watch Series 6 in September of 2020, I’ve worn it to bed every night to track my sleep. A few nights ago I woke up to eight low heart rate notifications. The lowest number you can set for this notification is 40bpm, and throughout the night my heart rate dipped below 40bpm eight times, reaching 36bpm at one point. I’ve never seen it get this low. I regularly see it get down to 38 and 39bpm, but never 36bpm. My heart rate has averaged about 45 to 48bpm for the 10 or so years I’ve been tracking it, so I normally have a low heart rate, but goddamn. How I’m still alive is beyond me.

Bandcamp Is Joining Epic Games

Ethan Diamond:

I’m excited to announce that Bandcamp is joining Epic Games, who you may know as the makers of Fortnite and Unreal Engine, and champions for a fair and open Internet.

Epic:

Fair and open platforms are critical to the future of the creator economy. Epic and Bandcamp share a mission of building the most artist friendly platform that enables creators to keep the majority of their hard-earned money. Bandcamp will play an important role in Epic’s vision to build out a creator marketplace ecosystem for content, technology, games, art, music and more.

I love Bandcamp, and I’m usually not that opposed to bigger companies taking over smaller companies I love, but the fact that it’s Epic irks me. I hope Bandcamp stays the same for years to come, and I’ll reserve all judgment to see what actually happens, but I’m not looking forward to this future. Just look at what happened to Comixology recently. Ugh.

No Thanks

Nope.

Nope nope.

Nope nope nope.

Well, okay.

Being Frightened

I’ve been spending the past week watching Alec Soth’s channel on YouTube, and yesterday I watched his video titled COLORS #52. In it, he looks through the book COLORS: A Book About a Magazine About the Rest of the World and quotes Oliviero Toscani, one of the co-founders of the magazine. Oliviero is being interviewed, and when asked if there are any photographers or artists capable of carrying on a project as pioneering as COLORS was in the early 90s, he answers:

Certainly, only that no one teaches them not to be frightened of being frightened. If you do something without being frightened, it’ll never be interesting or good. Everyone wants to be sure of what they’re doing. Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.

When I went to film school, I remember early on how courageous I was in expressing my ideas and concepts with the stories I wrote (even though I failed a lot), but at one point, I lost that. I became afraid of the writer’s room, of seeing the expressions on my classmates faces after reading the 10 page scene I wrote an hour before class started. I remember how often I would watch movies when feeling stuck, and how my pages reeked of what I last watched. I remember how painful it became to show up to class with my subpar pages, and how ashamed I felt when I felt excited that I had something to write about after I found out my uncle had died in a car crash. I remember I decided to start writing novels instead of movies because of this fear. I had wanted to run away from it, but after writing two books that will never see the light of day, I realize now that I’m still frightened.

I’m frightened of being judged and ridiculed, of failing. I’m frightened of exploring my weird ideas because they might not be “marketable” or “popular.” I picked up photography because it was something so different from writing, and at first, I really enjoyed it. But again, at one point, I became paralyzed by fear. My artistic impulse has been to keep pushing my art forward, but when I’m afraid of so many things, I don’t end up creating anything at all.

In my post Bravery from July 2020, I quoted Rebecca Toh. I had asked her how she had the confidence to carry a camera with her everywhere and photograph people. “The important thing,” she said:

is not to let your shyness get in your way. The thing about photography is that it throws you into direct contact with life, and that can be scary at times, but if you want to do the photography you want to do, there is simply no way about it except to go out bravely and shoot.

I’ve been trying to find the courage ever since, but maybe I’ve been approaching it wrong. Maybe it’s not courage I need but the confidence to be frightened. To admit to myself that these ideas might not be “marketable,” that these photos might not be “popular,” but so what? Like Oliviero says, “Any really interesting idea simply can’t be safe.”

Like Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You, “Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”

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