Imperfect Art is Better Than No Art at All

Artomatic, 2008
Artomatic, 2008

Artomatic is ten floors of bad art. Held every couple years in an abandoned office building, it’s a multi-week, multimedia arts event held in the Washington, DC area. Artomatic is non-juried. Pay a small fee and you’re given a section of wall to hang your work on. Like some sort of bizarre department store, Artomatic is home to thousands of square feet of slapdash painting, crude sculpture and out-of-focus photography. Added to this joyful mix of mediocrity are garage bands, freelance DJs, teen dance crews and deeply personal works of unwatchable performance art.

It really sucks. But that’s the key to its success. There’s an undeniable energy to the experience that you won’t find in some staid museum. No curators organized the art for you. The lighting is harsh. There is no audio tour. And around the corner could be anything – photos of Keds, a male nude or some impressionistic take on your home town that you fall in love with.

Artomatic celebrates the artist. It is about the messy process of art, as you struggle to achieve perfection with the most imperfect of materials: yourself.

As the author of two novels, I’ve met plenty of people over the years who say they have the perfect idea for a book. It’s so brilliant that they hesitate to even tell me about it. Maybe it’s the next War and Peace.

But we never find out because they never write it.

There’s a great chapter in The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle about writers, procrastination and the fear of failure. We put off work because we’re afraid that our work won’t be perfect. We have the perfect manuscript – in our heads – but in writing it down, it will inevitably be corrupted by our imperfections, ending up like one of the misbegotten pieces hanging on the walls of Artomatic.

Yet, despite the psychological peril, writing gets done. Novels are written, screenplays drafted, poetry composed. Why?

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

McArdle has her own advice for writers: you have permission to suck. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be terrible. But get it done and get it on the page. You can fix a bad first draft; you can’t fix nothing.

Letting go of perfection is freeing. Tom Wolfe’s career began with a case of writer’s block, after being hired to write an article for Esquire:

I was totally blocked. I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting… so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you’re not thinking about style, you’re just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo, and we’re running the piece.

You have a unique story to tell. But only if you share it. Let go of perfection and write it down in all its messy glory. It’s not going to be the idealized version in your head. It’s going to have rough edges and jagged corners. It might lack supporting beams and doors and windows. All of these problems can all be fixed – but only if you have the raw material to work with. You can’t reshape illusions.

Your work may be as flawed and imperfect as the art hanging on the walls of Artomatic. But it will be real. It will exist in the world. And imperfect art is better than no art at all.

Friday Photo: Construction Crane Edition

construction crane

14th Street NW in Washington is one of the hottest corridors in the country. This once beat-up strip lined with auto repair joints is being transformed into blocks of condos, micro-apartments, restaurants and high-end retail. Very high-end.

This is one of the construction cranes that Mayor Gray touts as proof of the city’s growth. He’s right – this crane is building a set of $500,000 condos on the site of an old parking lot.  There used to be empty lots on 14th Street and boarded-up buildings. They’re just about gone now, the march of construction cranes marking their disappearance.

Coffeeneuring #5: Peregrine and the Perils of Grad School

Cappuccino at Peregrine on Capitol Hill
Cappuccino at Peregrine on Capitol Hill #perfection

After last week’s episode of bad coffee in Bethesda, for this week’s coffeeneuring adventure, I was determined to get a good cappuccino.

I knew exactly where to bike to: Peregrine Espresso on Capitol Hill.

And not only was it delicious, it was artistically perfect, as you can see from the photo above. The work of a good barista is indistinguishable from magic.

Peregrine gets a bad rap for being a hipster haven, of being home to skinny jeans, ironic facial hair and hipper-than-thou attitudes. But it’s not the staff that’s the problem, I realized as I looked for a place to sit. It’s the patrons.

I had to perch on a stool in a corner because the tables were occupied by grad students with laptops. While I’ve  done my share of work in coffee shops, I would never choose a busy store like Peregrine. And I certainly wouldn’t occupy multiple chairs with my textbooks, knitware and electronic devices.

Nobody cares about your grad school dissertation – that is what I felt like shouting. Ten years from now, you will not even remember what that paper was about. And your thesis advisor, the only other person to have ever read it, won’t remember either.

Grad school won’t get you a better job. I’d be more impressed by someone who managed a Wendy’s than someone with an MA. The Wendy’s manager had to get people to show up and work every single day – that’s really hard, and much more impressive accomplishment than going to classes.

Besides, all those old rules and gatekeepers are coming down. Our most successful companies, like Facebook and Apple, were founded by college dropouts. There is no reason to genuflect before some academy before you can do what you want. You can do so now.

Avoid the trap of grad school. Instead, take advantage of the opportunities that cheap tech and the internet have brought us. Want to be a director? Go shoot a movie with your iPhone. Aspire to run a company? Use Kickstarter to raise the money. Want to change the world? Use Meetup to start organizing people.

If for no other reason, avoid grad school so you can enjoy Sunday afternoons outside. Ten years from now, you’ll remember sunny fall days like today – not the time you wasted hunched in front of a computer.

Coffeeneuring #3: Union Market

The great thing about coffeneuring is that it gets you biking to new places. Coffeeneuring #1 sent me to Buzz Bakery and their delicious red velvet cupcakes. Coffeeneuring #2 was a trip to hipsterville aka Big Bear in Bloomingdale.

For my third coffeeneuring adventure,  I decided to visit Union Market. This wholesale market in Northeast DC (formerly known as the Florida Avenue Market) has been reinvented as an artisanal shopping experience.

To get there, Google Maps sent me across the city via M Street. I thought the route was crazy, but I played along.

the Google Maps route to Union Market
Logan Circle to Union Market, the crazy Google way.

The Google sent me down M Street through Shaw, across Mad Max-style New York Avenue and through NoMa streets torn up from construction. After going under the railroad tracks, I just followed the hipsters up to the market.

Union Market is home to more than a dozen different restaurants and retail shops, including Peregrine Coffee, Dolcezza Gelato, Co Co. Sala and TaKorean. It’s sort of “city in a box” where you can shop for all your luxury treats in one location. Continue reading “Coffeeneuring #3: Union Market”

Friday Photo: Two Phones Edition

Two phones
I have two phones on my desk.

I had too much fun during the government shutdown, taking advantage of the unpaid break to drink in beer gardens, eat delicious jamon and go on coffeeneuring adventures.

But now it’s back to work. While my bank account is thankful for this, the reintroduction to the absurdities of government can be a painful one.

I have two phones. We’re switching from our 90s era phones to new ones. Rather than just replace one with the other, they left both, so I have two phones on my desk with two different numbers. It’s like I’m a 1950s businessman. I haven’t had the chance to talk on both phones at the same time, barking out orders, but I’m hopeful I will have a chance to do so soon.

Friday Photo: Barcelona Edition

Barcelona on 14th St NW in Washington, DC.
Barcelona on 14th St NW in Washington, DC.

Always bring your camera with you all the time.

Walking home down 14th St, I stopped to take pictures of Barcelona, a new restaurant with a great outdoor patio. I thought it was fascinating – the space used to house a gym. Where the patio exists used to be a fenced-lot containing free-weights. From weights to wine, in just a few years.

The marketing director saw me outside with my “fancy camera” (and Canon Digital Rebel) and insisted that I take a tour of the restaurant. She walked me around the place, showing me the outdoor fireplace, private dining room and their wonderful selection of wine and cheese. Then she parked me at the bar and fed me jamon iberico and gin and tonics. Yes, I can be bought, and the price is ham and booze.

Check out the complete set on Flickr see what Barcelona looks like on the inside. Definitely worth visiting.

You Do Not Need an Expensive SEO Consultant

SEO Consultant. $2k a month minimum.

This advertisement popped up on top of my Gmail. I saw this and thought: I am in the wrong line of work. Apparently, search engine optimization is so much in demand that you don’t need to state your qualifications or the benefits of your service – you just tell customers what they’re going to pay.

As someone who has worked on web sites for more than 15 years, I’m going to tell you a secret:

You do not need an expensive SEO consultant.

The practice of search engine optimization is based upon the belief that you can optimize web site content so that it shows up higher in Google’s search engine rankings. This is correct. There are simple things that you can do to improve your rankings, such as clear writing, good page titles and being consistent in how you describe your content. Most of the SEO practices that work revolve around words – the content of your site. Why is that?

You cannot outsmart Google.

Over the years, a variety of discredited practices have been employed by unscrupulous SEO consultants and shady web site operators to improve their site rankings. In the beginning (the 90s), this meant hidden text, where you hid a bunch of text in your site, visible only to search engines. Later on, it was the manipulation of meta-information, the descriptors of your site. Then, most maddeningly of all, it was keyword stuffing – where you repeated the same keyword over and over again in attempt to convince Google that your site was the authority on that keyword. For example, “The Acme Hotel is the best hotel in South Beach among all South Beach hotels, all South Beach hotel experts agree.”

A whole industry grew up around this practice called content farms – they produced low-quality, repetitive content that succeeded (for a time) in garnering top search engine spots on almost every topic.

But then Google changed their algorithm, killing off this industry.  Their mission is provide searchers with the best content. They don’t want to send people to crap. They employ some of the smartest techies on the planet, much smarter than a content farm owner or a slick SEO consultant. There is only one way to beat them:

Write content that people want to read.

This is a simple idea that’s rarely practiced. Instead of investing in good writing, organizations post dry reports, self-serving press releases and jargon-choked product descriptions. They end up with a web site no human would want to read and then wonder: how come we’re not #1 in Google? It’s an outrage! We need an SEO consultant!

You don’t need a consultant. You need a writer. You need someone who knows your customer, someone who can look at your organization from the outside and determine what it is that people want. This information can be found in your site’s analytics – what are web site visitors searching for? It’s probably not your annual report but is instead something simple, like a price list or store locator or if a widget comes in blue.

Start there, with this unsatisfied need that visitors have expressed. Write pages that answer these questions. Skip the SEO consultant and, instead, write content that people want to read.