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A few years ago I made a free zine about gratitude that you can print and fold and fill out. I’ve gotten some lovely messages from people who have used it in their classrooms and at the Thanksgiving dinnertable. Look inside and download it here.
Every time I’m in California, there’s at least a little bit of magic to the visit.
The family and I were in Los Angeles for a few days and the nice surprise of the trip was popping down to Huntington Beach for an impromptu Dairy Queen picnic, hunting for sand dollars and playing fetch with random pups we befriended.
California visits also usually inspire newsletters — see our “Let’s Talk Travel” Tuesday discussion and my “A Path With A View” Friday letter. (At least one reader mentioned that the photo below reminded them of Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway.)
I’m doing some of my best writing, I think, in my Tuesday newsletter.
This week, I wrote about “entering into the spirit” of the holidays:
For artists, we get to play at Halloween all year. That veil between the material and the immaterial stays razor thin. Every day, we get to step into our costumes, don our masks, perform our rituals, and enter into the spirit.
Two weeks ago, I shared three poems from the sports section:
For years, my favorite section of the New York Times for making newspaper blackouts has been the Sports section. (Ironic, considering they recently disbanded their sports department.) This isn’t because I’m a huge fan of sports, but because you find good nouns and verbs there: I like the way coaches and athletes talk in plain language — and sometimes clichés! — and how they speak a lot about “seasons,” etc.
I stitched those poems them together with quotes from my commonplace diary and the result was really fun. I’m going to try to do more letters like this soon.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the art of forgery:
Because I wrote a book called Steal Like an Artist, some people think I’m really interested in plagiarism. Actually, I’m much more interested in forgery.
“Plagiarism is the flip side of forgery,” wrote Andrew Potter in The Authenticity Hoax. “Forgers pass off their own work as that of someone else, while plagiarists pass off the work of others as their own.”
In other words: Plagiarism is taking credit for someone else’s work. Forgery is giving someone else credit for work you create.
The difference is you doing the work.
Though I love having the deadline and the form to play with, what’s best about the Tuesday newsletter is the comment section — a sane corner of the internet that makes me feel better about the world. (See our recent “What’s Good?” discussion thread for a lift — there’s a free trial at the paywall.)
From Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book about wrestling with D.H. Lawrence:
“Films and books urge us to think that there will come certain moments in our lives when, if we can make some grand, once-in-a-lifetime gesture of relinquishment, or of standing up for a certain principle – if we can throw in our job and head off, leave the safe life with a woman that we do not love and, as it were, come out – then we will be liberated, free. Moments – crises – like these are crucial to the cinema or theatre where psychological turmoil has to be externalised and compressed. Dramatically speaking what happens after moments such as these is unimportant even though the drama continues afterwards, with the consequences of these sudden lurches beyond the quotidian. Up until then the question is what you are freeing yourself from; the real question, however, as Nietzsche points out – and Lawrence repeats in his Nietzschean Study of Thomas Hardy – is free for what?
Unless, like Thelma and Louise, you plunge off the side of a canyon, there is no escaping the everyday. What Lawrence’s life demonstrates so powerfully is that it actually takes a daily effort to be free. To be free is not the result of a moment’s decisive action but a project to be constantly renewed. More than anything else, freedom requires tenaciousness. There are intervals of repose but there will never come a state of definitive rest where you can give up because you have turned freedom into a permanent condition. Freedom is always precarious.”
I’ve long been inspired by the punk band Wire’s rules of negative self-definition: “No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms.”
In How Music Works, David Byrne writes about the early style of the Talking Heads playing CBGBs as a three-piece combo, how “it was less a band than an outline for a band,” and how they, too, defined themselves against the “overwhelming” sense of what had come before:
The only sensible course was to avoid all of it, to strip everything back and see what was left. Some others in that scene had similar ideas. The Ramones didn’t allow guitar solos, for example, but we took reductionism pretty damn far. It was a performance style defined by negatives—no show-offy solos… no rock moves or poses, no pomp or drama, no rock hair, no rock lights (our instructions to club lighting people were “Turn them all on at the beginning and turn them off at the end”), no rehearsed stage patter (I announced the song titles and said “Thank you” and nothing more), and no singing like a black man. The lyrics too were stripped bare. I told myself I would use no clichéd rock phrases, no “Ohh, baby”s or words that I wouldn’t use in daily speech, except ironically, or as a reference to another song.
It was mathematics; when you subtract all that unwanted stuff from something, art or music, what do you have left? Who knows? With the objectionable bits removed, does it then become more “real”? More honest? I don’t think so anymore. I eventually realized that the simple act of getting on stage is in itself artificial, but the dogma provided a place to start. We could at least pretend we had jettisoned our baggage (or other people’s baggage, as we imagined it) and would therefore be forced to come up with something new.
In Jonathan Gould’s “The Origin Story of ‘Stop Making Sense,” he writes about how director Jonathan Demme defined his film of the band by what he wasn’t going to do:
Demme made it clear that he wanted to focus the whole production solely on the band’s performance. Unexceptional as this might sound, it was a departure from the way that rock concerts had previously been presented on film, from Richard Lester’s mock-documentary “A Hard Day’s Night” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” by dispensing with a “backstory” of the musicians coming and going; the logistics of staging the show; interviews with the band members, promoters, and fans; and the fervent response of the crowd. Instead, Demme proposed to simply film the band onstage, expertly, while avoiding the rhythmic, fast-paced, jump-cut style of editing associated with the music videos being shown on the recently established platform MTV.
In Rob Walker’s recent newsletter, “‘No’ Rules,” he talks about how extreme self-imposed constraints can spur creative leaps and your signature work. (Rob has an assignment he gives to students, “Always/Never,” in which he has his students make a list of 3 things their work must always do, and 3 things their work must never do.) But, Rob says, you are totally within your rights to eventually break your own rules and start subtracting the subtractions.
In fact, it might be crucial to your artistic survival to break your own rules. Jonathan Gould points out that while Jonathan Demme took a minimalist approach, by the time Stop Making Sense came around the Talking Heads had “jettisoned many of the musical and theatrical restrictions they had originally placed on themselves.”
Rob pointed out their amazing Live in Rome concert from 1980 as an example of the great leaps they had already made in just a few years:
You can see the same progression with a band like The White Stripes — at first, they began with their extreme constraints of threes: voice, guitar, drums; red, white, black, etc. Slowly, they broke their own rules, added in other instruments on later albums, expanding their sound. (
Their biggest single, “Seven Nation Army,” was radical at the time because they included a bass line! Okay, so it wasn’t actually a bass line, it was Jack White’s guitar tuned down an octave with a whammy pedal, but everybody thought it was a bass, so it seemed like they were breaking their rules…)
I love this idea of subtraction and addition, contraction and expansion, breaking your own rules…
“It is stupid to be categorically against technology. It is not stupid to be suspicious of technology.”
“Might solve a mystery / or rewrite history…”
—the Ducktales theme song
* * *
My kids wanted me to sit and watch DuckTales with them this morning — the episode was “Armstrong” from the original DuckTales in 1987. Gyro Gearloose, a chicken and inventor who works for Uncle Scrooge, invents a “helpful” robot named Armstrong. Armstrong can do anything, and Uncle Scrooge quickly takes the opportunity to replace all of his labor force — his accountants and office workers, his loyal butler Duckworth, and pilot Launchpad — with Armstrong. Armstrong, of course, soon goes rogue, steals all of Uncle Scrooge’s money, and holds Scrooge and his inventor hostage.
* * *
Later in the morning, I got one of Audrey Watters’ wonderful newsletters:
I regret to inform you that one of the biggest hustlers in the business came out this week with an essay that drew on Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. As I’ve argued elsewhere here at Second Breakfast, you can readily connect fascism and wellness, eugenics and fitness — so let’s be really honest about what it means when someone like Marc Andreessen openly embraces this violent, right-wing machismo that he calls “techno-optimism.” Dave Karpf has a very good response, and you’ll learn more from reading that than you will reading anything that Andreessen has ever written or done. (Like most entrepreneurs, he has never “done the reading” and you have to wonder if he cribbed from Marinetti purposefully or, more likely, just coincidentally, is also “nourished by fire, hatred, and speed.”) Another book recommendation, while I think of it: Blood in the Machine by Brian Merchant. […] “Down with all kings but King Ludd.” — Ada Lovelace’s dad.
* * *
Since I saw that manifesto, I had been been making my own short list of techno-skeptic books I would recommend to anybody who finds themselves tempted by such unfettered techno-optimist nonsense. It would include:
and Thoreau, Mumford, Melville, etc.
I asked some of my friends to help with the list and the responses ranged from “oh lord I need to write my book about it” to “how much more can be written on this topic?”
(My friend Alan Jacobs, for example, has written an essay with the subtitle “Neil Postman Was Right. So What?” about how such books have been “utterly powerless to slow our technosocial momentum, much less to alter its direction.”)
* * *
I myself am neither a techno-skeptic nor a techno-optimist, but probably more of what Karpf calls a “techno-pragmatist.”
What I am doing is looking for the appropriate technologies for doing the kinds of things I want to do — these are usually some weird mix of analog and digital, high-tech and low-tech — but always, adopting them thoughtfully requires asking the right questions of them.
Had he asked such questions, Uncle Scrooge would’ve saved himself a lot of trouble!
We had a great time on Saturday watching the annular solar eclipse.
“Annular” means “ring-shaped” — when an eclipse is annular, that means the moon is centered on the sun, but it appears smaller and doesn’t completely block it out, leading to the “ring of fire” effect.
We didn’t get the full ring of fire effect in our neighborhood — we would’ve had to drive an hour to get that, and I decided I wanted to see this one on our street in our normal environment. I was glad I made that call, as we got to explore our yard for the weird shadows that fall when the gaps in the tree leaves become pinhole cameras. Maybe best of all, we got to hang out with our neighbors in what turned into a viewing party.
I have been thinking a lot about afterimages since. “An afterimage is an image that continues to appear in the eyes after a period of exposure to the original image.”
I saw so many photos of the ring of fire that I’ve been seeing little rings of fire everywhere — like my mind is looking for afterimages. (Above: an air purifier in my kids’ room and a light I spotted on the way home from driving them to school.)
A viewing party turns into an afterparty.
I haven’t seen any owls since May 9th when the two owlets fledged, but yesterday Meg spotted this one in the box. Thus begins another owl season. My logbook tells me that we had an owl last year on October 20th that didn’t stick around long, either, so if we’re lucky, and our history is precedent, we’ll see it take up residence around Thanksgiving, the mate appear around Christmas, and eventually eggs and owlets in the spring. (Emotionally, I have to prepare myself for anything, lest I become Tony Soprano.)
I watched it most of the day, napping in the sun, with the occasional mobbing by bluejays, until it flew off around 1:45PM — it’s extremely rare in my experience to see one fly that time of day.
After it flew off, I thought of a quote by Werner Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
I run 24/7 surveillance on the box, thanks to a cheap spotting scope and an old iPhone running security camera software. Every morning during owl season I review the footage and often draw screenshots in my diary, so I can really pay attention and really see what I’m looking at:
This is why I am loathe to make any grand pronouncements about analog vs. digital — it is really the dance between them that makes my work what it is. Using the appropriate technology for what I’m trying to do.
The higher-tech camera surveillance lets me relax a bit and, ironically, not be too much in the owl’s business.
The pen and paper help me make actual sense of what I’m looking at.
And then the camera and the computer help me share these images with others.
Fingers crossed for another good season!
One of the delights of Wes Anderson’s adaptations of Roald Dahl’s short stories for Netflix is his recreation of Dahl’s famous writing shed, with Ralph Fiennes playing Dahl.
Anderson had stayed at Dahl’s house while he was making Fantastic Mr. Fox.
“It was a dazzling thing,” he said in a recent NYTimes interview. “It’s the house of somebody who has a very strong sense of how he wants things to be.”
I remember the dinner table, a great big table with normal chairs, but at the end of it is an armchair — not a normal thing at a dinner table — with a telephone, a little cart with pencils and notebooks, some stacked books. Essentially, “You can all eat here, and this is where I sit and have everything I want.” Also, he bought art and he had a good eye. I remember there’s a portrait of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon next to a portrait of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud. The place is filled with interesting things to look at.
He also got a look at the writing hut, “still filled with his things and left the way he had it.”
There was a table with all these sort of talismans, little items laid out, which I think he just liked to have next to him when he was writing. He had this ball that looks like a shot put, made of the foil wrappers of these chocolates he would eat every day. He’d had a hip replacement, and one of the talismans was his original hip bone. And there was a hole cut in the back of his armchair because he had a bad back. It is odd to have somebody write in a way that’s sort of cinematic.
Here’s a 1982 interview with Dahl (including him sitting down to write in his shed) from the BBC Archives:
I really loved the adaptations — I watched “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” first, and then I read the original stories of “The Swan,” “The Ratcatcher,” and “Poison” that night, then I watched each short the night they came out. They’re nasty little stories, like a lot of Dahl’s work, and that nastiness matched with Anderson’s visual sweetness makes for delicious confections.
It’s a little baffling to me what a non-event the release of these short films has been. I agree with Richard Brody: “Though the Netflix release of Anderson’s four Dahl adaptations is a wondrous bounty, they deserve screenings and a DVD compilation as the unified feature that they implicitly are.”
It appears that the writer John Green has recently discovered that he has aphantasia — “when your brain doesn’t form or use mental images as part of your thinking or imagination.” (The opposite of aphantasia is “hyperphantasia,” or having extremely vivid mental imagery. Most of us exist on a spectrum somewhere in the middle.)
People usually don’t discover they have aphantasia until they realize people aren’t speaking in metaphor when they say, “Picture this” or “picture an apple.” (A common example: someone will be in a meditation class and realize they can’t visualize a quiet stream or whatever.)
My wife Meghan only realized she has aphantasia after I blogged about it — and she has a master’s degree in architecture! (After I shared our revelation, I found out my friend Sachi LeFever is an aphantasiac, too — her husband Lee wrote a great post about it.)
When we come across art or writing that really speaks to us, it sometimes elicits a feeling of being part of something, as in, “I thought I was the only one!”
Discovering aphantasia is kind of flipped response: “Wait, you mean everybody else can do this?”
But depending on what you’re trying to do with your life, aphantasia can be an obstacle or it can be a gift.
For example: When Meghan is rearranging the furniture in the room, she has to push everything around before she can see whether it will work or not. This used to strike me as terribly inefficient — I could tell her, just from looking, that the couch isn’t going to fit there — until I realized that the novel arrangements she came up were because of her method. She will try out arrangements I wouldn’t bother with because I couldn’t visualize them. She doesn’t try to make the space something it’s not. Her eye isn’t clouded by visions, it’s focused on what’s actually in front of her. So her aphantasia, in this context, becomes a really powerful thing.
Many aphantasiacs report an internal monologue, or a kind of running radio in their head. (This is why it’s terribly frustrating for Meg when she has three boys talking at her at once — she literally can’t hear her own thoughts.)
But think of what a benefit thinking in language instead of pictures is to a writer! There’s no need to translate the pictures you see in your head into words. (More examples of writers talking about this benefit here.)
While it might seem like a superpower to be able to make all these pictures in your head, that doesn’t mean you can actually do anything with them.
You’d think such a condition would be a kind of death warrant assigned to a career in the visual arts, but not so! Ed Catmull, who co-founded Pixar and helped make huge advances in 3-D animation, announced “my mind’s eye is blind” a few years ago, and even found other animators at Pixar with aphantasia. He told the BBC that aphantasia helps clear up “some misconceptions about creativity”:
“People had conflated visualisation with creativity and imagination and one of the messages is, ‘they’re not the same thing’.
“The other one I think that people might have assumed, but if you think about it you can see why it’s false assumption, is you would think if a person could visualise, they’re more likely to be able to draw.
“If you open your eyes and you take out a pencil and pad, how many people can draw what they see? The answer is a very small number, so if you can’t draw what is in front of you then why would we expect that you would be able to draw what you visualise?”
(Related reading: “Visualisation and Why We Don’t Need it to Make Visual Art.”)
In several recent newsletters (see: “No expectations” and “You don’t need a vision”) I’ve been playing with the idea that having strong visions might inspire a kind of inflexibility in the artist that keeps them from seeing what’s in front of them and improvising a response.
Overall, I find it really interesting how resistant some people seem to be to the idea that our brains aren’t uniform, that there’s an endless variety of thinking and seeing and being and feeling. For me, I love learning how other brains work, because I not only find something I can take away for my own brain, my world expands, and something I thought was simple, like imagination, becomes richer and more complex.
To learn more about aphantasia, go to aphantasia.com.
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