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Diary collages for my wife, Meghan, whose birthday we celebrated yesterday. (She loves buildings and has a master’s degree in architecture… I think our son Jules got her eye.)
If it sounds familiar, it’s basically me paraphrasing Steal Like An Artist:
The classroom is a wonderful, if artificial, place: Your professor gets paid to pay attention to your ideas, and your classmates are paying to pay attention to your ideas. Never again in your life will you have such a captive audience.
Soon after, you learn that most of the world doesn’t necessarily care about what you think. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. As the writer Steven Pressfield says, “It’s not that people are mean or cruel, they’re just busy.”
This is actually a good thing, because you want attention only after you’re doing really good work. There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better. No public image to manage. No huge paycheck on the line. No stockholders. No e-mails from your agent. No hangers-on.
You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention, and especially not once they start paying you money.
Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts.
I wrote a list of advice for recent graduates a few years ago, but it might need some updates for the COVID era…
A snippet from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal, which we will return to later:
All of my comfort lately has been found in my work. Cutting and pasting and typing and drawing and cutting and blogging and reading. Feeling grateful for what art can do. How you can disappear into a tiny room and make your own world. How you sit down with a blank page and fill it with your hands and at the end there’s something in the world that wasn’t there before. That simple, basic thing.
I am also grateful that I have a repeatable process of making and sharing work. Every day has been the same for the past three years: I write in my diary, and (almost) every day, I post something to this blog. Something private, and something public. And then every week, I send out a newsletter, and eventually enough days stack up that I can put out another book.
I have written about this process many times on this blog but it bears repeating, because repetition is its subject. And come to think of it, all of the books in my trilogy have this subject as their basic spine that supports them: that it is the daily work that accumulates over time into something substantial. (Someone asked me to distill all of my books into one piece of advice, and, off the top of my head, I said: “Try sitting down in the same place at the same time for the same amount of time every day and see what happens.”)
There’s a really beautiful entry in Anne Truitt’s Daybook (January 24, 1975) where she’s grappling with the idea of “industry” in art. “To work is simply not enough,” she writes, “But we have to act as if it were.” She says artists can control the throttle of how hard they work.
Their development is open-ended. As the pressure of their work demands more and more of them, they can stretch to meet it. They can be open to themselves, and as brave as they can be to see who they are, what their work is teaching them. This is never easy. Every step forward is a new clearing through a thicket of reluctance and habit and natural indolence. And all the while they are at the mercy of events. They may have a crippling accident, or may find themselves yanked into a lifelong responsibility such as the necessity to support themselves and their families. Or a war may wipe out the cultural context on which they depend. Even the most fortunate have to adjust the demands of a personal obsession to the demands of daily life.
Truitt then lists how often she had to make these “tricky” adjustments, navigating her marriage and the raising of her three children in mid-20th century America.
I had formed the habit of working in my studio almost every single day. Rain or shine, eager or dragging my feet, I just plain forced myself to work. This habitual discipline came up under me to support my revved-up schedule. I simply got up every morning and worked straight through the day in one way or another, either in my household or in my studio… If there were fifteen minutes between shopping and carpool, I used them. If I had an hour, or two hours, I rejoiced, but didn’t even waste time feeling happy, just worked.”
How did she do it? With “a stubborn feeling… that you just had to keep on going no matter what, and in the face of not knowing what the results would be.”
As a kind of compliment to the hordes of people abandoning or rethinking their blogs, yesterday my friend Heather Havrilesky tweeted about the Substack newsletter service, and how it can be a place where writers can grow and experiment and supplement their income when the world goes off the rails and the regular gigs aren’t there.
(“Finding a way to experiment while slowly building an audience is invaluable,” she wrote, basically summarizing the gist of Show Your Work! “You don’t have to become the embodiment of self-promoting cyborg shill to make a living. You just have to repeat yourself a little — which, as a writer, is admittedly repellant. But people don’t know who the fuck you are or what you’re doing most of the time. Accept it. It’s gross and it’s also just *necessary* to remind people what you do.”)
That word “regular” is interesting: yesterday I posted a zine about bowels and waste and digestion. An artist needs to stay “regular,” to keep the system going, to keep from the mental constipation that comes from not writing. To have something to write for, something we are accountable to, whether it be a blog or a column or a newsletter, is a great help.
I love my weekly newsletter, but it’s not enough of a deadline to keep me regular. I need daily work. Little daily deadlines.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was really good at writing about days. He even wrote a poem called “Days”:
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, or sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
He had high hopes for his days. The stakes of the day were high. “He came early to the knowledge that every day is the Day of Creation as well as the Day of Judgment,” writes his biographer, Robert Richardson, in the book, First We Read, Then We Write. You can tell he felt failure a lot, and he had worked through a system for being okay with a day that didn’t feel good. (Larkin: “Where can we live but days?”)
Emerson wrote that you work, each day, off the days you already have behind you:
A man must do the work with the faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. That which you have done long ago, helps you now. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done, is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in barren days, in days of depression and calamity.
Most importantly, I think, is what Emerson wrote about not knowing the value of days until later. “We do not know today whether we are busy or idle,” he wrote. “In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.”
“I will learn from everyone and be no one’s disciple.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
It was Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday this week and I came across this clip of Allen Ginsberg talking about how he wept when he first heard Dylan:
Allen Ginsberg wept when he first heard Bob Dylan pic.twitter.com/cBtwRZJrmM
— Reconsidering Cinema (@coenesqued) May 24, 2020
Ginsberg is paying a compliment. A lovely thing, passing the torch and all that, and their admiration was certainly mutual.
But something Ginsberg said bugs me: “If the student is not better than the teacher, the teacher is a failure.”
I think it takes too much agency away from the student.
Dylan studied. Hard. He read and listened and sponged up and stole all he could. Oh, did he and does he steal.
Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and they make you a king…
Every couple of years somebody will track down some old folk song that Dylan’s ripped off and make a big stink about it, as if he hasn’t been telling us for years that’s exactly how he works. (The man named an album Love and Theft!)
In his 2015 Grammys speech, he said:
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once…. If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me… If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
He elaborates that songwriting is a meditative process of playing a song over and over until it deranges itself into a new song, almost like the way you can look at a word long enough you can’t recognize it:
“What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it’s a proven fact that it’ll help them relax. I don’t meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song.
“I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds,’ for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”
(He then claims to have written “Blowin’ in the Wind” in ten minutes. You gotta be careful about believing too much what artists say about their work.)
If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now.
Dylan’s not just stealing from other songs, he’s stealing from everything around him.
Joni Mitchell tells this story:
[Bob] Dylan said to me at one point that he, you know, he couldn’t write anymore, and I said, “Oh, what about this and what about that?” And he said, “Oh, the box wrote it.” I said, “What do you mean ‘the box’?” He said, “I write down things from movies and things I’ve heard people say and I throw them in the box.” I said, “I don’t care where you got your bits and pieces; you still put them all together.”
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
He’s emphasized over the years his role as a student, and a student who goes deep, who “swims upstream”:
It’s only natural to pattern yourself after someone. If I wanted to be a painter, I might think about trying to be like Van Gogh, or if I was an actor, act like Laurence Olivier. If I was an architect, there’s Frank Gehry. But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to. Anyone who wants to be a songwriter should listen to as much folk music as they can, study the form and structure of stuff that has been around for 100 years.
Dylan learned from all these giants who came before him, including Ginsberg, but did they teach him anything? The whole grammar of influence seems to me to be inadequate. If you say Dylan is “influenced by” Ginsberg, it makes it sound like Ginsberg was the one doing the work!
There’s one other problem with “if the student is not better than the teacher the teacher is a failure”: it assumes that art is always progressing and getting better. I don’t think it does. I think it goes through revolutions and seasons and certain things go in and out of orbit. (It can also devolve.)
But let’s end on a lighter note: Ginsberg may have wept when he first heard Dylan, but when he first heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” it’s said he jumped up and danced around the room. Look how that fella could dance!
Blast Dylan and dance like Ginsberg pic.twitter.com/BE6G004EGl
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) June 28, 2019
Here’s our copy of yesterday’s front page of The New York Times, “compiling obituaries and death notices of Covid-19 victims from newspapers large and small across the country, and culling vivid passages from them.”
For me, the most chilling detail is in the bottom right-hand corner:
“Continued on Page 12.” They listed 1,000 people — only 1% of the dead — and even those couldn’t fit on the front page. (Jason Kottke observes that if you visit the online version, it takes you ages and ages to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
A list, an assemblage, a word collage, and, in some ways, a piece of conceptual art: you don’t have to read it all to feel its impact.
I work all day with words so I have to set aside special time to listen to podcasts the way other people probably have to make time to read.
This morning I made this trash collage out of scraps on my desk while listening to Marc Maron’s wrenching monologue and wonderful interview with the late filmmaker Lynn Shelton. (So sad. My condolences to her people.)
“Every time we make a thing, it’s a tiny triumph” is a line somebody wrote me in a letter. It’s the truth.
A reader sent me this amazing find: a special “Poet’s Number” of Vick’s Floral Guide from 1893, which not only contains quotations from famous writers about flowers and gardening, but also this family of “Pansy Sailors” which show up throughout the pages. Certainly, they are ancestors of my Pansy Luchadores!
I can’t find any real explanation for them or any evidence that they were used in other Vick’s guides.
Here’s a little bit about James Vick and his illustrated floral guides:
Vick’s Floral Guide and Catalog, first produced in 1862, proved to be the perfect outlet for his expertise as a printer, writer, publisher and gardener. Filled with charming wood-cut engravings and vivid color plates (by some accounts, Vick was the first to use color illustrations in a U.S. seed catalog), the Floral Guide quickly became the most popular seed catalog of its day. “Vicks Floral Guide came like the first breath of spring, with promise of future bloom,” raves a typical magazine review. “Vicks catalog, like his seeds and plants, is first class. It is finely illustrated, on good paper, and with two beautiful colored plates.”
This particular illustration is mentioned in A Touch of Blossom: John Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-de-siècle Art:
Inverts were also called, from at least the 1880s on, “pansies,” “buttercups,” “daisies,” “violets,” “blossoms,” and even more generally, “horticultural lads.” A Vick’s Seeds advertisement from the 1890s conflates the already queer figures of the pansy and the sailor into a suggestive hybrid. The back cover of a seed catalogue, the image depicts two flowery sailors, overseen by their captain, raising anchor. The anchor’s chain for the moment imprisons the blooming asters, but when the “sailor lads so bold and free / Put out again,” the poem at the bottom right assures us, dissemination will occur.
“A pansy is a loaded subject,” wrote John Ashbery in a 1997 retrospective of Joe Brainard’s work, then pointed out the “seed-packet look” of Brainard’s paintings and collages of pansies.
“The world keeps showing me these pictures.”
Here is the course list for the “school in the sea” attended by the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book I’ve just read for the first time. (I forgot “fainting in coils.”)
“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” says the Gryphon, “because they lessen from day to day.”
“We need to know what’s going on,” writes Olivia Laing in her new collection of essays, Strange Weather: Art in an Emergency, “but how much detail is useful, and what do you do once you’ve got it?”
To deal with this question, Laing brings up Eve Sedgwick’s idea of “paranoid” reading vs. “reparative“ reading.
“Anyone who’s spent time on the internet in the past few years will recognise how it feels to be caught up in paranoid reading,” Laing writes. The paranoid reader is all about “gathering information,” addicted to the idea that the “next click, the next link” that will bring clarity. But clarity never comes, because you can never, ever know enough to avoid danger and disaster.
Though paranoid readings can be enlightening and grimly revelatory, they also have a tendency to loop towards dead ends, tautology, recursion, to provide comprehensive evidence for hopelessness and dread, to prove what we already feared we knew. While helpful at explaining the state we’re in, they’re not so useful at envisaging ways out.
An “altogether different approach” is “reparative” reading, reading that “isn’t so much concerned with avoiding danger as with creativity and survival.”
A useful analogy for what [Sedgwick] calls ‘reparative reading’ is to be fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison. This doesn’t mean being naive or undeceived, unaware of crisis or undamaged by oppression. What it does mean is being driven to find or invent something new and sustaining out of inimical environments.
I would like to adopt that line as a mission statement: “To be fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment rather than identify poison.”
Because you can identify all the poison you want, but if you don’t find nourishment, you’ll starve to death.
Later in the book’s introduction, Laing says, “I’m going out as a scout, hunting for resources and ideas that might be liberating or sustaining now, and in the future.”
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