If you go on Tumblr, it feels like half of the internet consists of teenagers wishing they were alive in the 60s. And one thing that I’m writing about for Rookie is about why the 21st century isn’t that bad. It’s like, “We have Miranda July you guys! - Tavi Gevinson.
For young creatives today, Miranda July singlehandedly redeems the 21st century. The 37 year old is a genuine polymath, perhaps the only person in the world who could legitimately write in her Twitter bio “Writer, author, performance, online and visual artist, filmmaker, director, actor.” (Of course, her real bio says nothing of the sort.)
July co-founded the art project Learning to Love You More, an online community whose members completed assignments. It’s now a book. Her first feature-length film Me and You and Everyone We Know won The Caméra d’Or prize at The Cannes Festival in 2005. Her book of short stories No one belongs here more than you was widely acclaimed. She helped audience members participate in her performance piece “Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going To Talk About,” which formed the basis for her second feature film The Future. She wrote, directed and starred in it, and it’s just opened in Europe and America to rave reviews. “On the surface, this film is an enchanting meditation. At its core is the hard steel of individuality,” Roger Ebert said.
She is an inspiration, and so is her work. Gathered here from a variety of sources are a selection of July’s own words; we hope it helps young creatives starting out on their own journey.
You don’t have to go to university, film school or get an MFA to be an artist.
July dropped out of the University of California at Santa Cruz after a year. Instead, she lived in Portland, Oregan and focused on her work as a performance and visual artist, filmmaker and writer.
For me, school was taking away from getting to begin. I was never academic. I fight all conventions until they become useful to me.
I’d never been fired before. It was a lot like dropping out of school or being arrested. All of these institutions, in their crude, clumsy way, seemed to be saying, You don’t need us, we’ll never understand you, and it’s important for you not to want us to. I took the message to heart. I labored obsessively over creative pursuits they would never recognize, hurtling through systems and hierarchies as if nothing that already existed were relevant to me.
I don’t feel that much a part of any of these worlds, partly because of how I entered them… I always felt I was crashing.
Teach yourself your craft in your own way.
In 1996, July heard there was a video-editing machine in the basement of a nearby college’s library. With an expired student ID belonging to someone else, July sneaked in to edit her first film, Atlanta.
Late one night, I stumbled out of the Reed library with my finished movie in hand. I smiled condescendingly at the students in the foyer and walked past them into the night. Finally. Finally I wasn’t just a rebellious bundle of hopes. I had some hard evidence to back me up. It was like a degree but quicker; like a job but more fun; like a boyfriend but forever.
Wanting to connect with other women, July started an influential project that became “Joanie 4 Jackie,” a video chain letter for female filmmakers to share their work.
It sounds really altruistic but I was also lonely. ‘Joanie 4 Jackie’ saved me, because I felt like I was part of something. That was my film school.
I’m not a cinephile. My films don’t reference films. I’m more interested in rhythm and feeling.
Write your own story.
At 16, Miranda Jennifer Grossinger adopted her new name based on a story in a zine she created with a friend. She changed her name legally in her early 20s.
It was part of being self-authoring. And it was vanity. I wanted a name that I liked. July looked good on everything and seemed edible. But it’s a 15-year-old’s idea of a great name.
The point of art is to transform yourself through understanding.
I guess my favorite thing in the world is when I look at a piece of art, or read a story, or watch a movie where I walk away feeling like “Oh my god — I have to do something, I have to make something or talk to someone — things are not the same anymore” — and so I try to make work where you come away with that feeling. It’s like, yeah, you’re thinking about what you just saw, but even more than that — you feel able, you feel like, kind of propelled.
This is a picture of me taken in 1996. I am opening a letter from a stranger and no doubt my heart is pounding in a way that is uncalled for. I am 22 and I am just dying to know what this stranger has to say and I’m hoping it will turn my world upside down. Not that my world is so horrible, but I know it will be better upside down and understood by a stranger. It is this desire, to be transformed by understanding, that has pretty much propelled me through every single day since 1996.
The whole time I’ve been building my audience I’ve also been trying to unbuild the walls that come with having an audience, with having power. The whole point is to be able to feel more, to connect more, and yet in some ways having power runs at cross-purposes to this. Maybe I feel more just by sitting with a friend. And can I make a career, as a filmmaker and performer, that makes this sitting-with-a-friend feeling more possible, for each member of the audience and for myself? Yes! I say yes.
Feel the fear and do it anyway.
July approached 924 Gilman, a local punk club, to perform there rather than in school plays.
I remember thinking: I have to do this [play]. If I don’t, I might as well not exist. I was so overwhelmed, feeling like I could barely pull it off. I remember going outside and getting under a car parked in front of our house, some random car, just lying under that car, which seemed like the lowest thing you could do.
While making her new film, The Future,
I had a lot of anxiety. I was like, I can’t do this. I can only make one movie. But in truth, it was pretty great. It doesn’t mean it was fun, because I drove myself crazy the whole time, worrying that it wouldn’t come together.
Nothing I can come up with these days is as scary as opening for punk bands in bars back before anyone knew who I was. Sometimes these audiences were so confounded, so unfamiliar with the idea of “performance” that they would get angry and yell at me while I performed. I remember searching the crowd for the eyes of one woman who looked like she might know I was I was talking about. I would do it for her; that would get me through it.
Ideas, big and small, accrue over time.
I’ve always had trouble finding shoes that were relevant to me. In Portland I eventually convinced a shoe-repair man that if he could fix every part of a shoe, then he could probably make a pair of shoes from scratch. We designed them together, sort of a cartoon nurse shoe, and I wore them every day. We became friends, and the character of Richard in Me and You, the shoe salesman, is inspired, in part, by him. So the shoes are like so many of my themes: they were an organic part of my life and over time they’ve accrued meaning.
I usually have the thing in my head that I should be working on, and I’m taking notes for that. Then I’ll randomly have and “art idea” which seems really fun because no one is waiting for me to do that. Then one day some art show will ask me to do something and I’ll go back and look at that list of ideas. So art and performance are a lot like that; I have a lot of notes for those things, but usually a writing thing or a movie thing is on the front burner.
I write down the idea in my notebook, and then I put a little letter in the corner of the page in a circle. S for story, N for novel, M for movie, A for art, P for performance, B for business. This makes me sound totally rigid. I am also lots of fun. Totally wild! Party!
There’s always the sense that you should strike while the iron’s hot and while there are all these opportunities, but that’s not the way I get ideas. It has to be more organic, building up through living and through experiencing things.
Miranda July’s advice for artists.
…it’s important to start facing your demons early on. That’s going to be your challenge your entire life and you’re going to have to figure out how to get through the days or hours where you don’t feel dissolved or frayed. And you can begin that process now, you are a real artist now. I feel like when you’re a student, you forget that you’re just as real now as you will be when you graduate.
You give into distraction as if it is a murderer. You lay there, waiting to be killed. Today: fight for your life.
Being self-conscious doesn’t help you at all when you’re alone and trying to create something new. It does nothing.
Image: The top image via Zimbio.
Sources: The source for each of the 20 Miranda July quotes is directly linked in its number. They include:
- The New Yorker
- The New York Times
- Miranda July’s blog
- Miranda July interview on YouTube
- Seattle PI
- AV Club
- Letter to Jane
- F*ck Yeah Miranda July (a fan site)
- Miranda July, currated by Matthew Higgs, Interview Magazine (PDF)
- Miranda July’s website
Suggestions: If you like this post, you might enjoy
- “What matters is the work”: 25 lessons for creatives in Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids.’
- “I’m here to say something and to touch other people”: lessons for creatives from Keith Richards’ ‘Life.’
- How to get out of a creative rut.