Today’s newsletter is full of good stuff.
I spent 40 minutes or so this morning watching and doodling Greil Marcus’s “Why I Write” lecture, recommended by Stephanie Zacharek as “deeply personal and… extraordinary. It may help anyone involved in any creative endeavor who’s feeling…stuck.”
I write for fun. I write for play. I write for the play of words.
I write to discover what I want to say and how to say it.
And the nerve to say it.
The key word for me isn’t ‘fun,’ isn’t ‘play,’ but it’s ‘discover.’
I live for those moments when something appears on the page as if of its own volition, as if I had nothing to do with what is now looking at me in the face…
He then tells the story of the father who he never met, who was also named Greil.
(Perhaps this is too obvious, but unless I missed something, he never explicitly points out that his name sounds like “grail,” or the mysterious thing which is eagerly pursued and sought after. In fact, if you try to type his name into your computer, spell check will correct it to “grail” — nominative determinism!) *
You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.
* I was struck by the autodidact’s curse here: I’d always read Greil as “Grail” and ignored all evidence to the contrary, though Greil emailed me and told me when his great-grandfather first emigrated from Prague to Alabama, the name was pronounced “grail” and changed to “greel,” so maybe I was onto something after all. (In talks, whenever I have to pronounce a name like “Brancusi,” I joke that I’m from Texas, so I’m allowed to mispronounce anything I want to.)
Yesterday’s newsletter was about arguing with bots.
We all need variety sometimes, but when every channel has nothing, shouldn’t we notice?
I came across this 1992 op-ed by pianist Keith Jarrett called “Categories Aplenty, but Where’s the Music?”
Jarrett wrote it in the year after Miles Davis’ death. It’s cranky, and it might make some folks roll their eyes. (Jarrett was notorious for being difficult and “proud to be difficult” — in a 1997 NYTimes profile he was quoted as saying, “There are some ages, I think, that don’t deserve art as much as others. I almost think we live in a time now when that is true.”) But for a 30-year-old piece of writing, it feels state-of-the-art to me in that it still describes the state of the arts today. (Plus, I tend to like cranky musicians. Musicians have to be too nice today!)
“We live in an age in which only results seem to count, not processes,” Jarrett writes. “We need to hear the process of a musician working on himself. We don’t need to hear who is more clever with synthesizers. Our cleverness has created the world we live in…”
Elsewhere, Jarrett has told the story of his first encounter with music as a young kid: banging on the kitchen table with celery sticks. He asks us to “try to imagine the first musician,” who was “not playing for an audience, or a market,” but was “playing out of need, out of his need for the music.”
The original musician was not looking for his image; he was using his voice to learn about the world. He knew the world to be liquid (i.e., not made up of discrete entities). We see the world as ‘bits’ of information, either/or, yes or no, digital. We seem to have no desire to experience time. We trade this experience for the ‘accuracy’ of ‘bits’ of time: it’s either 9:19 or 9:20, never almost 9:20. So we think that time is a straight line and, eventually, that everything has edges. Something stops here, something starts there. But the natural world is essentially circular; our heartbeats are not like a click-track or a drum machine; there are different kinds of time, and we don’t only die when we are dead.
“Life is liquid, not solid; a process, not a result; the present, not the future,” he writes. “Life is a process. We’re losing the concept of ‘becoming,’ because this, too, is circular.”
He quotes a canto by Ezra Pound (“Nothing counts save the quality of the affection”) and paraphrases Emerson’s Self-Reliance:
This is a good place to mention that ‘Do your own thing’ came from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually said, ‘Do your thing, and I shall know you.’ In other words, you reveal yourself to others through what you do. Emerson’s statement was not meant to be a kind of carte blanche to follow our shallowest whims: it’s not about life style or fashion or technique or casual choices. His statement contains a warning: I will only recognize you if you have your voice; I will not recognize you otherwise.
The actual line from Emerson is “Do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”
(Surely, Emerson read Thessalonians: “Do your own work.”)
Jarrett still plays, btw, but due to chronic fatigue and two strokes, he can now only play with his right hand.
Here’s an interview with Rick Beato from earlier this year:
Related reading: “Tomas Transformer at the piano.”
From yesterday’s newsletter comes a new acronym I made up: SHITT, or “Should I Try That?”
We know that social media can cause FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), but reading about how other people work can cause a variant of FOMO we’ll dub SHITT — SHould I Try That?
A silly example of SHITT: You’re having trouble with your writing and then you read about how So-and-So only writes longhand and all the sudden you think maybe you should start writing longhand. So you spend the whole day shopping for pens and paper, only to sit down the next morning and remember you hate your own handwriting.
Much like FOMO, how susceptible you are to SHITT depends on your mental state, how tender and vulnerable you are, and how well your own work is going.
Read more here.
I had a shorter but still sweet interview with Jane Ratcliff on being (not) too weird to be popular:
I assumed everything I cared about was too weird to be popular and that I’d always have a day job. The fact that I have readers and make a living from the stuff I make is a blessing beyond belief and every week I try not to squander my luck.
Filed under: interviews
In his book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, the Jungian analyst James Hollis recalls being asked to speak to women’s groups who ask him to help them understand men:
I have suggested that women look at men this way: if they took away their own network of intimate friends, those with whom they share their personal journey, removed their sense of instinctual guidance, concluded that they were almost wholly alone in the world, and understood that they would be defined only by standards of productivity external to them, they would then know the inner state of the average man. They are horrified at this notion.
They then ask Hollis if there’s anything they can do, and he replies, “No.” (It is up to men.)
Hollis has told a variation of this story in several audiobooks and podcasts I’ve listened to and his diagnosis always chills me. I found myself recalling it to a friend yesterday on my bike ride.
One thing I find hopeful is that I think you can reverse-engineer a to-do list from this diagnosis:
- build a network of intimate friends (start by being a good node)
- learn to listen to yourself, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, authorize yourself that what you notice is important, and trust your intuition
- search for meaning in your life outside the realm of the quantifiable
Easy peasy, right? Ha. (Cries.)
As for being a man, finding myself a member in a club I never asked to join: Whenever I think that we’re making no progress whatsoever, I think about the fact that I have two friends, grown men my own age, who, unprompted, within the last year, have told me that they loved me. And I told them I loved them back.
It’s a start.
John Holt in 1983, talking to WBOS-Radio, on how teaching is like gardening:
The most important person in the learning process is the learner. The next most important is the teacher… The teacher does not fill up bottles—it’s much more like gardening. You don’t grow plants by going out with Scotch tape and sticking leaves onto the stems. The plant grows. But the gardener creates as far as she or he can the conditions for growth—in the case of plants, soil, fertilizer, acidity, shade, water, etc. It’s simple with plants. With children, it’s more complicated. What the teacher does—and the parents at home—is to create an environment, which is in part physical—there are books, records and tapes, and tools—and in part emotional, spiritual, moral, intellectual, in which growth can occur. Now that’s a very subtle, very difficult, very interesting task. Nobody in any school of education that I’ve ever heard of would describe it that way.
So where do teachers learn to teach?
You learn to teach by teaching. I never had any educational training, luckily. I say “luckily” because I went into the classroom knowing that I didn’t know anything, and therefore realizing that if I wanted to learn something, I’d better keep my eyes and ears open and think about what I was seeing and hearing. The only way you learn about teaching is to do it and to see which of your inputs into this environment produce helpful results and which don’t, and maybe to talk about your problems with other teachers and say, “How are you making out?”