Knowing Stories and Art In Chaos

One of the unexpected side effects of government-imposed solitude and a new work-from-home life has been my willingness to get back into video games. (Cutting down on commute helps exponentially with freeing up time.) I’ve been P2 to my brother’s P1 my entire life, following along from one epic adventure to the next but never quite leading or developing my own individual relationship with a lot of games. Growing up, I was the epitome of the casual player—willing and capable, but not the kind of person who’d put in hours upon hours in pursuit of perfection. As I’ve become an adult, my partners have joined forces with my brother to suck me into various games. This has made room in my life for some pretty great things, but it usually also comes with a steep learning curve as I step into worlds the people I love have inhabited for years on end. In short: I spend a lot of time playing catch-up.

So when the end of March rolled around and my partner suggested* I try out Rocket League, I was more than game. The early hours were painful for everyone involved—I am a mouse-and-keyboard player as a default, and RL is most definitely not designed to be played that way—but one controller later, I’m well on my way to zipping around and absolutely already capable of wreaking havoc on the pitch. (Maybe not always in my team’s favor yet, but still.) With this new adventure, too, comes a contingent of new people. Folks who used to mostly play with my partner are now helping me learn to suck less and hit the ball more consistently. And, true to form, I’ve hijacked the whole system and made them my friends. More nights than not, when I’m finished grading and responding to messages and whatever else the world has thrown my way, I’m online, battling it out with strangers or friends or myself.

While Nick would laugh if I pontificated about Rocket League for another five paragraphs, I’m going to step us away from the game. See, there are some pretty great moments on the pitch, but the conversations and relationship-building that happen off the field take the cake. One of my newest partners in crime goes by IC_ML2D (if you’re a Twitch person, drop him a follow), and thanks to our shared love of musical theater, good songwriting, and kinda-bad jokes, I’ve pretty much already adopted him both into my circles of friends and my artistic family. As with everyone else who’s met me in the last three years, that pretty quickly comes with the disclaimers about assault and identity and a lot of the other stuff that makes up my musical work. (Before you think this is weird to talk about over video games, remember we’re both music people.) It also comes with the usual anxieties that, for me, can define an early friendship—specifically, the fear that I’ll be too loud or too engaged or too much.

Thankfully, when I’m comfortable with someone, I’m pretty good about bringing that up. So, on some random Monday way too late at night, I did. “I end up being… too much for people a lot,” I wrote. (I was worried I was overcrowding his Discord inbox.) IC’s response, like so many simple moments with many of my friends, stopped me cold. “I think it’s just because you’re confident and you know your story and want to help people and everything like that.” (Quoted with permission.) Now, before we go too much further, let’s be clear—we’d known each other for… like… a month and change at this point. Maybe. And while subtlety isn’t really a word in my vocabulary, it’s pretty damn impressive for someone I met and got to know by kicking a giant ball around in rocket-powered cars to have me reduced down to a few words that quickly.

Just as importantly, it’s rare that someone else’s description of me rings as true as or truer than my own. “You know your story.”

Holy crap.

The thing is, he’s absolutely right. I spend so much time dissecting the hurts I and others endure because of systemic oppression and abuses of power—in our careers, in our relationships, in our daily lives—that I am constantly pausing to examine where I fit within both the art I’m making and the context in which I’m making it. I devote myself to maybe not making the most virtuosic music but to making music that tells a story that matters to someone important, and by extension I have to ask myself if I in my own life am a facilitator or a participant or an adversary in these stories (or all of the above). I stand up for myself and others in ways that can take a toll on both my energy and my mental health, but in doing so, I better understand how I relate to others and where their experiences diverge from mine.

I know my story, and, to my immense satisfaction, I’ve spent the last several years beginning to finally tell it.

And maybe this was what I was trying to get at with my post about artist statements. Maybe this is how I’ll frame that lecture when I teach it again next year. Maybe I’m not the person who is too much, who scares even their close friends with their intensity. Maybe I’m the twenty-four-year-old who just finished their first year teaching and who’s spending their spare time learning to (maybe someday) dunk on their partner in a video game. Maybe I’m the casualty or the survivor or the victim, depending on the day, who understands that their art is exponentially more useful to the people around them when it pokes at relationships and power imbalances and endless amounts of empathy. Maybe I’m the composer-performer advocating for musical practice as self-care. Maybe I’m the force of nature realizing, slowly, that they are no longer as afraid of people who talk.

Maybe I realize that who I am and how I define myself artistically shifts from moment to moment, project to project. Maybe I admit my composing’s taken a turn since we all started staying home. Maybe I tell you I’ve never been less enthused about writing for the concert hall (and not just because they’re all closed). Maybe I confess that I’ve been learning trombone and only picking up my trumpet once or twice a week. Maybe I decide that all of these things are okay, because I’m learning a new instrument and writing music for the inside of your headphones and approaching my art in entirely new ways. Although they may not all feel productive and essential all the time (you should hear my lip slurs), maybe I tell you that’s not necessarily the point—and when they do become something special, that makes the process all the more worth it.

Maybe I tell you I’m getting ready to put out my first EP, and it’s not assault music or staring into the dark—no, it’s love songs. Because right now, that’s the part of my story I know; that’s what feels ready to go out into the world. (Not yet. But soon. Late May or early June.)

Maybe I tell you it’s called WEAKNESS, because that’s what I’ve never been allowed to show.

And maybe I tell you that if you’re not making art that feels special, you’re not failing. In fact, I contend you’re doing the very best thing for yourself—making decisions based on how your body and mind are feeling each day. You’re trusting your story and yourself, even when it is frustrating and debilitating and feels like sticking your career into an electrical socket. Most importantly, you’re making sure your story continues. And I’ll wait forever for that album or that symphony or that weird collection of sounds and noises if it means you stay with us.

Maybe I also tell you that it’s almost 3am and I’m impressed with how far afield this blog has wandered. (Or maybe I tell you I have three posts half-done and absolutely no desire to finish them.)

I think I want to close with this: one of the most valuable things I learned at CalArts was the idea of community-building as artistic practice. That extends to friend groups and colleagues and my complicated relationship with the Phoenix jazz scene, but it also extends to Rocket League friends and the good folks who beta my important blogs and the people we all seek out in our lives when we really just need someone. And if that’s the kind of thing you’re working on right now, let me tell you that I see you. Pretty cool art you’ve got there.

For many of us, even when it doesn’t feel like the world is ending, staying alive is an artistic achievement. It means we get to wake up again and try to make more art.

*bequeathed me a copy

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Hey, friends. Big post next week. It’s nerve-wracking, but exciting. Hope to see y’all back here at the usual time. You know the drill.