Doodled while listening to his interview with Adam Buxton.
See it bigger, below.
Last year I bought an old Rolodex with the original cards in it for $2 at Goodwill. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, then I came up with the idea of listing my favorite artists and telling my kids about them. I leave it on my desk and whenever I have some extra time, I pull it out and add a few entries.
My Rolodex project: I list artists I like and tell my kids about them pic.twitter.com/eqvbZ5Sldo
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 27, 2017
Here are some of the cards:
“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.
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?”
From playwright Sarah Ruhl’s terrific book, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write:
Recently, my son said to me after seeing a ballet on television: “It’s beautiful but I don’t like it.” And I thought, Are many grown-ups capable of such a distinction? It’s beautiful, but I don’t like it. Usually, our grown-up thinking is more along the lines of: I don’t like it, so it’s not beautiful. What would it meant to separate those two impressions for art making and for art criticism?
See also: “Borrow a kid”
If you have a child of two or three, or can borrow one, let her give you beginning lessons in looking.
—Corita Kent and Jan Steward, Learning By Heart
This weekend we visited the Umlauf Sculpture Garden here in Austin. Towards the end of our visit, I spent at least half an hour at the very edge of the garden with my back to the beautiful art and scenery, watching the cars whiz by on Robert E. Lee Road.
Going to an art museum with a two-year-old will make you rethink what’s interesting and what’s art. (After all, what are cars but fast, colorful, kinetic sculptures?) This, of course, should be the point of museums: to make us look closer at our everyday life as a source of art and wonder.
It was my pleasure to give the inaugural talk at the first Creative Mornings here in Austin last month. The monthly theme was “The Future,” so I tried to make the talk a sort of rallying cry to encourage future presenters and attendees to open up and share the process of their creative work, not just the products of that process. (That happens to also be the subject of my next book.)
If you don’t want to watch the video, I’ve pasted my notes and a few slides from the talk below. Enjoy.
* * *
It’s weird to try to give a talk about the future, because most of the time, talks like this are actually about THE PAST. A speaker is asked to get up on stage and talk because they’re someone who’s accomplished something, so they must have something to say, some sort of wisdom or experience or advice to impart to the audience.
But I happen to think that most advice is autobiographical — a lot of the time when people give you advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.
Now, we usually think that the past is behind us, and the future is in front of us. This seems totally natural, right? But years ago I read about this tribe of indigenous people in South America called the Aymara, and they have this very different way of talking about the past and the future.
When they talk about the past, they point to the space in front of them. When they talk about the future, they point behind them. Strange, right?
Well, the reason they point ahead of them when talking about the past is because the past is known to them — the past has happened, therefore it’s in front of them, where they can see it.
The future, on the other hand, is unknown, it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s behind them, where they can’t see it.
This kind of blew my mind when I read about it. The past is right in front of us, but the future is behind us.
The future is hard to talk about because it hasn’t happened yet — it’s behind us, where we can’t see it.
I’ve been working on a new book since last July. Back in October I wrote, “I’ve been told that becoming a parent lights a fire under your ass like nothing else, so we’ll see what happens.” Ha.
I made a promise to Owen before he was born that I would not use him as an excuse to fail at The Thing I needed to do.
Oh sure, I would use him as an excuse for plenty of other things I didn’t want to do, like answer emails or attend various social functions, but I would not use him as an excuse to give up on The Thing.
Writers are constantly looking for excuses not to write, but there’s nothing more pathetic than a man who blames his family for not being able to write.
This is not to say that I wasn’t worried about becoming that pathetic father. Oh, I worried.
Right after Owen was born and we were still in the hospital, this woman got on Twitter and sent me half a dozen tweets about how she just knew Steal was written by somebody without kids, and just you wait, mister. She then proceeded to quote passages from the book, followed by little ejaculations like, “Ha! Try that when you’re up at 3 a.m. with a crying baby!”
Now, I have been on the internet a long time. I get a lot of emails from people who are, as far as I can tell, sad, awful, or completely insane. I have a pretty good firewall that filters what I let get to me.
This woman got to me.
It is one thing to have The Asshole in your brain, it is another thing to have a stranger hold a megaphone up to it and let it shout.
That woman’s tweets haunted me for that first month of survival mode, where it’s a great day if you get a shower, a hot meal, and a few hours of sleep. Maybe this really is it, I thought. Maybe it really is all over.
Now I’m on the other side of it all, and it hasn’t been easy getting back into the swing of The Thing — in fact, it’s been way harder than I expected. But I’d like to tell all would-be parents (and especially dads!) out there:
Don’t listen to these parents. They are using the precedent of their failures to predict your own.
For every tired, overworked, bitter parent who tells you how much you won’t get done when you have kids, there’s a parent like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, who talks about cradling his son in one arm, and picking out melodies on the piano with the other. Or George Saunders, who stole time from his office job for seven years to write the stories that would become CivilWarLand In Bad Decline. Or any number of moms and dads who make it work and make the work. They are out there. Find them. Hang out with them. Ask them how they do it. Let them be your role models.
Jung said, “Nothing has a stronger influence…on their children than the unlived life of the parents.”
You owe your kid food, safety, and love, but you also owe him your example. You give up on The Thing, and then when the kid grows up, he might give up on His Thing, too.
So don’t give up on The Thing.