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.
“Write what you know,” goes the adage, but you don’t really know what you know until you write about it.
May Sarton: “I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose—to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”
Kathryn Schulz: “For me, the engine of writing is almost always ignorance. I write to figure out what I think.”
Adam Philips: “Anybody who writes knows you don’t simply write what you believe. You write to find out what you believe, or what you can afford to believe.”
James Baldwin (it’s his birthday today) went even further: “When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out.”)
The more I think about it the more it knocks me out.
It’s one thing to write to find out what you don’t know, but to write to find out what you don’t want to know takes guts.
“You’re finding out what you got,” George Saunders says, “and it might not be what you want to have.”
It’s Melville’s 200th birthday, so here’s one of my favorite things: the table of contents for Moby-Dick, copied out by Jean-Michel Basquiat onto 9 sheets of paper. Here’s a close-up:
He also incorporated some of the table of contents into this (untitled) piece:
“Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World
Here is a six-year-old photo of Owen and me. A few days ago, at a signing, an expectant mother asked me if I had any advice. “Oh man. I don’t know,” I said. “That first year is rough. Just take it easy on yourself.” Then I thought about all the hours I spent trapped with a sleeping baby under my arm. “Try to find a one-armed miniature version of what you do!”
As a borderline moon worshipper, I was enjoying most of the enthusiasm for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last week (especially this thread of moon images, these vintage moon-crazy ads, gas station maps, and these poems about the moon) but another thing I was enjoying was digging up testimonials from people who were less-than-enthusiastic about it in 1969.
The New Yorker reprinted a Talk of the Town piece in which E.B. White wrote about planting the American flag:
What a pity that in our moment of triumph we did not forswear the familiar Iwo Jima scene and plant instead a device acceptable to all: a limp white handkerchief, perhaps, symbol of the common cold, which, like the moon, affects us all, unites us all.
And later, recounts this bar scene:
“Damn!” the same voice said. “I hope those Whiteys never come back. They might just decide to stay there, too.”
“Nah,” a female voice said. “You can be sure the white man don’t want to live up there. It’s got no gold, it’s got no silver, it’s got no oil. And ain’t that what Whitey wants? He don’t want no part of all that rock up there.”
I love Gil Scott-Heron’s “White on the Moon,” which Jody Rosen called “one of the greatest, funniest pieces of protest art in any medium”:
I can’t pay no doctor bills
But whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still
While whitey’s on the moon
The man just upped my rent last night
Cause whitey’s on the moon
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
But whitey’s on the moon
I also like W.H. Auden’s grumpy poem “Moon Landing.” One of my favorite verses:
A grand gesture. But what does it period?
What does it osse? We were always adroiter
with objects than lives, and more facile
at courage than kindness
I’m fascinated by Michael Collins, the astronaut who orbited the moon alone while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong did their thing on the surface. I laughed at this bit in his NPR interview:
SIMON: Do you ever look up at the moon nowadays?
COLLINS: Not on purpose, no. I’ll be walking down, shuffling down the sidewalk after dark. And all of a sudden, I’ll kind of look up and go, whoa.
COLLINS: Oh, I went there one time.
At least, like Auden said:
no engine can shift my perspective.
Unsmudged, thank God, my Moon still queens the Heavens…”
Look at something long enough and you start seeing it everywhere.
These two were spotted in Cleveland. (See more: pansy luchadores)
Sometimes it’s much easier to get started when you define what it is that you aren’t going to do.
Wire’s aesthetic was built on subtraction, a consistent withdrawal of superfluous elements. “The reduction of ideas, the reduction of things down to the minimal framework—it just seemed completely natural,” explains Colin Newman. “By closing down possibilities, you very often open up possibilities. You have infinite possibilities of simplicity and subtlety within a frame.” Natural minimalists, Wire pursued a negative sensibility, defining themselves in terms of what they were not…
“The only things we could agree on were the things we didn’t like,” observes Bruce Gilbert. “That’s what held it together and made life much simpler.” Recalling some unofficial Wire rules, Graham Lewis summarizes this negative self-definition: “No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms.”
(If that story sounds familiar, I used it in chapter one of Keep Going.)
In the book Draw It with Your Eyes Closed: The Art of the Art Assignment, David Levine tells of “The Worst Assignment I Ever Gave.”
Hoping to get the students to find their “artistic allies,” Levine passed out a bunch of art magazines to his students and told them to find an artist they liked that they’d never heard of and report back the next week to the class.
The assignment was a total failure: none of the students liked anything they saw.
So Levine told them to come back next week and give a report on an artist they hated. Bingo.
“The students performed totally engaged, specific, ten-minute critiques, followed by adrenalized argument… which inevitably led back to a positive discussion of each student’s own practice.”
What I found interesting about this turn of events was how much easier it is, as a first step, to define your own position negatively, and how the beginnings of articulating taste are almost always through discovering what you don’t like.
See also: “The Negative Approach.”
“I keep thinking that I shall have no more to say,” said philosopher Mary Midgley, “and then finding some wonderfully idiotic doctrine which I can contradict.” She admitted it was “a negative approach, as they say, but one that doesn’t seem to run out.”
She was 81 when she said that. She wrote well into her 90s.
This is what writing often is for me: Making a list of everything stupid and idiotic that someone else is saying and then sitting down and trying to articulate the exact opposite.
There. Now you know my secret!
Here are some linocut prints carved by my six-year-old, printed by me on a photo and an advertisement from the New York Times. (The one on the left reminds me of Corita Kent. “Save up” vs. “Power up.”)
I like how the prints (made with cheap Speedball blocks and ink) look like laser print-outs low on toner. Raw and spooky. The one on the left had little bits dirt or food stuck to it, so it ended up looking like stars around the tower. (I was thinking while we were making these that there’s no reason to ever participate in an art-making process unless there’s some chance for happy accidents and moments of serendipity.)
Here’s what the kitchen table looked like by 9AM.
I love cutting up the discarded prints and collaging them into something else…
…and extending abstract shapes into new forms.
Another thing I love about block printing is the ability to merge different blocks into a single print. Here I’ve printed out the six-year-old’s tower and added a big bad wolf head copied from a drawing by the four-year-old. (The Big Wolf Energy has not subsided.)