How to Ride a Tiger
Welcome to the Hammer Party Issue #3, March 2021
Welcome to the Hammer Party.
I’ve just returned from a trip to the California high desert. I’ve been going to the desert for years now, and I’ve set a lot of my fiction there (the climax of She Rides Shotgun, my short story “Agua Dulce,” a TV pilot I’m working on called Holy Mountain, California). Sometimes it feels like another planet out there, with its triffid-like Joshua trees, jagged rocks, and people who oftentimes look like they are refugees of a war only they know about. It hailed my first day there, pebbles of ice hissing through the air, battering the cacti. At night the coyotes howled in chorus and the air was smeared with stars, so different than Los Angeles and its dead skies. Good for the soul.
While I was working in the desert, I had reason to read some of my old work. Sometimes I forget about my short story collection Love and Other Wounds, which I still feel has some of my best writing. It’s an old trope that often an artist’s best work is their early work, but we don’t often talk about why. I think there are two main reasons. One I’ll talk about in another issue. The other has to do with riding a tiger.
(Joshua Tree, California)
Thoughts on Writing:
How to Ride a Tiger
In the first issue of this newsletter I wrote about how to make a spirit board, a device I use to stay focused and in tune with a project. The first piece of advice I gave myself in my Hollywood Sickos spirit board was:
“APPROACH EVERYTHING WITH A BEGINNERS MIND”
It’s a piece of advice I picked up a few years ago when I was lucky enough to go to the soundcheck for the band SUNN0))) when they played the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery a few years back. Sunn0))) (you just pronounce it “sun”) are the preeminent doom-drone masters, a band of crushing intensity whose concerts are primal events.
They did a Q&A between the soundcheck and the show proper, mostly answering gearhead questions for the metal nerds. But they also told the story about the early days of their band, when they had a rehearsal space in Eagle Rock across the hall from some old hippie musician who imparted this one piece of advice to them: always play with a beginner’s mind. By which he meant, you have to stay connected to the thing inside you that inspired you to become an artist in the first place.
What that meant to the two members of SUNN0))) was that they got into music to play big, loud, dumb heavy metal. And as long as they stayed true to that, they could not go wrong.
There is deep wisdom there.
If there is one constant effort happening right now in the Discourse and in our mainstream cultural products (ie the monoculture), it is the attempt to decouple art from the subconscious of its creator. In fact, I think a handy definition of “content” is art that has successfully been drained of the artist’s subconscious impulses.
Nobody’s beginner’s mind started with a desire to churn out content. It cannot. Your subconscious dictates to you what your passions are. If you ignore that, you are ignoring the true and vital heart of your creativity.
The hegemony of IP, the Internet-critic who demands a proper moral message or (just as bad) the Internet-critic who scours movies for the slightest logical inconsistency, the way sex has been rinsed from movies, and some of the sillier manifestations of “cancel culture” are really all attempts to make art understandable, safe, and above all intellectualized (which is not the same thing as intellectual).
Things that spring from the unconscious are shocking, indescribable, they reach inside us and grab hold. An artist must channel these impulses to make them legible to other people (one of my favorite facts about David Lynch is that he test-screens his films). But if an artist has total conscious control of their work, I worry about them.
In my currently unpublished novel The Last King of California, a young child watches as his father commits a violent act:
There is something so scared in dad’s eyes. But there’s something else behind the fear, something hungry and free. Like his dad is a man riding a tiger, but also, he’s the tiger too.
This is my conception of the subconscious, and works as a metaphor for art as well. You ride the tiger, but also, you are the tiger. You will do your best by maybe nudging it here and there, keeping it from disaster, but mostly you should let the motherfucker run.
The worst thing you can do is beat it down and make it docile enough that you can fully control it with your conscious mind.
If you write for money, if you write for the market, if you write to chase trends, if you write to impress people you don’t like, if you write while afraid of offense or critique, you are smothering your beginner’s mind, and your work will suffer. It may refuse to come out at all. Or it will come out bland and safe and good for easy consumption. And maybe that’s all you want, or all you allow yourself to think you want. And that’s your business, but I don’t have much to say to you then.
But listen. You know what you are supposed to do. You’ve always known.
I drew the following triptych when I was in the 3rd grade. (I know this because one of them was drawn on the back of a science report. I got a C. My teacher said I didn’t spend enough time on my school work).
I would ignore this at my own peril. And to my credit, I mostly haven’t. I’ve stayed pretty true, at least in the broad strokes, to the joys of crime fiction, to the stories of human choices in a brutal world.
Where it gets the hardest is when you’re sitting down to write. And it gets harder the longer you do it, the more you’ve laden your mind with failures and responsibilities and the judgesments of other people both real and imagined. It gets harder and harder to remember the pure clean joy you felt when you were a beginner making yourself say holy shit look at what I’m doing. That’s why I look at my old short stories with something like jealousy.
That’s why I look at the spirit board before I write. That’s why I keep refilling the tank. That’s why I keep re-watching and rereading the things I love. (Well, that’s not the only reason, but that’s for another time).
If you can stay true to that beginner’s mind, if you can remember the joys and passions that got you here in the first place, if you can tap into it and let that tiger fucking go, that is when you will do the real work. The reason you’re here.
I don’t know what’s in your mind. I don’t know what childhood sketches you have. I don’t know what movies you’ve watched a thousand times. I don’t know what your subconscious is trying to tell you. I don’t know where your tiger is trying to run.
But I know you should ride it.
Refilling the Tank: Victoria
Victoria is a Berlin-based thriller that is done as a single unbroken take. Most “one-take” movies are riddles with hidden cuts, but Victoria is the real deal, a single unbroken shot that moves from nightclub to rooftop to underground parking garage to crime to aftermath without blinking once. It’s maybe the one time that a movie like this hasn’t felt like a gimmick to me. The single take helps create an organtic whole of the story. The film is also a notable exception to the old dictim “if nothing happens in the first reel, nothing is going to happen.”
While putting together this newsletter, I found an interview with director Sebastian Schipper in which he says:
I’ve come around more and more to maybe one of the most known entries to a diary ever, from Kafka. It said: “Went to the cinema. Cried.” And I just thought about that the other day. Maybe we kind of underestimate that that’s really what it’s about, why we watch films, to come into contact with something very strong, sometimes dark and maybe sometimes scary, and maybe a movie enables you to face some stuff, not consciously.
Which fits so perfectly into the essay above.
Murder Ballad of the Month
“Let’s Take a Ride” by Pat the Bunny
Pat the Bunny is an incredibly interesting artist. He started recording folk punk as a teenager, calling himself Johnny Hobo, getting fucked up and living on the far edge of the punk-rock lifestyle, as you can see in this bathroom concert. He then evolved his musical persona into The Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union, which added explicit anarchist politics to the mix. He got sober and evolved again, forming Ramshackle Glory, which saw him turning positively anthemic - but by 2016 Pat had tired of the punk rock life and grown disenchanted with anarchism, and he retired completely from music so he could live a normal life.
This song, which Pat has said was inspired by the Russian nihilist assassins of the 19th century, is a direct and stunning call to violence against oppressors.
Writing music of the month: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Luciferian Towers
Might as well keep the anarchist music flowing with what might be my favorite album to write to, Luciferian Towers by anarchist collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Unlike much of my writing music which favors drones, this is music that soars triumphantly, and if you get into this groove it will carry you, my friend.
Okay, party’s over.