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The text is from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium:
My method has entailed, more often than not, the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight from human figures, from celestial bodies, from cities. Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of the story and from language….
When the human realm seems doomed to heaviness, I feel the need to fly like Perseus into some other space. I am not talking about escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I feel the need to change my approach, to look at the world from a different angle, with different logic, different methods of knowing and proving.
Calvino is talking about writing and reading, but he could also talk about my approach to walking.
If I go for a walk, the day never feels like a waste. Each walk is a little adventure with a beginning, middle, and end. On your walk, you never know what you’ll find or who you’ll bump into. This week I met Cindy Schiffgens, who was on the sidewalk painting one of my favorite houses:
Many are disenchanted with this city we live in. I find that a neighborhood walk is a method of re-enchantment. “Outside lies magic.”
Visions are not complete until they have been set down and stepped away from, turned this way and that in the hand.”
—Lauren Groff, Matrix
Here is the moon as it looked through my telescope at 3AM this morning. Less than 12 hours earlier, I looked up while I was raking leaves and saw this:
“I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them.”
What I do is, I keep a list of phrases in my notebook I want to make and then when I have a minute or I’m burned out, I make one.
Sometimes they’re phrases we say a lot around the house. (This one is stolen from one of my favorite movies, Withnail and I. I say this in mock outrage a lot to my kids.)
Sometimes they’re more abstract. (I took the Target tape off a package.)
Sometimes it’s a phrase I can’t stand. (“Don’t get me wrong.”)
Sometimes my wife suggests one like “They can’t all be winners.”
Sometimes I notice a phrase everybody starts saying.
I like to do conversational shortcuts and the passive-aggressive phrases you hear a lot in the South and the Midwest.
These pieces are very different than my other work, so it’s not exactly clear to me what I should do with them. Not sure they’re right for a book, but maybe I can work my way up to a dozen or so and make a notecard set or a series of posters out of them.
That’s the thing about new work, it’s not really your job to judge it, you just keep the channel open and let the stuff come…
In two weeks, I’m interviewing author David Epstein about his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
I’ll be asking him about his inspiration, how he works, and how his ideas about the book have changed since he became a parent. (We’ll also probably bitch about how much we both hate writing books!)
The event will stream live on YouTube on Monday, November 29th at 3pm central. If you click through, you can set a reminder.
Christmas comes early: My December pick for our Read Like an Artist book club is Lynda Barry’s What It Is, one of my all-time favorite books and one of the biggest influences on my own creative practice. To get the book in time to join our discussion next month, sign up now.
Here’s my intro:
No living artist has had more of an impact on my work than cartoonist Lynda Barry. I met her when I was 22 years old, and sometimes I swear I’ve run my whole career off of the fuel of that brief encounter. The crazy thing is that I’m not alone—I’ve met tons of people who’ve told me Lynda’s two-hour workshop changed their lives. What It Is is the book equivalent of Lynda in the classroom: a magical, thrilling, and often overwhelming experience. I mean, every single page is a full-color collage! Be warned: this book may blow your mind and change your notion of what a book can be.
To join our discussion, sign up for the club!
In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson reports on research into what causes “hot streaks” in careers. (Some personal favorites, off the top of my head: Al Green 1971-1974, Robert Louis Stevenson 1884-1886, Harrison Ford 1979-1989, etc.)
“It’s a complicated idea that comes down to three words,” Thompson writes. “Explore, then exploit.”
There’s a never-ending tension in creative work between “exploring new ideas and exploiting old certainties.”
Say you’re a car manufacturer. Every year, you must decide between investing in future innovations, such as self-driving software, and finding ways to squeeze new revenue out of existing technologies and materials. Too much fanciful R&D spending, and this year’s profit plummets. Too much emphasis on tweaking existing product lines, and you get squashed by some fresh upstart in a decade.
Thompson notes that the same tension exists on the individual level: Do you spend your time exploring new possibilities or do you “shut up and play the hits,” so to speak?
Thompson’s piece notes that the “explore, then exploit” theory seems to back up the main idea of David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. David responded in his newsletter, “Exploration is Key for a ‘Hot Streak’ at Work,” and told the story of what happened when his first book, The Sports Gene, became a surprise bestseller.
I felt like the book was my sports capstone project: the exploit of my years as SI’s science writer. I wanted to go back into explore mode. Except, suddenly there was a lot of pressure not to do that, and instead to brand myself as the sports science guy and write another, similar book, and quickly. The pressure was to keep exploiting.
I found it difficult to navigate. The book had consumed me and stretched my competence. I wasn’t ready for another one. A professional advisor told me: “You’d be an idiot to let it be five years before you have another book out.”
Maybe! But choosing to be an idiot for six years, or playing the fool, led David to the “most impactful work” of his career.
Heraclitus noted that, like with guitar strings, it’s the unique tension in life that creates harmony.
I see this tension between exploring and exploiting not as something to get over or beat, but as a kind of field from which our work emerges.
If an artist is to keep working, they will never resolve this tension, nor will they want to. (See: Milton Glaser on Picasso.)
I have a few more thoughts:
1. A “hot streak” can’t be due to the will or actions of the artist alone.
When I look at the hot streaks listed by Thompson (“Albert Einstein in the early 1900s. Aretha Franklin in the 1960s. Steve Jobs in the 2000s.”) and the ones I listed above, I can point to the sceniuses that gave birth to those particular “hot streaks,” or acts of genius. (Green and Franklin did their best work at the peak of the album industry, Ford was there at the birth of the blockbuster, etc.)
In order for artistic or creative work to be “impactful” the conditions must be right. There must be an audience ready to receive the work. The creative person has very little to do with that.
Perhaps the best way to know if it’s time to explore is if the conditions don’t seem ripe. In such winter-like moments, it may be best to disappear and explore. (Read, for example, about the career of the late actor Dean Stockwell, which is a story of working and disappearing and reappearing again.)
My favorite sentence in Thompson’s piece echoes my thoughts on wintering and dormancy: “Periods of exploration can be like winter farming; nothing is visibly growing, but a subterranean process is at work and will in time yield a bounty.”
2. Does “impactful work” really equate to the best work?
I’m always a bit suspicious of the metrics involved in such studies. For this one, the hot streaks were “determined by higher-than-average art-auction prices, IMDb film ratings, or scientific-journal citations.”
I can tell you that in my own career, my most impactful or “successful” work is not my favorite work, nor the work I think is best. It is merely the work that connected the most with others. (Caveat: artists are often the worst judges of their own work.)
4. The line between exploitation and exploration can be pretty blurry.
Take Prince, for example. He had one of the hottest hot streaks of all time at the end oof the seventies and throughout the eighties. But he covered so much territory in that time, made such a diverse range of good music, can you say he was primarily in an exploitation mode? (To be fair, his commercial peak, Purple Rain, was a calculated move to become a superstar…)
5. Is a “hot streak” desirable for the artist?
That which burns hottest burns out more quickly. A hot streak is hard to live up to, though you can warm yourself by its embers for quite a long while. Which brings me to my next thought…
6. Exploration needs to be funded.
Exploitation mode pays for itself (until it doesn’t) but the exploration mode needs to be paid for up until it pays off. (If it ever does.) One of the great gifts of a major success is that it means you can go away for a while and experiment… if you have the guts to turn your back on the temptation to exploit indefinitely. (See David’s story above.)
7. There’s a micro and macro view of this.
If you zoom in, it’s possible you can do your exploiting and exploration at the same time. I think of John Waters: “I think it up in the morning and I sell it in the afternoon.”
Doing a gig based on what I know in the morning, for example, pays for my afternoon of writing and reading about what I don’t know.
Musicians tour so they can stay home to write and record. George Clooney acts in a big mainstream movie so he can direct an indie one. Etc.
8. Explore and exploit map to the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
As laid out in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, the left hemisphere tends to be all about exploitation and what it already knows for certain and the right brain about exploration and what is new. Chaos ensues when the left hemisphere gets its way too much, as it also does when exploitation becomes the main mode of the wider culture.
9. The playfulness of children can help us break out of exploit mode and back into explore mode.
In Heraclitus’s Fragments, he notes that tension is the very thing that makes life sing.
Take a guitar string, for example. If you wind it too tight, it will snap. Too slack, and it will buzz and make no note at all.
So it is with life: it’s not, in Victor Frankl’s words, about finding “a tensionless state,” but about finding the right tension.
(See also: Iain McGilchrist on “the coincidence of opposites.”)
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