If we’re going to have a conversation and I’m going to tell the whole truth, there are really only two reasons why I make anything, whether it be a zine, a book or a piece of art. You may have more reasons, but all of my reasons fall into one of two categories: I make things to keep myself entertained, and I make things to be a part of something. Whether the small reason is to keep from being a complete lazy git, to see what happens, to share my story, to make friends, to be in a club, or to pass the time on a train — it essentially falls under one of those two rationales.
These are good reasons to make things. But they can occasionally be at odds. For example, years ago, one of my art professors assigned his students to pick up a dictionary, choose two words by blindly pointing, and create a piece by somehow conceptually marrying those two disparate concepts. I think he was tired of sensitive nude self-portraits, converging railroad tracks and pretty flowers. The random-generation idea can be wildly successful; after all, sometimes you can’t make your mind think, but playing a game with yourself can lead to some unexpected connections. No one has to know that the words “ignescent” and “chimera” led, whether literally or figuratively, to that weird, flaming, evocative image that emerged.
The whole idea is to move outside your normal comfort zone, to search for the second right answer, and to remove the preciousness that comes of making something fraught with meaning. Depending, at least in part, on a few serendipitous and strange random elements lets you off the hook to a certain degree, so that you needn’t feel wholly responsible for the end result. It goes a long way toward breaking down the barrier that keeps your projects in the desk drawer designated for half-finished ideas. I completely believe in the idea of a good creative purge — sometimes you just have to get things out of your system to make room for what’s new.
That said, while the system of random association can be great for getting things done, it has the potential to be obscure, confusing and just downright boring, which is where the second reason for making things comes into play. If the clever thing I made were for my eyes alone, I would never feel the need to make it palatable or even understandable to another person. But because I make things in order to communicate with other people and to interact, directly and indirectly, with all the people everywhere who make things and share them, because I want to be part of something beyond just the ticklish twists and turns of my own psyche, I need to draw the random elements together in a way that helps others relate. This is where, though I try not to allow myself to depend on my own experience as my own writing subject, I also know that our common experiences of sadness, loneliness, confusion and otherness can be a jumping-off point for new, enlightening conversations.
Both of my reasons for making came together in my most recent zine, 3-2-2-1, a collaborative project with Jennie Hinchcliff (my partner in Pod Post). We began with a game: choosing the first ten songs that came up on our iPod’s shuffle, then transforming the song titles and numbers using a semi-obscure library equation and some math, and finally throwing in a decimal point — which magically turned the numbers into books on our local library’s shelves, thanks to the Dewey Decimal classification system.
Both of us thought it was a fantastic idea. It was great fun. And we also thought the zine would write itself. But somehow, the connection between a Depeche Mode song and a book about subways didn’t immediately spring to mind. It was drawing in the everyday that saved us. We wrote about longing, about artistic ambition, about feeling in your heart that you belong somewhere else. Oddly, when we brought in something very deliberate, decidedly not random, it was like a thread stitching the whole package together. We got to have our entertainment and our communication too.
These days, I’m trying to use this blending to work through and satisfy another self-indulgent habit of mine. I’ve been picking things up off the ground for years now — bus transfers, parking stubs, pretty pieces of paper, bread bag closures, pieces of weirdly shaped metal, old books — and I have envelopes full. But I haven’t crossed over to making them make sense, yet, to anybody but me. So I lay them out on the table, shuffle them around, and wait. I know that the meaning comes later, somewhere in one of the lulls in the game. For now, I place strange objects next to familiar ones and wait for the combination to equal something.