The folks at Confab just posted video of my chalktalk based on Show Your Work! It’s my last talk of the year, the culmination of all the speaking I’ve done for the past eight months or so. It’s about 50 minutes long, there’s a drawing lesson at 8:14, and the real meat of the talk begins around 13:44. Enjoy!
Yesterday I was browsing the Instagram account of one of my favorite artists, and I was struck by how entitled a few of the comments from fans were. I was inspired to write down the guidelines above, not as an artist myself, but as a fan. A few notes:
1) “Give them money” is pretty self explanatory. The Renaissance had to be funded.
3) Send words of praise and encouragement, sure, but don’t feel that by supporting them you are automatically owed a response, or a personal relationship with them. Let their work be enough for you.
Last weekend at the Texas Book Festival I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of one of my favorite books of the year, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. I had a hunch that we’d have a lot to talk about, so I recorded our discussion and edited it down (liberally) to the post below. Enjoy.
AK: Let’s start out with The Lone Genius Myth.
JWS: I argue in the book that the lone genius is a mythical creature. Which is not to say that we don’t require solitude and it’s not to say that we might not take sole ownership over our work as you and I both do — we don’t have anybody else’s name on the covers of our books. Yet, there are very often characters offstage who are not acknowledged.
In some ways, I’m probably the worst person to teach blackout poetry. I’ve done it for so long, I don’t even really think about it any more. Making art and teaching art are two different skill sets, and a quick Google search for “blackout poetry lesson plans” shows that there’s a small army of English teachers already doing it better than me, anyways.
That’s not to say I don’t like teaching, it’s just that I’m never sure I’m any good at it.
I’ve done some workshops with a lot of instruction and timed activities, but those always seem just a little bit off. So, this weekend at the Texas Teen Book Festival, I found myself in an auditorium full of teens, and the festival folks had already set out newspaper and markers in front of them, so I just thought, “You know what? Forget it. I’m going to give them as little instruction as possible, and we’ll just see what happens.”
I told the story of how I started blacking out, showed a timelapse video of how I make one, read a few, then told them they should just go for it. I spoke for another 10 minutes, showed some more examples, then I asked if anybody wanted to read theirs.
This is always the moment where I kind of hold my breath and think, “Uh oh. This is gonna be bad if nobody reads.”
But these teens! They started lining up at the microphone. And they read their poems like it was nothing. And they were great. And they would’ve kept lining up and reading if we didn’t run out of time.
It’s easy for an old fart like me to get jaded about everything, especially my work. Doing that workshop was a jolt of energy. It reminded me of Patti Smith, quoted in the book Please Kill Me:
Through performance, I reach such states, in which my brain feels so open… if I can develop a communication with an audience, a bunch of people, when my brain is that big and receptive, imagine the energy and intelligence and all the things I can steal from them.
I stole a lot from everybody in that room. So thanks, y’all!
- I will make time for reading, the way I make time for meals, or brushing my teeth.
- I will make an effort to carry a book with me at all times.
- I will read whatever interests me. I will read novels. I will read poems. I will read essays. I will read short stories. I will read memoirs. I will read magazines. I will read newspapers. I will read comic books. I will read self-help. I will read street signs. I will read ads. I will read instruction manuals. I will read old love letters. Etc.
- I will read whatever the hell I feel like. No guilty pleasures.
- I will try to clear my mind of expectations before I sit down to read. I will give each book a chance.
- I will turn off my fucking phone.
- I will be a good date, but I will not let an author waste my time.
- I will not finish books I don’t like.
- I will let boredom ring like a gigantic gong.
- I will throw a book across the room.
- I will read with a pencil. I will underline. I will dog ear. I will write in the margins.
- I will massacre a book if I need to.
- I will copy down favorite passages in my own hand, to know what writing the words feels like.
- I will re-read favorite books the way I watch favorite movies and play favorite records over and over.
- I will make lists of books I want to read.
- I will take a deep breath and understand that it is IMPOSSIBLE to read everything.
- I will toss “The Canon” out the window.
- I will keep a list of books I have read. I will share this list.
- When I find a book I love, I will shout about it from whatever mountaintops I have access to.
- When I find an author I truly adore, an author who makes my gutstrings vibrate, I will read everything they have written. Then I will read everything that they read.
- If I hate a book, I will keep my mouth shut.
- I will make liberal use of the phrase, “It wasn’t for me.”
- I will ask people what they are reading. I will take notes.
- I will keep stacks of unread books at the ready.
- The minute I finish a book, I will start a new one.
- I will go to the library. I will go to the bookstore. I will get lost in the stacks.
- I will read bibliographies. I will let one book lead me to another.
- If I need to read for information, I will browse and skim and Google book reviews.
- As often as I can, I will read out loud to someone I care about.
- I will not lend out a book if I ever want to see it again. If a friend asks to borrow a beloved book, I will buy and mail them a copy.
- I will not harbor the delusion that being a reader makes me a superior person.
- I will not suffer under the delusion that the act of reading alone makes me a better person.
- If I don’t feel like reading, I’ll go do something else. Maybe even — gasp! — watch TV.
I had a nice conversation with Manjula Martin for the latest issue of Scratch, a digital magazine about writing and money. (They also used a blackout for the cover.) We talked about several topics, including self-promotion, selling out, and, of course, money:
Look, I do not have it figured out. I feel really good about my output up until this point. It’s been my dream to be able to stay at home and have a family and go out to my studio and do whatever I want. But I think the whiplash of it has been so quick that I’m still catching up with it.
It’s the imposter syndrome thing, where you think someone’s gonna knock on the door and take it all back.
So for me it always comes back to the daily practice. Having that bliss station set up and going to it and making your thing happen. Making sure you do that every day no matter what. Do the thing that feeds you, first. Then do the crazy business stuff.
Came home from a walk with my wife and wrote down this list. It’s going on the wall in my studio.
When my dad brought home girlfriends, my grandpa, rather obnoxiously, would quiz them from his arm chair. I’m told the first question was usually, “So, what’s your philosophy of life?” (I’m not sure what my mother answered.)
I was thinking of my grandpa last week when I was asked a similarly baffling and broad question during an interview: “What is your definition of success?”
I hemmed and hawed a bit, until I finally said, “I suppose success is your days looking the way you want them to look.”
Sounded okay, but after I said it, I wondered what the hell it meant.
“What do you want your days to look like?” is a question I ask myself whenever I’m trying to make a decision about what to do next. In fact, I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question.
What career should I choose? Should I go back to school? Where should I live? Should I get married? Should I have kids? Should I get a dog? Should I take up the piano?
“What do you want your days to look like?” forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.
Albert Camus once told a reporter, “One has to pass the time somehow.” And how you pass the time, what your days look like, well, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Maybe success is just a matter of how the reality of the days match up to the ones in your imagination.
That’s not to say my ambitions these days are all that lofty. In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne, after spending the day with his five-year-old son, wrote in his journal, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.”
Whether that’s aiming too low or not, it sounds like success to me.