If you’ve watched my newest talk, “How To Keep Going,” you might remember the story about planting iris. These are purple and yellow iris blooming in our backyard, planted by the former owners of our house. Beauty brought to us by people we never even met…
Q: “Who has time for that?”
A: “People who make time for that.”
Above: art-making advice from our 40-year-old ovens.
After we put the boys to bed, my wife and I clean up the 3-year-old’s dozens of drawings he leaves all over his drawing space, deciding what to keep and what to recycle. The figures above were all drawn on the same piece of paper and I thought they could tell a story, so I cut them out and had my 5-year-old letter the speech balloons. They’re still too young to (peacefully) jam together, so I like doing these little orchestrated collaborations. (Previously: “What do you know?”)
Years ago I borrowed this copy of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler from my father-in-law, and when I opened it up I found Calvino’s 1985 NYTimes obit and stories from a 1983 Harper’s.
I was so surprised and delighted by these unexpected artifacts that I decided to start saving clippings in my own books. Here’s my brand new copy of John Ashbery’s The Knew What They Wanted, in which I stuffed a NYTimes review and a photo of his collage desk.
Who knows whether I or anybody else will ever open the book again after reading it, but now it’s a treasure box. Its own little archive…
One of my favorite things about Tibor Kalman’s monograph, Perverse Optimist, is how much he talks about his kids. He dedicated the book “for my children who have made me change my mind about everything.” Later he writes, “Your children will smash your understanding of knowledge and reality. You will be better off. Then they will leave. You will miss them forever.” The greatest benefit of having children, he said, “has been to look at the world through their eyes and to understand their level of curiosity and to learn things the way they learn things.”
Some friends of ours are about to have their second kid, and I was thinking about what a leap it is between 1 and 2, how many parents say “it’s exponential,” but how I never really understood why until I drew the diagram above and was able to really see all those relationships mapped out.
“We chose to increase the complexity of our lives by having children,” Kalman writes. That’s really it. With each kid, your household becomes increasingly complex.
It’s not lost on me that when you switch “complex” from an adjective to a noun, it means a network, or “a group or system of different things that are linked in a close or complicated way.” In psychoanalysis, a complex is “a related group of emotionally significant ideas…that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.” In chemistry, a complex is “any loosely bonded species formed by the association of two molecules.” All of those things sound like my family.
More moving parts, more complexity.
Yesterday designer Jessica Hische tweeted, “I have it in my head that I should pursue an MFA in creative writing to be a better writer and find more space for writing in my life. Really, I should find a way to carve out time to focus on writing without paying tens of thousands of dollars to do so.”
Unsolicited, but here’s my advice for visual thinkers (and others) who want to be better writers:
1) Get Lynda Barry’s What It Is and do the exercises every day in a private notebook.
2) Start a blog and write something there every day.
3) Find or start a writer’s group. (I don’t have one, but I’m married to a fantastic writer and editor.)
5) I believe that the creative process translates across disciplines, so the real challenge to a visual artist who wants to write is learning to operate with words the way you do with pictures. (For example, my blackout poems started out as my attempt to write like a collage artist.)
6) Here’s cartoonist James Kochalka talking about creativity, and how if you can draw, you might be able to write, if you can write, you might be able to make music, etc.:
7) I don’t think most academic programs are set up to help creative workers make these kinds of cross-disciplinary transitions. (Some do or did exist: Carnegie Mellon, for example, used to have an information design program that helped designers learn to write and writers learn to design.)
8) One of the reasons I started the list with Lynda Barry is that she speaks of “The Image” (learned from her teacher Marilyn Frasca) — the thing that is alive in the work. If you can learn to work with The Image, it translates to any art form.
9) I should add that I went to an explicitly “interdisciplinary” college, so I was actually exposed to these ideas in an academic setting. (Lynda went to one too, Evergreen, and she is now a “Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity” at the University of Wisconsin)
10) Cartoonists, because their work demands work from two disciplines (writing/art, poetry/design, words/pictures), are highly instructive when it comes to visual people learning to write, writers learning to make art, etc. (Check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more.)
11) Read a lot. Write a lot. Repeat.
When asked to comment on her nomination for a Reuben award, Lynda Barry said:
Showing people how to make comics and tell their stories by drawing and writing things by hand on paper in a way that is nondigital, non-searchable, non-‘scrapeable’ or monetizable now feels like something of a revolutionary act. Being a cartoonist and being recognized as a cartoonist means more to me now than it ever has.
More from her tumblr:
Writing by hand on paper is becoming a revolutionary act. Reading a physical book is becoming a revolutionary act. Protecting the books in our libraries, the arts and humanities in our colleges and universities is becoming a revolutionary act. Doing things with warm hand to warm hand, face to face, without photographing them, posting them, is becoming a revolutionary act.
The most valuable thing you have is your attention. It’s also the most valuable condition for survival of the non-digital world.
I agree with her. We need our heads, our hearts, and our hands.
Last night I finished From Lone Mountain, a book collecting John Porcellino’s King-Cat zine from 2003-2007. I think the world of John’s work. To me, he is one of the most unique contemporary American artists: independent, autonomous, and a model of the DIY ethic: Next year will be his 30th anniversary of self-publishing King-Cat.
Tom Devlin posted this lovely appreciation over on the D&Q blog:
One of the truly great things about comics is that John P is always working on a new issue of King-Cat Comics & Stories. It has been a constant in our weird maddening charming art form for nearly thirty years. This is a comfort. John began as punk upstart filled with passion and anger and a fool’s confidence and has mellowed, deepened into an engaged, patient, sympathetic artist-for-life. His life is right there on paper for us to see. There have been so many times when I found an anchor in King-Cat. Everything arounds us moves so fast. Time runs away. We make and lose friends and barely remember people who were once very important to us. In King-Cat, John is talking about seeing Frank Sinatra in concert or listening to Husker Du. Sometimes I didn’t care about something when he wrote about it but I care now. I caught up to John. Or we caught up to each other. This is just one of the great things about John’s work. He’ll wait for you to catch up. He’s always there. His comics exist in all times. Waiting.
I’m not sure what else there is to say.
I’ve been reading John since I was about 21 years old. I drew this sketch of him in 2010 when he came to Austin on tour. (You might see me wearing my now-ratty t-shirt around.) One thing that struck me reading the latest collection: King-Cat really is a zine. In my mind, I think of King-Cat as comics, but when you open an issue, there’s a ton of prose writing, and letters, and lists, etc.
Another thing that touched me was his description — typed out in simple Times New Roman — in issue #65 of living in DeKalb, Illinois in the early 90s, working a crummy job all day and making comics at night and on weekends:
I’d come home from work, park in the alley, and come up the back stairs to my apartment. The apartment was huge and cheap, windows everywhere and wide open dusty floors.
Cooking dinner meant opening a can of refried beans onto a tortilla and microwaving them one after the over. I put pre-shredded cheddar cheese on them and when I was fancy some lettuce. I ate them with tortilla chips and generic cola. They were damn good.
Once a week I’d pull out the little old 9” TV my parents had given me, balance it on the chair, and watch Roseanne in grainy black and white. When it was over I’d unplug it and put it back in the closet. I was in a weird state of mind. I’d listen to Brasil ‘66 records or the Tijuana Brass and draw comics all evening. The comics just came out of me. I’d stack them up and when I had enough pages I’d go down to the copy shop and put out a new issue of King-Cat.
That’s it, the whole thing, right there: Make comics, when enough pages stack up, you make a zine.
I heard Jessa Crispin say one time: “I’m very Midwestern in that I just do the work that’s in front of me” — that spirit is very much in John’s work. (Along with punk rock, Zen, and Thoreau.)
John is one of the few artists I happily support on Patreon — from how he tells it, crowdfunding has made a big difference in his life, allowing him to save a little bit for the first time. I hope you’ll buy his books and fall in love with King-Cat and become a subscriber. He’s an American original.
In The New York Times this week novelist Amy Bloom has a piece, “For the Love of ‘George and Martha,’” praising the stories of the hippo duo created by the under-appreciated picture book genius James Marshall. George and Martha are my absolute favorite books to read to my boys — if I know you and you have a baby, I will probably gift you George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends Collector’s Edition. (Although, personally, I prefer the self-contained individual paperback editions.)
I am all for any praise for James Marshall, but there’s one thing that Bloom got wrong: she writes, “He hated Texas.” Now, I’m not one to defend Texas, even though I’ve lived here for over a decade, but this is false. He was actually very fond of Texas, especially west Texas and his hometown of San Antonio. (He was born across the street from The Alamo.) “[M]y roots are there,” he said. “I like the climate.” What he hated was Beaumont, Texas — in his words, “a swamp” — the town he had to move to in the middle of high school when his father got a job there.
In fact, if you pay close attention to Marshall’s books, you’ll find all sorts of Texas Easter eggs in the backgrounds, like the poster Baby Bear has taped to his wall in Goldilocks and the Three Bears:
There’s a wonderful 24-page interview with Marshall in Leonard Marcus’s book, Show Me A Story! Why Picture Books Matter. (The sketchbook images in this post were taken from the book.) He talks a lot about his upbringing and the art of making picture books, which he came to in his twenties after seeing Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, Domenico Gnoli’s The Art of Smiling, and Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series (from Lobel he stole the idea for picture books made up of super-short stories). He also loved Tomi Ungerer, Edward Gorey, and old Japanese prints. He tells lots of funny stories, like the time he had a dream in which Martha demanded better storylines or she was going to Maurice Sendak’s house. “I woke up in a cold sweat!” he said. (Michael Jackson once said if he wasn’t around to receive ideas for songs, God would send them to Prince.)
Perhaps my favorite part of the Marcus book is the inclusion of Marshall’s sketchbooks, which are just wonderful.
I have always thought my best stuff was in my sketchbooks. I have hundreds and hundreds of sketchbooks. I like to work at night, I suppose because that’s when my defenses are sort of low. I have my most creative ideas at night. I’m less inhibited and I really let it rip.
One day I would love to go through his papers (which seem to be scattered at several universities?) — oh, to be able to flip through his sketchbooks! He said he had hundreds of unfinished stories, and often thought about doing a workbook where children could finish them. (I wonder if some of these ideas were used in the terrific animated series from HBO?)
Finally, here’s a 6-minute video of the man himself in his studio: