Back in January, I decided that my new notebook needed a guardian spirit to watch over things. Emily Dickinson seemed right.
I felt like Emily D kept a good watch, so when I finished that notebook, I decided to continue the practice. I burned through 8 notebooks this year, so I had to pick 8 spirits…
For the next notebook, the collage artist Hannah Höch.
Then, since summer is a hateful season to me, I went with H.W. and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood.
George Strait’s hat, swiped, again, from The New Yorker.
Walt Whitman, with my 2-year-old’s scribbles over his face.
A drawing of a robot by my 4-year-old.
Finally, for my last notebook of the year, here’s Jack Lemmon from The Apartment.
My father was a very disciplined and punctual man; it was a prerequisite for his creativity. There was a time for everything: for work, for talk, for solitude, for rest. No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk and then work, he’d say, because the demons hate it when you get out of bed, demons hate fresh air. So when I make up excuses not to work, I hear his voice in my head: Get up, get out, go to your work.
Get up, get out, go to your work.
(Thanks to Matt.)
Finished Half Empty last night. So good.
There are stone monuments scattered throughout my neighborhood — fancy signs announcing the parks, etc. I find them sort of hilarious — they’re so serious, and they look like big tombstones. (They had to cost a fortune!) I like to go around and take pictures of them and then make a game of cutting them up so they announce other things. The only rules are that I never add, only subtract, and I try to make the edits as simple as possible.
(For this one I cheated just a bit and rubbed out letters with the clone stamp in Photoshop.)
Filed under: de-signs
“It is a joy to be hidden… but disaster not to be found.”
3 1/2 years ago, I was participating in an online roundtable about art in the digital age, and Ritesh Batra, a writer and film director, asked a question that I liked so much I wrote it on a 3×5 card that’s still hanging on the corkboard above my desk: “How do I hide and still be out there?”
Batra was speaking specifically about his filmmaking process: He was trying to work out how to balance showing his work, connecting with his audience, and maintaining a public presence online and off with his need to hide, to be private, go away, to withdraw into himself and his work long enough for good, creative stuff to happen.
His question, put another way, was: How do I hide and still be found?
Like all great questions, it seems to grow more important and more complex over time. I thought I’d handled it well in my book, the whole point of which was to outline how artists and other workers might set up a sustainable level of sharing while they work. It was, basically, a book for people who were great at hiding, but not so great at being findable. When I wrote that book, the internet, for me, was a place of opportunity, where, as Olivia Laing put it in The Lonely City, “You can reach out or you can hide; you can lurk and you can reveal yourself, curated and refined.” But even in 3 years, the internet has changed, and this question, How do I hide and still be out there?, it keeps popping up, nagging at me, most recently when I was writing about the myth of the artistic recluse.
We seem to have being out there nailed. We’re all of us, it seems, out there. Maybe we need some help learning how to hide again?
For me, that’s what this year has been about: Learning how to hide and still be found. How to stay connected overall, but how to disconnect in crucial ways that allow me to recover some calm, some privacy, some inner sense of self, so that I can make great things to share. Because if you don’t hide, at least a little bit, it’s hard to make something worth being found.
In the most recent episode of Song Exploder, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about their creative process in the studio. Reznor discusses his history with addiction, how he used to be afraid of failure in the studio, but how he now trusts “the process” to getting him somewhere. Maybe most importantly, he says that when the ideas are really coming, he’s learned to give them enough time to come forth, without worrying too much about whether they’re good or bad. “There’s plenty of time to bring out the ‘This Sucks’ hammer,” he says.
Every artist has to balance between at least two modes: call them, for lack of better terms, the creative mode and the editorial mode. In the creative mode, you don’t worry about whether things are good or bad, you just let them happen. In editorial mode, you go back and look at what you’ve got, and you ask the questions, “Is this good? Does this suck?”
Lynda Barry’s essay, “Two Questions,” from her brilliant book, What It Is, explores why and when the editorial mode appears and how you can make it go away long enough to get things on the page. It’s essential, Barry says, “To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions so much is possible.”
Donald Barthelme says the same in his classic essay, “Not-Knowing”:
The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the… process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing…
Fortunately for Reznor, he says he has been able to offload most of the editorial mode onto Atticus Ross, so he can stay in the creative mode — he’ll even leave the room for 20 minutes while Ross is assembling pieces of what they’ve recorded in Pro Tools (Oblique Strategy: “Go outside. Shut the door.”):
The different mindsets, or different hats one has to wear in this environment: one of them is the subconscious, follow the Muse, eyes closed, and another one, that’s radically different, is the editorial. “What sucked? What was good? What’s the piece that fits with that?” I love having [Ross] do that part, because I can stay in the other mode of not trying to analyze exactly what’s going on, and still stay subconscious. It keeps this momentum going where neither of us are bogged down too much. Our skill sets compliment each other. So, it’s him arranging stuff. I just kind of bang into things.
This is a terrific argument for collaboration, and the power of two, but for those of us who work solo, we have to try to split ourselves into two different people. We have to play the two different roles, inhabit the two different mindsets, wear the two hats. The easiest way do this, I’ve found, is to split up the modes in time: Write something without stopping, let it sit for 24 hours, or even a week, or even a year, then come back to it with the red pen. Or, make something in one space, then take it over to another space to fiddle with it. (This is why I have separate analog and digital desks in my studio: analog for creative mode, digital for editing mode.)
Most important of all, though, is to keep the “This Sucks” hammer out of reach until you’re ready for it.
I enjoyed this video of Tatsuo Horiuchi, a 77-year-old Japanese man who’s been painting with Microsoft Excel for the past 15 years:
When Tatsuo retired, he decided that he wanted to paint. But there was one problem: He was cheap. “When I started to do this I had a defiant and experimental mind. [I thought,] “How can I paint with my PC? You don’t need to spend money on paints, and you don’t have to prepare water and so on.” He didn’t even want to pay for an art program. So he used what was already on his computer. “This kind of stingy idea made me prefer Excel. And with a cheap printer…in 10 years, I wanted to paint something decent that I could show to people.”
I am drawn to art made out of ordinary materials. For example, I love the envelope poems of Emily Dickinson like “The way Hope builds his House,” which is composed on an envelope torn to look like a house:
And this morning I started reading A.R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year, which he started composing today, 54 years ago, on a roll of adding tape he found in a home and garden store, and began to “contemplate… some fool use for it.” In the first entry, Ammons asks the Muse for “assistance” with “this foolish / long / thin / poem”:
I find that embracing “foolishness” can be a great boon to the artist. “There are many people who make fun of me,” says Mr. Horiuchi, of his paintings. They say, “Why are you making effort on something that is not useful, are you a fool?” And Horiuchi answers, “Yes, I am a fool.”
In order to do find a use for a tool that is not exactly what it was made and advertised for, you need a kind of willingness to look stupid:
I’ve noticed when people post the video of Horiuchi, they say some variant of, “See? The tools don’t matter! Get making!” On Twitter, @doingitwrong posted the video with the words “YOU CAN MAKE ANYTHING WITH ANYTHING (This is why I am reluctant to give advice about writing tools.)” While I agree with the first part, that you can make anything with anything, when it comes to writing tools, instead of shying away from discussion of tools, saying, “it’s up to your imagination!” and leaving it at that, I think we should talk more about tools, and do more exploring, more investigating with students what it means to make art with different kinds of tools.
For example, Horiuchi’s landscapes are interesting (his portraits aren’t quite as dazzling — probably because landscapes lend themselves well to the geometric shapes you can make more easily with line tools), not just because of the novelty of painting with Excel, but because he’s really pushing the limits of what Excel can do. Here’s a screenshot of his computer:
Whether it’s Microsoft Excel or adding tape, pushing against constraints, finding out the limits of the tools, that’s what makes art interesting.
It’s not that the tools don’t matter — it’s finding the appropriate tools, or, maybe even better, the inappropriate tools, and finding some fool use for them.
Granted, it was published in The New York Times Style Magazine, so one doesn’t expect any deep Marxist analysis or whatever, but nowhere in Megan O’Grady’s essay “Is the Age of the Artistic Recluse Over?” does she suggest that maybe, just maybe, the reason there aren’t so many “artistic recluses” these days is that it’s actually pretty expensive to be a recluse, and people like Thomas Pynchon, who O’Grady calls “the last of our great literary recluses,” are able to retreat into a private life, shut off from the public, because they can actually afford to.
You could step back for a minute and question whether some of the artists O’Grady calls out in the essay are (or were), by definition, actual recluses. Over at Vice there’s the subhead for “Thomas Pynchon and the Myth of the Reclusive Author” saying “it’s not as if the man is some kind of ghost.” I don’t personally know a whole lot about Pynchon, but Thoreau, the author in the batch whose life I can claim to be solidly familiar with, only lived at Walden for two years, and even then, he entertained guests, attended family dinners, etc. He spent most of his life deeply involved in Concord life, teaching children, surveying land, and lecturing around New England. (O’Grady claims Thoreau’s form of civil disobedience was “to withdraw instead of to Tweet,” but I wouldn’t call publicly speaking out in support for John Brown and abolition and spending a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government waging an unholy war withdrawing.)
Heck, even Emily Dickinson, who starts the piece, has had her reclusive myth re-examined. Check out “The Networked Recluse,” an exhibit and catalog dedicated to capturing “the fullness and vitality of Dickinson’s life, most notably her many connections—to family, to friends, to correspondents, to the literary tastemakers of her day.”
But setting aside the question of whether “the age of the artistic recluse” ever actually existed, the essay really seems to be lamenting how this generation of authors not only embrace social media, but also engage in self-promotion and self-publicity, cultivating “a cyclical relationship with the spotlight, intermittently stepping into and receding from it.” While O’Grady seems to see self-promotion as an artistic or personal decision (she calls herself one of a group of “technological Bartlebys who would prefer not to post the contents of our closets/bookshelves/hearts on social media”), I see it more and more as a market-driven one: if there’s a mythical age that’s disappearing, it’s the one in which the author didn’t have to self-promote their work or build their own audience. (O’Grady says, “No one wants to imagine Virginia Woolf on book tour, or Joseph Cornell submitting to a magazine profile” — do people want to remember Hemingway doing booze ads?)
My agent gives book proposal workshops, and his first piece of advice for people who want to publish a book is: “Get famous first.” (He also says to remember that “all publishing is self-publishing.”) The state of the publishing industry is such that if a young writer today wants her book published by a major publisher, chances are she will need to bring along a pre-built platform and a previously gathered audience for her work. A major part of putting together a book proposal today is gathering up Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and newsletter subscriber counts.
It’s not as if it’s any different in other industries, such as music. (Heck, it’s probably worse.) In Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days, he quotes Taylor Swift’s 2014 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans—not the other way around.” Harris points out that older Americans “like to complain about the way many young people obsessively track our own social media metrics, but it’s a complaint that’s totally detached from the behavior’s historical, material causes.”
Even if you’re already famous, social media and self-promotion is part of the job and a necessity for sales. With magazines and other major news outlets declining, there are fewer and fewer places in which advertisements or publicity for books would even make a dent in the reading public’s consciousness, even if publishers were inclined to spend the money. (They are not.) Like all workers, artists have to take on more and more of a workload with less compensation.
The tension for the artist in contemporary life is the same that it has always been: How do you secure a living for yourself while maximizing your art-making time and energy? Some would say, “Well, forget about social media, then. Forget about self-promotion. Forget about sales. Keep your overhead low, get a day job, and just write.” That can be good advice, depending on the writer, and it’s advice I have given in the past. The problem is that it’s increasingly impossible for any American worker to secure a living, let alone keep one of the steady jobs that previously sustained artists, allowing them the free time, mental space, and chance for disconnection that much writing requires. (I think of Harvey Pekar, author of American Splendor, working at the V.A. hospital in Cleveland, and the words of Jack Donaghy: “Lemon, we’d all like to flee to the Cleve.”) But “keep your day job” only works if there are actually decent day jobs.
No, it takes money and a room, so the working artist is going to have to hustle, one way or the other. O’Grady praises Kazuo Ishiguro for his “resistance against the role of artist-as-performer” in his “quietly myth-demolishing” article in The Guardian about how he wrote The Remains of The Day during a “four-week period of seclusion in 1987 he and his wife called the ‘crash.’” Good for him, but he already had two prize-winning novels on his resume. (And “The Crash” was made possible by his wife’s willingness and ability to keep all things domestic going, and, one presumes, a cache of saved money.) It’s admirable to see an artist pulling back from the techno-hustle, but it’s also admirable to see a working artist able to artfully balance their creative process and self-promotion without becoming a hollow shell or a piece of human spam.
Which brings us back to “the artistic recluse.” Yes, the best way to drop out and become an “artistic recluse,” even if it’s temporary, is to already be famous, and, more importantly, flush with cash. If you can’t live with your family, like a Thoreau or a Dickinson, you’re gonna need money, honey. Dave Chappelle, who spends most of his days on a farm in Yellow Springs, summed it up in a joke on one of his recent comedy tours: “I’m just back out here to make enough money to disappear again.”
In 1928, Virginia Woolf was invited to give a talk at a couple of women’s colleges at Cambridge University on the subject of “Women and Fiction.” Her long essay, A Room of One’s Own, is an extended version of those talks, published in 1929.
It’s a remarkable essay that reads like it could’ve been written yesterday. Woolf’s thesis is very simple, outlined within the first couple of paragraphs: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” A writer needs money to provide her with the time, and she needs room to provide her with the space. (Not just physical, but also mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.)
Woolf emphasizes how books don’t come out of thin air, that they “are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.” You cannot detach art-making from the context of the condition of the lives of the artists. “Intellectual freedom,” she says, “depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.”
Woolf herself was freed up to write when her aunt died suddenly and left her an inheritance:
The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. Of the two—the vote and the money—the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.
She lists all the “odd jobs” she had to do, and how they bred in her “fear and bitterness” from always “doing work that one did not wish to do.” She says working was soul-killing, like “rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.” But when her aunt died, things changed:
[W]henever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off, fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever.
It is curious to me how often, when people quote Woolf, they quote the room part and leave out the money part — especially when you consider that money buys you both the time and the space. (Ian Svenonius points out that The Clash sang, “We’re a garage band!” but, he asks, “Who can afford a garage anymore?”) A room of one’s own is nice, but if you can’t buy the time to sit in it, what good does it do you?
After I made this one I was reminded of Joe Brainard’s New Year poem “1970,” quoted in Ron Padgett’s biography:
is a good year
if for no other reason
than just because
I’m tired of complaining