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My process usually is: I procrastinate, endlessly, and work things out in my head, and then sit down and agonize sentence by sentence until the thing is finished.
Something that works better for me, especially since I draw and make visual art, too, is: “Just make something, anything.”
This is something a creative director said to me when I worked in marketing: Move from idea to manifesting the idea in some object as soon as possible. Doesn’t matter if it’s a shitty sketch on a napkin, or a model out of toothpicks, or a paragraph typed into the Notes app, or whatever it is, the important thing is to make some thing. When you have the thing, it’s out of your head and you can look at it for what it is, figure out what it needs to be.
For example, I was trying to work out a structure with the elements “Time, Space, Materials” and “Head, heart, hands” and “Past, present, Future.” My son was playing with a Spin Art kit he got for his birthday, so I used his discard pieces and made this dumb spinwheel thing that doesn’t even really make sense, but it was something, and something is better than nothing:
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Now it sits on my desk, and I play with it and think with it while I still try to figure out the piecce.
The only trouble with this system is that I am an imperfectionist — I think most of things I make are most beautiful in their raw state, living in my notebook, and someone should just publish it as is! (My delusional dream is that one day my books will look just like my notebooks.)
“It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. Nobody wants to read your shit.”
I posted this innocuous photo of our living room bookshelves the other day and people started asking me all kinds of questions, like, “How do you organize your books?” (I don’t) and “What’s the book you gift the most?”
Sacrilegious for someone of my profession to say, maybe, but I don’t like giving people books unless they’re 1) books they’ve asked for 2) really nice editions of books they already love. Otherwise, it feels like giving someone work. “Did you read that book I gave you yet?!?” (You, though, you should buy lots of my books and gift them indiscriminately. Ha!)
Reading a book requires, by today’s dismal standards, an enormous investment of time and attention, and the writer either honors that investment or suffers the consequences. (As Vonnegut told us, a writer has to be “a good date.”)
In the first major interview with legendary comedy writer John Swartzwelder, “sage of The Simpsons,” he says:
Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.
But if you know you have to honor the reader’s time and attention with “good” work, how do you ever get the guts to sit down and write?
That is the whole trouble.
Swartzwelder suggests working with time, and the overnight magic of put it in the drawer, and walk out the door:
I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.
As the interviewer, Mike Sacks, summarized the method: “Create an imperfect world and then improve it.”
Okay, now I’m off to make something bad that I will fix later!
I heard from so many readers about my post, “I’m not languishing, I’m dormant” — way too many to respond to everyone — and more than one pointed to Katherine May’s book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times.
May mines wintering lessons from the natural world, and how essential winter is to the process of living things:
Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.
We often think of winter as a time of death and nothingness, but underneath it all, elements are coming together to make something new. (It’s a messy process inside the cocoon.)
Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered. In our relentlessly busy contemporary world, we are forever trying to defer the onset of winter. We don’t ever dare to feel its full bite, and we don’t dare to show the way that it ravages us. A sharp wintering, sometimes, would do us good. We must stop believing that these times in our life are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. We must stop trying to ignore them or dispose of them. They are real, and they are asking something of us. We must learn to invite the winter in.
Thoreau said he loved the “imprisonment” of winter because it “compels the prisoner to try new fields and resources.”
May picks up Thoreau’s and many a great poet and physicist’s theme: that time is not linear, and life is made of seasons and cycles, and the sooner you accept this and live by it, the better off you’ll be:
We are (…) in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear; a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.
“Live in each season as it passes,” wrote Thoreau, “and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
If this way of thinking appeals to you, there’s a whole chapter about creative seasons in my book, Keep Going:
Ever since I first saw Moonstruck, a movie I’ve watched at least a dozen times, I’ve believed that the world would be a better place if every man received a good dressing-down and talking-to from Olympia Dukakis playing Rose Castorini.
Hers is one of my favorite performances on film (it won her an Academy Award), and I’ve very sad to hear that she died this week, at the age of 89.
One of the best lines in Moonstruck wasn’t even in the script. While improvising, Dukakis quoted something her mother said to her:
It is rare and delightful to discover that an artist seemed to be as great off-screen as on, so I will end with this Tweet thread from Sarah Polley:
William James said that our stream of consciousness, “like a bird’s life, seems to be made of an alternation of flights and perchings.”
I wonder if our reading life — that is, for those of us who read to write — isn’t like a bird’s life, too.
Swoops and perches.
“Like most writers, I don’t educate myself sequentially,” says the poet Gary Snyder, “but more like a hawk or eagle always circling and finding things that might have been overlooked.”
In Emerson: Mind on Fire, Robert Richardson writes that Ralph Waldo Emerson read “like a hawk sliding on the wind over a marsh, alert for what he could use.” Emerson read to “nourish and to stimulate his own thought.”
“The glance reveals what the gaze obscures,” Emerson wrote. “Somewhere the author has hidden his message. Find it, and skip the paragraphs that do not talk to you.”
I grew up with Star Wars, but I’ve held off showing it to my kids, because, frankly, I’m sick of all the remakes and reboots, but I finally watched the original trilogy with my 8-year-old, and I have to say, it was okay!
Here are 10 unoriginal, probably unnecessary, and definitely unsolicited thoughts:
1. The original Star Wars is fun movie. It’s fun because it’s something we’ve never seen before, and neither has the main character: we learn about this new world as he does. It moves, but it has a rhythm and a pace. People discuss religion and hang out at a bar and play chess. It’s a movie made out of other movies that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Empire is a film, and a very good one. Jedi is…meh.
2. Of course, Star Wars is a mashup and a remix, but one thing I forgot his how much the first movie lets its seams show: one minute it’s a space adventure, the next minute it’s a western, the next it’s a samurai showdown, the next it’s a WWII dogfight. Lucas stole from everywhere. (Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers that George Lucas was his best student.)
3. The fact that you can’t watch the original theatrical releases of the first trilogy remains ridiculous and stupid, and one of the great erasures in contemporary art. It’s a slap in the face to the audience who made Star Wars a phenomenon and it’s a fundamentally bad take on how art works. The audience is a 50-50 (at least) partner in the making of art, once an artist puts work into the world, that work no longer fully belongs to them anymore. (I really wish I’d kept my original VHS box set from when I was a kid.)
4. If you watch all the behind-the-scenes miniature photography and puppetry work in the 1983 documentary, From Star Wars To Jedi, or this excellent video essay about how the movie was saved in post-production editing, you realize that the special editions not only take away from the audience, they erase a ton of work by the people who originally made the movies so good.
5. Ralph McQuarrie’s original paintings that Lucas used to pitch the movie to executives are jaw-dropping. So much of the world is right there.
There’s a Bb to F line in “Bruyères” that sounded familiar to me… a disturbance in The Force, you might say! pic.twitter.com/pWTH5ffSyK
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 20, 2021
6. John Williams’ score is fantastic, and also a kind of mashup, and it’s amazing that he’s still with us and making music.
7. When are we going to get a Marcia Lucas memoir? She’s described by a biographer as the “secret weapon” and Mark Hamill as “warmth and heart” of the movies. (This is the first clip I’ve ever seen of her speaking, excerpted on this podcast.)
8. Harrison Ford, 1980-1982: Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner. I mean, damn.
9. I read George Lucas as a tragic figure, in the classical sense of a “character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image” and his success “is also his undoing.” (His friend, Francis Ford Coppola, thinks Star Wars is the worst thing to happen to him.) He is a prime example of the need for eyerollers in an artist’s life and a reason to be suspicious of the idea of genius.
10. One of my favorite takes is that the entire Star Wars cycle is about bad parenting, which makes it supremely ironic that so many nerdy dads are so eager to show it to their kids.
“Plants may appear to be languishing simply because they are dormant.”
—Oxford Dictionary of English
A number of friends and colleagues have linked to Adam Grant’s piece, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing.” In psychology, Grant says, “we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing,” but a “term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes” that describes the “void” in between them: “languishing.” It’s a state in which, Grant says, you’re not totally burned out, but you’re not full steam, either.
“Psychologists,” says Grant, “find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them.” But one has to remember that naming doesn’t just describe the world, it creates the world, too. As Brian Eno says, “Giving something a name can be just the same as inventing it.”
We tend to see what we’re looking for, so if you hear the name for something, you start seeing it everywhere, and your eyes get trained to see that particular thing, while you miss everything else. (That’s why Paul Valery said that real seeing “is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.”)
There’s also a danger that when you hear a term that sort of describes what you’re feeling, or seems right, you’ll be satisficed, and say, “Good, enough,” accept the term, and move on.
I disliked the term “languishing” the minute I heard it.
I’m not languishing, I’m dormant.
Like a plant. Or a volcano.
I am waiting to be activated.
“Nature is a language / Can’t you read?”
I feel very lucky to be married to a gardener, because gardening gives us rich metaphors for creative work that we don’t get from our business-focused productivity-obsessed culture. (I dedicated the last chapter of Keep Going, “Plant Your Garden,” to seasons and cyclical time.)
Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades.
Gardeners not only develop a different sense of time, they develop the ancient wisdom of knowing when to do things:
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
It seems to me that the reason that so many of us feel like we’re languishing is that we are trying to flourish in terrible conditions. It is spring outside — or the “unlocking” season — but it is still “Winter in America,” and, as any gardener knows, if you try to wake a plant out of dormancy too soon, it will wither, and maybe die.
For example: take the mountain laurels in our backyard. One of them died from the terrible ice storm. The others have put out leaves, but not blossoms. They’ve sensed that this year is not the year to create anything new. They’re waiting for better conditions.
I’m not languishing because I’m not trying to flourish.
“Barren days, do no planting.”
—The Farmer’s Almanac
It is a mistake and a misreading of nature to think that you, a living creature, will be flourishing all the days of your life.
My friend Alan Jacobs recently wrote about his exhaustion, and pointed to the work of a new favorite writer of mine, historian Ada Palmer, who has documented in several posts the ways famous historical creators have had to put their work on hold throughout history. (And how many a “golden age” is only golden in hindsight.)
For example, Michelangelo, who lost four years of work to a lawsuit:
In his autobiography he’s talking about this lawsuit that arose because of the della Rovere tomb project, in great detail, and then there’s a line that says Michelangelo realized that, while dealing with a bunch of lawsuits and Pope Adrian and such, he’d been so stressed he hadn’t picked up a chisel in four years. Because he spent the entire time just dealing with the lawsuit. (Anyone feeling guilty about being overwhelmed by stress this year, you’re not alone!) And we have four years worth of lost Michelangelo production, because he didn’t do any art that entire time, because he was just dealing with a stupid lawsuit. And that’s not the sort of thing that fits into our usual way of thinking about these great historical figures. We imagine Michelangelo in his studio with a chisel. We do not imagine him in a room with a bunch of lawyers being curmudgeonly and bickering and trapped in contract hell.
Or Isaac Newton, who people have held up as an example of what you can get done during a plague:
The true fact (historian here, this is my period!) is that Newton did theorize gravity while quarantining, but didn’t have library access, and while he was testing the theory he didn’t have some of the constants he needed (sizes, masses), so he tried to work from memory, got one wrong, did all the math, and concluded that he was wrong and the gravity + ellipses thing didn’t work. He stuck it in a drawer. It was only years later when a friend asked him about Kepler’s ellipses that he pulled the old notes back out of the drawer to show the friend, and the friend spotted the error, they redid the math, and then developed the theory of gravity. Together, with full library access, when things were normal after the pandemic. During the pandemic nobody could work properly, including him. So if anyone pushes the claim that we should all be writing brilliant books during this internationally recognized global health epidemic, just tell them Newton too might have developed gravity years earlier if not for his pandemic.
You may, indeed, be languishing, and I won’t try to take that word away from you. (I also don’t disagree with Adam Grant’s two suggestions for dealing with the feeling: “give yourself some uninterrupted time” and “focus on a small goal.”)
Me, I’m dormant.
I may even look dead, but like Corita Kent once described one of her own dormant periods, “new things are happening very quietly inside of me.”
Waiting to burst forth.
“‘Cherish, conserve, consider, create’: you could do worse than to live your life according to the principles propounded by the composer Lou Harrison,” wrote Alex Ross.
I fell down a rabbit hole yesterday, listening to Harrison’s music and reading about his life. In addition to being a musician, composer, and maker of musical instruments, Harrison was also a poet, a painter, and a calligrapher.
In my quest to find out if he ever actually explained his motto, I came across a scan of his wonderful Music Primer, a 50-page booklet of his ideas about music, full of calligraphy and diagrams. Here’s a sample page:
The primer is full of little nuggets of wisdom, such as:
“The path to silliness nowadays is to allow one’s self to become indebted to a silly society — do not do it. Find out what you yourself can and will afford — do only that.”
“Originality, personality, or style can neither be encouraged nor prevented. Forget the matter.”
“Always compose as though there were plenty of paper.”
Alas, I have yet to find any explanation of Harrison’s motto: “Cherish, conserve, consider, create.” I’m curious as to whether the 4 Cs are linear or non-linear. I have a bad habit, when someone lists principles or elements, to assume they unfold one after the other, chronologically. I’m not sure if Harrison’s motto unfolds in any particular order, but one order the items are listed in is alphabetical: in fact, “conserve” is followed directly by “consider” in my American Heritage Dictionary.
I have my own ideas:
Cherish, hold dear, treat with tenderness and affection.
Conserve, save what’s worth saving, protect it from harm or loss, use it carefully, avoid waste.
Consider, think carefully about it all, form an opinion.
Create, produce, bring new things into being.
Poet Dana Gioia brought up Harrison’s motto when discussing the “conservative” nature of poetry. He says he sees the whole notion of art as one of “conservation,” of “looking at all the achievements of the past and figuring out what it is we save and what it is that we need to add to move forward.” The really great poets, he says, are conserving culture, and you get the sense when “reading these wonderful poems that everything that was worthwhile and usable in the past somehow found a place in these poems.” Like in math or science, Gioia says, the poet shouldn’t just throw everything out, but should “take it and you would build on it to make something that was meaningful for the moment.”
“Conservative” is a word with loaded meaning and heavy connotation, especially in America and in the crews I run with, but one of the reasons I think Steal Like An Artist is so popular is that though its seems completely radical at first, there is a conservative — in the good sense of the word, the sense of saving what’s worth saving — element running through the book: its message, essentially, is to know what came before you so you can turn it into something of your own.
Because, perhaps counterintuitively, one of the beset ways to “make it new,” is to steal from places alien in space or time, often into the deep past. Here, for example, is Gioia’s advice to students:
Pay attention to what interests you, not into this kind of novelty-driven commercial culture we’re in…. Punk yourself out of the daily ephemeral culture and immerse yourself into things that are going to be still there 10 years later or 100 years later. I think the distractions for younger people today are so extreme that they learn very little about the past. Therefore, they learn very little about the present, because you can’t understand anything unless you have a point by which to judge it as a point of perspective.
Or, in other words: “Steal old stuff.”
The owls are gone again and I am sad. (Although it’s nice to know that Merlin and Minerva, not too far away, just hatched chicks!) I asked the six-year-old to make a “lost owl” flier and maybe that would help bring them back. This is what he drew. I am someone who is sometimes unfeeling, and because he seems, sometimes, to feel everything, he can often show me what I’m feeling in his drawings. For this reason, among many others, he’s been my favorite artist since he picked up a piece of chalk.
Read more: Nathaniel Russell’s fake fliers
In his latest newsletter, my friend Alan Jacobs notes that Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary is now fully online, and points to his 2006 piece, “Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges: Dr. Johnson and his Dictionary,” in which he recounts much of Johnson’s struggle putting together his book of words. (I was particularly sympathetic to Johnson’s disgust at his own “idleness” while holding a firm conviction that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I do love a man who contains multitudes… especially multitudes who hate each other.)
At the very end of the piece, Alan writes about the magic of paper dictionaries (emphasis mine):
Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. On my way to “serendipity” I trip over “solleret,” and discover that those weird, broad metal shoes that I’ve seen on the feet of armored knights have a name. But this sort of thing never happens to me when I look up a word in an online dictionary. The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you’re looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you’re not looking for. For that pleasure, it seems, we need books.
Fifteen years later, this is no less true: the magic of a paper dictionary is the magic of finding things you didn’t know you were looking for. It’s a magic that electronic texts, for all their usefulness and convenience, still haven’t touched.
The supposed “shortcomings” of paper are what, in fact, make it such a wonderful technology. Here’s Alan, again (with emphasis mine, again):
George Landow has written that “the linear habits of thought associated with print technology often force us to think in particular ways that require narrowness, decontextualization, and intellectual attenuation, if not downright impoverishment.” But it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it’s hypertext that narrows and impoverishes. The simple fact that I cannot pick up a dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or, even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for — the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities.
Get your paper dictionary today! You shan’t regret it.
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