Just don’t lose the magic


“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor.”
—bell hooks

In a terrific piece about his writing education, George Saunders talks about getting into the MFA program at Syracuse and hanging out with his new mentor, Tobias Wolff:

At a party, I go up to Toby and assure him that I am no longer writing the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with, i.e., the stuff that had gotten me into the program in the first place. Now I am writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: “real writing.”

Toby looks worried. But quickly recovers.

“Well, good!” he says. “Just don’t lose the magic.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Why would I do that? That would be dumb.

I go forward and lose all of the magic, for the rest of my time in grad school and for several years thereafter…

He later sums it up:

[S]omehow, under the pressure of suddenly being surrounded by good writers, I went timid and all the energy disappeared from my work–I’ve lost the magic indeed, have somehow become a plodding, timid, bad realist.

You see this pattern over and over with many creative people: they have this little bit of magic, a spark of something that comes naturally to them, and it’s often messy and weird and a little bit off, and that’s why they catch our attention in the first place. The odd magic is what we love about them.

Then, something happens. They decide it’s time, now, to be serious.

The wild painter whose Instagram you love goes to grad school and all of the sudden her posts get boring. A brilliant illustrator decides to write a book, a real book, one without any pictures in it, and it comes out and bores you to tears. Etc.

(Preston Sturges sends up this impulse in his great movie about a comedy director who decides he wants to make a serious film, Sullivan’s Travel’s.)

It happened to me: before I went to college, I loved poetry, drawing, and art with a sense of humor. Then, after I got to college, I decided, It’s time, now, to be serious. I started to believe in the following misguided equations:

  1. fiction > poetry
  2. words > pictures
  3. tragedy > comedy

Eventually, I got so miserable that I threw those equations out the window, bought a sketchbook, and started reading comics again. When I graduated college, I started making my weird, occasionally funny, blackout poems. Slowly, a little bit of the magic came back.

But whenever that impulse returns, that impulse to come on now be serious, I lose the magic again. It happened most recently getting ready for my upcoming art show. That stupid voice started saying: This is a gallery show. This is Art. I need to be serious.

Cue the choke.

A few years ago, Bill Murray gave a speech to a bunch of baseball players and he ended it with this perfect bit of Zen:

If you can stay light, and stay loose, and stay relaxed, you can play at the very highest level—as a baseball player or a human being.

I keep this goofy picture of him in my studio:


It’s up there to remind me: Stay at it, but stay light. Don’t be afraid to do what comes naturally. Fight the urge to be serious. Don’t let it destroy the very thing that makes you you.

Like Tobias Wolff said, “Just don’t lose the magic.”

What did you make today, papa?


I came in from my 10-foot commute once and my 3-year-old looked up from his snack and said, “What did you make today, papa?”

It took me by surprise, as I had always assumed that when I was out of sight I was out of mind. (I now know that children seem to be most interested in you when you’re not around. When you’re actually around, they love to ignore you.) “No, he asks about you all the time,” my wife said. “He always wants to know what you’re doing. I tell him, ‘Papa’s out in his studio making things.’”

I can’t remember if that day I’d actually made anything. Some days I don’t, you know. Some days, the sad, pathetic days, it’s just answering e-mail and thinking about all the things I should be making and how I’m not making them.

But rarely does a day go by when my son doesn’t make something. I envy his setup and his habits. His mom has placed all the supplies within easy reach. He doesn’t torture himself. The goal is simple: There is a car-carrier truck that doesn’t exist that needs to exist. He sets to work with clear purpose and utter concentration. There is frustration, occasionally, but it usually passes. And when he’s done, he’s done, and it’s off to something else.

I try my best to copy the approach. First, I try to be my own mother: leave the workspace tidy, pens and notebooks at hand. Then, I try to be him: I try to go at it with his intensity, but also his indifference to the results. I fail more often than not.

“I learned so much about art from watching a kid draw,” said John Baldessari, former grade-school teacher. “Kids don’t call it art when they’re throwing things around, drawing—they’re just doing stuff.”

Almost every parenting cliché I’ve ever heard has turned out to be true. This makes it hard to add anything original. (Originality is yet another thing my son has never worried about.) Kay Ryan says a poet’s job is to rehabilitate clichés, but I sure don’t envy those who write parenting memoirs. All I feel I can offer is corroboration of the cliché: Sunday will be my fourth father’s day and I’m still learning and I still feel like he’s teaching me more than I’m teaching him. He’s asking me all the questions I should be asking myself.

“What did you make today, papa?”

Advice for the recent graduate


The chances are good that if you’ve recently graduated, you’re broke and living with your parents. (Cheer up: you’re in the majority.)

Here are 5 things you can do right now that will make your life better and won’t cost you much:

1. Treat your day like a 9-5 job.


How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

This is especially important if you’re unemployed. A structureless life is a depressing life. Our days work better when they have a reliable shape. Grab a copy of Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals (if you can’t afford it, see #2 on this list) and read about the daily routines of famous artists, scientists, and creative people. Take inspiration from them. Cobble together your own daily routine and stick to it. As tempting as it is to sleep in, train yourself to get up early and do the thing that’s most important to you. (When you do something small every day, the days add up.) And at the end of the day, take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice to his own daughter:

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

2. Hang out at your local library.


I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library… I discovered that the library is the real school.
—Ray Bradbury

School can burn you out on reading because you’ve been stuck reading a ton of books you didn’t choose for yourself. Now’s the time to jump in and fall in love again, by reading the stuff you actually want to read. (“Read at whim!”)

A lot of young people complain they don’t have money for books — get your butt to the library!  If they don’t have the books you want, ask the librarian how you can request them.(You can start by looking for my books.) When you get to the library, you might find that they also have free, fast wi-fi, access to online eBooks and databases, and a rad DVD collection. Unlike Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, you can hang out there all day without buying anything and not feel bad about it. They also have a lot of resources for people looking for work. Go up to a librarian and ask them to show you around. You’ll make their day.

3. Take long walks.


I set out to dispel daily depression. Every afternoon I get low-spirited, and one day I discovered the walk…. I set myself a destination, and then things happen in the street.
—Vivian Gormick

Walking is tremendous exercise for the body, the mind, and the spirit. Many of the great thinkers have built walking into their daily routines, for example, Dickens used to take epic, twelve-mile strolls around London and work out his writing. Hit the bricks. Find somebody with a dog who needs walked. Again, it doesn’t cost anything, and you never know what you’re going to see. (Maybe a “We’re Hiring” sign?)

4. Teach yourself to cook.


Please, America, cook your own food. Heating is not cooking. Heating heats. Cooking transforms. It matters. And it’s not hard.
—Michael Ruhlman

If you can cook for yourself, you can eat better and save a ton of money. Pick up some simple cookbooks when you’re at the library (try Bittman’s How To Cook Everything) and look up some YouTube videos. If you’re lucky enough to have a relative who’s decent in the kitchen, cooking is a nice way to spend time together, and cooking for them is a good way to pitch in for your free rent. For tools, start with a sharp knife and a cast iron skillet and go from there. (Tip: The easiest dinner in the world is roast chicken and potatoes.)

5. Keep a journal.


The point… is not to record what you already know about what happened to you in the last 24 hours. Instead, it’s an invitation to the back of your mind to come forward and reveal to you the perishable images about the day you didn’t notice you noticed at all.
—Lynda Barry

Especially when you’re down-on-your-luck or just in between phases of your life, writing in a notebook can be the easiest way to feel like you’re accomplishing something.

Set a timer for 15 minutes and fill as many pages as you can, or, if you have plenty of time, do Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” exercise, and fill 3 pages every morning before you start your day. (And yes, you have to do it by hand.)

You might think you know what you’re thinking, but seeing your thoughts down on the page tells you what’s really going on inside your head.

A journal is also a great place to write down all the bad ideas, bad thoughts, and bad feelings you shouldn’t tweet.

Carry your journal around with you and write in it all the time: make notes in between job interviews, doodle while you’re watching Netflix, daydream about what you want out of life, etc. Any old notebook and pen will do, but if you have $10 or a generous parent, you can grab the journal I made.

Never throw out your journals — keep them, pull them out in ten years, and you won’t believe how far you’ve come.

On newsletters

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Here’s a tip: Try to keep your imminent death out of mind or else you’ll never get any blogging done.

Because people have asked: here are 3 lessons I’ve learned from doing a weekly newsletter.

1. Send out a newsletter you’d actually read.

This should be obvious. Check your inbox and you’ll discover it isn’t.

Lots of people start newsletters because it’s one more box to tick on their Content Checklist™. Please don’t be one of these people.

I mean, sure, you can start a newsletter for crass self-promotional reasons, but if you want people to actually care, you’ve got to put a little love in it. It’s hard for people to love things that are made without love.

My favorite newsletters are what blogs used to be: Places for interesting people to share the things they’re interested in.

Oh, and before you hit send, consult The “So What?” Test.

2. Pick a repeatable format.

Everything good takes time to take off. If you’re going to stick with it, it helps to make your process as simple as possible.

Dig through my archives and you’ll find that my weekly emails mostly follow the same template. Every Thursday afternoon, I make a copy of last week’s newsletter, plug in new stuff, and schedule it to send out on Friday.

Having a repeatable format also has the pleasant side effect of consistency. People like to know what they’re in for — otherwise, they tend to hit “mark as spam.”

3. Turn off unsubscribe notifications.

Every time I send out a newsletter, at least 50 people unsubscribe immediately. That’s just the way it goes.

Analytics can get depressing — why not arrange the numbers so you’re only getting good news? Makes things a lot more fun.

MailChimp has a box where people can type in their reasons for unsubscribing. I recommend ignoring these reports.

“I don’t mind women leaving,” Richard Pryor once joked, “but they always want to tell you why!”

Later, scrubs! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

You can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Fitting it together


“This is an age of divorce. Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you do is the only thing that you can do: you take two things that ought to be together and you put them back together. Two things, not all things! That’s the way the work has to go. You make connections in your work… That’s what we do, we people who make things. If it’s a stool or a film or a poem or an essay or a novel or a musical composition, it’s all about that. Finding how it fits together and fitting it together.”
Wendell Berry