My biggest tour ever. Two months. 25 cities. See all the dates here.
A few days ago the big box of author copies of Keep Going arrived on my front step. This is one of my favorite points in the book timeline. I’m trying to savor the moment of holding something in my hand that I feel is the very best I can do.
Here’s the beginning of a Robert Frost’s “A Prayer in Spring”:
Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.
It’s spring outside, but the harvest is in, and it is a good one.
Then, during a recording for the Stacking Benjamins podcast, host Joe Saul-Sehy described to me a Camus quote he saw in a piece at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “It was handwritten on this print of a bag of Wonder Bread…”
The quote comes from “Create Dangerously,” a lecture delivered by Camus at the University of Uppsala in December 1957 (collected in the book Resistance, Rebellion, and Death).
Here it is in full:
Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.
Corita used the Camus quote to emphasize that the artist can’t turn away from the world, but must find their work within it.
“Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living,” Camus wrote. “Instead, let us seek the respite where it is—in the very thick of the battle.”
PBS’s The Art Assignment also recently shared this great 15-minute video about her work. It has a bunch of stuff I didn’t know, like how all art majors at Immaculate Heart had to be English minors, and Corita’s concept of “Plork,” a combination of play and work, the “one responsible act necessary for human advancement” that represents “the ecstasy we feel when work and play are one.” (I wish I’d remembered that bit of Learning By Heart when I wrote the “Your Work is Play” chapter of Keep Going!)
We lost another Ohio boy: Scott Walker has died. I like a lot of his work, but I absolutely love Scott 4. That record has comforted me on many a sleepless night. Until a few years ago, I’d never owned it on vinyl — the back cover features nothing but this pretentious Camus quote about images. I love it so much.
The quote, by the way, is from a preface to a collection of Camus’ essays published in 1968, the year before Scott 4 was released. The sentence after the quote makes it even more meaningful to me:
A time always comes in an artist’s life when he must take his bearings, draw closer to his own center, and then try to stay there…. A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. This is why, perhaps, after working and producing for twenty years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.
It’s no surprise that this quote appealed to Walker at the time: he was trying to re-invent himself, to get away from his image as a boyish pop star. The album flopped commercially, but the rest of his career would embody this very idea.
(PS. “It’s Raining Today” is on Scott 3, not Scott 4, but it’s the perfect song for this late March day.)
Steinberg is one of my absolute favorites, and this quote comes from his friend Kurt Vonnegut (another one of my favorites). In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut called Steinberg “the wisest person I ever met in my entire life”:
I could ask him anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer, gruffly, almost a growl. He was born in Romania, in a house where, according to him, “the geese looked in the windows.”
I said, “Saul, how should I feel about Picasso?”
Six seconds passed, and then he said, “God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be really rich.”
I said, “Saul, I am a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists and good ones, but when we talk I keep feeling we are in two very different businesses. What makes me feel that way?”
Six seconds passed, and then he said, “It’s very simple. There are two sorts of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”
I said, “Saul, are you gifted?”
Six seconds passed, and then he growled, “No, but what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.”
Here’s a photo of the two friends, taken by Vonnegut’s wife, the photographer Jill Krementz (from this amazing album):
I hit that “Remind me in 15 minutes” button if I’m actually doing something important. But more often than not, when I see this screen I realize I’m not. And then, for the rest of the day, every time I go to open Instagram, I see that the app icon is grayed out with a little hourglass next to it. This disincentive is important because my phone tells me that I pick up my phone an average of 70 times a day (!!!!). I know everyone has their own methods for managing the time-suck of Instagram or whatever your digital vice may be. This is mine.
I already use Screen Time to set a time limit on my son’s iPad, but I tried it out on my phone just yesterday and set a time limit of 1 hour for social media apps. I was shocked at how quickly I saw that screen. I didn’t even make it past lunch. Gonna keep it set and see if this helps my addiction at all.
I put on This Is Spinal Tap last night and it was just as funny as I remembered. Maybe even funnier. I love all the stories about rock stars who watched it and didn’t laugh because it was too real. (The Edge said, “I didn’t laugh, I wept. It was so close to the truth.”)
The movie has an extra edge for me, too, because I’m headed out on tour soon, and life on the road, even as a boring author, has a certain kind of absurdity and indignity to it. (“Dignity! Always dignity!” Gene Kelly quips in Singin’ in the Rain, which, come to think of it, is another essential and brilliant sendup of show business. They might make a good double feature.)
The line that most stood out to me on this viewing was Michael McKean’s: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Every artist knows the truth in this. I often know an idea is worth working on if I honestly can’t tell if it’s incredibly stupid or absolutely brilliant. (“This idea is so dumb,” I’ll think. “I bet everyone will love it.”)
Stupid ideas turn out to be clever and clever ideas turn out to be stupid.
Sometimes a stupid idea is the very thing you need to get started.
“You take a stupid idea,” says cartoonist Tom Gauld, “but then you are very serious about it.”
It’s a fine line between stupid and clever.
For me, there’s a weird, unfathomable gulf—I almost wrote gulp—between the completion of a novel and its publication. Some days this duration feels interminable, as though the book has voyaged out like some spacecraft on a research mission, populated by forgotten losers like the ones in John Carpenter’s Dark Star, a craft cut loose by those who launched the thing and now grown irretrievable, bent by space and time into something distorted and not worth guiding home. Then there are other days, where the book might be a pitch that’s left your hand too soon, now burning toward home plate, whether to be met by a catcher’s mitt or the sweet part of the bat you can’t possibly know. Hopeless to regret it once you feel it slipping past your fingertips. Just watch. (That’s the gulp.) The weirdness is in that interlude where the book has quit belonging to you but doesn’t belong to anyone else yet, hasn’t been inscribed in all its rightness and wrongness by the scattershot embrace and disdain of the world. It’s a version of Schrödinger’s cat, unchangeably neither dead nor alive in its box.
If you make the kind of visual books I do, they really have to be seen to be understood. I came across these “art book walkthroughs” by Graeme Franks a few days ago. Simple, perfect online advertisements for my kind of books. Here’s the one for Steal Like An Artist and here’s the one for Show Your Work!
I had my six-year-old do (a more hurried & shaky) one in the trailer for Keep Going:
And way back in 2010, I did one for the Newspaper Blackout trailer. I think I used some sort of HD camcorder, but now, of course, you can just use an off-the-shelf iPhone. (And get better quality, too!)
UPDATE: Graeme made one for Keep Going, too!