Artist of the Unknown

In an interview about nothing, Miranda July presents David Swick with a defense for being enough, feeling okay, and an intuitive spirituality.

Photo by Todd Cole

Miranda July

Every generation needs an artist who is insightful and multitalented, quirky and brave. For thirtysomethings, it’s Miranda July.

July is now writing her second feature film, a story based on the fear of nothingness. This is not the subject of most feature films, but it is vintage July. Her career is one long string of surefooted surprises, from performance art to groundbreaking websites. July’s debut feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, won a major prize at Cannes, and this year critics are praising her first book of short stories, Nobody Belongs Here More than You.

Talking to July is like experiencing her work; she is both innocent and knowing, certain and insecure. Her faith and fears are laid out for all to see. It is as if her surefootedness rests in transparent vulnerability.

I think of you as this wonderful democrat, saying to people, “Everyone can make art and live an artful life.” What holds people back from doing that?

Miranda July: There’s not a lot of positive feedback, especially early on. You need people around you saying, “What happened to you today that was interesting?” You have to genuinely believe that there is something interesting and special about daily life and your experience of it. I think people feel this innately, because life is pretty amazing. But the idea that this feeling might be correct and natural and worth sharing—you’re quickly told it’s self-indulgent or selfish or just so off topic. And everything reinforces that as you get older.

A lot of articles refer to you as a workaholic. Is this still true?

I do have a feeling that I’m never doing enough. It’s a struggle for me to feel happy, or that things are OK, if I’m not working or haven’t just made something. It’s like an addiction to having expressed myself. I don’t have any other addictions; I’ve got to figure this out. I have to remember the things that make me feel good that aren’t about that. Going to yoga, for example. I’m the worst in the class, which is one reason why it’s really good.

Do you have any other practices that might be considered spiritual?

I was more involved in meditation a few years ago. I did a couple of mindfulness retreats which I think ultimately were a little hard core for my temperament, which already has a tendency to be pretty extreme. I used to try to meditate on my own, but I don’t do that now, except in little ways. I do little breathing things throughout the day. I’ll just sit and be aware of my breathing, and breathe it all out for a long time, then breathe it all in and hold it, then breathe it all out. When I’m performing live, if I have any nervousness or stage fright, breathing takes all that away.

Is there an overriding spiritual philosophy or values that inform all of your work?

Not in an educated sense, in that it’s all very intuitive. But yeah, everything comes back to and comes out of my internal world. My sense of the world is a spiritual one, and a kind of magical one. My biggest relationship to the unknown that is still known on some level is my work. In order to make work, I have to trust other levels besides the mental ones. And I have to make work in order to stay, if not happy, feeling like the world is the right place for me.

What do you mean by the world being spiritual and magical?

I often make work about things I don’t know what they’re about, and I have to trust that. Often I’m going off of different signs and signals, things I kind of pick up on in my life, and if I trust them then later things are kind of revealed to me and I realize, Oh, this is what I’m writing about, this old pain.

Like right now I’m writing a script that’s more or less about the fear of nothingness, of emptiness—and all the things that are done fleeing in terror of that. On another level it’s a story of heartbreak. I’m always keeping in sight these hard-to-get-at things that are taking place while I’m writing. I’m afraid of nothingness right now.

Do you spend a lot of energy protecting yourself? I’m thinking in particular of your childlike qualities.

I guess I do, in the sense that I could have done any number of things after Me and You and Everyone We Know, and I decided not to do anything—just wait for the new thing to arise out of me, as long as that would take. Which is scary; it’s a lot safer to just take something someone is offering. But I thought, well, it’s worked this long. I need to stick to this—not take money for things I haven’t made, because that would sort of make them not mine before they were even born.

You are staying away from the big studios because you don’t want to do it that way?

I could have had all these meetings, all these things that you do. I just realized that I’m really very sensitive and impressionable, and that would be distracting for me.

If you could pull the rug out from under one problem in society, what would it be?

Maybe it’s because I live in L.A., but I’m very aware of how much people want attention. In different ways, not just the obvious ones. Essentially they want to be reparented, want a second shot at someone telling them they are the best thing ever. And so many other problems come out of that: intense consumerism, body stuff for women.

Seeing that we can’t go back, what can we do about that?

It sounds clichéd, but just to realize it’s not “out there.” You’re not going to go buy it or get it outside of yourself. Unfortunately, it’s harder.

On your website, you list Ten Wonderful Things and one is: “Another thing I find really works is giving up. You’re supposed to never do that, but you do it many times a day and it’s spiritual.” What do you mean by that?

I’m probably speaking to that kind of workaholic part of myself. It’s that part of myself that thinks I’m not lovable unless I’m working. So to give up is pretty powerful. There is room for stuff to come in when you give up, even for a moment.