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My November pick for our Read Like an Artist book club is David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. To get the book in time to join our discussion next month, sign up now.
Here’s my intro:
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” What does it say about our culture that we’ve hacked the ending off of that famous phrase? John Steinbeck said people don’t want advice, they want corroboration, and maybe that’s why I love this book so much: it’s both a validation of how I’ve chosen to go about my life and career and a kick in the pants to stay true to my instincts, to not get complacent, to stretch out, and go down weird paths…
To join our discussion, sign up for the club!
Ann Patchett’s short memoir of her writing life, “The Getaway Car,” collected in her book, This is The Story of a Happy Marriage, is one of the best things on writing I’ve read.
You will take bits from books you’ve read and movies you’ve seen and conversations you’ve had and stories friends have told you, and half the time you won’t even realize you’re doing it. I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from that rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow.
Of research, for example, she writes, “I try to shovel everything I learn onto the compost heap instead of straight into the book.”
I’ve often thought that an artist has to be like the Mr. Fusion device Doc Brown uses in Back To The Future, but I like the compost heap even better.
The cool thing about a compost heap is that you can throw whatever organic matter you want on it. (“Hold on to your anger,” Thich Nhat Hanh told bell hooks, “use it as compost for your garden.”)
If you’re just throwing stuff on the compost heap, you don’t have to worry about being pure, or perfect. (“Writing…always, always only starts out as shit,” David Rakoff said. It’s like “reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.”)
And, as Brian Eno told us, “Beautiful things grow out of shit.”
1. Composer and Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford was asked to respond to the “10th symphony” created with artificial intelligence. “At the end of the symphony I found myself more philosophical than annoyed,” he writes.
The ability of a machine to do or outdo something humans do is interesting once at most… When it comes to art, we need to see a woman or a man struggling with the universal mediocrity that is the natural lot of all of us and somehow out of some mélange of talent, skill, and luck doing the impossible, making something happen that is splendid and moving—or funny, or frightening, or whatever the artist set out to do… Here’s my assertion: True intelligence is in a body. Intelligence outside a living body, as some sort of abstraction, is innately impossible, or should be given another name.
Swafford points out (like Nick Cave has) that part of the beauty of Beethoven is, “in contrast say to Mozart and Bach, with him it’s often as if you can hear the effort, the struggle, hear in the notes what it cost him to rise above the universal mediocrity.”
He writes of his late friend, the painter Francis Gillespie:
She would spend a year or more on a painting of flowers, struggling to represent them with virtually photographic accuracy. In fact, as she knew perfectly well, she didn’t have the technique to do that. “I’m really sort of a primitive,” Fran would say grimly as she worked. But what makes her paintings hers is exactly the grand failure of her attempt. Her pictures are beautiful, close to photos, but always a little off, and the offness makes them singular.
Ted Gioia calls this “an aesthetics of imperfection.”
In this story, the human has something the machine can never have.
2. In Sam Anderson’s profile of Laurie Anderson, he notes that the artist has “become obsessed, lately, with artificial intelligence.” She worked with researchers to make text engines in her style, the style of her late husband, Lou Reed, and an Anderson/Reed blend of the two. Anderson says a 1/3 of what the computer spits out is junk, 1/3 is boring, but 1/3 is “surprising, even authentic, some kind of fresh magic.”
Sometimes she sits there with the hunger of an addict, feeding words and pictures into the engine, seeing what comes out. For a long time, she would save the texts. They felt so precious. After a while, though, she realized that the texts were infinite. She could have one whenever she needed it. So she read them and then let them go.
At one point, Laurie Anderson reeds a poem the machine spit out in Reed’s style. It’s not bad. “Wonderful,” she says. “Just great. He’s talking to me from somewhere else. I definitely do feel that. The line is pretty thin for me.”
(This scene reminded me of something out of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow.)
In this story, the machine gives the human a combination of something it had and something it never had.
3. I am sympathetic to Swafford’s assertion that “intelligence is in a body” and “the aesthetics of imperfection.”
I also know that some of my favorite art came out of the interplay between human and machine. It is between the two that a third thing emerges — Beethoven, after all, was wrangling notes out of a machine with keys.
I think it is worth noting the difference between analog and digital machines. Analog machines, I would venture, give you more mistakes that you can work with — a brush runs out of ink, and the dry texture gives you new marks, Lee Perry blows ganja smoke and dirt on a tape reel, and new sounds emerge. (You throw dirt in a laptop and you’ll simply fry the machine.) That said, even digital machines and pieces of software have quirks and we ascribe them personalities, and work with them.
I would also note the difference between words and music. Words are more abstract than music. They are more easily fed into a computer and spit back out. They also must be interpreted by us — when we read the poem in the style of Reed, summoned from the computer, it is already an abstract, linear text. We must interpret the words. Music is not interpreted. It is what it is. It is heard.
I confess I have gone from being cranky to curious about A.I., and I wonder what sorts of grunt work it could do for me. (Could it spit out a book proposal?)
In my story, the machines help us to honor what is not machine-like in us.
The biggest misinterpretation of Show Your Work! is the idea that you should show everyone everything all the time. Just set up a 24/7 webcam over your desk and let people watch. (I won’t name any names, but when the book was still being written, the title Expose Yourself was thrown out there.)
Not only do I think it’s a bad idea to share while you’re actually doing your work, I think it’s a fast track to destroying your work.
It’s nearly impossible — not to mention extremely unpleasant — to work with people looking over your shoulder. There’s “the indignity of being observed,” but there’s also the observer effect: the idea in quantum mechanics that by simply observing a system, you change it. (This happens all the time in my everyday life: I’ll spook a bird by trying to take a photo, or I’ll praise an in-progress drawing and the kid will run out of the room.)
A few years ago, Tim Kreider wrote of becoming a meme:
You can’t write — or live — if you imagine the whole world watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, ready to mock or vilify you. Which, thanks to the internet, it now is.
I thought of Tim when I read this recent interview with with Dave Eggers, about his new book, The Every:
My theory is that a human under surveillance can’t create. Not really, at least. The staff at the Every are judged on every movement, every keystroke and each thing their pupils land on. It’s all observed and recorded and measured, and this creates a low-level vibration of paralysis for everyone, for fear of saying the wrong thing or making any kind of mistake that will never be expunged. But to create, you have to tap into the anarchist part of yourself; there can’t be rules and there can’t be anyone looking over your shoulder, and you can’t wonder what a troll in Tallinn will think of your idea.
It’s bad enough trying to create something when nobody’s watching — the worst trolls are the ones that live in your head!
The danger of sharing online is this ambient buildup of a feeling of being surveilled.
The feeling of being watched, or about to be watched.
You have to disconnect from that long enough to connect with yourself and what you’re working on.
“To me, being a genuine writer means that you’re able to shed all human dignity in a moment,” says Chuck Palahniuk. “People depend on you to express something that they can’t express.”
In Edgar Wright’s outstanding film The Sparks Brothers, Stephen Morris, the drummer in Joy Division, says they were listening to two records on repeat when they recorded “Love Will Tear Us Apart”: an LP of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits and Sparks’ No. 1 in Heaven.
Your output depends on your input, but a lot of your input is random: you’re interested in lots of different things, and those things, occasionally, will talk to each other in your work.
Lately I’ve been thinking about being more intentional with input. Thinking about input as collage. Taking the principle of juxtaposition (1+1=3) and using that to guide your input: what weird, seemingly disparate things can you feed your brain that will come out later in a new mix?
The input collage can be subject or genre based and even better if it’s multi-media. (For example, reading art books and physics books at the same time, or watching a lot of westerns and kung fu movies at the same time or looking at paintings in a museum while reading physics papers while watching kung fu movies, etc.)
There’s a balance here between feeding your brain intentionally and then backing off and letting your brain do the subconscious work of mixing your inputs together.
In Art & Physics, the writer and surgeon Leonard Shlain wrote about his interesting method of “self-education” in the books’ subject matters:
Serendipitously, I discovered a way to heighten my creativity. My habit was to read a popular physics book late at night until the snooze gremlin nudged me with the signal that it was time to call it a day. Prior to falling asleep the following night, my mind relatively empty, I leafed through art books. The next morning, I would often connect images I had seen the night before with concepts in physics contained in my previous night’s reading. Something mysterious happens in the creative process during dreamtime, and I am an avid proponent of the school that advocates, “sleeping on it.”
It’s been pointed out before that dreams and collage work in the same kind of holistic, non-logical, non-linear manner. I love the idea of our brains gluing together the bits while we slumber…
We laughed a lot but also went deep into how I feel about technology. (Basically: “The tools matter and the tools don’t matter.”)
The four pieces of my favorite gear I recommended:
You can read more and listen here.
A story about meeting choreographer Martha Graham for a soda, as told by Agnes de Mille in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham:
I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.
Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”
“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
“No artist is pleased.”
“But then there is no satisfaction?”
“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
How do we know when we have something?
* * *
Of his recording work on Thriller, Quincy Jones says, “We simply did what gave us the goosebumps.”
* * *
“Goosebumps are the result of tiny muscles flexing in the skin, making hair follicles rise up a bit. This causes hairs to stand up. Goosebumps are an involuntary reaction: nerves from the sympathetic nervous system — the nerves that control the fight or flight response — control these skin muscles.”
* * *
“Frisson (French for ‘shiver’), also known as aesthetic chills or musical chills is a psychophysiological response to rewarding auditory and/or visual stimuli that often induces a pleasurable or otherwise positively-valenced affective state and transient paresthesia (skin tingling or chills), sometimes along with piloerection (goose bumps) and mydriasis (pupil dilation).”
* * *
“All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and purt science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature
* * *
“The tipoff for me is somatic. Whenever a project comes to me, one that is right, that is genuine, I feel a kind of ‘shiver’ in my body, and that tells me that it corresponds to something very deep in me, and that I need to pursue it. That has been my guide with literally every book I wrote. Trusting this kind of visceral reaction means that you are willing to let life ‘come and get you.’ It means who you are is defined from the inside, not the outside. In terms of what’s really important, we don’t have much choice, and that’s as it should be. The decision is made by a larger energy or unconscious process, and when it’s right, you know it… Goethe wrote: ‘Man errs as long as he strives.’ Sit still, meditate, just let the answer arise from the body. (It may take a while.)”
* * *
“‘Oh, yes, father,’ he said. ‘I’d like to earn a living, I really would. I’d love to learn how to get the shivers. That’s something I don’t understand at all.’ […]
The father could only sigh. ‘Well, it won’t do you any harm to find out about the shivers,’ he said, ‘but you won’t get a living by shivering.’”
—Philip Pullman, “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About The Shivers,” Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm
* * *
“When I make a connection between two disparate subjects, I can almost feel my scalp tingle. I imagine the dendrites in my brain reaching out to make new connections to old knowledge. To me, setting my scalp atingle is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing…”
—Leonard Shlain, Art & Physics
* * *
I’m waiting for that tingle in the scalp.
In my view, there are four main energies you can tap into when you write your book. The main writing energy you discover may be just one or you may find that you have a combination of more than one of these energies that fuels your writing endeavors. The four energies are Blissed, Blessed, Pissed, and Dissed. The first two represent the positive energies; the last two, the “negative.”
The energies are split between “what you love and what upsets you”:
O’Hanlon goes on to say many of his early books were “written from a combination of pissed and blissed.”
(I can relate: much of my work comes from being a combination of angry and curious.)
O’Hanlon’s point is that ideas aren’t enough, you need energy to see you through a creative project, and if you can identify that energy and where it comes from, it can help your work.
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