Last year I gave graduates some advice and it went like this:
- Treat your day like a 9-5 job.
- Hang out at your local library.
- Take long walks.
- Teach yourself to cook.
- Keep a journal.
Here’s 5 more pieces of advice. As always, take what you need, leave the rest.
6. Find a new city.
We want so badly to emulate our heroes. We go to their lives for inspiration and we fill our heads full of romantic stories about how they made it. But we often fail to put our heroes in their proper contexts — we don’t acknowledge the environments in which these heroes came up and we try to copy what they did without updating the moves to our own situations.
Patti Smith wrote a whole book about her New York City origin story called Just Kids. But back then, she emphasizes, NYC was sort of a dump, and really, really cheap. Today, NYC is not what it was, and it is not as open or as cheap for young people. Smith now encourages young people to “find a new city.”
Ask yourself what you really need in a place to live. Find a place where you can thrive. If you’re broke and you want to do something weird and interesting that doesn’t necessarily fit into a traditional model, consider finding a place to live off the beaten path. When I was 21, I moved to Cleveland with my girlfriend. It was so cheap to live there I could work a 20-hour-a-week library job and spend the rest of my time reading and blogging. Almost everything I do now has root in what I discovered during that time.
This is something I heard cartoonist Paul Karasik say at the end of a comics lecture.
When you find something you really love — a painting, or a book, or a movie — spend as much time as you can studying it. Stand in front of a painting for 2 hours. Re-read a book several times. Freeze-frame a movie and study the composition of each scene. Etc.
We often avoid studying the things we love in depth like this because we’re afraid we’ll miss out on all the other things that might be out there. (Some of this, I think, comes from school: we’re used to broad, survey-style courses, where you try to digest the whole history of a form in one semester. You have to stick to the syllabus — you can’t spend too much time on Homer because you have to get to Virgil!)
When I was starting out as a writer, I was in such a panic to digest as much as I could right away, I would never re-read books. I would move from one book to the next, gobbling them up. Eventually I got comfortable going back to old favorites, getting to know them in depth, discovering things I’d missed, finding connections between the things that really spoke to me. Now I value re-reading old favorites even more than reading something new.
8. Steal old stuff.
One of the quickest ways to develop more original work is to stop stealing from people who are alive and start stealing from the dead. Dig into the past and go deep.
Everybody has a hot take to offer in these troubling times, but I tend to get more inspiration and comfort from someone like the Montaigne in Stefan Zweig’s biography, who lived 400 years ago, but never really knew life in his country without political turmoil. (By the way, he stole from the dead constantly.)
The great thing about stealing stuff from the dead is that you’re automatically forced to update their ideas and stories for your contemporary context. This act of transformation almost always makes the stuff, in some sense, your own…
In the book When Strangers Meet, my friend Kio Stark writes about how interacting with strangers puts us more in the present moment, makes us feel more alive. These interactions, of course, teach us things we wouldn’t know otherwise. (Richard Ford: “When people realize they’re being listened to, they tell you things.”) When you mix with all kinds of different people, you get a bigger, more interesting picture of the world.
There’s a lot of talk about diversity on college campuses, but it usually focuses on race, gender, or religion. Economic diversity is another matter: very often the student body is rather homogenous when it comes to class. (All of my friends in college were, like me, pretty middle-class.) Depending on where you are in America, and what kind of diversity you’re looking for, a walk down a city street is liable to put you in touch with a much more diverse set of people than a college campus.
There’s one other kind of diversity that I think is undervalued in our culture: age. It struck me one day in college that I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a baby or an elderly person. (Now those are the two groups I probably come across the most: the kids on the playground or the retirees out for a morning walk in my neighborhood.) Think about offering to babysit for the little ones in your life and spending time with your grandparents or volunteering at a nursing home — there’s a lot of good that comes from such cross-generational interactions.
The late Amy Krouse Rosenthal once tweeted, “for anyone trying to discern what to do w/ their life: PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO. that’s pretty much all the info u need.”