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I signed hundreds of copies of my books at Bookpeople in the past few weeks. Because of the pandemic, we sign masked and socially distanced on the picnic tables outside:
This cart is probably, oh, 1/3 of what I signed for the holidays:
How to break in a Sharpie pic.twitter.com/1VnHWi3EVL
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) December 2, 2020
“We had everything we needed. We had piano, guitar, ukuleles, every type of everything. That was what was great about the way we grew up. It really makes a difference to have a piano in the home. I feel like everybody, even if you don’t play the piano, you should have a piano. Every time I go into a house and it doesn’t have a piano, I’m like, what are you doing?”
Before my first son was born, I went out and bought a piano for the house. It was really important to me that he grow up with a piece of furniture he could walk over to and play his feelings on.
Here’s that piano, an old Lowrey I got in San Marcos for about the price of a flat screen TV:
Here’s a video of me playing it with Owen on my lap when he was 5 months old:
When he was about 6 months old, we found out that if I held down the sustain pedal and he played the black keys, it sounded like a Brian Eno ambient piece:
Here’s a photo of him as a toddler, looking inside the piano:
Here’s a video of me trying to show him how you can pluck the strings of a piano like a guitar:
Showing piano guts to my son with a little help from Brian Wilson pic.twitter.com/WDF9z6qgfP
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) March 9, 2016
We had that piano for the first six years of his life, and then we moved cross-country, and I gave it away. I regretted it immediately, and we spent two years without a real piano in the house.
But now, things are as they should be:
The most important piece of furniture in the house…
“The pandemic is a marathon without a finish line.” In an article about what teleoanticipation (“teleo,” from the Greek, meaning end, goal, or purpose) can teach us about these COVID days, Alex Hutchinson writes:
It turns out that, if you ask yourself “Can I keep going?” rather than “Can I make it to the finish?” you’re far more likely to answer in the affirmative.
There’s a crazy marathon called Big Dog’s Outdoor Ultra, which is a four-mile loop that runners run until everyone else drops out. In a piece called, fittingly, “A Loop Eternal,” one of the champions, Guillaume Calmettes, said it was actually easier for him to run than a normal marathon:
“Because there is no predefined finish, you cannot think in terms of ‘how many miles do I have left before this thing is all over’, so in fact, I found it very easy mentally. I just had to think about the next loop. The next loop, always the next loop, it’s very easy thinking. You’re never overwhelmed by what you have left to run, because you simply don’t know what you have left to run.”
It’s a little spooky how much this squares with what I wrote in Keep Going about the creative life:
The creative life is not linear. It’s not a straight line from point A to point B. It’s more like a loop, or a spiral, in which you keep coming back to a new starting point after every project. No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really “arrive.” Other than death, there is no finish line or retirement for the creative person.
Forget about the finish line. Do this loop. Then do another. Keep going.
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One of the most intriguing and helpful books I’ve read all year is Joseph Meeker’s The Comedy of Survival, first published in 1974. I heard about the book years ago in an essay by Mandy Brown, whose wonderful website, A Working Library, has several posts about it.
As Brown notes, Meeker argues that Western Civilization is mostly founded on the “tragic mode,” inspired by the great tragedies in which a “larger-than-life character attempts to bend the world to his (and it’s always his) image.” The character’s success “is also his undoing,” and tragedies end in bloodshed, death, and a funeral of some kind. Our civilization has been built on the tragic idea that we can bend nature to our will, the result of which has been complete ecological catastrophe.
Meeker proposes an alternative for surviving our disastrous times: the “comic mode,” inspired by comedy:
Comedy is not a philosophy of despair or pessimism, but one which permits people to respond with health and clear vision despite the miseries the world has to offer. Its mode is immediacy of attention, adaptation to rapidly changing circumstances, joy in small things, the avoidance of pain wherever possible, the love of life and kinship with all its parts, the sharpening of intelligence, complexity of thought and action, and strategic responsiveness to novel situations. It permits people to accept themselves and the world as they are, and it helps us make the best of the messes around us and within us.
Upon reading this, I was immediately struck by how well the tragic and comic modes map to Brian Eno’s concept of genius vs. scenius, with one being a egosystem and the other being an ecosystem:
Our world is an ecosystem in which our only real chance at survival as a species is cooperation, community, and care, but it’s being lead by people who believe in an egosystem, run on competition, power, and self-interest.
Comedy and scenius show us a way forward. A chance at survival that, in Meeker’s words, “depends upon our ability to change ourselves rather than our environment, and upon our ability to accept limitations rather than to curse fate for limiting us.” Comedy, like scenius, gives all the characters in the story a surviving role and a chance to live to see another day.
So how do we get into the comic mode? In the third edition of the book, published in 1997, Meeker argued that play was the quickest way in. Giving ourselves over to open-ended and improvisational activities, like music, art, gardening, etc.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 13, 2017
Humor and jokes, too, of course. I’ve been struck in recent years by how many activists and writers — especially women! — emphasize the importance of a sense of humor for survival.
bell hooks: “We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail.”
Mary Beard: “A bit of outrage is good, but having your only rhetorical register as outrage is always going to be unsuccessful. You’ve got to vary it. Sometimes, some of the things that sexist men do just deserve to be laughed at.”
Gloria Steinem, when asked why she’s lasted so long:
If I had to pick one reason, it’s because I have a sense of humor. That’s crucial. It allows you to laugh at yourself and say when you’re wrong. One of the things that Native American culture understands and we probably don’t is that laughter is the only emotion you can’t compel. You can’t make anybody laugh unless they want to. I suspect that the people who last the longest, who continue to be trustworthy, are people with a sense of humor.
Camille Paglia: “Comedy is a sign of balanced perspective on life and thought. Humorlessness should be grounds for dismissal. ”
Comedy is also a crucial survival strategy as a parent.
Tragedy vs. comedy maps to Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter, in which she argues that being a good parent is about being a “gardener,” and nurturing children as a plant with the right air and soil, etc. (I should note that I love the gardening half of the metaphor, but I don’t think the other half is right: carpentry seems to me to be an artisanal trade, which requires a sensitivity to materials similar to gardening. Do not some pieces of wood cry out to be certain objects and not others? Think of the story of Pinocchio, which literally starts out with a talking log, and is about the perils of trying to “shape” young boys.)
In the tragic mode of being a parent, you rigidly try to shape your kid into your ideal of a Great person; in the comic mode, you discover who the child is, together, with constant adaptation and improvisation.
An excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story explains how I feel about being a parent:
Life itself is a comedy—a slap-stick comedy at that. It is always hitting you over the head with the unexpected. You reach to get the thing you want—slap! bang! It’s gone! You strike at your enemy and hit a friend. You walk confidently, and fall. Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it. There is not a hair’s breadth between them.
Here is another tangent: Tragic and comic modes also seem to me like they could map to the “medical” and “social” models of disability.
Take stuttering, for example.
In a tragic or medical mode, stuttering is seen as a pathological impairment you try to “fix” with endless hours of speech therapy, trying to turn the person who stutters into a “normal” speaker. In the comic or social mode, stuttering is only a disability if it’s made one by the people surrounding the person who stutters. Given the right environment, supportive and understanding of difference, a person who stutters can teach us new things about time and patience, silence and rhythm, and the art of conversation.
I could go on, but I need to stop there for now.
A question we could all ask ourselves every morning: Do you want to live in a tragedy or a comedy?
I know which one works best for me.
I’m doing something I haven’t done in 14 years: I’m reading a brand-new Edward Tufte book!
The books had a big impact on me, so much so that I applied to Carnegie Mellon’s information design program. (I got in, but wound up moving to Texas and becoming a web designer instead.)
What, selfishly, delights me most about the book is that it contains one of my drawings from a Tufte seminar I attended in 2015:
To go from drawing ET’s books to having a drawing in one of ET’s books… sometimes my life is pretty fun.
If you look through design history and you see something that looks really radical, that’s what you’re going to be doing now. If you think that’s nice, that’s what you’ve already been doing. If you think it’s tired, that’s what you were doing five years ago. But if you think it’s ugly, that’s what you’re going to be doing in five years.
I love this idea and it reminds me: My favorite character in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is The Ugly. Tuco’s not boring and he’s not evil. He’s not tragic, he’s comic. He’s not heroic, he’s picaresque. He might not win, but he will survive…
In his latest newsletter, L.M. Sacasas writes about the “emotional roulette” of checking social media. “You never quite know what news you’ll encounter and how it will mess with you for the rest of the day.”
Worse is “doomscrolling,” the endless surfing we do “when we give ourselves over to the flood of information and allow it to wash over us.”
Whatever else one may say about doomscrolling, it seems useful to think of it as structurally induced acedia, the sleepless demon unleashed by the upward swipe of the infinite scroll (or the pulldown refresh, if you prefer). Acedia is the medieval term for the vice of listlessness, apathy, and a general incapacity to do what one ought to do; ennui is sometimes thought of as a modern variant. As we scroll, we’re flooded with information and, about the vast majority of it, we can do nothing … except to keep scrolling and posting reaction gifs. So we do, and we get sucked into a paralyzing loop that generates a sense of helplessness and despair.
In his essay about Iago in the The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays, W.H. Auden makes this life-changing distinction: Instead of asking yourself, “What can I know?” ask yourself, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?”
I’m usually good at avoiding doomscrolling and the Pavlovian pull and release of refreshing Twitter (ever notice how there’s very rarely anything refreshing about refreshing?), but the election has destroyed most of my willpower. I’ve been busying my hands with The Cube and soothing my brain with the calm of collage, especially “ugly” ones like this one:
Some kind souls on Twitter said, “How do you consider this to be ugly?” The product might not end up ugly, but the process is my attempt to make ugly or “bad” art, which I think is often much more fun and more helpful than trying to make “good” art. (“Every time we make a thing, it’s a tiny triumph.”)
I’ve also been doing a lot of doodling on notepads. (In addition to all my notebooks, I keep one of these little legal pads on my desk for random notes.) Drawing is something to do and it is part of a cure and when you draw the world becomes a little bit more beautiful. (If you need some guidance, try a blind contour drawing or my friend Wendy MacNaughton’s four drawing exercises to help with a hard day.)
Here I’ve combined collage and drawing: I ripped a picture of Abe Lincoln in half, pasted one half in my notebook, and as I was copying the second half, got the idea to make his hair shaggy… and then add a barber? Who knows where these images come from…
Was not feeling festive. And then Aunt Becky sent her famous Santa cookies OMG pic.twitter.com/uUIs90Oxsp
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) December 20, 2015
My aunt Becky died this week at the age of 72.
I have read a lot of obituaries, but hers is the first I have written.
While I was writing it, I thought a lot about constraint and form and perspective. How we get to know a person and how impossible it can be to communicate the sum of who they were, with all the multitudes they contained.
People see you through their own lenses. You’re as many different people as the number of people who know you, and for any life, there are many possible obituaries.
Thank goodness for structure. I felt very lucky, piecing together the information the family sent me, that there is a general form to obituaries, with a few variations.
I was also thinking about an alternate obituary — the obituary I would write if I didn’t have all this good information.
What do I remember about my aunt Becky?
Primarily, I remember her as a Reader. She loved to read and she dedicated her life to teaching her students how to read.
She had the no-nonsense-ness of a teacher. She carried the wisdom — and the authority! — of someone who’d done the reading.
Nobody does the reading anymore. Becky did.
I remember her giving excellent gifts, maybe a book she’d picked up during a trip to Colonial Williamsburg or Monticello. (Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.”) I definitely remember her gifting me books about the Beatles when I was obsessed with them.
And the Santa cookies. Aunt Becky baked the absolute greatest Santa cookies. Whatever address we had, she’d mail them to us every December. Scroll up and look at them again. Each wrapped individually in a little plastic cookie sleeve. Made by a woman who knew what she was doing.
What gifts she gave me! Books and cookies.
What more could this nephew want from his aunt?
I had a long, lovely chat with doctor and YouTuber Ali Abdaal this week. He read my book Show Your Work! in 2016 and said it inspired him to start sharing online. (He now has over a million subscribers and makes more money as a YouTuber than a doctor!)
One of the topics from the book we discussed is how much you learn when you have the courage to share what you have learned, regardless of your level of expertise.
It was certainly true of our conversation, as I learned something really interesting from Ali: he says he gets way better results with his YouTube videos when he titles them, “How I Remember Everything I Read,” instead of “How to Remember Everything You Read.” There’s something about using the first-person pronoun that opens things up, lets him speak from his own experience, and lets viewers feel like they can take what they need and do their own thing.
Stop worrying about becoming an expert before you start. Teaching that comes from a fellow student is often more impactful than teaching from an expert. C.S.Lewis once said “fellow schoolboys can teach fellow students just as effectively as the teacher”. It’s the difference between saying ‘I’m an expert and I’m going to teach you something’, and saying ‘I’m a fellow student and I’m going to share what I’ve learnt and maybe you can take something from this’.
By his own account, Quah’s actual qualifications for taking on the role of public thinker on podcasting were nil. He’d never made a podcast, had no background in radio or audio media of any kind. In fact, he was not long out of college and a few months into his first media job, an entry-level gig at Business Insider that he describes as closer to market research than journalism. He was basically some random guy with a new off-hours hobby…. Within a couple years of starting his newsletter, this random guy was able to quit his day job and become, for lack of a better word, a full-time expert…
Rob writes, “More than ever, expertise seems to have become a DIY affair; strategic and determined obsession can replace specific credentials or a tangible track record.”
Again, it’s not about being credentialed or being an expert, it’s about seeing a space open up, starting to do work that needs doing, sharing your ideas, and sticking around long enough so people show up and you can interact with them in a meaningful way and build something lasting.
Part of this is also forgetting about job titles and focusing on the work that should be done. Here’s a brief clip from a longer conversation I had with Nelda Sue Yaw about an idea from my book Keep Going:
The crucial thing, I think, is that if you do get the job title, if you do become something like an “expert” or “professional” in your field, you must retain an amateur’s spirit and remain a student, so that you can benefit from the best thing about having your work out in world: the “free education that goes on for a lifetime.”
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