Kafka: “I have hardly anything in common with myself…”
Kafka: “I have hardly anything in common with myself…”
Some fun: photocopy a drawing by an older kid, and have a younger kid color it.
My son Jules (2 1/2) recently discovered drawing and he loves music like his brother, Owen (he’ll be 5 next month), so I photocopied a drawing of an orchestra Owen made back in May, and Jules went to town on the photocopies with Slick Stix, Do-A-Dots, and some other markers.
They’re my new favorite drawings.
Free tip for young writers: Go to Goodwill and buy a gigantic used paper dictionary for $5 and keep it on your desk. Here’s mine:
All sorts of interesting, serendipitous things happen when you use a paper dictionary, because when you look for a specific word, you have to brush past all sorts of other words before you find the one you’re looking for.
When you really take the time to explore a bit, you see words in context alongside words with similar roots and it can give you a bunch of different ideas. For example, did you know that “patina” comes after “patient”? One word about enduring time, the other describing its residue:
Google won’t help you discover that.
When you’re looking for a word to replace a word in your writing, John McPhee suggests skipping the thesaurus and going straight to the dictionary:
With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
The dictionary not only gives you a gives you a list synonyms for the word you’re looking up, it also gives you a deeper understanding of the meaning of the word, and sometimes the definition can lead you to a better way of phrasing altogether. (Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”)
I love paper dictionaries so much I take pictures of them out in the wild. Above is a dictionary I saw in the hallway when I visited the offices of The New Yorker. Below is the little dictionary corner upstairs at City Lights in San Francisco:
The first paper dictionary I remember was this big red Webster’s that my dad kept in a kitchen drawer. When I posted about my love for dictionaries on Twitter, folks sent me their beloveds:
When Alan Moore was asked what was the best book he ever received as a gift, he replied:
That would be the second unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, one of the first of many marvelous gifts from my wife, Melinda. Aleister Crowley once stated that the most important grimoire, or book of magical instruction, that anyone could ever conceivably own would be an etymological dictionary, and in my opinion he was exactly right. I keep it right here by my desk, and just 10 minutes ago it confirmed for me that I had the spelling of “proprioception” right all along, even though my spell-checker had raised a crinkly red eyebrow. Quite seriously, this is the one book in my collection that I’d save in the event of a fire.
Paper dictionaries are magic. Go get one and use it!
The threat of nuclear war has been with us for over 70 years, and dreading the end of the world is an ancient human activity, but recent headlines have put it all all top-of-mind again, petrifying many of us. (The upcoming solar eclipse isn’t putting me at ease, either.)
We all deal in different ways. For me, it’s drawing comics full of skulls — little memento mori that keep bubbling up from some dark vat of goo in my brain. I’ll keep drawing them as long as they keep visiting me.
The world may end. You’re right. But that’s not a reason to be scared. None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it. You know? What are you working for, posterity? We don’t know if there is any posterity.
Emphasis mine. More skulls on my Instagram.
I continue to be fascinated by how slow, seemingly inefficient methods make my self-education more helpful and more meaningful.
Example: This week I was reading Jan Swafford’s introduction to classical music, Language of the Spirit, and I wanted to see the lives of all the composers on a timeline. Instead of googling for one, I decided to just make one for myself with a pencil in my notebook. It was kind of a pain, but I had a feeling I’d learn something. Pretty much immediately I was able to see connections that Swafford wrote about that just hadn’t sunken in yet, like how Haydn’s life overlapped both Bach’s and Beethoven’s while covering Mozart’s completely. Had I googled a pre-made timeline, I’m not completely sure I would’ve studied it closely enough to get as much out of it as the one I drew.
Another example: I copy passages of text that I like longhand in my notebook, and it not only helps me remember the texts, it makes me slow down enough so that I can actually read them and think about them, even internalize them. Something happens when I copy texts into my notebook that does not happen when I cut and paste them into Evernote or onto my blog.
A lot of this way of studying has been inspired by my son, Owen.
Even before I had kids, I wrote, “We learn by copying… Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” Funny now that I have a four-year-old budding mechanic, who actually spends a great deal of his time copying photos and drawings of cars, taking them apart in his mind and putting them back together on the page to figure out how they work.
What I love about my son’s drawings is that he does not really care about them once he’s finished them. To him, they are dead artifacts, a scrap of by-product from his learning process. (For me, they’re tiny masterpieces to hang on the fridge.) Milton Glaser says that “drawing is thinking.” I think that drawing is learning, too, and one thing Owen has taught me is that it is more valuable as a verb than it is as a noun.
I felt sure that my children would teach me more than I taught them. I was not anticipating that they would actually teach me how to learn again…
One of my favorite discoveries this year was Nina Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment, an ongoing project she started in 2010, in which she uses long plane rides to make art using only her camera phone and materials on hand. She’ll build shelters out of snacks, she’ll make gorillas out of sweaters, she’ll go into the bathroom and dress up like old Flemish paintings. (My favorite pieces are from the “High Altitude Spirit Photography” series, where she’ll use a little sprinkled salt or the glare from an overhead reading light to spookify in-flight magazine photos.)
Seat Assignment has taken place over 100 flights. Lots of things interest me about the project, including, of course, these lines from her statement: “the artistic potential that lurks within the mundane” and “the productive tension between freedom and constraint,” both ideas that have obsessed me ever since I started making my blackout poems.
I’m especially interested in how Katchadourian refers to her camera phone — usually bemoaned as a device for distraction —as not only a kind of sketchbook, but a “camouflage.” From Curioser: “Once you pull out a real camera, it screams, ‘I’m making art!’” She doesn’t want to be observed making the work, she just wants to look like another bored traveler killing time. It works: only three passengers over the years have asked her what she’s up to.
The title, “Seat Assignment,” makes me think of my writing teacher’s advice for getting writing done: “APPLY ASS TO CHAIR.” Because you’re literally buckled into a chair, I’ve always found planes a terrific spot to do a lot of writing and reading and drawing and thinking. (Business class is like a dream scenario for the writer: you have a comfortable seat, a window to stare out of, and you’re occasionally brought water & snacks.) But, as in-flight wi-fi speeds and entertainment options keep getting better and better, the temptation to be distracted on planes becomes greater and greater. Just like on the ground, it now takes an act of will to be bored enough on a plane to actually enter that good headspace where you can make something. For now, I stick to my rules: turn off the seat-back TV and never pay for wi-fi.
PS. The comic above was one of four I drew on my iPad during a recent (coach!) flight from Austin to San Francisco. To see more like it, check my Instagram.
A friend of mine said he didn’t know how long he could wake up to such horrible news every day. I suggested to him that he shouldn’t wake up to the news at all, and neither should anyone else.
There’s almost nothing in the news that any of us need to read in the first hour (or two or three or four…) of our day.
If you’re using news or social media to wake up, try this instead: When you wake up, don’t pick up your phone. Head to the bliss station, play with your kids, write in your notebook, draw, pray, meditate, take a walk, eat breakfast, listen to Mozart, get showered, read a book, or just be silent for a bit. Even if it’s only for half an hour, give yourself some time in the morning to not be completely horrified by the news.
It’s not sticking your head in the sand, it’s retaining some of your inner balance and sanity, so you can be strong and fight.
You can be woke without waking up to the news.
Raymond Carver loved to quote Isak Dinesen, who said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.
“Someday,” he wrote, “I’ll put that on a three-by-five-card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.”
I stole his idea for my bliss station:
EVERY DAY, WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT DESPAIR.
His widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, said these words were a “quiet banner of determination” that flew over the last decade of his life.
They are now my banner, and they can also be yours, if you like.
Carver, when asked about the impact he thought his work would have on people, was extremely skeptical about the possibility that his stories and poems would profoundly change the world or save anything in it. Of his art, he said:
It doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.
That “steady glow, however dim” reminds me of the gospel song we used to sing in Sunday School: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” It also reminds me of Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (If you don’t have your own light, you can reflect someone else’s — just don’t be Human Vantablack.)
I, too, am skeptical that my work will actually make any kind of lasting impact. To believe such a thing, when one considers the span of cosmic time, seems downright delusional. And, frankly, I no longer need my work to change anything — I just know I need to do it.
I often think of my favorite line from Groundhog Day:
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
How you answer that question is your art.