Creative Touchstones: Forever Changed by Art
Imagine walking into a room, hanging out there for a bit, and then leaving it, the artist in you forever changed.
Do you want to visit this room? There’s an excellent chance you already have, and numerous times, at that.
In Patton Oswalt’s memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, he describes the idea of a Night Café. Inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the same name, Oswalt’s Night Café is a take on how an art interaction can cause an instant, defining, and unchangeable internal shift. Be it a movie, a song, a concert experience, a book, a painting, a short story, or anything that defines “art,” it’s a “room you enter” then leave, and are, thereafter, eternally changed. And these, your Night Cafés, become your creative touchstones.
It’s important to distinguish Night Cafes from your “favorites.” They might not have anything to do with one another. In fact, you might have a Night Café that taught you a hard-to-learn lesson. Maybe it changed you in an unexpected way; maybe it pulled back a curtain and revealed imperfection in the human creative process.
We thought we’d share some of our Night Cafés. In no particular order, here they are.
1. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: When I was young, I would see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHGttG) on the bookstore shelves and the title alone would fill me with curiosity. Was it really some kind of guide to the universe and if not, what could the story possibly be about? When I finally read it, it expanded what I knew about life, the universe, and everything. HHGttG is not so much a story, but a series of anecdotes about life strung together in one of the most mind-bending novels I’ve ever read. To this day, almost every story that I write is in some way a poor attempt at writing my version of HHGttG.
"Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss." - Douglas Adams.
2. Six Organs of Admittance - The Sun Awakens: For years, I considered myself to be a metal/hard rock guitar player. When I picked up my guitar, I piled on the volume and distortion. As time passed, I grew bored with playing heavy music and eventually gave up the guitar. It wasn’t until I heard the album The Sun Awakens that my whole view on playing the guitar and music changed. Six Organs of Admittance is considered to be a psychedelic folk band. The album was highly recommended by a trusted music blog called Difficult Music. The Sun Awakens consisted of dusty acoustic guitars, meditative vocals and a 23-minute droning soundscape. The Sun Awakens was the furthest thing that I was used to when it came to music. I disliked the album at first, but as with all great things, there was something that kept drawing me back, like a riddle that wanted to be solved. After weeks of repeated listening, not only did I love it, my interest in guitar was renewed, but this time, I was interested in acoustic guitar and creating textured music instead of trying to peel paint off the walls.
3. Twin Peaks: Season Three: The original Twin Peaks series is a huge influence on my creativity. The show is a quirky and terrifying depiction of small town filled with dark secrets. While I loved the original series, it was Season Three that broke my brain with it’s non-linear storytelling, bizarre visuals, and breaking of traditional story conventions. Characters came and went, plot threads vanished, and the 18-hour movie culminated with more questions than it answered. Twin Peaks: Season Three taught me to follow my instincts as an artist and to stay true to my vision, even it my vision didn’t follow the so-called rules of writing and storytelling. It gave me permission to be weird and not worry about wrapping up my stories with a bow.
"My cow is not pretty, but it is pretty to me." - David Lynch
4. Dungeons and Dragons: When I was a kid, a friend of mine had a mysterious game on his shelf called Dungeons and Dragons. It wasn’t like any other game I had ever seen. It was a box with two books, weird dice, and a crayon (for coloring in the numbers on the dice).
Where was the game board?
Where were the pieces?
I don’t know how I did it, but I convinced him to give me his copy. He didn’t want it and had no interest in learning how to play. When I read the rules, I realized that the game was about telling stories. The board existed in your imagination! I found a group of like-minded people and played the game with them for the next 20 years. I credit Dungeons and Dragons with everything that I know about storytelling. By running the game several times a week, I learned to build suspense, create fear, and keep the players engaged with stories filled with action, twists, and turns.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey: I’ll be honest, I saw this movie a few times before I realized the effect it had on me. To be doubly honest, I know that this movie changed me, but I don’t exactly know how. All that I can say is that the images from this movie are burned into my brain. Maybe it’s the mystery of the alien monolith sparking intelligence in the apes, or image of the old man in bed with monolith at the foot of the bed. Could it be Stanley Kubrick’s attention to detail in framing his scenes? All of these things have influenced me as an artist and a writer in so many ways I can’t begin to list them. I don’t know how 2001 changed me, but I’m changed.
1. Dawes: Though not a musician, I will forever consider myself a student of music. Growing up, music was a constant in my house; my dad - a guitar player; his best friends - musicians. From Pink Floyd to Soundgarden, I grew up on the classic rock, hard rock, classic metal, and alternative. Then, there was Dawes. This band taught me I could love something different, and I didn’t have to be “defined” by music genres. I only had to like what I like. On invite from a friend, I stood under the stage at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, staring up in anticipation. After hearing a few opening notes from Taylor Goldsmith, there was an alchemical shift in my brain and body. Folk rock forever became a part of my music DNA.
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville: This classic is pure brain food. Every time I pick up this book, poetry pours out of me. It’s like a ship springs a leak. It immediately connects with my love of the sea and ships, humor and psychological insight, and how words are strung together. It will forever be my summer book.
"It is not down on any map; true places never are." - Herman Melville
3. The VVitch: When I was six, maybe younger, the first obsessive signs of a music love affair started to show. I needed everything Michael Jackson, and begged my parents to let me rent the Thriller tape from the library. When my mom caved, I watched about half of it, at which point, she had to rescue my scared, crying self from the living room and shut the television. Maybe that was the reason, maybe not, but I spent a lot of my adult life thinking I “couldn’t” watch horror. Then came Robert Eggers’ 2015 film, The VVitch. I watched it alone, in the dark, and through my fingers at first, only to feel my shoulders untensing halfway through. I found myself enjoying the story. When I stepped out of The VVitch’s room, a new genre emerged for me, and I discovered a love for an entirely new method of story telling of which - game changer - I was not afraid.
4. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman: Ideas are my joy in life. Deep, sprawling, wonderful, fun ideas. Sometimes, they lead nowhere, and sometimes, they are pure magic. My closest friends are the ones that ride the carousel on this idea playground. On a whim, or maybe a prodding from the universe, I picked up this book a decade ago. Someone put an index card in front of it as “Barnes and Noble staff pick,” and the clock on the cover appealed to my inner obsession with time and the concept of memento mori. To this day, no book has ever affected my brain in such a profound way. No book has ever understood me so well. It does what I do… it asks, but what about this? Or, this? Or, this? And, it picks the universe to pieces.
5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: As a child, I wrote stories about everything. I’ve got a trophy in my closet for a statewide competition about a 9th grade fictive piece on oceanic pollution, and I remember having lunch with the governor for winning a high school essay contest about heroes. (I wrote about my mom.) Pages of journals were no match for my short stories and poetry. Then, there was college, and graduate school. Post-grad residency. Work. Marriage. Kids. My writing became academia and scholarly papers. Fiction became nonexistent for many years. I was on vacation in New Hampshire one summer, and found The Night Circus in an independent bookstore. I read it in three days. Mentally, it took me back to an inspirational summer in Coney Island, New York, and the concept for my first novel was born. The Night Circus will always be the book that got me back into fiction writing after a too-long hiatus. I haven’t stopped since.
"You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words." - Erin Morgenstern
This blog post could have been pages long. We both have many more Night Cafés. These touchstones exist throughout our lives in music, cinema, literature, and across the spectrum of the arts. But, what we want to know now is this: for better or worse, what has forever changed you?
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