Whenever someone says, “You should do a parenting book!” I think of this tweet.
William Burroughs’ cut-up technique has directly influenced so much of contemporary culture that it’s hard imagine that there was long a history of literary cut-ups before him. (It reminds me of Brian Eno’s line: “Naming something is the same as inventing it.”) Here’s how Burroughs explained it:
The method is simple. Here is one way to do it. Take a page. Like this page. Now cut down the middle and cross the middle. You have four sections: 1 2 3 4 … one two three four. Now rearrange the sections placing section four with section one and section two with section three. And you have a new page. Sometimes it says much the same thing. Sometimes something quite different–(cutting up political speeches is an interesting exercise) — in any case you will find that it says something and something quite definite. Take any poet or writer you fancy. Heresay, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like.
I remember reading Burroughs’ (amazing) Paris Review interview, and discovering that he actually found out about the technique from his pal Brion Gysin. It sent me on a search for other precursors, which I detailed in the history section of Newspaper Blackout. Here’s the excerpt on Tristan Tzara, who was making cut-ups 30 years before Gysin:
I kept digging, and upon reading Paul Collins’ 2004 Believer piece “The Lost Symphony,” I found out about Caleb Whitefoord, a neighbor and best friend of Benjamin Franklin, who was doing a form of cut-ups in the late eighteenth century:
It was Whitefoord’s genius to notice that when you took a broadsheet newspaper of tightly set columns, and started reading across the paper’s columns—rather than reading down to the column’s next line—you could achieve what he described as “coupled persons and things most heterogeneous, things so opposite in the nature and qualities, that no man alive would ever have thought of joining them together.” Whitefoord called this cross-reading, and he was so amused by it that he would publish sheets of his favorite specimens and hand them out to friends in Fleet Street coffeehouses:
Dr. Salamander will, by her Majesty’s command, undertake a voyage round—
The head-dress of the present month.
Wanted to take care of an elderly gentlewoman—
An active young man just come from the country.
Yesterday the new Lord Mayor was sworn in,
and afterwards toss’d and gored several Persons.
Removed to Marylebone, for the benefit of the air—
The City and Liberties of Westminster.
Notice is hereby given—
And no notice taken.
It seems like I keep filling in little bits here and there over time. Just this week I learned about Lewis Carroll’s “Poeta Fit, Non Nascitur” (a reversal of the Latin adage, poeta nascitur non fit, or, “a poet is born, not made”) which answered the question of “How do I be a poet?” in 1883:
For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.
“Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.”
In his Paris Review interview, David McCullough talks about how important seeing is to the writer and historian, and how much his training in drawing and painting has been of great benefit to him in his work. “Drawing is learning to see and so is writing.”
He has a motto tacked above his desk: LOOK AT YOUR FISH.
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
He tells that story in all of his writing classes, and then emphasizes that looking more closely helps you discover new things in old or ordinary material that other people have not:
The chances of finding a new piece [of the puzzle] are fairly remote—though I’ve never written a book where I didn’t find something new—but it’s more likely you see something that’s been around a long time that others haven’t seen. Sometimes it derives from your own nature, your own interests. More often, it’s just that nobody bothered to look closely enough.
Filed under: looking
Clayton Cubitt: “Once you see that ‘artisanal’ actually spells ‘art is anal’ you can’t unsee it.”
“I never went to an art school. I failed the art courses that I did take in school. I just looked at a lot of things. And that’s how I learnt about art, by looking at it.”
My favorite part of the documentary Basquiat: Rage to Riches is Fab 5 Freddy recalling how he and Basquiat started a “museum club”: every week or so they would cab up to The Met and walk around with sketch pads, pretending to be art students, looking at the paintings.
Here’s a clip of Freddy joking about how they thought Carvaggio was “gangster” for carrying a sword:
He also points out how white artists were inspired by black culture — Pollock listening to jazz while doing his improvisational drawings, Picasso stealing from African masks — and how Basquiat took their influence and reclaimed it back into his work.
It’s a good watch. If you can, though, check out Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child, which I think dives a little deeper into his influences.
For example, in that documentary you’ll learn that Basquiat loved to have a bunch of books around when he painted. Above are two comparison screenshots, one showing a page from Gray’s Anatomy (his mother gave him a copy as a child after he got hit by a car) and one showing a page of hobo signs from Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook (a personal favorite of mine). He also had copies of Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art.
One thing I love about working on paper is that you literally end up with these gigantic piles of your effort. (Evidence of your days.) At some point, I started collecting photos of other people’s paper output.
It strikes me how much these paper stacks look like buildings or skyscrapers… paper monuments to human effort…
A week or ago I talked to Danny Gregory (author of books like Art Before Breakfast and An Illustrated Life) in anticipation of my keynote at SketchKon in November. We talked about a variety of things: the power of paper, banker’s boxes, my notebooks, paper monuments to human effort, David Sedaris, something small every day, Thoreau, collage, zines, finding your voice, etc. Listen here.
I’m proofing the third pass of Keep Going. I find it really difficult at this stage of a project to get the right perspective — “fresh eyes” — for the thing, which makes it really, really hard to make edits.
The production schedule for this book has been much more accelerated than any of my other books, so my usual device for estranging myself from the text — the plain ol’ passing of time — hasn’t been quite as helpful.
The device that has: reading aloud.
I find that reading my work aloud makes it weird enough that I can’t scan or gloss over anything.
Reading to an audience is best, because you start really judging the thing when you have to project it into a room full of people. Quentin Tarantino says he likes to read his scripts to his friends, not for their feedback, but their presence. “I don’t want input, I don’t want you to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong, heavens forbid,” he says, “But I write a scene, and I think I’ve heard it as much as I can, but then when I read it to you … I hear it through your ears, and it lets me know I’m on the right track.”
I don’t have the time (or the friends) to bother with such a table reading, and I don’t want to pester my wife any more than I already do, so an (admittedly expensive) solution I’ve found is to put on my headphones and fire up my podcasting microphone and pretend I’m recording the audiobook. I don’t know why exactly this works, but it does. (I think it’s being able to hear my voice through the headphones.)
I mistakenly triggered one of the accessibility settings on our family TV that I can’t figure out how to turn off, so when we’re watching PBS with the kids now, in addition to the dialogue, a calm voice explains everything happening onscreen. I borrowed that for proofing the illustrations: when I get to the visual sections of the book, I’ll narrate what’s going on in the illustration, and read any text that appears. That actually helps me look at the illustration and see if there’s anything that needs fixing…
The art of contextomy: you cut some words off a pizza box, tape them to the cover of your diary, and they become an imperative. A commandment!
Speaking of diaries, the 5-year-old’s diary is becoming way cooler than mine:
A follower on Instagram asked me how they should get their kid to keep a diary. I think in most situations, the most important thing is to model for your kids what you’d like them to do, first. Owen sees me cutting things up and glueing them into my diary every morning, and he always wants to look at my notebook, so one day I (as casually as possible) asked him if he’d like his own special notebook to keep a diary in. That’s how he got started. So: model, see if there’s interest, and then offer up the time, space, and materials.
It rained all morning yesterday, so I took the 5-year-old into the garage with me, made him a blank booklet, gave him a stack of NYTimes magazines, and let him go. Here’s what he made (with a little glue help from papa):
Then we checked out the screenprinting station:
And Heg actually made a one-page zine live for the audience:
Filed under: zines