I’ve never had a journalist bring art supplies to an interview, but when Adrienne Breaux interviewed me in October for a forthcoming piece in Uppercase Magazine, she brought some chalk along and let me doodle while we talked. Hope it starts a trend.
It takes time to do anything worthwhile, but thankfully, we don’t need it all in one chunk. So this year, forget about the year as a whole. Forget about months and forget about weeks.
Focus on days.
The day is the only unit of time that I can really get my head around. Seasons change, weeks are completely human-made, but the day has a rhythm. The sun goes up; the sun goes down. I can handle that.
There’s a reason many recovering alcoholics adopt “one day at a time” as their way of being. Here’s Richard Walker in Twenty-Four Hours A Day:
Anyone can fight the battles of just one day. It is only when you and I add the battles of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives us mad. It is the remorse or bitterness for something that happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.
Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel.
The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has a calendar method that helps him stick to his daily joke writing. He suggests that you get a wall calendar that shows you the whole year. Then, you break your work into daily chunks. Each day, when you’re finished with your work, make a big fat X in the day’s box. Every day, instead of just getting work done, your goal is to just fill a box. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
Every day, no matter what, I make a poem and post it online. Most days they’re mediocre, some days they’re great, and some days they’re awful. (Jerry Garcia: “You go diving for pearls every night but sometimes you end up with clams.”) But it doesn’t matter to me whether the day’s poem was good or not, what matters is that it got done. I did the work. I didn’t break the chain. If I have a shitty day, I go to sleep and know that tomorrow I get to take another whack at it.
The past couple of months, I haven’t worried too much about keeping a calendar, because I’ve got myself pretty well trained. But there’s always the temptation to skip a day, so when I moved into a new studio space last week, one of the first things I did was hang (a modified version) of one of these workplace safety scoreboard signs on the wall. We’ll see how long of a streak I can go on.
Anyways, if you make a New Year’s resolution, make it this: something small, every day.
Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done.
Don’t say you don’t have enough time. We’re all busy, but we all get 24 hours a day. People often ask me, “How do you find the time for the work?” And I answer, “I look for it.” You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies. You find it in the cracks between the big stuff—your commute, your lunch break, the few hours after your kids go to bed. You might have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show, you might have to miss an hour of sleep, but you can find the time to work if you look for it.
What I usually recommend: get up early. Get up early and work for a couple hours on the thing you really care about. When you’re done, go about your day: go to school, go to your job, make your family breakfast, whatever. Your teacher or your boss or your kids can’t take your work away from you, because you already did it. And you know you’ll get to do it tomorrow morning, as long as you make it through today.
Do the work every day. Fill the boxes on your calendar. Don’t break the chain.
And should you start to despair at your progress, always keep in mind the words of Harvey Pekar: “Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up.”
Happy New Year.
Can’t see the video? Watch it here→
Show Your Work! is a kind of sequel — if the last book was about stealing influence from others, this one is about influencing others by letting them steal from you.
So it made sense for the new book trailer to echo the last one. As I joked then, I sort of hate book trailers, so I decided to make a cute dog video disguised as a book trailer instead.
The thing I hate about most video production is that it just takes too much money and time. I made this trailer in two afternoons, using equipment I already owned, with software that came standard on my iMac — I shot the footage with my Panasonic Lumix, made the animations in Keynote, recorded the music and voiceover in Garageband with my Blue Yeti USB mic, and hacked it together using iMovie. (I do NOT recommend ever using iMovie for anything, but I knew it would work for what I had in mind.)
I thought I might show a little bit of my work, below. (See what I did there? Ha.) It ended up getting a little long, so skip to the end if you just want takeaways.
The holidays are coming up, which means that I’m getting a lot of email from folks who want to buy prints of my work to give as gifts.
Unfortunately, we won’t be selling prints until next year. (My wife Meg is working hard on planning the logistics—we’ll be selling signed, limited-edition screenprints of new and old poems.) Prints available now! In the meantime, here’s how to get a cheap print:
1. Buy a copy of Newspaper Blackout and a regular ol’ 8×10 frame.
2. Razor out a poem you like.
3. Frame and enjoy!
If you’re desperate for a gift, you can also get a signed copy of Steal Like An Artist from Bookpeople here in Austin, Texas. They ship everywhere. Order one here.
If you’d like to know when prints are available, sign up for my weekly newsletter.
I realized last night as I finished yesterday’s logbook entry just how little time was left in the year. You can see DEC 1 on the calendar, but your brain doesn’t really register it the way the chunk and heft of the pages turned behind you does.
What to do with the rest of the calendar?
It’s tempting to call it a year and spend the rest of December in retrospection. It’s around this time every year that people start posting their “best of the year” reading lists (myself included) — as if anything you read in December doesn’t really count. This is a mistake, because every time I post a best of the reading year list before December 31st, I read a book or two that should’ve made the list, a book that gets lost in the cracks between my official lists. (Last year it was Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Ian Svenonius’s Supernatural Strategies for Making A Rock and Roll Band. The year before, it was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad and Howard Gossage’s The Book of Gossage.)
None of these books is now on my “best of” site, even though they should be.
What else am I missing by being prematurely retrospective? (I can’t remember which artist said it—maybe Hockney?—but having a “retrospective” makes it sound like you already died.)
There’s a section in Show Your Work! called “Don’t Quit Your Show” where I tell this little anecdote:
One time my coworker John Croslin and I came back from our lunch break and our building’s parking lot was completely full. We circled the sweltering lot with a few other cars for what seemed like ages, and just when we were about to give up, a spot opened and John pulled right in. As he shut off the car he said, “You gotta play till the ninth inning, man.”
Play ’til the ninth inning. That’s exactly what I was looking for. The year is a baseball game with twelve innings and I want to play until the last out.
So this year I’m pledging to not make my year-end list before the year’s end. I’ll be posting mine on January 1st, 2014. I’m also planning not to let up just because it’s December. I’ll still be checking all my boxes: meditating, making a blackout poem, writing, and reading every day. Because we might only have 30 days left, but a lot can happen in 30 days.
What will you do with yours?
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I had a blast today selling books at Bookpeople as part of the nationwide Indies First celebration. (I’ve written before about my indie bookstore awakening.) For the record, I was pushing Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, and Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote. I also bought a book myself: that’s Doug Dorst above, signing my copy of the amazing S.
Best of all, I got to sign books for some really cool readers! Thanks y’all for coming out.
Oh, and dig this: Oscar Ocuto showed up to get Newspaper Blackout signed and what was in his book but a bunch of fresh-made blackout poems! Too cool.
It’s been a long year and a half, but Show Your Work! is almost a “real” book. (That’s the cover, above.) We’re currently making edits to the second pass of the manuscript, which means being fussy about word choices, taking out a sentence then putting it back in, etc. Here’s a little screengrab of my edits to the first pass:
I like to do all editing on paper, but sometimes it takes a few days for the full manuscript to get from my publisher’s doorstep to mine, so I use the iPad app Goodreader and my trusty stylus to make annotations that I can then export as a PDF and send back to my editor.
There’s a lot of miscellaneous work to be done, too, like filling in the “back matter” of the book, with these “deleted scenes” (as this is a book about process, it would be wrong not to show my work):
Now that things are pretty settled, I’m entering what Jonathan Lethem calls “The Gulp”—the dangerous phase of publishing where the book is done, it no longer belongs to you, but it doesn’t belong to anyone else yet, either. (Or, as Alain De Botton put it recently, “The process of publishing a book is like telling a joke, then having to wait for 2 years to find out whether it was funny or not.”)
I’ve been making a few little teaser posters for fun:
But, as the book doesn’t come out until March, I’m going to step back and take the rest of the year to regroup, make art, doodle, catch up on reading, and hang out with my family.
Making this book has not been easy, but I’m glad I made it, and I’m proud of what it is now. (A book can be a pain in the ass to write, but it can’t be a pain in the ass to read.)
You can pre-order it here.