I’ve been thinking a lot lately about materials. Obviously, a painter’s material is paint, a sculptor’s material is bronze or clay. But what of the other, more abstract arts? For example, a stand-up comedian will refer to her material. What, exactly, is that material? Jokes? Stories?
What is a writer’s material? Here’s Annie Dillard:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”
”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ”I liked the smell of the paint.”
More and more I think that our work — and happiness in our work — is to be found in not only identifying our material, but thinking of it as actual, tangible material that you can see and and hear and touch and smell and even taste and manipulate with your hands. This is easier to do if the material is physical, which is why I think so many writers write longhand, or print out their rough drafts to edit with a pencil, or read their work aloud.
An artist has to have a kind of sensual relationship with her material. She has to find material she can fall in love with, or, maybe even better, she has to love the material available to her. The stuff that’s lying around. (There’s a saying: “Attention is the most basic form of love.”)
Yesterday, I was flipping through a big stack of newspapers, looking for images — material! — and I came across this article, “The Materials Man of the Emirates,” about artist Hassan Sharif: “Sharif’s art insists that nothing is wasted if you make waste your creative source.” As Sharif found out, your material could be, in fact, what others consider trash. That is part of the artist’s job: finding treasure in the trash.
Anni Albers, in a 1938 bulletin for Black Mountain College, wrote about “Working With Material.” She said that modern civilization has caused us to lose touch with our own creativity. Her advice: “we must come down to earth from the clouds where we live in vagueness, and experience the most real thing there is: material.”
Over 40 years later, she asked, in “Material as Metaphor,” “How do we choose our specific material[?]” Her answer: “Accidentally.”
Something speaks to us, a sound, a touch, hardness or softness, it catches us and asks us to be formed. We are finding our language, and as we go along we learn to obey their rules and their limits. We have to obey, and adjust to those demands. Ideas flow from it to us and though we feel to be the creator we are involved in a dialogue with our medium. The more subtly we are tuned to our medium, the more inventive our actions will become. Not listening to it ends in failure.
She speaks of her own path:
In my case it was threads that caught me, really against my will. To work with threads seemed sissy to me. I wanted something to be conquered. But circumstances held me to threads and they won me over. I learned to listen to them and to speak their language. I learned the process of handling them.
What she learned, in the process of working with threads, she was then able to apply to other materials, for example, learning how ink wants to be with paper. She emphasizes that you really have to work with your materials, understand what they want to become. They will tell you what they want to be if you listen to them. “The finer tuned we are to [them],” she says, “the closer we come to art.”
“Beware of turning hobbies into jobs.”
In chapter 5 of Steal Like An Artist, I sing the praises of the good-old fashioned hobby, the thing you do outside of work, for fun. “A hobby is something creative that’s just for you. You don’t try to make money or get famous off it, you just do it because it makes you happy. A hobby is something that gives but doesn’t take.”
Since I wrote that over half a decade ago, things have just gotten worse in America, and as steady jobs keep disappearing and the market continues to gobble up the culture, the “free time” activities which used to soothe us and take our minds off work and add meaning to our lives are now presented to us as potential income streams. (“Make money doing what you love!”)
This week Ann Friedman wrote the piece I’ve been wanting to write, “Not Everything Is a Side Hustle.” Like me, she grew up in the Midwest, “practically born with a glue gun in my hand,” and she now practices a kind of “general craftiness.” Her new thing is deviled eggs (a personal favorite of mine):
For the past few years, I’ve been bringing these eggy experiments with me to barbecues and potlucks, where, through a mouthful of mayonnaise, someone will suggest that I start a deviled-egg catering business. It is a tempting idea (I could call the business “She-Deviled”!). And I know that people are suggesting egg-entrepreneurship as a compliment—their way of saying, “These are so good I would pay for them!”—but I take the implication seriously. At a time when Etsy shops and craft fairs and food trucks are decidedly mainstream, every domestic hobby is at risk of becoming a side hustle. I don’t want to boil and slice eggs for money. Messing around with a stand mixer or a sewing machine is fun for me because it’s not work. Personal pleasure is what makes a hobby a hobby.
I’m encouraged by Anne’s spirit, and I’ve been seeking other inspirations out there, examples of people who are out there happily practicing and protecting their hobbies. Oddly, one of my favorite inspirations is fictional and foreign: the BBC series Detectorists, in which two friends go rambling around the countryside with their metal detectors. Director and actor Mackenzie Crook says he got the original inspiration for the show from thinking about hobbies:
I’m fascinated by people and their pastimes and their hobbies, the way people their free time. It seems to me like it’s a very British thing. (I don’t know if it is.) The way people can just immerse themselves and get obsessed by subjects that to a lot of other people would seem like a dull way to spend a weekend. I wanted it to be an affectionate study of people and their pastimes. I decided on metal detecting as a good… you know, there’s lots of metaphors there for what they’re really looking for in their lives.
Spoiler alert: a hobby which at first seems to simply be about seeking fortune in buried treasure turns out to be more about the hunt and spending time with your mates. I love how the show celebrates people doing something that everybody else thinks is a complete waste of time. In one episode, the character Lance talks about how a hobby is better if people don’t understand it: “What you want is for your partner to shake her head, roll her eyes, and look at you and say, ‘You and your hobbies.’”
George Carlin said he didn’t have hobbies, he had interests. “Hobbies cost money. Interests are free.” I think you need both, and I wonder if Crook’s hunch about the British being better at hobbies is true — it certainly feels true to me. As our empire crumbles, we would do well to observe how citizens of former empires enjoy a nice pint, a ramble, and a bit of tinkering.
Pretty much every time there is a plagiarism or copyright case in the news, someone will ask me for my opinion. Most of the time I not only don’t have an opinion, I don’t want to have an opinion, because having an opinion — artistic or legal — would require me to: 1) investigate whatever pop singer or cultural producer is being accused of infringing 2) think about copyright law. There are so many other smart people thinking about it, like Lessig, Doctorow, Hyde, Ferguson, etc., and, I mean, if I wanted to think about copyright law all day, I’d have done what my parents wanted me to do and gone to law school.
That said, I’m writing this blog post as a placeholder (or thought-holder) so that I can link to it whenever somebody asks me what I think about so-and-so ripping off so-and-so:
1. Copyright is not a bad thing.
Because I wrote a book called Steal Like An Artist, many assume I’m some sort of copyright crusader, that I think copyright should be abolished. Nope! Copyright keeps a roof over our heads and food in my kids’ bellies. The whole point of copyright law is to encourage people to share their creative work for everyone’s benefit by making sure the creators can be fairly compensated for it. (Do I think the copyright system in the U.S. has been completely twisted by gigantic corporations? Yes.) Steal Like An Artist is not a book about copyright infringement. If you’re a good thief, you don’t get caught: You transform your influences, so that the stolen parts become a new whole. (People also think I’m a fan of any kind of remix—not true! Like every other kind of creative work, I think that 90% of remixes are crap.) Furthermore, I think that legal constraints can lead to interesting artistic constraints.
2. Responses to claims of plagiarism are more interesting than the plagiarism itself.
How the accused, the accuser, and spectators respond to claims of infringement tells you loads about them and how they think about creative work. For example, plagiarism is not very interesting in itself, but an author’s attempts to justify it can be. It’s also fun to watch the web unravel when lawyers get lathered up and fingers start being pointed: I’ve seen artists accuse other artists of ripping off their work, only to be found out later for having ripped off their work from another artist!
One of my favorite responses to a lawsuit was James Cameron’s attorney, who wrote that Cameron is the “most original and creative person in the motion picture business today” and doesn’t need to copy from anybody. (Ron Howard narrator’s voice: “He does.”)
Juries are a whole other can of worms: One person’s transformation is another person’s infringement, and if you think about how little your average person understands about art and music, there’s no telling what a jury will decide.
3. What is right is not necessarily legal and what is legal is not necessarily right.
I think of copyright cases like Elmore Leonard novels: there’s a bag of money and everybody’s trying to get their hands on it. The smaller the turf, the bigger the war, and as it becomes harder and harder to make a living, as the collective bag of money for musicians and other artists shrinks and shrinks, there will be plenty of attorneys happy to resort to suing for whatever’s up for grabs.
The real winners in any copyright case are the lawyers. It rarely has anything to do with the art. Every artist knows that art comes from art—it’s only the honest ones who admit it. But the reality is we live with a legal system that leads to musicians being advised not to acknowledge any influence whatsoever. Hide the truth and cover your ass — like everything else in American life, we’re stuck navigating between what we know is right and real and what’s the law.
PS. The collage above is a homage to the monkey selfie case.
Whenever somebody asks me to draw a line between inspiration and rip-off, I can’t really do much better but send them this chart from Steal Like An Artist. It’s a kind of graphic summary of what T.S. Eliot said in The Sacred Wood (which also serves as an epigraph for the book):
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.
In other words, despite the common saying, imitation is not flattery. It’s transformation that is flattery: taking what you’ve stolen and turning it into something new.
I don’t think whether something is good or bad theft is really that complicated. If it feels cheap or wrong to you, it probably is. I advocate an “elevator gut check” for one’s own work: If you met the artist you’re stealing from in a stalled elevator, would they shake your hand or punch you in the face?
I’ve always kept pictures of my heroes above my desk to keep watch over me, like guardian spirits, to remind me who I want to be. These days they help me remember who I wanted to be when I first got started.
Man, there are so many things to push you off your path. Maybe you get a taste of success and say, “Oh, well now it’s time to get serious.” Or maybe you fall into a career you didn’t plan on. Maybe people start lumping you in with some contemporaries you never asked to be lumped in with. Maybe somebody dangles some easy-looking money at you. In my experience, at some point you will wonder what the heck you’re doing and what you should do next.
Your heroes can help. Much depends, of course, on the quality of one’s heroes, but looking to them can help you get re-aligned with yourself. Sometimes it’s a stern look to say, “Stop f***ing this up.” Sometimes it’s a wink, to say “keep going, baby.” (Some of them you need at eye level, which is why I have Queen Lynda keeping watch over my writing desk.)
One of my favorite writer/directors, Billy Wilder, he kept a sign in his office that reminded him of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, “How would Lubitsch do it?”
(The Paris Review asked him, “Well, how did he do it?” and part of Wilder’s answer was: “It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.”)
Anyways. Remember your heroes. They can help.
I still find collage — glueing one thing to another — the most restorative thing I can do to get back to a good place in my work. It never fails to get my unstuck. These two collages were, fittingly, made from a Restoration Hardware catalog. The robot above was made for my 5-year-old, and the comic below was art directed by the same 5-year-old. (It’s been a happy, lazy Sunday.)