The perfect writing desk is an open American Heritage (buy a paper dictionary!) on top of my kitchen table.
The perfect writing desk is an open American Heritage (buy a paper dictionary!) on top of my kitchen table.
Free tip for young writers: Go to Goodwill and buy a gigantic used paper dictionary for $5 and keep it on your desk. Here’s mine:
All sorts of interesting, serendipitous things happen when you use a paper dictionary, because when you look for a specific word, you have to brush past all sorts of other words before you find the one you’re looking for.
When you really take the time to explore a bit, you see words in context alongside words with similar roots and it can give you a bunch of different ideas. For example, did you know that “patina” comes after “patient”? One word about enduring time, the other describing its residue:
Google won’t help you discover that.
When you’re looking for a word to replace a word in your writing, John McPhee suggests skipping the thesaurus and going straight to the dictionary:
With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
The dictionary not only gives you a gives you a list synonyms for the word you’re looking up, it also gives you a deeper understanding of the meaning of the word, and sometimes the definition can lead you to a better way of phrasing altogether. (Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.”)
I love paper dictionaries so much I take pictures of them out in the wild. Above is a dictionary I saw in the hallway when I visited the offices of The New Yorker. Below is the little dictionary corner upstairs at City Lights in San Francisco:
The first paper dictionary I remember was this big red Webster’s that my dad kept in a kitchen drawer. When I posted about my love for dictionaries on Twitter, folks sent me their beloveds:
When Alan Moore was asked what was the best book he ever received as a gift, he replied:
That would be the second unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, one of the first of many marvelous gifts from my wife, Melinda. Aleister Crowley once stated that the most important grimoire, or book of magical instruction, that anyone could ever conceivably own would be an etymological dictionary, and in my opinion he was exactly right. I keep it right here by my desk, and just 10 minutes ago it confirmed for me that I had the spelling of “proprioception” right all along, even though my spell-checker had raised a crinkly red eyebrow. Quite seriously, this is the one book in my collection that I’d save in the event of a fire.
Paper dictionaries are magic. Go get one and use it!
I continue to be fascinated by how slow, seemingly inefficient methods make my self-education more helpful and more meaningful.
Example: This week I was reading Jan Swafford’s introduction to classical music, Language of the Spirit, and I wanted to see the lives of all the composers on a timeline. Instead of googling for one, I decided to just make one for myself with a pencil in my notebook. It was kind of a pain, but I had a feeling I’d learn something. Pretty much immediately I was able to see connections that Swafford wrote about that just hadn’t sunken in yet, like how Haydn’s life overlapped both Bach’s and Beethoven’s while covering Mozart’s completely. Had I googled a pre-made timeline, I’m not completely sure I would’ve studied it closely enough to get as much out of it as the one I drew.
Another example: I copy passages of text that I like longhand in my notebook, and it not only helps me remember the texts, it makes me slow down enough so that I can actually read them and think about them, even internalize them. Something happens when I copy texts into my notebook that does not happen when I cut and paste them into Evernote or onto my blog.
A lot of this way of studying has been inspired by my son, Owen.
Even before I had kids, I wrote, “We learn by copying… Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” Funny now that I have a four-year-old budding mechanic, who actually spends a great deal of his time copying photos and drawings of cars, taking them apart in his mind and putting them back together on the page to figure out how they work.
What I love about my son’s drawings is that he does not really care about them once he’s finished them. To him, they are dead artifacts, a scrap of by-product from his learning process. (For me, they’re tiny masterpieces to hang on the fridge.) Milton Glaser says that “drawing is thinking.” I think that drawing is learning, too, and one thing Owen has taught me is that it is more valuable as a verb than it is as a noun.
I felt sure that my children would teach me more than I taught them. I was not anticipating that they would actually teach me how to learn again…
One of my favorite discoveries this year was Nina Katchadourian’s Seat Assignment, an ongoing project she started in 2010, in which she uses long plane rides to make art using only her camera phone and materials on hand. She’ll build shelters out of snacks, she’ll make gorillas out of sweaters, she’ll go into the bathroom and dress up like old Flemish paintings. (My favorite pieces are from the “High Altitude Spirit Photography” series, where she’ll use a little sprinkled salt or the glare from an overhead reading light to spookify in-flight magazine photos.)
Seat Assignment has taken place over 100 flights. Lots of things interest me about the project, including, of course, these lines from her statement: “the artistic potential that lurks within the mundane” and “the productive tension between freedom and constraint,” both ideas that have obsessed me ever since I started making my blackout poems.
I’m especially interested in how Katchadourian refers to her camera phone — usually bemoaned as a device for distraction —as not only a kind of sketchbook, but a “camouflage.” From Curioser: “Once you pull out a real camera, it screams, ‘I’m making art!’” She doesn’t want to be observed making the work, she just wants to look like another bored traveler killing time. It works: only three passengers over the years have asked her what she’s up to.
The title, “Seat Assignment,” makes me think of my writing teacher’s advice for getting writing done: “APPLY ASS TO CHAIR.” Because you’re literally buckled into a chair, I’ve always found planes a terrific spot to do a lot of writing and reading and drawing and thinking. (Business class is like a dream scenario for the writer: you have a comfortable seat, a window to stare out of, and you’re occasionally brought water & snacks.) But, as in-flight wi-fi speeds and entertainment options keep getting better and better, the temptation to be distracted on planes becomes greater and greater. Just like on the ground, it now takes an act of will to be bored enough on a plane to actually enter that good headspace where you can make something. For now, I stick to my rules: turn off the seat-back TV and never pay for wi-fi.
PS. The comic above was one of four I drew on my iPad during a recent (coach!) flight from Austin to San Francisco. To see more like it, check my Instagram.
Raymond Carver loved to quote Isak Dinesen, who said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.
“Someday,” he wrote, “I’ll put that on a three-by-five-card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.”
I stole his idea for my bliss station:
EVERY DAY, WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT DESPAIR.
His widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, said these words were a “quiet banner of determination” that flew over the last decade of his life.
They are now my banner, and they can also be yours, if you like.
Carver, when asked about the impact he thought his work would have on people, was extremely skeptical about the possibility that his stories and poems would profoundly change the world or save anything in it. Of his art, he said:
It doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.
That “steady glow, however dim” reminds me of the gospel song we used to sing in Sunday School: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” It also reminds me of Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (If you don’t have your own light, you can reflect someone else’s — just don’t be Human Vantablack.)
I, too, am skeptical that my work will actually make any kind of lasting impact. To believe such a thing, when one considers the span of cosmic time, seems downright delusional. And, frankly, I no longer need my work to change anything — I just know I need to do it.
I often think of my favorite line from Groundhog Day:
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
How you answer that question is your art.
Whenever anybody talks about “The Creative Journey” I sort of roll my eyes. “Journey” sounds so lofty to me. So linear. Point A to point B.
Here’s a popular version of “The Creative Journey”: A genius comes to the end of his trip, closes his eyes, concentrates, and then the idea comes to him, fully formed.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Don Draper. No, when I’m working, I feel more like Phil Connors from the movie Groundhog Day.
In Groundhog Day, for those of you who don’t know or have forgotten, Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is a weatherman who wakes up every morning on Groundhog Day?–?February 2nd?–?in Punxsutwaney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutwaney Phil, the famous groundhog who forecasts whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil Connors hates Punxsutwaney, and no matter what he does, he can’t make it out of Punxsutwaney, and he can’t seem to get to February 3rd. Every morning he wakes up in the same bed at 6AM to face the same day.
And if you remember the movie, you know there are a couple acts: first, Phil tries out everything he can possibly think of to take advantage of the situation: basically, he cheats life.
He learns people’s secrets, steals money, and seduces women, except for one in particular, his boss, Rita. He memorizes her favorite drinks and foods, learns a couple of lines of French, figures out all the right things to say, but no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to get Rita into bed.
After attempting all these shortcuts, Phil becomes super depressed.
In my favorite line from the movie, he asks his bowling buddy, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
And his buddy, who’s a little drunk, looks at him and says, “That about sums it up for me.”
Phil then attempts many, many forms of suicide.
He jumps off a building, he drops a toaster into the bathtub, he drives off a cliff with the groundhog, Punxtatawney Phil. Nothing works. Every morning, Phil wakes up at 6AM, in the same bed, in the same town, faced with the same day, with Sonny and Cher playing on the radio.
He hits rock bottom.
Finally, Phil accepts his fate. He accepts that he’s stuck in Punxatawney forever. And then things get really interesting.
He gets to know everybody in the town. He sees what problems there are in the town to solve, and how he can use his powers to help: he catches a kid falling out of a tree, he helps an engaged couple through their misgivings about getting married, he replaces a flat tire for some old ladies.
He also throws himself into his work: he crafts a super eloquent speech for Punxatawney Phil, which he presumably gives every day.
He learns French. He learns how to play the piano. He learns how to sculpt ice.
And it’s when he finally masters these things, when he’s turned himself into a person worth loving, it’s then that Rita notices him, and they live happily ever after.
Phil learns, as Hugh Macleod says in his book Ignore Everybody, “The best way to get approval is to not need it.”
Now, I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that Groundhog Day is perhaps THE great parable of our time. But I think Groundhog Day has particular relevance for artists and for people who want to do creative work.
Why I think so is clearly laid out by this quote from Ian Svenonius’s somewhat obscure, but great book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group:
“If one becomes a lawyer, scholar, mechanist, typist, scientist, production assistant, or what-have-you, the world will commend your decision. Each day at lunch, on vacation, or at whatever party you attend, your choice will be applauded, upheld, and affirmed. And you will know what is expected of you. Even if your job is difficult?–?if you are a brain chemist, international death merchant, or rocket designer?–?your responsibilities will be obvious and your goals concrete. If you achieve them, you may be rewarded by promotion. If you fail, you might be fired or demoted, but nonetheless?–?unless your boss is insane?–?the job will have tangible parameters. [Art], however, is different. You will never know exactly what you must do, it will never be enough… no matter what change you achieve, you will most likely see no dividend from it. And even after you have achieved greatness, the [tiny number of people] who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”
What Svenonius is saying is that the creative journey is not linear. It’s not point A to point B. Even if your wildest dreams come true, you’re still stuck with that question of, “WHAT NEXT?”
In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk following the massive success of her book Eat, Pray, Love. She said something that was so honest, it really knocked me out:
“I’m pretty young, I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely… that my greatest success is behind me.”
She still knew, no matter how successful she was, if she wanted to remain a writer, she had to get up and write another book. And then another book. And another book.
We spend so much time in this culture celebrating fast, early success, but in so many ways, early success is the worst thing that can happen to you.
The New York Times ran a feature a few weeks ago called “Works In Progress,” which was “a very small sampling of the female artists now in their 70s, 80s and 90s we should have known about decades ago.” Everyone should read it. No one even noticed some of these women until they had about seven decades of work behind them. Somehow, they all stuck it through.
Some of my favorite documentaries of the past couple years all focused on people who are eligble for the senior discount at Denny’s.
Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham New York, who gets up every day, gets on his bike, and takes pictures. Joan Rivers in Piece Of Work, who, right up until her death, was playing gig after gig. And Jiro, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who gets up everyday and makes the sushi.
These are the people I think we should be looking to for inspiration?–
the people who every day of their lives, they get up do the work, regardless of success or failure.
Because you don’t know if or when success will come for you. The best thing you can do if you want to be an artist is to set up your life in such a way that you’re sort of insulated from success or failure.
Now, it might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do as an artist or a creative person is pretend you’re Phil Connors in Groundhog Day: there’s no tomorrow, there’s no chance of success, there’s no chance of failure, there’s just the day, and what you can do with it.
Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day after day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. You do it your whole life, and you have a career.
So, if I can leave you with one piece of advice, something encouraging that I can sear into your brain, it’s this:
Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done. If you fail, the sun comes up tomorrow, and you get another chance. If you succeed, you’re still going to have to get up tomorrow and do something else.
Should you ever start to despair at this fact, like Phil did, remember what the comic writer Harvey Pekar said: “Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up.”
The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.
The Quakers: “Do not speak unless you can improve upon the silence.”
Garry Shandling: “The world is too noisy and distracted to probably ultimately survive. Everyone needs to shut the fuck up. The answers are in the silence. Monks set themselves on fire to protest and to make this point. Just consider it.”
Depeche Mode: “Words like violence / break the silence…”
Morris Berman: “It takes silence and slow time to be creative, and those things are threatening to most Americans, because they understand on some level that that’s what health is about, and that they don’t have it.”
Ursula Franklin: “Silence is not only the space in which there’s no sound, but there’s no program. Nothing is there so that whatever is essentially unprogrammable can happen. How does anything new happen? In a world where everything is scheduled, everything is listed, everything is programmed, the first thing one needs is space… You have to be open. It doesn’t mean something enormous will happen, but nothing can happen until you clear that space… Nobody has time to even receive anything that is actually new, including their own thoughts.”
Bill Callahan: “When you’re starting a song the only thing you have is silence and silence is pretty damn sweet. Once you start making some sound, it better be good because you’re ruining the silence that makes you feel good and relaxed. I feel like you can only make a sound if it’s better than silence… [I’m] very conscious of the power of nothing, the power of nothing being there. You’ll notice it’s still about the best thing anyone playing with me on a record can do is just stop playing. Because you got this instrument in your hand and it’s really fun to make the noise with it, but it means so much more when you’re not playing it.”
John Cage: “[O]ne day I got into [a cab] and the driver began talking a blue streak, accusing absolutely everyone of being wrong. You know he was full of irritation about everything, and I simply remained quiet. I did not answer his questions, I did not enter into a conversation, and very shortly the driver began changing his ideas and simply through my being silent he began, before I got out of the car, saying rather nice things about the world around him.”
Austin Chapman, a man born deaf who, through hearing aids, was able to hear again: “Silence is still my favorite sound. When I turn my aids off my thoughts become more clear and it’s absolutely peaceful. I hope that one day hearing people get the opportunity to experience utter silence.”
I shared this doodle from my notebook on Instagram the other day and everyone who commented seemed to assume that it was about Writing, as in, Writing Books, or getting Work done. (See a previous post of mine: “Shut up and write the book.”)
What it was really about was the old idea of having a “loose tongue,” or saying out loud the things that you should keep to yourself. In the home, in the workplace, or on the internet. (Perhaps the phrase needs an update for the smartphone age: It’s our thumbs that get us the most in trouble these days…)
We focus so much on our notebooks as traps for capturing those rare, beautiful ideas that visit us, but notebooks are also amazing cages for detaining what is inside of us that wants so desperately to escape. To write down your rawest thoughts in a notebook is like putting a wild, unknown beast into a holding cell for further observation. Here, you can safely discover what the beast is and figure out what to do with it. Sometimes the beast needs indefinite incarceration, sometimes it needs rehabilitation, sometimes it’s ready for release into the wild, and sometimes it just needs to be put down. But to let it escape at whim is rarely a good idea.
Or, as I’ve said before, a notebook is a good place to have bad ideas.
There’s an old Quaker saying: “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.”
Sometimes we need to see the words before we know if they can improve the silence.
Hold thy tongue. Loosen thy pen.
If you turn to the “first lines” index of many poetry collections, you can find bonus poems the poets probably never intended you to read.
I found this one in Bill Knott’s I Am Flying into Myself:
A short one from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson:
And the alphabetical end of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems:
“When you draw,” says Ed Emberley, “you go away. You go to another place. It’s a safe place. And it’s a real place.”
“A piece of paper is a place,” says Lynda Barry. “The thing you draw with is the way you travel through that place.”
“I make places I want to go to,” says Renee French.
“It’s sublime,” said Maurice Sendak, “to go into another room and make pictures. It’s magic time, where all your weaknesses of character, the blemishes of your personality, whatever else torments you, fades away, just doesn’t matter.”
In Jules Feiffer’s house when he was growing up, “Everything was a secret. So in order to make my own secrets, to establish my own way out of things I couldn’t understand, [I drew]. And it’s a way of not just escape, but of survival.”
“Drawing is 50,000 years old, isn’t it?” says David Hockney. “I think it comes from very deep within us. When all those people in the 1970s were trying to give up drawing, I did go and see them and they said: ‘Oh, you don’t need to draw now.’ And I did point out: ‘Well, why don’t you tell that to that little child there? Tell them you don’t need to draw and see what happens.’”
“Drawing is my way of explaining to myself what goes on in my mind,” said Saul Steinberg. “It’s not I who makes this drawing. It’s the hand that drew that makes it.”
“As kids,” Lynda Barry says, “we went to the page to find something, to have an experience. As adults, she says, “we have it backwards.” We think that we need to have an experience before we go to the page.
Cy Twombly: “It’s more like I’m having an experience than making a picture.”
Ken Robinson tells this story: “A little girl was in a drawing lesson. [The teacher] said, ‘What are you drawing?’ And the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God.’ And the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like.’ And the girl said, ‘They will in a minute.’”
“Drawing isn’t work,” says a character in Christophe Blain’s Isaac The Pirate. “It’s a form of prayer.”