Whenever I’m told to go after “low-hanging fruit,” I think of drawing a cartoon with two characters standing over a tombstone.
“He picked the low-hanging fruit,” one says.
“Yeah,” says the other. “But he never climbed the tree.”
Whenever I’m told to go after “low-hanging fruit,” I think of drawing a cartoon with two characters standing over a tombstone.
“He picked the low-hanging fruit,” one says.
“Yeah,” says the other. “But he never climbed the tree.”
“In my experience signs are usually a lot more subtle.”
—Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
I had to fly to a gig the afternoon after the election, so my wife and I took the boys to lunch. As we were leaving the house, I looked down at the floor and saw this scrap of paper. I knew immediately what it was — it was a word from the introduction to my own book, which I’d cut up and collaged. This scrap hadn’t made it. I wasn’t sure how it got there, since I’d done the cutting in my studio. (I figured it had stuck to my shoe and I had tracked it into the house.) But however it got there, there it was, on the floor of my laundry room. A single word. “Embrace.” I took a picture of it and put it in my pocket.
At lunch, a waiter asked a woman how she was and what she’d like to drink. “Well, I’m depressed,” she said. “So I’ll have a margarita with salt.” Soon, the woman’s friend arrived. She got up from her chair and they gave each other the longest hug.
I had not cried yet, but then and there, I almost lost it.
It’s been a sad couple of days. For now, I wish you margaritas and hugs… or their equivalent.
“I have not been a good father,” admitted John Banville in a recent interview. “I don’t think any writer is.” He went on to talk about how hard his profession had been on his family, and how hard he imagined it had been to live with him as a husband and father. Of writers, as if we are all one homogenous tribe, he said, “we are cannibals. We’d always sell our children for a phrase…. we are ruthless. We’re not nice people.”
“Speak for yourself, fucknuts,” David Simon tweeted. “Family is family. The job is the job.”
My twitter pal Julian Gough, who brought it all to my attention, summed it up nicely: “When a famous writer says ‘all writers are bad parents,’ he is giving young writers permission to behave like assholes.” (Julian has since published his own piece on the subject.)
My oldest son turned four this week, so I’ve been taking stock, and thinking about how lucky I was early on in my life to find examples of good writers who also seemed to be good dads. (And yes, early on, I was looking for men as role models, even though today I get more inspiration from mothers.)
When I was 24, I asked George Saunders at the Texas Book Festival how he managed to be a good family man and a good writer. I drew his response in my notebook:
Saunders later wrote about this revelation in “My Writing Education”:
I watch Toby, with his family. He clearly adores them, takes visible pleasure in them, dotes on them. I have always thought great writers had to be dysfunctional and difficult, incapable of truly loving anything, too insane and unpredictable and tortured to cherish anyone, or honor them, or find them beloved.
Wow, I think, huh.
“Toby was the first great writer I ever met and what the meeting did for me was disabuse me of the idea that a writer had to be a dysfunctional crazy person… Toby was loving, gentle, funny, kind, wise — yet he was producing these works of great (sometimes dark) genius. It was invigorating to be reminded that great writing was (1) mysterious and (2) not linked, in any reductive, linear way, to the way one lived: wild writing could come from a life that was beautifully under control. Watching him, I felt: O.K., nurture the positive human parts of yourself and hope they get into your work, eventually.”
Tobias Wolff himself talked about the subject in The Paris Review:
The self-pity of being a writer or an artist has been a sovereign excuse for all kinds of baloney. You know, All the sufferings I endure and the terrible things I do to my wife and children are because I’m an artist in this philistine America… I find that all the best things in my life have come about precisely through the things that hold me in place: family, work, routine, everything that contradicts my old idea of the good life…. it seems as time goes on that the deepest good for me as man and writer is to be found in ordinary life. It’s the gravity of daily obligations and habit, the connections you have to your friends and your work, your family, your place— even the compromises that are required of you to get through this life. The compromises don’t diminish us, they humanize us—it’s the people who won’t, or who think they don’t, who end up monsters in this world.
Wendell Berry said something very similar in the documentary Look & See — that art is elevated by interruption, that it gains meaning from interruption.
And interruption is the very true constant of the parent’s life, as this Tillie Olsen epigraph from Sarah Ruhl’s great book on parenting and writing explains:
For those of us who have or are thinking about having kids, it’s so very important to find solid role models we can look to — people who have managed to raise children and make their art. I’m not the greatest dad, but any success I’ve had in the past four years as a parent is due to the good examples I found before I became one.
It’s also important for us to be role models: to show that it can be done.
I’ll give the last word to JG Ballard, who raised his three children as a single widower:
Cyril Connolly, the 50s critic and writer, said that the greatest enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall, but I think that was completely wrong. It was the enemy of a certain kind of dilettante life that he aspired to, the man of letters, but for the real novelist the pram in the hall is the greatest ally – it brings you up sharp and you realise what reality is all about. My children were a huge inspiration for me. Watching three young minds creating their separate worlds was a very enriching experience.
Art is for life, not the other way around.
“If a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
Supposedly, a young man once stopped Borges on the street and told him how disappointed he was with the writer’s latest book. “Oh, that’s okay,” Borges said. “It wasn’t written for you.”
I’m a big fan of the phrase “it wasn’t for me” when asked about books (and music and TV and movies and so forth) that I didn’t get into.
I like the phrase because it’s essentially positive: it assumes that there are books for me, but this one just wasn’t one of them. It also allows me to tell you how I felt about a book without precluding the possibility that you might like it, or making you feel stupid or put down if you did like it.
“It just wasn’t for me.” No big deal.
The wonderful thing is that “me” is always changing. Every day you’re a different you. So when you say, “It wasn’t for me,” maybe it’s not for the “me” right now—maybe it’s for the “me” in the future.
Connecting with a book is so much about being the right reader in the right place at the right time. You have to feel free to skip things, move on, and maybe even come back later.
And you have to feel free to say, “It wasn’t for me.”
I grew up saying the 4-H pledge:
“I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
The fourth line always bothered me. What does “better living” mean? What does health have to do with it? What if I get sick?
“Head, heart, and hands” seemed simpler, more concrete. “Health” seemed added on somehow.
Years later, I was reminded of the pledge when I came across these quotes:
“Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.”
—John Ruskin, 1859
“You need the eye, the hand, and the heart. Two won’t do.”
—David Hockney, 2012
I asked my dad and stepmom about it on a recent trip home (they’re both retired extension agents) and my stepmom told me that my intuition was correct: originally there were only 3 H-s: head, heart, and hand.
Not only that, but when the fourth H was added (hence the 4-leaf clover), it wasn’t for “health,” it was for “hustle.” In a 1913 edition of The Rural Educator, O.H. Benson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, outlined what he thought made a good rural leader:
…the leader must be a four-square individual, trained in head, heart, hands, and hustle, the four H’s rather than the three R’s. A leader must have a head trained to think, plan, and reason, both with the child and his environments, and not be a slave to the mere textbook. He must have a heart trained to be true, kind, and sympathetic, with hands trained to be useful, helpful, and skillful, and with the hustle trained to render ready service, to develop health and vitality, and to furnish a suitable background for a noble purpose.
I like those 4 H’s a lot: head, heart, hands, and hustle.
You need all four.
“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
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.
My advice to people has always been: copy old shit. For instance, the style of Every Frame a Painting is NOT original at all. I am blatantly ripping off two sources: the editing style of F for Fake, and the critical work of David Bordwell/Kristin Thompson, who wrote the introductory text on filmmaking called Film Art. I’ve run into quite a few video essays that are trying to be “like Every Frame a Painting” and I always tell people, please don’t do that because I’m ripping of someone else. You should go to the source. When any art form or medium becomes primarily about people imitating the dominant form, we get stifling art. If you look at all of the great filmmakers, they’re all ripping someone off but it was someone 50 years ago. It rejuvenated the field to be reminded of the history of our medium.
The musician M. Ward once talked about how he doesn’t steal from his peers as much as he steals from their record collections. “I am very influenced by the people who influenced my influences, and I am influenced even more by the people who influenced them.”
A really great artist often needs the attitude of a scholar. She needs to be willing to dig into the past and go deep.
“Don’t live in the present,” was Rebecca Solnit’s recent advice to writers.
Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me. Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking…
In other words: steal old stuff.
“When you interact with a stranger, you’re not in your own head, you’re not on autopilot from here to there. You are present in the moment. And to be present is to feel alive.” I underlined those sentences while reading Kio Stark’s When Strangers Meet on a recent flight home. As an experiment, I decided when the plane landed I would try to talk to as many strangers as I could. I wound up talking to three.
* * *
The first stranger was a man in a suit who moved over so I could pass him on the escalator. Once I saw what he was doing, I stopped.
“But I was clearing a path for you!” he said.
“I know,” I said, “and I suddenly wondered why I was in such a hurry.”
“I always have to think about what country I’m in to know which side I’m supposed to move over to.”
“Do people get over to different sides in different countries?” I asked.
He said they did. We got off the escalator and walked outside together.
“So, like, in Japan, do they get over to the left, like how they drive on the left-hand side?”
“They do. They’re very orderly there, you know. Nice talking to you.”
* * *
The second stranger was driving the parking lot shuttle. He noticed my Ramones t-shirt.
“I saw the Ramones at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1979,” he said. “Front row. Johnny Ramone spit on me.”
“That’s awesome,” I said. “You want to know where I got this shirt?”
“My wife bought it for me at Target.”
He looked horrified. “Somewhere Johnny Ramone is rolling in his grave.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He was a good capitalist. He might be okay with it.”
He conceded the point. I sat in the special handicap seat at the front of the shuttle and we talked while he drove and dropped off the other passengers. He told me he’d been a professional musician in Austin his whole life, that he’d played his first gig onstage in 1959, and that driving the shuttle was his first real job. “The way I survived all those years was: I always treated it like a business. My friends and I got this guide to the music business and we studied that book religiously. Started our own publishing company and everything. But things change. I just feel blessed that I got to be there at that time.” He said that the clubs don’t pay anymore because “weekend warriors” — amateur bands who never rehearse — will play for free. “Everybody sounds good after about eight beers.”
He asked me what I did and I told him. He said he was working on a book, trying to figure out publishing. “I know you need a literary agent,” he said. I told him that was true, that publishing was like music: a tough industry to crack.
I asked him if he ever spoke to young musicians about his experiences. “Nah,” he said. “These younger musicians today don’t want to learn anything. They don’t study, so they don’t make anything that’s going to last. There’s a reason the radio only plays stuff from the 70s and the 80s. When I was young, I used to sit front row, you know, sit at the feet of the masters and just watch them, trying to learn. Nobody works on their craft anymore.”
We stopped at my car. I tipped him and he blessed me. “So what’s your book about?”
“Well, it’s about how nothing comes from nowhere, and how the way to be truly great is to study what came before you.”
He smiled and said it sounded pretty good.
* * *
The third and final stranger was running the exit booth in the parking lot. She looked like she’d smoked too many cigarettes in too much sunshine. She was alarmed by the filthy state of my vehicle.
“Boy, they sure didn’t detail this car,” she said.
“No, they didn’t,” I said. “My wife said I should sign up for the wash this time, but I’m too cheap. I suppose I should be embarrassed.”
“Where on earth did they park you?”
“Oh, this is from my driveway,” I said. “I have one of those crepe myrtles next to the garage.”
She nodded and rang me up. “$19.45, purdy.”
I handed her my card.
“You know,” she said, “you drive towards Travis down there, there’s a Shell with a car wash, they’ll fix you up. And if they don’t do a good job, you just come back here and I’ll give you another ticket.”
She didn’t wink, but I think she wanted to.
“You want a water, baby?”
“Yes I do,” I said.
“Here you go, purdy.”
I put the car in gear.
“I’ll try to have it looking better for you next time,” I said.
She laughed, and I felt a little more alive as I drove home to people who aren’t strangers.
After being a nun in Los Angeles for 30 years, Corita Kent moved to Boston to live quietly and make art. Her apartment had a big bay window with a maple tree out front, and she liked to sit there and observe the tree changing throughout the seasons. (Something much harder to do in Los Angeles, or here in Austin, Texas, where we have two seasons: hot and hotter.)
“That tree was the great teacher of the last two decades of her life,” her former student Mickey Myers said. “She learned from that tree. The beauty it produced in spring was only because of what it went through during the winter, and sometimes the harshest winters yielded the most glorious springs.”
An interviewer came to visit Corita and asked her what she’d been up to. “Well… watching that maple tree grow outside,” she said. “I’ve never had time to watch a tree before.”
I moved to this place in October and the tree was in full leaf then. I watched it lose its leaves. I watched it covered with snow. Then these little green flowers came out and it didn’t look like a maple tree at all. Finally the leaves were recognizable as maple leaves and that in a way is very much how I feel about my life. It seems a great new stage for me – whether it will ever be recognizable by anyone else I don’t know, but I feel that great new things are happening very quietly inside of me. And I know these things have a way, like the maple tree, of finally bursting out in some form.
For Corita, the tree came to represent creativity. In winter, she said, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep creative process, out of which will come spring and summer.”
Creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season it is, and act accordingly.
People occasionally wonder out loud when I’m going to write another book. “I don’t know,” I say. They ask me what I’ve been up to lately. “Not much,” I say. “Reading a bunch. Raising the boys.”
To an outsider, it sounds like I’m doing nothing. It looks like I’m doing nothing. But I feel very much like Corita: “new things are happening very quietly inside of me.”
It may be the hottest day of summer, but it’s winter in my world. There are processes at work that you can’t see.
Things waiting to burst forth.
There’s a very romantic American story that I love, that lots of artists who are young and starting out love, too, and it goes like this: Move to the Big City with nothing, make friends, make art, struggle, but make it. That’s the kind of story told in Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir, Just Kids.
The trouble with this story is that people remember the place (New York) but they don’t remember the conditions. Here’s Patti Smith herself on NYC nowadays:
It certainly isn’t the place I knew when I was young?—?we had no money, the city was bankrupt, it was filled with cockroaches, a lot of rats, it was a bit gritty, and it was cheap to live here, really cheap. You could have a bookstore job and a little apartment in the East Village. There were so many of us, so many like minds. You can’t do that now.
(Emphasis mine.) She continues:
I can’t speak for new generations because they probably have their way of negotiating all of this, but I can just say it doesn’t welcome people that have very little, that just want to get a little job and have a little practice place to play with their band. I mean, all of my band left New York because they couldn’t afford to live there. We lost our practice place. I lost my art studio because all of our spaces were taken by entrepreneurs with a lot of money. But it’s still a wonderful city, a great city, it’s just, I guess, if you’re scrappy you have to find a new way to get around in it.
In another talk, Smith suggested that young artists might be better off finding a new city:
New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there’s always other cities. I don’t know?—?Detroit, Poughkeepsie, Newark. You have to find the new place because New York City has been taken away from you. It’s still a great city, but it has closed itself off from the poor and creative burgeoning society. So my advice is: Find a new city.
No, it’s not necessarily the most glamorous option. (I’m remembering a line from a piece about living a low-overhead in the Rust Belt: “I imagine that many would rather be in debt than live in Northeast Ohio.”)
People, many of them strangers thanks to retweets, had a range of responses, some saying ridiculous things like, “You live in Austin asshole you’re just old and broke and bitter and worried about young people taking your job” (???) to thoughtful, important replies like, “I’m trans, so I need to live somewhere progressive so I feel safe day-to-day and don’t feel like I’m going to get beat up for using the wrong restroom.”
I realize now when I said “young folks” I meant young artists and poets and other creative people who were like me about ten years ago: poor, or not wealthy, trying to figure out where to live, and wanting to do something weird and interesting that doesn’t necessarily fit into a traditional model. Not: get a job at a tech company, get big art world gallery shows, etc.
There’s lots of talk about how the internet is making it possible to live anywhere these days and do their own thing. But I think people my age and younger forget the fact that people made their own scenes even BEFORE the internet. That’s why I love books like Our Band Could Be Your Life, which show how people got together, did their own thing, and built their own networks and businesses, all with not much more than a Kinko’s, a telephone, and the US postal service.
The idea is that you live somewhere cheap, keep your overhead low, make whatever work you want to make, create your own scene. Nobody gets super-rich or super-famous, but dammit, they get to live their lives their own way, unbeholden to anybody.
That, to me, is one of the most inspiring American storylines. It’s not for everybody, and there are plenty of arguments against it, but I think it’s the one that’s the most realistically within reach for a lot of us.
It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.
What’s a bliss station? Here’s Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth:
You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.
My wife pointed out to me that Campbell says you must have a room OR a certain hour — whether Campbell really meant this or not, she suggested that maybe it’s possible that a bliss station can be not just a where, but a when. Not just a sacred space, but also a sacred time.
The deluxe package would be having both a special room and a special hour that you go to it, but we started wondering whether one would make up for not having the other.
For example, say you have a tiny apartment that you share with small children. There’s no room for your bliss station, there’s only time: When the kids are asleep or at school or day care, even a kitchen table can be turned into a bliss station.
Or, say your schedule is totally unpredictable, and a certain time of day can’t be relied upon — that’s when a dedicated space that’s ready for you at any time will come in handy.
What’s clear is that it’s healthiest if we make a daily appointment to disconnect from the world so that we can connect with ourselves.
“Choose the time that’s good for you,” says Francis Ford Coppola. “For me, it’s early morning because I wake up, and I’m fresh, and I sit in my place. I look out the window, and I have coffee, and no one’s gotten up yet or called me or hurt my feelings.”
The easiest way I get my feelings hurt by turning on my phone first thing in the morning. And even on the rare occasion I don’t get my feelings hurt, my time is gone and my brains are scrambled.
“Do not start your day with addictive time vampires such as The New York Times, email, Twitter,” says Edward Tufte. “All scatter eye and mind, produce diverting vague anxiety, clutter short term memory.”
Every morning I try to fight the urge, but every morning my addiction compels me.
“The new heroin addiction is connectivity,” says V. Vale. “The only solution is not one that most people want to face, which is to become lovers of solitude and silence… I love to spend time alone in my room, and in my ideal world the first hour of every day would be in bed, writing down thoughts, harvesting dreams, before anyone phones or you have any internet access.”
Kids, jobs, sleep, and a thousand other things will get in the way, but we have to find our own sacred space, our own sacred time.
“Where is your bliss station?” Campbell asked. “You have to try to find it.”