- Grilled pimento cheese with red onion and tomato sandwiches.
- Crying on airplanes.
- Watching Buster Keaton’s The General with J Dilla’s Donuts as the soundtrack.
- Writing on balancing motherhood and art. Sally Mann’s Hold Still. Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Elena Ferrante. Writer Maureen McHugh on how she’s probably changed more lives being a mom and a teacher.
- Debbie Chachra’s “Why I Am Not A Maker.”
- Thinking about the relationship between artist and audience. What, if anything, we owe each other. Coltrane on what you give to the listener. Wendell Berry’s “Warning To My Readers.”
- Jez Burrows’ Dictionary Stories.
- David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat.
- Thinking about long-term creativity. Roger Angell on what it’s like to be 93-years-old. Women artists in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. David Hockney on making art at 77.
- Using Twitter’s “People You Follow” search to learn about new things.
- Spending more time on a private Slack channel than any other social media site.
- The crazy story of how I became friends with world-class violinist Vijay Gupta.
- Good music. The Velvet Underground, Matrix Tapes. Kraftwerk, Computer World. Captain Beefheart. Elvis Costello, Trust. Royal Headache, High. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities To Love. Sly and the Family Stone, There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Van Morrison, Veedon Fleece. Kurt Vile, b’lieve I’m goin down. Mac Demarco, Another One. King Sunny Ade. Fuzz, II. Madlib, Shades of Blue. Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There. Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle. Wilco’s The Whole Love. Pandora jazz stations.
- Getting into classical. Listening to Beethoven with my son. Mitsuko Uchida playing Mozart’s piano sonatas.
- Singing my son’s favorite songs: Little Anthony’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop,” Jonathan Richman’s “The Wheels on the Bus,” James Brown’s “Hot Pants,” and Buck Owen’s “Tiger By The Tail.”
- John McPhee’s essays on writing.
- Looking at the world through the eyes of my son. Looking at kid’s drawings. Looking at drawings that look like kid’s drawings.
- Finding a newspaper clipping from a friend who passed away.
- Emily Dickinson.
- Knowing I don’t deserve it and keeping on. Giving thanks. Writing down prayers. Drawing prayers.
- Morning mind maps.
- Seeing Kehinde Wiley’s show in Fort Worth.
- Dumb Amazon reviews.
- Nutty medieval paintings.
- Brian Eno’s concept of “Import and Export” and starting from unpromising beginnings.
- Meeting Edward Tufte.
- Going on a two-week vacation to Rhode Island. Reading in the hammock. Stones from Moonstone Beach. Walking trails. Outdoor showers. Newport. Walking around Providence. RISD with Ben Shaykin. A rainbow over the Dunkin’ Donuts. Monahan’s and Matunuck Oyster Bar. Rhubarb pies from the farmer’s stand. Fire pit smores.
- Seeing boredom as a luxury.
- Coming home and putting a new spin on old work with the newspaper popouts.
- Glitch rugs, quilts, and embroideries of microbes.
- Peppermint tea.
- T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
- That hour or two with my wife after the kids go to bed.
- Putting out The Steal Like An Artist Journal. Going on tour and perfecting the talk. Having such good fans that we had a great turnout at every event.
- Watching my work go out in the world. Seeing how people are using their journals. Heather Champ’s 30-day journal marathon. This photo.
- Saying “it wasn’t for me” and moving on. Knowing there are several potential reactions to art.
- Being a tourist in my own town.
- Practicing cursive. Jennifer Daniels on why Microsoft Word sucks. Hallie Bateman’s handwritten Pen Parade newsletter. Knowing when you should write with a pencil and when you should use a keyboard.
- Clive Thompson on reading War and Peace on his iPhone.
- Looking for the helpers.
- Sophia Lauren making pizza.
- Posters by the Stenberg Brothers.
- Watching Road Runner cartoons, Robin Hood, and Singin’ In The Rain with my sons.
- Warren Ellis’s story about Nina Simone wanting “some champagne, some cocaine, and some sausages!”
- Walking three and a half miles with a double stroller every morning.
- Going to the library with the boys. Reading James Marshall’s George and Martha, Souther Salazar’s Destined for Dizziness!, Blexbolex’s, Ballad, and Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?
- Doing mundane suburban stuff with my wife and the kids, like walking the mall and having lunch at the Nordstrom’s cafe, feeding the ducks at the pond, fiddling with instruments at Guitar Center, scoping the view from the top of a parking garage, eating hot dogs at Costco, etc.
- Playing a guitar with four strings. (Who needs more strings than fingers?)
- Rainbow makers.
- TSA pre-check.
- Redesigning my website so I don’t have to think about it for a few more years.
- Getting an original Wayne White painting for my birthday. (Related: having an amazing wife.)
- James Sturm’s Market Day.
- David Markson’s “anti-novels.”
- Watching Spongebob Squarepants and reading Carl Hiassen in Florida. Seeing Salvador Dali’s pixelated painting of Abe Lincoln at the Dali Museum.
- My son sharing my obsession with signs. Recycled signs. Hacked signs. Signs of danger. Borrowing life advice from an old Spaghetti Warehouse sign.
- Getting up in the middle of the night to see the blood moon over Gdansk, Poland. Looking at the moon. My son telling me it’s following us. Pluto! Getting binoculars for Christmas.
- Speaking at LucasFilm and seeing the Marin headlands.
- New York City. Walking the Highline at sunset. Running into Kelli and Frank at the Whitney. Walking the Hudson at sunrise. Neue Gallery with Maria K. Brooklyn bagels. Paulie Gee’s pizza.
- Good television. Broad City. Fargo. Louie. Justified. The Americans. South Park.
- Having people make you a list. Adam Koford’s list of favorite old movies. Making a soul playlist for my friend Mike.
- People getting fed up with authenticity nonsense and artisanal crap. The Search For General Tso.
- Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
- Accepting that a life in the arts is like Groundhog Day and that “tomorrow is another day, another chance to work and play.” Accepting the dailiness of it all. Getting up on The One. Edward Tufte on how to have better mornings. Tim Gunn’s Sunday routine. David Letterman’s paper cups. Azealia Banks’ 3 a.m. routine. Forgetting the noun and doing the verb.
- David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Buying a filing cabinet and practicing inbox triage.
- Not worrying too much about productivity. Christoph Niemann on the importance of inefficiency. Agatha Christie on having messy notebooks.
- Trying to be a teacher while remaining a student. Re-thinking art education. Sister Corita Kent. Paul Thek’s Teaching Notes. John Waters’ RISD commencement address. Robert De Niro on being screwed. Draw It With Your Eyes Closed: The Art of The Art Assignment. Re-mystifying art. Wendy MacNaughton on Periscope. Teaching blackout poetry workshops to high schoolers.
- Being real about money and fighting the “do what you love” crowd. How Deerhoof makes a living on the road. Having 90,000 Instagram fans and still serving brunch.
- Looking at art. The woodcuts and paintings of Felix Vallotton. The work of Margaret Kilgallen. The work of Hedda Sterne. Jim Darling’s airplane window drawings. Penelope Umbrico’s Flickr suns. Paul Thek’s 96 Sacraments, butterflies, and notebooks. Georgia O’Keeffe’s watercolors. Paintings by Souther Salazar. Paintings by Matt Forsythe. Animated GIFs by Lille Carre. Paintings by Shane Walsh. Flying saucer paintings by Esther Pearl Watson. The illustrations of J. Otto Seibold. Paul Klee’s arrows. Drawings by Andy Warhol. Watching Saul Steinberg and Tove Jansson draw. @rabihalameddine’s Twitter feed.
- Texting my wife when we’re in the same room.
- Long phone calls with artist friends.
- Paper. The work of Kelli Anderson. Gay Talese’s love of collage. Articles with headliness like “Don’t write off paper just yet” or “Paper notebooks are as relevant as ever.” Nick Bilton on seeing the value of print books after his mother’s death. Merlin Mann on the problem with fancy notebooks. Neil Gaiman’s notebooks. Basquiat’s notebooks.
- Great writing about art. Dave Hickey’s lectures, Air Guitar, and Pirates and Farmers. Blake Gopnik on Corita Kent, Andy Warhol’s student work, and Andy Goldsworthy’s throwing sticks.
- Oliver Jeffers’ dipped paintings.
- Grimes’ demo for “Realti.”
- Music stories. Synth Britannia. John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. How the Eurythmics recorded “Sweet Dreams.” How two white synth geeks helped Stevie Wonder make his best records. The producer who got Ace of Base’s demo stuck in his tape deck. Elvis singing to an actual hound dog.
- Learning how to be a better parent. Andrew Solomon’s, Far From the Tree. The best parenting advice: “Don’t Kill Them.” Thinking about toys for children. Raul Gutierrez on the best kinds of toys.
- The power of a simple kitchen timer.
- Sharpening pencils and sniffing them.
- Buying a house. Never spending another second on Zillow. Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston.”
- Animals attacking drones.
- Ron Swanson on creativity. Kimmy Schmidt on following your bliss. Crazy Eyes on her writing process. Marty McFly on creative frustration. Dana Scully on genius.
- Oliver Sacks on a motorcycle.
- The inside cover of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres.
- Unpretentious restaurants. Maudie’s. Mi Madre’s. Tam Deli. Little Deli. S&H Donuts.
- Detroit-style pizza from Via313.
- Record shopping as therapy.
- Los Angeles. The Last Bookstore. Echo Park with Vijay. LACMA with Adam. Mexican with Mike and Erika and the gang. Taking the train to Pasadena. Seeing the Martian at the ArcLight with Jamie.
- Tove Jansson. Moomin comics. Being Moominpapa.
- Patrice O’Neal, Elephant in the Room.
- Watching movies. Mad Max: Fury Road. Creed. Only Lovers Left Alive. Don Hertzfeld’s World of Tomorrow. Sullivan’s Travels. John Wick. Magic Mike XXL. Das Boot. Far From The Madding Crowd.
- Re-reading books like Slaughterhouse-Five.
- Re-watching movies. No Country For Old Men. Road House. Best In Show. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Jurassic Park. Moonrise Kingdom. Zoolander. Moonstruck.
- Doing it yourself.
- Figuring out how to stay alive.
- Turning the ship around.
- Hot fudge sundaes with nuts and whipped cream.
- The birth of my son Jules.
- Taking a nap.
Tove Jansson, Moomin: The Deluxe Anniversary Edition
No book gave me more pleasure this year. When my son Owen was born, all I seemed to be able to read was oldNancy comics. After my son Jules was born, it was Moomin. These comics are so, so wonderful. They belong in everyone’s library.
Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
A book that made me rethink the way I operate online. You know this is an important book because it seems like every week there’s an additional chapter to be written in it. Ronson’s writing is smart and hugely entertaining — if I hadn’t already read Shamed, The Psychopath Test probably would’ve been on this list, too.
James Sturm, Market Day
A beautiful comic about the struggle of the artist to produce work of value in a market economy.
Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy
Some of the best writing about art and culture I’ve ever read. My highlights.
Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs
Mann is that rare master of both pictures and words, and her memoir shows off that mastery: the visual images are perfectly woven into the text to tell her story. My highlights.
Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write
Short essays about making art and raising children, and the interesting ways that one influences and provides insight into the other. I really liked it. My highlights.
I read this book to my son so many times this year I couldn’t count. Fantastic illustrations, weird and bizarre. A modern fairy tale.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
A classic book of poems to read when you’re traveling, or moving from one place to the next. (When aren’t we?) My highlights.
A perfectly-executed book in form and content. My highlights.
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity
Joe Hill called this “the Moby-Dick of parenting books,” and he’s right: it’s too-long and it takes forever to get through, but you get taken somewhere, and you’re really glad you read it. I would lie in bed at the end of the day, exhausted, listening to my loud newborn honk and coo and wheeze and snore in the next room, read about the struggles of all the parents and their stories in the book, and I’d think, “Shit, man, I can handle tomorrow.”
Jenny Offill, Dept. Of Speculation
A wonderful novel about art, marriage, and motherhood that you can read it in one sitting. My highlights.
James Marshall, George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends
When you find books you love reading to your kid as much as they love being read to from, you know you’ve got something special. These books are perfect in format, and so much fun.
David Allen, Getting Things Done
“One of these things is not like the other…” A productivity classic for a reason. I went out and bought a filing cabinet after reading. My highlights.
Corita Kent and Jan Steward, Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit
A wonderful book about making art that deserves a better cover, better production value, and probably a re-release. My highlights.
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
I don’t think this one hit me the way it hit some readers I know, but it’s very good, with a really smart system of quotation, and a good, solid ending.My highlights.
Oliver Sacks, On The Move
Messy and loses a little steam at the end, but it’s incredibly readable, and just a tad smutty at times, which is pretty delightful. Damn, what a life! (My highlights.)
John Seabrook, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
If you’ve suspected lately that you’re not just old and pop music really is getting worse, Seabrook does a great job of explaining why. My highlights.
Mary Karr, The Art Of Memoir
Hey, it’s a Mary Karr book, so there was a helluva lot of underlining. She sure can write a sentence. (My highlights.)
I don’t know why these books work for me — they’re like stumbling on the Twitter feed of the most fascinating art buff, and scrolling and scrolling, but yet, they build and build towards something. I read them at night, and they put me into a kind of hypnotic state. (I got through about 20-30 pages until I fell asleep.) I consider these one big book and would love to see a collected edition of all four.
Leslie Barker, a writer at the Dallas Morning News, got in touch with me way back in October and asked me about a subject I consider myself an expert on: the benefits of boredom.
Here’s what I wrote in Steal Like An Artist:
When it comes to the benefits of boredom, I’m certainly not the first to write about the subject…
Young artists are always being told to “find your voice.”
Whatever that means!
I’ve never heard anyone explain it better than Billy Collins at a White House poetry workshop. I couldn’t find the text anywhere, so I transcribed it below. (If you’ve read Steal Like An Artist, this might sound really familiar…)
Lots of writers — myself included — have stressed the importance of subtraction, or knowing what to leave out.
Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but of what is left out of it.”
Dizzy Gillespie: “You spend a lifetime playing music to learn what not to play.”
Elmore Leonard: “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
But what if you leave out the wrong stuff? How do you know what to leave in?
Here’s David Mamet, in Three Uses Of The Knife:
I used to say that a good writer throws out the stuff that everybody else keeps. But an even better test occurs to me: perhaps a good writer keeps the stuff everybody else throws out.
Peter Turchi told me when he’s teaching writing workshops, he’s careful not to try to “fix” a student’s story too quickly:
[W]e have to recognize that the thing that looks most flawed, might, in fact, be the most interesting thing in the work. So we’re not looking for the thing that functions best, because to do that is to only reward the most conventional and most familiar moves the work makes. But to try to recognize the thing that excites us the most, or intrigues us the most, which may be something the writer doesn’t even understand.
“Life is selection,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The work of the gardener is simply to destroy this weed, or that shrub, or that tree, & leave this other to grow.”
But which weed? Which shrub? Which tree?
Exactly. That’s the art.
One of my favorite pages in The Steal Like An Artist Journal was inspired by Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, a collection of assorted texts that the emperor wrote to himself as he was trying to figure things out and keep his life straight.
Book One is titled “Debts and Lessons.” It’s a list of people in Aurelius’s life and what he learned from them:
It’s interesting how a picture of Aurelius’s upbringing forms just from reading this simple list.
I encourage you to make your own list and give thanks to the people who have taught you something.
“Creative work is very hard,” wrote Sidney Lumet in Making Movies. “Some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”
In the beginning, you have to trick yourself into believing you have something worth saying.
So when you’re first starting out, you surround yourself with people who will provide you with helpful criticism, but who will also be cheerleaders — people who will root for you and tell you to keep going, even if you’re not any good yet.
BUT! If you achieve success, it’s CRUCIAL that you have people in your life who will be real editors, keep you grounded, and push you. People who will support you, sure, but will also be honest with you about the quality of the work you’re doing.
It’s also crucial to be honest with yourself. No matter how far along you are, maintaining a certain amount of impostor syndrome can be a healthy thing.
“I think most of us feel like fakes,” wrote Lumet. “At some point ‘they’ will get onto us and expose us for what we are: know-nothings, hustlers, and charlatans. It’s not a totally destructive feeling. It tends to keep us honest.”
You probably don’t deserve what you have. So keep moving and earn it.
Just in time for the holidays: If you order any of my books from Bookpeople here in Austin, Texas, before December 12 I will sign and personalize them!
Even better news: Bookpeople ships everywhere!
How to order: Go to Bookpeople.com, add any or all of my books to your cart, and in the comments field during check out, indicate the name of the person to whom you would like the book(s) signed.
Direct links to each book:
I will sign as many books as you order! They make great, affordable gifts for the office, classroom, or friends and family!
I often get the question, “What do you do when you’re blocked?”
The best course of action is to not get blocked in the first place. If you set up a good daily routine in which you do something small every day and chain-smoke on your projects, there’s less chance of stalling out and getting blocked.
Schedule the little chunk of time every day to do your work, set a timer for as long as you have, and if it’s not going well, when the timer goes off, you walk away, forget about the work, and go about the rest of your day, knowing you’ll take another whack at it tomorrow.
That said, blocks will come, and at times you’ll stall out and feel stuck. What I find is that problems of output are usually problems of input.