I wrote this book because I needed to read it. It’s my best one yet. You can get a copy here or anywhere books are sold.
Saw a bunch of pansies when I was walking around Edinburgh, Scotland, so I had to make some more pansy luchadores…
Writer Richard Wright spent the last eighteen months of his life writing thousands of haiku. In the introduction to the book Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon, his daughter recalls watching him work:
He was never without his haiku binder under his arm. He wrote them everywhere, at all hours: in bed as he slowly recovered from a year-long, grueling battle against amebic dysentry; in cafes and restaurants where he counted syllables on napkins; in the country in a writing community owned by French friends, Le Moulin d’Ande.
Wright tried to teach her the rules:
My father’s law in those days revolved around the rules of haiku writing, and I remember how he would hang pages and pages of them up, as if to dry, on long metal rods strung across the narrow office area of his tiny sunless studio in Paris, like the abstract still-life photographs he used to compose and develop himself at the beginning of his Paris exile. I also recall how one day he tried to teach me how to count the syllables: “Julie, you can write them, too. It’s always five, and seven and five—like math. So you can’t go wrong.”
But… teenagers, man:
Back then I was an immature eighteen-year-old and, worried as we all were by his drastic weight loss (the haiku must have been light to carry) and the strange slowness of his recovery, we did not immediately establish a link between his daily poetic exercises and his ailing health. Today I know better. I believe his haiku were self-developed antidote against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath, especially on the bad days when his inability to sit up at the typewriter restricted the very breadth of writing.
There’s a line from Errol Morris’s essay “The Pianist and the Lobster” that’s been rattling around in my brain: “It’s hard to forgive yourself, really, if you’ve done nothing wrong.” (Also: it took me two reads through to realize that the two images above speak to each other.)
The Library Book
I am a former librarian who read this on a flight from Cleveland to Los Angeles, so it was pretty much the perfect book at the perfect time. A real page-turner. Orlean knows what she’s doing. (Another good LA book, not a page-turner, but a page-lingerer: Christoph Niemann’s Hopes and Dreams.)
Andrew Sean Greer
How great is it when an acclaimed book turns out to be worthy of the hype? I laughed all the way through this book and then I cried at the end. (Another great novel, one I re-read: Charles Portis’s True Grit.)
How To Do Nothing
When I came across the original talk I knew this was going to be a good book, but I liked it even more than I thought it would. (Another book about attention I knew was going to be good based on the original Medium post: Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. I’d also throw in Bruno Munari’s Drawing a Tree, which I loved even more upon re-reading.)
The Three Robbers
My 4-year-old got obsessed with this book, and I got obsessed with it and with Ungerer. (Other great graphic tales [but not for kids]: Tillie Walden’s On A Sunbeam and Jaime Hernandez’s excellent comic, The Love Bunglers and the followup, Is This How You See Me?)
Essays Over Eighty
“Maybe we’ll soon have a new literary category, Old Adult, to match Young Adult,” wrote John Wilson, in his review of Hall’s posthumous collection of essays, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I’d be so down for that.
The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun’s just started.”
—John Updike, Rabbit is Rich
“I have to say this in defense of humankind: In no matter what era in history, including the Garden of Eden, everybody just got here.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country*
* This also happens to be the lecture in which he talks about the “six seasons.”
See also: “I’m New Here.”
It’s director Billy Wilder’s birthday. Here’s a David Hockney “joiner” of him lighting up a cigar. (Collected in the book, Cameraworks.)
Other than watching all of his movies, another great way to get to know Wilder is in the book, Conversations With Wilder. In between Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe spent a year interviewing his hero about his body of work. Crowe was just peaking and Wilder was retired and starting his nineties. The book chronicles their conversations and is full of hundreds beautiful black and white photos from his films and his life.
Some of my favorite Wilderisms:
- “If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
- “The one thing that keeps me alive is curiosity.”
- “The real humorist is always sad.”
- “It’s easy to talk, it’s difficult to write.”
- “There’s no “Wilderesque.” It’s just stuff.”
- “You bring your sensibility and hope that people will show up.”
Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars movies, recalls learning about structure from Wilder:
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down,” Kurtz said. “ ‘Empire’ was the tree on fire. The first movie was like a comic book, a fantasy, but ‘Empire’ felt darker and more compelling. It’s the one, for me, where everything went right. And it was my goodbye to a big part of my life.”
Wilder also said, “An actor entering through the door, you’ve got nothing. But if he enters through the window, you’ve got a situation.” (Reminds me of John Le Carré: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.’”)
Wilder started collecting art when he was a newspaper man. (Freud once threw him out of his office because he hated reporters.) He told the Paris Review:
[I] only started collecting seriously when I arrived in America in 1934. Having worked every day of my life, and not owned horses or yachts or junk bonds, I put everything into art to decorate my walls. I wish I’d collected more and directed less. It’s been more fun collecting than making movies.
His advice: “Don’t collect. Buy what you like, hold onto it, enjoy it.”
“I bought a George Grosz painting for a carton of cigarettes in 1945,” he said.
“We’re discovering more and more,” he said, “and we know less and less.”
My favorite thing he ever said: “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”
Here’s his gravestone:
In my favorite writing book, What It Is, Lynda Barry explains how to make a “Word Bag.” A word bag is basically just a bunch of words you like that you write down and stuff in a bag and pull out randomly when you need to begin a piece of writing and you’re not sure where to start. (Here’s Lynda, taking you through the exercise.)
This is pretty much how Ray Bradbury got started, too.
In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this?
Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.
Here’s more from Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, about about how these “long lines of nouns,” these lists, helped him figure out who he was as a writer:
These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull… I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds.
He encourages other writers that making “similar lists, dredged out of the lopsided of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.”
(I talk more about the magic of making lists in chapter one of Keep Going.)
“I’m a professional dilettante,” Jim Jarmusch says. “It’s my job is to gather and absorb things that interest me.”
Jarmusch talks a lot about “Strummer’s Law,” four simple words he learned from his friend Joe Strummer (who he directed in Mystery Train): “No input, no output.”
Meaning, we’re going to hear a band, we’re going to go to a museum, or we’re going to go hang out with some writer that we admire. We’re going to get some input, because if we don’t, then we have nothing. It’s a circle. It’s a respiratory thing.
When I studied with Nicholas Ray he was always telling us, “If you want to make films, watch a lot of films, but don’t just watch films, go take a walk, look at the sky, read a book about meteorology, look at the design of people’s shoes.
Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like his quote in Steal Like An Artist:
“Aren’t you all about sharing?”
But no, I don’t want to instruct step-by-step how the collages are done, because:
1) I’m still exploring the technique myself and I don’t want to codify it or make any rules or make it boring
2) I am certain that if curious commenters sat down and tried to approximate my technique with their own tools and materials, they would come up with something of their own.
I might rewrite it for adults:
YOU ARE FINE WITHOUT ADVICE AND SUGGESTIONS.
Our dear friends are letting us stay in their house and this is my office for the week. I plan to practice on that Wurlitzer every morning and read and write in that cozy chair.
I feel ready to start on The Next Book. Or at least, I feel ready to think about it.
I have been listening to Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest on repeat. Here’s “Writing”:
It feels good to be writing again
Clear water flows from my pen
And it sure feels good to be writing again
I’m stuck in the high rapids as night closes in
It feels good to be singing again
Yeah, it sure feels good to be singing again
From the mountain and the mountain within
It’s been five years since the last album and it’s obvious that Callahan found something new to say. He got married. He had a kid. His folks died. And then he wrote these new songs about it all. “It feels good to be writing again…”
A reporter asked Erykah Badu why she wasn’t recording and this is what she said:
I just don’t have anything to say. As a songwriter, you have to kind of have something to say, something to record, something to ignite a conversation. I don’t have anything right now. I guess I’m uploading information. After that, we’ll see.
Finally! I thought to myself. Somebody just comes out and says it.