“REJOICE IN HUMANNESS! Machines can’t make mistakes. If you compete with a machine on its terms YOU LOSE! So don’t reduce your writing to be like type. YOU ARE NOT A TYPEWRITER! Admit mistakes, correct them, & go right on.
—Jacqueline Svaren, Written Letters
Andy Warhol said, “I want to be a machine,” but we’ve been there and done that, and besides, he was delight-full of crap, like all great artists, because when I stood in front of those big silk-screened flowers last week they sure didn’t feel like they were made by machines. You could sense the human behind them…
“These are not yet automata.”
—Studs Terkel, Working
I remember a few years ago how triumphant I felt when the Twitter spam account @horse_ebooks turned out to be a human pretending to be a machine. Some were disappointed, but the feed seemed too weird and beautiful to me to be completely random. I was happy to see a human behind it.
“The next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”
I like my machines just fine, but I’m not interested in turning into one. I’d like to remain a person. I truly believe one of the most subversive things you can do today is spend as much of your time as possible nurturing what is not machine-like in you.
If you turn to the “first lines” index of many poetry collections, you can find bonus poems the poets probably never intended you to read.
I found this one in Bill Knott’s I Am Flying into Myself:
A short one from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson:
And the alphabetical end of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems:
“I really don’t think the artist is an intellectual. I believe that the artist is a set of nerves.”
I was paging through a catalog of the photomontage work of Hannah Höch when I came across “Angst,” a very simple collage she made in 1970 using a photograph from a 1960 Life magazine article, “Harriet’s Celebrated Show of Nerves”:
It’s not my absolute favorite collage of Höch’s, but the source material fascinated me: the article is about a college janitor who donated her body for dissection after eavesdropping on an anatomy professor complaining in one of his lectures about the availability of corpses to study. (More of the story here.)
On the second page of the article was an image that totally spooked me, because I’d seen it before — I’d found it online back in February, when my son Owen was going through a “human body” phase. I printed it out and gave it to him to copy. I then asked him to write “ALL NERVES” above it:
The drawing currently hangs in my studio. When I look at it, I think about our times, how bombarded with electrical signals we are, how close some of us are to a nervous breakdown, how we all seem to be in the business of getting on each other’s nerves —“the nerve of these creeps!”
Then, sometimes the drawing says to me: Your nerves are all you’ve got. Don’t lose your nerve. Steady your nerves. Touch a nerve.
I think of Frank O’Hara, who said of writing poetry, “You just go on your nerve.”
And Emily Dickinson, who wrote: “If your Nerve, deny you— / Go above your Nerve.”
“When you draw,” says Ed Emberley, “you go away. You go to another place. It’s a safe place. And it’s a real place.”
“A piece of paper is a place,” says Lynda Barry. “The thing you draw with is the way you travel through that place.”
“I make places I want to go to,” says Renee French.
“It’s sublime,” said Maurice Sendak, “to go into another room and make pictures. It’s magic time, where all your weaknesses of character, the blemishes of your personality, whatever else torments you, fades away, just doesn’t matter.”
In Jules Feiffer’s house when he was growing up, “Everything was a secret. So in order to make my own secrets, to establish my own way out of things I couldn’t understand, [I drew]. And it’s a way of not just escape, but of survival.”
“Drawing is 50,000 years old, isn’t it?” says David Hockney. “I think it comes from very deep within us. When all those people in the 1970s were trying to give up drawing, I did go and see them and they said: ‘Oh, you don’t need to draw now.’ And I did point out: ‘Well, why don’t you tell that to that little child there? Tell them you don’t need to draw and see what happens.’”
“Drawing is my way of explaining to myself what goes on in my mind,” said Saul Steinberg. “It’s not I who makes this drawing. It’s the hand that drew that makes it.”
“As kids,” Lynda Barry says, “we went to the page to find something, to have an experience. As adults, she says, “we have it backwards.” We think that we need to have an experience before we go to the page.
Cy Twombly: “It’s more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.”
Ken Robinson tells this story: “A little girl was in a drawing lesson. [The teacher] said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”
“Drawing isn’t work,” says a character in Christophe Blain’s Isaac The Pirate. “It’s a form of prayer.”
Last year I gave graduates some advice and it went like this:
- Treat your day like a 9-5 job.
- Hang out at your local library.
- Take long walks.
- Teach yourself to cook.
- Keep a journal.
Here’s 5 more pieces of advice. As always, take what you need, leave the rest.
6. Find a new city.
We want so badly to emulate our heroes. We go to their lives for inspiration and we fill our heads full of romantic stories about how they made it. But we often fail to put our heroes in their proper contexts — we don’t acknowledge the environments in which these heroes came up and we try to copy what they did without updating the moves to our own situations.
Patti Smith wrote a whole book about her New York City origin story called Just Kids. But back then, she emphasizes, NYC was sort of a dump, and really, really cheap. Today, NYC is not what it was, and it is not as open or as cheap for young people. Smith now encourages young people to “find a new city.”
Ask yourself what you really need in a place to live. Find a place where you can thrive. If you’re broke and you want to do something weird and interesting that doesn’t necessarily fit into a traditional model, consider finding a place to live off the beaten path. When I was 21, I moved to Cleveland with my girlfriend. It was so cheap to live there I could work a 20-hour-a-week library job and spend the rest of my time reading and blogging. Almost everything I do now has root in what I discovered during that time.
This is something I heard cartoonist Paul Karasik say at the end of a comics lecture.
When you find something you really love — a painting, or a book, or a movie — spend as much time as you can studying it. Stand in front of a painting for 2 hours. Re-read a book several times. Freeze-frame a movie and study the composition of each scene. Etc.
We often avoid studying the things we love in depth like this because we’re afraid we’ll miss out on all the other things that might be out there. (Some of this, I think, comes from school: we’re used to broad, survey-style courses, where you try to digest the whole history of a form in one semester. You have to stick to the syllabus — you can’t spend too much time on Homer because you have to get to Virgil!)
When I was starting out as a writer, I was in such a panic to digest as much as I could right away, I would never re-read books. I would move from one book to the next, gobbling them up. Eventually I got comfortable going back to old favorites, getting to know them in depth, discovering things I’d missed, finding connections between the things that really spoke to me. Now I value re-reading old favorites even more than reading something new.
8. Steal old stuff.
One of the quickest ways to develop more original work is to stop stealing from people who are alive and start stealing from the dead. Dig into the past and go deep.
Everybody has a hot take to offer in these troubling times, but I tend to get more inspiration and comfort from someone like the Montaigne in Stefan Zweig’s biography, who lived 400 years ago, but never really knew life in his country without political turmoil. (By the way, he stole from the dead constantly.)
The great thing about stealing stuff from the dead is that you’re automatically forced to update their ideas and stories for your contemporary context. This act of transformation almost always makes the stuff, in some sense, your own…
In the book When Strangers Meet, my friend Kio Stark writes about how interacting with strangers puts us more in the present moment, makes us feel more alive. These interactions, of course, teach us things we wouldn’t know otherwise. (Richard Ford: “When people realize they’re being listened to, they tell you things.”) When you mix with all kinds of different people, you get a bigger, more interesting picture of the world.
There’s a lot of talk about diversity on college campuses, but it usually focuses on race, gender, or religion. Economic diversity is another matter: very often the student body is rather homogenous when it comes to class. (All of my friends in college were, like me, pretty middle-class.) Depending on where you are in America, and what kind of diversity you’re looking for, a walk down a city street is liable to put you in touch with a much more diverse set of people than a college campus.
There’s one other kind of diversity that I think is undervalued in our culture: age. It struck me one day in college that I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a baby or an elderly person. (Now those are the two groups I probably come across the most: the kids on the playground or the retirees out for a morning walk in my neighborhood.) Think about offering to babysit for the little ones in your life and spending time with your grandparents or volunteering at a nursing home — there’s a lot of good that comes from such cross-generational interactions.
The late Amy Krouse Rosenthal once tweeted, “for anyone trying to discern what to do w/ their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. that’s pretty much all the info u need.”
“Scenius” is a term coined by musician and producer Brian Eno to counter “The Lone Genius Myth,” or the idea that innovation in art and culture comes from a few Great Chosen Ones. When Eno draws what the traditional model of genius looks like, he uses the example of the symphony orchestra, with God or the Muse at the very top of the triangle, and on descending levels, the composer, the conductor, the musicians, and, finally, the audience listening:
He then draws other organizations in our society that traditionally have hierarchical models:
When he gets to “scenius,” or what he calls the communal form of genius, he draws this:
Here’s what I wrote about it in my book, Show Your Work!:
There’s a healthier way of thinking about creativity that the musician Brian Eno refers to as “scenius.” Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.” If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals: it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.
What I love about the idea of scenius is that it makes room in the story of creativity for the rest of us: the people who don’t consider ourselves geniuses. Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.
To put it even more simply: Genius is an egosystem, scenius is an ecosystem.
Our world is an ecosystem in which our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.
This was the message of the great feminist and pacifist Ursula Franklin, who said:
The dream of a peaceful society to me is still the dream of a potluck supper. The society in which all can contribute, and all can find friendship. Those who bring things, bring things that they do well. [We must] create conditions under which a potluck is possible.
When you think about your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your office, your city, your country, your world… are you operating as an ecosystem or an egosystem?
Which model we choose to operate under will determine the quality of our lives, and, arguably, our survival.
Try this: Next time you come across someone’s work and you’re not sure exactly how they do it, don’t ask them how it’s done. Don’t go after the “right answer” like some eager honors student. Look closer. Listen harder. Then use your imagination and experiment with the tools you have. Your bad approximation will lead to something of your own.