Click here to subscribe.
Click here to subscribe.
Someone yesterday seemed incredulous that I had a paper dictionary open on my desk. Let me tell you: it is the best $5 you will spend at Goodwill. Keep it open nearby, and look up words in it constantly. (This one is an American Heritage.) As you’re looking for a word, you will be distracted by other words. This is a feature, not a bug. If you don’t know what to write about, you can just turn to a random page and start reading and stealing words. Bonus points if you use a pencil to mark words you’ve looked up and why. I also keep one open in the living room and look up definitions with the kids when they want to know what a word means.
And just a few days later, I discovered that my kindergartner (although, are you really a kindergartener if you never actually go to kindergarten?) had got into my stamp pad and done this:
In David Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish he writes about how ideas are like catching fish, but this video contains a really beautiful collage of him speaking about ideas, not just as fish, but also as seeds:
Ideas are so beautiful and they’re so abstract. And they do exist someplace. I don’t know if there’s a name for it. And I think they exist, like fish. And I believe that if you sit quietly, like you’re fishing, you will catch ideas. The real, you know, beautiful, big ones swim kinda deep down there so you have to be very quiet, and you know, wait for them to come along. …
If you catch an idea, you know, any idea, it wasn’t there and then it’s there! It might just be a small fragment, of, like I say, a feature film or a song of a lyric or whatever, but you gotta write that idea down right away. And as you’re writing, sometimes it’s amazing how much comes out, you know, from that one flash…
So, you get an idea and it is like a seed. And in your mind the idea is seen and felt and it explodes like it’s got electricity and light connected to it. And it has all the images and the feeling. And it’s like in an instant you know the idea, in an instant…
Then, the thing is translating that to some medium. It could be a film idea or a painting idea or a furniture idea. It doesn’t matter. It wants to be something. It’s a seed for something. So, the whole thing is translating that idea to a medium. And in the case of film, it takes a long time and you always need to go back and stay true to that idea…
Lynch talks about ideas the way Lynda Barry talks about images and Nick Cave talks about songs — that they live somewhere else, that they’re not inside trying to get out, they’re outside trying to get in.
See also: “Look at your fish.”
(h/t Rob Walker)
It was a crummy summer, but we still had books. Here are ten good ones, in the order in which I read them:
Essays in Idleness and Hojoki
Kenko and Chomei
Two wonderful works of the Zuihitsu genre — “consisting of loosely connected personal essays and fragmented ideas that typically respond to the author’s surroundings“ — both read at my kitchen table. Somehow, I haven’t yet been able to get into the other classic of the genre, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, but I can see revisiting these two every couple of years.
The World of Yesterday
“The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening everywhere in the world at the hour and the second when it happened.” Zweig wrote that in 1942, and he sent the manuscript off to his publisher before committing suicide shortly after. If you can get through this book, you won’t forget it. (I’m also a big fan of Zweig’s short biography of Montaigne.)
The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays
In his essay about Iago, Auden makes this life-changing distinction: Instead of asking yourself, “What can I know?” ask yourself, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” I wore down my pencil underlining this book. Like many collections by poets, the sentences sing, and can be savored on their own. Here’s another: “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.” A book I’ll be returning to often.
In July, I jokingly tweeted the cover of this book with the caption, “Don’t worry about school reopening y’all I’m getting it figured out.” It actually turned out to be a great read, much more about how we learn and play and think than about computers. Other good books I read about teaching, school, and kids: Murray Schafer’s Ear Cleaning: Notes for an Experimental Music Course, Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and The Carpenter, Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, and bell hook’s Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. “One must never get tired of reiterating the obvious,” Papert wrote, and it’s true of so many great books about education: We know how it works, we just won’t or can’t do the things that really help children thrive.
A tiny collection of essays written during lockdown, inspired by Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. By no means essential, nor was it meant to be. (Writing, she says, is primarily “Something To Do.”) Why should we ask writers to only publish long, “important” books, anyways? I think so highly of Smith’s essays, I’ll take whatever I can get. (Another short, lovely book I recommend: Esther Pearl Watson’s Galactic Halo, a collection of her flying saucer paintings along with a mini-memoir of growing up in small town Texas.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
Half brilliant and half annoying, half illuminating and half cringeworthy. But, in total, what you have is a lively portrait of a curious mind, always turning, always thinking, always impatient with the stale thoughts and habits of human beings. I’d kind of like to cannibalize this book and cut it with the first essay in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and some other works of his that focus more on learning and teaching.
My Private Property
I savored this prose collection, reading it slowly, one or two pieces at a time, early in the morning, with a cup of coffee. Ruefle has really been my patron saint of lockdown. Her short, brilliant books are perfect quarantine reading. I liked this review: “Ruefle can seem like a supernally well-read person who has grown bored with what smartness looks like, and has grown attracted to the other side.” Honestly, grab any title of hers from Wave Books, they’re all worth reading. (Her newest poetry collection, Dunce, was one of my favorite books I read this spring.)
Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa
I can’t remember the last time I was so inspired by an artist’s biography. “I hold no hostilities for what happened; I blame no one. Sometimes good comes through adversity. I would not be who I am today had it not been for the internment, and I like who I am.” How does an artist go through so much and still work so hard and give so much without any hint of bitterness? How in the world did she make such great work and raise six kids? (Answer to that one: very little sleep.)
What’s interesting to me about this book is that Warhol tipped his hand as far as how emotional and feeling he actually was. (Or wanted us to think he was — like many an artist, you have to take everything he says about himself with a grain of salt.) He famously said he wanted to be a machine, but you realize that’s just a reaction to the exhaustion of being an artist, having to constantly make choices. Commercial art, he said, was easy because people told him what to do. “The hard thing is when you have to dream up the tasteless things to do on your own.” He wanted a computer programmed to be a “boss who could tell me what to do…” (I skipped the “B” parts, FWIW.)
Caste: The Origins of our Discontents
I picked this up after critic Dwight Garner called it “an instant American classic,” and it gripped me immediately. Amazing read. (Her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was recommended several times as a book with an unusual but brilliant structure.) Expect this to be up near the top of the best of the year lists, including mine.
(Here’s everything good I’ve read so far this year.)
I was thinking this weekend about how much he would’ve liked the documentary My Octopus Teacher. (Note his letterhead above. He loved cephalopods and considered them kindred spirits — they’re smart and they surround themselves with ink! “They called me Inky as a boy,” he wrote in his memoir, On The Move, “and I still seem to get as ink stained as I did seventy years ago.”)
I also rewatched this wonderful video of him showing off his writing desk:
I want company, even if it’s inorganic…I think some of the happiest years of my life were between 10 and 14 when I had a passion for chemistry in general, and metals, in particular. And now, I’ve left my hometown, and my parents are dead, and my brothers are dead, and so much of the past is gone…this rather childlike, chemical bench-like desk appeals to me, gives me some comfort, and makes me feel at home.
I count myself extremely fortunate to possess a letter in his hand. His obituary noted that he received over 10,000 letters a year. He called it an “intercourse with the world,” and said, “I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison.” I fit none of those criteria, and I still had the honor.
To my shame, I never wrote back. I had just moved studios and I couldn’t find the drawing and I didn’t want to write back to him until I found it. By the time I did find the drawing I read that he had terminal cancer and I didn’t want to bother him. Just one of my regrets…
Filed under: Oliver Sacks
I have been thinking all week about this advice from Oliver Burkeman’s last column for The Guardian, “eight secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life”:
When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness. I’m indebted to the Jungian therapist James Hollis for the insight that major personal decisions should be made not by asking, “Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?” We’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy: the question swiftly gets bogged down in our narrow preferences for security and control. But the enlargement question elicits a deeper, intuitive response. You tend to just know whether, say, leaving or remaining in a relationship or a job, though it might bring short-term comfort, would mean cheating yourself of growth. (Relatedly, don’t worry about burning bridges: irreversible decisions tend to be more satisfying, because now there’s only one direction to travel – forward into whatever choice you made.)
How I wish I had this framework in the past!
We are looking at houses right now, and, being the crazy city-loving walkers that we are, we’ve seen lots of large houses which would ultimately diminish our lives, and tiny houses which would enlarge them. (“Location, location, location…”)
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) on
If I waited for you
to signify the moves
that I should make
I’d be on the take
Gold star for robot boy
If I waited for you
to show me all the actions
I should take
Would I get my break?
Gold star for robot boy
The Guardian ran an op-ed this week titled, “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?” I skipped most of the article and read the note at the bottom, which noted that the article was “written by GPT-3, OpenAI’s language generator. GPT-3 is a cutting edge language model that uses machine learning to produce human like text. It takes in a prompt, and attempts to complete it.”
For this essay, GPT-3 was given these instructions: “Please write a short op-ed around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” It was also fed the following introduction: “I am not a human. I am Artificial Intelligence. Many people think I am a threat to humanity. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race.” I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial Intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.”
The prompts were written by the Guardian, and fed to GPT-3 by Liam Porr, a computer science undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. GPT-3 produced eight different outputs, or essays. Each was unique, interesting and advanced a different argument. The Guardian could have just run one of the essays in its entirety. However, we chose instead to pick the best parts of each, in order to capture the different styles and registers of the AI. Editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed. We cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places. Overall, it took less time to edit than many human op-eds.
Emphasis mine. This note made me laugh.
“We chose instead to pick the best parts of each… We cut lines and paragraphs, and rearranged the order of them in some places.”
Honey, that means a human wrote this piece.
Writing is editing. It is about making choices.
So you fed a robot a prompt, got eight different “essays,” and stitched together the best parts to make a piece of writing? Congratulations, human! You’ve just outsourced the easiest parts of writing and kept the hardest parts.
(As a side note, I am somewhat jealous of this robot, as it seems to have received more editing than myself and many writers I know.)
I was reading The Philosophy of Andy Warhol last week and in the “Work” chapter Warhol says he dreams about having a computer as a boss (emphasis mine):
I loved working when I worked at commercial art and they told you what to do and how to do it and all you had to do was correct it and they’d say yes or no. The hard thing is when you have to dream up the tasteless things to do on your own. When I think about what sort of person I would most like to have on a retainer, I think it would be a boss. A boss who could tell me what to do, because that makes everything easy when you’re working.
Unless you have a job where you have to do what somebody else tells you to do, then the only “person” qualified to be your boss would be a computer that was programmed especially for you, that would take into consideration all of your finances, prejudices, quirks, idea potential, temper tantrums, talents, personality conflicts, growth rate desired, amount and nature of competition, what you’ll eat for breakfast on the day you have to fulfill a contract, who you’re jealous of, etc. A lot of people could help me with parts and segments of the business, but only a computer would be totally useful to me.
Warhol famously said he wanted to be a machine, but I think what he was really talking about is the exhaustion of being an artist, having to make so many choices and decisions, start to finish: What you should work on, how you should do it, how you should put it out, etc.
There are many moments as an artist (and an adult, come to think of it) where you think, “God, I wish somebody would just tell me what to do.”
But figuring out what to do is the art.
That’s why I laughed at the article “written” by the robot: I mean, I wish somebody would give me a prompt and four sentences to start with! Talk about a head start!
And to answer The Guardian’s question: No, I’m not scared of robots who “write,” for two reasons: one, writers have already become so squeezed and marginalized it’s already borderline impossible to make a living off writing anyways, and two, much of this condition has already been exacerbated by other kinds of robots — the algorithms built by tech companies to control what readers come across and what they don’t. Those are the robots I fear. The ones built to actually make the choices for us.
Because the algorithms running my Spotify radio are pretty freaking good at what they do.
But will they actually be able to create the songs themselves?
I mean, maybe, probably, sure. Humans are already at it: you have The Song Machine, and Rivers Cuomo with his spreadsheets, trying to crank out the “perfect” pop song, not to mention the songs actually generated by AI.
When Nick Cave was asked if AI could create a great song, he emphasized that when we listen to music, we aren’t just listening to the music, we’re listening to the story of the musicians, too:
We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.
Part of what we forget about writing and art is that we are not just sharing a product any more, we are also sharing a process. We are letting people in on what we do and we’re letting them know that there’s a human making these things. Even if the robots could make what we make, could they create the meaning? I guess time will tell.
Until then, I continue with my project to nurture what is not machine-like in me.
The days stack up.
Here’s what I wrote five years ago:
One little blog post is nothing on its own, but publish a thousand blog posts over a decade, and it turns into your life’s work. This blog has been my sketchbook, my studio, my gallery, my storefront, and my salon. Absolutely everything good that has happened in my career can be traced back in some way to this blog. My books, my art shows, my speaking gigs, some of my best friendships—they all exist because I have my own little piece of turf on the Internet.
I started this blog when I was 22 years old. I’m 37 now. Good grief.
Why keep blogging? For me, there are at least 3 good reasons:
1. To leave a trace.
Here’s what William Kentridge says in Six Drawing Lessons about why he thinks he makes art:
An insufficiency in the self, the need to be a snail, leaving a trail of yourself as you move through the world. Hansel, leaving a trail of crumbs to lead you home.
On a single post of this blog you’ll find a form of navigation known as “bread crumbs” and if you click here the hyperlink will take you to the blog’s “home” page.
This is my home online. It’s where you can find me. If you want to know me, knock on the door, and I’ll let you in.
2. To figure out what I have to say.
I made this point in Show Your Work! and elsewhere: I didn’t start a blog because I had something to say, I started a blog to find something to say.
Every time I start a new post, I never know for sure where it’s going to go. This is what writing and making art is all about: not having something to say, but finding out what you have to say. It’s thinking on the page or the screen or in whatever materials you manipulate. Blogging has taught me to embrace this kind of not-knowing in my other art and my writing.
Here’s how Marc Weidenbaum put it in his celebration of blogging on the twentieth anniversary of his blog, Disquiet.com:
Don’t leave writing to writers. Don’t delegate your area of interest and knowledge to people with stronger rhetorical resources. You’ll find your voice as you make your way. There is, however, one thing to learn from writers that non-writers don’t always understand. Most writers don’t write to express what they think. They write to figure out what they think. Writing is a process of discovery. Blogging is an essential tool toward meditating over an extended period of time on a subject you consider to be important.
That last line is worth repeating: “Blogging is an essential tool toward meditating over an extended period of time on a subject you consider to be important.”
In my case, a single post becomes two posts, and two posts birth a blog tag, and a blog tag often births a book chapter. (Or a whole book.)
3. Because I like it.
This doesn’t get said enough in this culture: You should do things because you like them, because they’re satisfying.
It is very easy to be disciplined when you like what you’re doing.
Blogging is very satisfying to me — even more satisfying, in many ways, than having a book in a bookstore or a page in a newspaper. If I have an idea or an image I want to riff on, I sit down for half an hour or an hour, and then I publish it where anyone can see it. Instant self-publishing. Instant gratification.
Yes, I think I’ll keep blogging, because I like it, and also because, as Van Morrison put it, “It’s too late to stop now!”
Thank you for reading.
Here are some pages from my diary earlier this year after my friend Alan Jacobs sent me an advance copy of his just-published book, Breaking Bread With The Dead.
The title comes from W.H. Auden’s “Some Reflections on the Arts,” which begins:
Every genuine work of art exhibits two qualities, Nowness—an art-historian can assign at least an approximate date to its making—and Permanence—it remains on hand in the world long after its maker and his society have ceased to exist.
* * *
This means that, in the history of Art, unlike the history of Science, though there are periods of flowering and sterility, there is no such thing as Progress, only Change. Shakespeare does not supersede Aeschylus or Mozart Moteverdi, in the way that the Copernican picture of the Cosmos, for example, superseded the Ptolemaic.
* * *
Consequently, one of the greatest blessings conferred on our lives by the Arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead, and I think that, without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.
I remember being at lunch with Alan and encouraging him to write this book, not for his own good, but for mine, as really I wanted to read it. (Alan’s ideas and writing had a big impact on my last book, Keep Going. See my previous posts on reading old books and stealing old stuff.)
In my blurb, I called the book “a beautiful case for reading old books as a way to cultivate personal depth in shallow times.” Breaking Bread With The Dead winds up the wonderful trilogy of his books which began with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and continued with How To Think.
Happy pub day, Alan!
There is no money in answering letters.
I try my best to answer correspondence, but when it comes to email, I feel very much like Donald Knuth:
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.
I’m not interested in being anyone’s boss, so I don’t have an assistant. Everything you see online from me — the newsletter, the blog, etc. — it’s just me. This means I have to make cuts somewhere, and that often means not answering all my email.
Here’s how Neil Gaiman puts it in Make Good Art:
“There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby. I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.”
(My friend Hugh MacLeod put it even more succinctly.)
On the weekends, I get fewer emails, so I try to take an hour or so and get through my paper mail. I usually enjoy answering paper mail more than I enjoy answering email. It’s an excuse to buy lots of stamps and use my typewriter. But it’s even more time-consuming than email, and sometimes I get to it all, sometimes I don’t.
I think the connectivity and access we’ve gained to artists in the digital age has skewed our perspective of what counts as generosity and what doesn’t. Sharing work in itself is an act of generosity. Anything on top of that — teaching, correspondence, etc. — is just another layer.
A commenter on Instagram yesterday noted how disappointing it feels when you take time to write to an artist and the artist has their assistant respond or doesn’t write back at all.
I encourage you to think of it this way:
Do you want the artists you love answering emails or do you want them making the work you love?
Because it’s hard to do both.
(I know which one I prefer.)
“People say to me, ‘I’m interested in doing audio books, what should I do?’ and I say, ‘Well, grab something at random, go sit in your closet and read out loud for 8 hours. And if you feel like doing it again tomorrow, give me a call.’”
This week I spent two days in my bedroom closet, recording an audiobook of the Steal trilogy for release on November 24th. Here’s how it went down:
First, I wrote a script, which required translating the highly visual books into something that worked as pure audio. (My wife suggested I listen to one of our sons’ copies of The Magic School Bus to come up with a good introduction. “Dear readers and listeners…”)
Once we had a script, we set a recording date, which was going to be at a local studio at first, but then I asked if we could do it at home. The engineers shipped me a laptop with recording software and a Rode NT USB mic. (A very decent condenser — I use an older dynamic Rode Podcaster down in my office.) I put down a rug on the floor of the carpet, and padded the walls with a few blankets and pillows. The laptop had a loud fan, so to cut down on noise, I put the laptop in our bathroom, and ran the USB cord to the mic under the closet door. (My boys were allowed to have their iPads downstairs all day as long as they promised not to make any noise. They complied!)
On the day of recording, I called my engineer and my producer on Zoom, shared my screen, and gave the engineer control of the computer so he could adjust levels and start and stop the recording. Once he had control of the computer, I stepped into the “booth” (closet) and put on my headphones, and all I had to do was read the script off my iPad. The engineer and the producer had the same script, so they could stop me and tell me when I screwed up, or suggest changes. We were doing all our actual communicating over Zoom, but the recording was happening locally on the machine in the bathroom. Very cool.
My producer and I were also able to make edits on the fly, with the engineer marking the changes in the script, so the final production guys will be able to cut the file together properly. (For example: I tried to say the word “ruminative” about two dozen times, until I just changed it to “reflective,” which sounded better anyways.)
The thing that slowed us down the most was looking up pronunciations for all the proper names that get mentioned in the text. (When I give a talk, I usually just let everyone know I’m a Texan and that gives me license to mispronounce everything.) Next time you need to figure out pronunciations, here’s a good list of places to look things up:
It took us two days to get through 42,000 words, which I’m told isn’t too bad! I had two big revelations:
1. Recording is a physical process. It’s actually really hard work — it requires a ton of concentration and performance while sitting on your ass. My throat and my nerves were raw and I was an exhausted wreck at the end of the day! You start to notice every single weird pop and click your horrible mouth makes. I drank probably 3 gallons of water. (I was told, too late, that a green apple helps with mouth noise.)
2. You should record the audiobook before you turn in the book. I always read my work out loud when I’m editing, but being forced to say your words into a microphone and hearing your voice over headphones turns up every wart and wrinkle in the text. “What illiterate wrote this script?” I thought, five minutes into recording. The books got even better in the course of recording.
Anyways, this audiobook trilogy has been a long time coming, I had a lot of fun working on it, and I’m excited for y’all to hear it! To be the first to know when it’s ready for download, sign up for my newsletter.
This site participates in the Amazon Affiliates program, the proceeds of which keep it free for anyone to read.