In the Tuesday newsletter this morning I wrote about the magic of the brush pen. I also shot a video of me working with it in my diary:
“Everything changes. Don’t be afraid.”
—Al Swearengen, Deadwood
My newsletter, which I’ve been mailing out since 2013, is now hosted on Substack.
Here’s the deal:
- The Friday “10 things worth sharing” newsletter will not change and it will always remain free to anyone who wants to sign up.
- On Tuesdays, I’ll send out a bonus email to paying subscribers. Sometimes it’ll be an illustrated essay, a tool I can’t live without, a technique I use, a favorite book from my collection, or another exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at my process. Paying subscribers will also get the ability to comment and join special discussion threads.
I want to note that I’m not taking any deal or any money from Substack. I picked them because I like their tool. It’s simple and clean and has what I need to keep doing the old thing but also do some new things.
The Friday newsletter means a lot to me and I love doing it and I want to keep doing it indefinitely. It’s my ritual, my way of looking back at the days and keeping track of the weeks. Lots of people tell me it’s become a ritual for them, too, which delights me.
I hope this new Tuesday email will be a fun place to experiment — to show my work — and we can maybe even build a little community and hopefully learn something from each other.
Thank you to everyone who’s read the newsletter over the years and shared it far and wide.
If you’re not signed up, you can subscribe now:
I usually save everything Sam Anderson writes for print, but I highly recommend listening his recent profile of Laurie Anderson, because it contains a wonderful intro that’s not in the original piece, explaining how Anderson has a list of 5 questions she asks to figure out whether what she’s working on is any good or not.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has died.
Earlier this year my 8-year-old said, “When you’re making video games, you have to find that perfect balance between easy and hard?” And I told him he’d basically summarized Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, and drew him the diagram above to explain.
Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was a big influence on me when I read it back in 2007. There’s a passage in that book about crossword puzzles that I thought could also be describing my newspaper blackout poems:
There is much to be said in favor of this popular pastime, which in its best form resembles the ancient riddle contests. It is inexpensive and portable, its challenges can be finely graduated so that both novices and experts can enjoy it, and its solution produces a sense of pleasing order that gives one a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. It provides opportunities to experience a mild state of flow to many people who are stranded in airport lounges, who travel on commuter trains, or who are simply whiling away Sunday mornings.
Csikszentmihalyi then goes on to talk explicitly about poetry and writing:
What’s important is to find at least a line, or a verse, that starts to sing. Sometimes even one word is enough to open a window on a new view of the world, to start the mind on an inner journey….
He also wrote about the joys of being an amateur:
Not so long ago, it was acceptable to be an amateur poet….Nowadays if one does not make some money (however pitifully little) out of writing, it’s considered to be a waste of time. It is taken as downright shameful for a man past twenty to indulge in versification unless he receives a check to show for it.
(I wrote more on the subject in Show Your Work!)
Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, “Flow, the secret to happiness”
Csikszentmihalyi also wrote a book called Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and he made an interesting list of “paradoxical traits” of creative people:
1. Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.
2. Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.
3. Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
4. Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.
5. Creative people trend to be both extroverted and introverted.
6. Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.
7. Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.
8. Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.
9. Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.
My November pick for our Read Like an Artist book club is David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. To get the book in time to join our discussion next month, sign up now.
Here’s my intro:
“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” What does it say about our culture that we’ve hacked the ending off of that famous phrase? John Steinbeck said people don’t want advice, they want corroboration, and maybe that’s why I love this book so much: it’s both a validation of how I’ve chosen to go about my life and career and a kick in the pants to stay true to my instincts, to not get complacent, to stretch out, and go down weird paths…
To join our discussion, sign up for the club!
Ann Patchett’s short memoir of her writing life, “The Getaway Car,” collected in her book, This is The Story of a Happy Marriage, is one of the best things on writing I’ve read.
You will take bits from books you’ve read and movies you’ve seen and conversations you’ve had and stories friends have told you, and half the time you won’t even realize you’re doing it. I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I’ve had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It’s from that rich, dark humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you’ve forgotten, that ideas start to grow.
Of research, for example, she writes, “I try to shovel everything I learn onto the compost heap instead of straight into the book.”
I’ve often thought that an artist has to be like the Mr. Fusion device Doc Brown uses in Back To The Future, but I like the compost heap even better.
The cool thing about a compost heap is that you can throw whatever organic matter you want on it. (“Hold on to your anger,” Thich Nhat Hanh told bell hooks, “use it as compost for your garden.”)
If you’re just throwing stuff on the compost heap, you don’t have to worry about being pure, or perfect. (“Writing…always, always only starts out as shit,” David Rakoff said. It’s like “reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.”)
And, as Brian Eno told us, “Beautiful things grow out of shit.”
1. Composer and Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford was asked to respond to the “10th symphony” created with artificial intelligence. “At the end of the symphony I found myself more philosophical than annoyed,” he writes.
The ability of a machine to do or outdo something humans do is interesting once at most… When it comes to art, we need to see a woman or a man struggling with the universal mediocrity that is the natural lot of all of us and somehow out of some mélange of talent, skill, and luck doing the impossible, making something happen that is splendid and moving—or funny, or frightening, or whatever the artist set out to do… Here’s my assertion: True intelligence is in a body. Intelligence outside a living body, as some sort of abstraction, is innately impossible, or should be given another name.
Swafford points out (like Nick Cave has) that part of the beauty of Beethoven is, “in contrast say to Mozart and Bach, with him it’s often as if you can hear the effort, the struggle, hear in the notes what it cost him to rise above the universal mediocrity.”
He writes of his late friend, the painter Francis Gillespie:
She would spend a year or more on a painting of flowers, struggling to represent them with virtually photographic accuracy. In fact, as she knew perfectly well, she didn’t have the technique to do that. “I’m really sort of a primitive,” Fran would say grimly as she worked. But what makes her paintings hers is exactly the grand failure of her attempt. Her pictures are beautiful, close to photos, but always a little off, and the offness makes them singular.
Ted Gioia calls this “an aesthetics of imperfection.”
In this story, the human has something the machine can never have.
2. In Sam Anderson’s profile of Laurie Anderson, he notes that the artist has “become obsessed, lately, with artificial intelligence.” She worked with researchers to make text engines in her style, the style of her late husband, Lou Reed, and an Anderson/Reed blend of the two. Anderson says a 1/3 of what the computer spits out is junk, 1/3 is boring, but 1/3 is “surprising, even authentic, some kind of fresh magic.”
Sometimes she sits there with the hunger of an addict, feeding words and pictures into the engine, seeing what comes out. For a long time, she would save the texts. They felt so precious. After a while, though, she realized that the texts were infinite. She could have one whenever she needed it. So she read them and then let them go.
At one point, Laurie Anderson reeds a poem the machine spit out in Reed’s style. It’s not bad. “Wonderful,” she says. “Just great. He’s talking to me from somewhere else. I definitely do feel that. The line is pretty thin for me.”
(This scene reminded me of something out of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow.)
In this story, the machine gives the human a combination of something it had and something it never had.
3. I am sympathetic to Swafford’s assertion that “intelligence is in a body” and “the aesthetics of imperfection.”
I also know that some of my favorite art came out of the interplay between human and machine. It is between the two that a third thing emerges — Beethoven, after all, was wrangling notes out of a machine with keys.
I think it is worth noting the difference between analog and digital machines. Analog machines, I would venture, give you more mistakes that you can work with — a brush runs out of ink, and the dry texture gives you new marks, Lee Perry blows ganja smoke and dirt on a tape reel, and new sounds emerge. (You throw dirt in a laptop and you’ll simply fry the machine.) That said, even digital machines and pieces of software have quirks and we ascribe them personalities, and work with them.
I would also note the difference between words and music. Words are more abstract than music. They are more easily fed into a computer and spit back out. They also must be interpreted by us — when we read the poem in the style of Reed, summoned from the computer, it is already an abstract, linear text. We must interpret the words. Music is not interpreted. It is what it is. It is heard.
I confess I have gone from being cranky to curious about A.I., and I wonder what sorts of grunt work it could do for me. (Could it spit out a book proposal?)
In my story, the machines help us to honor what is not machine-like in us.
The biggest misinterpretation of Show Your Work! is the idea that you should show everyone everything all the time. Just set up a 24/7 webcam over your desk and let people watch. (I won’t name any names, but when the book was still being written, the title Expose Yourself was thrown out there.)
Not only do I think it’s a bad idea to share while you’re actually doing your work, I think it’s a fast track to destroying your work.
It’s nearly impossible — not to mention extremely unpleasant — to work with people looking over your shoulder. There’s “the indignity of being observed,” but there’s also the observer effect: the idea in quantum mechanics that by simply observing a system, you change it. (This happens all the time in my everyday life: I’ll spook a bird by trying to take a photo, or I’ll praise an in-progress drawing and the kid will run out of the room.)
A few years ago, Tim Kreider wrote of becoming a meme:
You can’t write — or live — if you imagine the whole world watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, ready to mock or vilify you. Which, thanks to the internet, it now is.
I thought of Tim when I read this recent interview with with Dave Eggers, about his new book, The Every:
My theory is that a human under surveillance can’t create. Not really, at least. The staff at the Every are judged on every movement, every keystroke and each thing their pupils land on. It’s all observed and recorded and measured, and this creates a low-level vibration of paralysis for everyone, for fear of saying the wrong thing or making any kind of mistake that will never be expunged. But to create, you have to tap into the anarchist part of yourself; there can’t be rules and there can’t be anyone looking over your shoulder, and you can’t wonder what a troll in Tallinn will think of your idea.
It’s bad enough trying to create something when nobody’s watching — the worst trolls are the ones that live in your head!
The danger of sharing online is this ambient buildup of a feeling of being surveilled.
The feeling of being watched, or about to be watched.
You have to disconnect from that long enough to connect with yourself and what you’re working on.
“To me, being a genuine writer means that you’re able to shed all human dignity in a moment,” says Chuck Palahniuk. “People depend on you to express something that they can’t express.”
In Edgar Wright’s outstanding film The Sparks Brothers, Stephen Morris, the drummer in Joy Division, says they were listening to two records on repeat when they recorded “Love Will Tear Us Apart”: an LP of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits and Sparks’ No. 1 in Heaven.
Your output depends on your input, but a lot of your input is random: you’re interested in lots of different things, and those things, occasionally, will talk to each other in your work.
Lately I’ve been thinking about being more intentional with input. Thinking about input as collage. Taking the principle of juxtaposition (1+1=3) and using that to guide your input: what weird, seemingly disparate things can you feed your brain that will come out later in a new mix?
The input collage can be subject or genre based and even better if it’s multi-media. (For example, reading art books and physics books at the same time, or watching a lot of westerns and kung fu movies at the same time or looking at paintings in a museum while reading physics papers while watching kung fu movies, etc.)
There’s a balance here between feeding your brain intentionally and then backing off and letting your brain do the subconscious work of mixing your inputs together.
In Art & Physics, the writer and surgeon Leonard Shlain wrote about his interesting method of “self-education” in the books’ subject matters:
Serendipitously, I discovered a way to heighten my creativity. My habit was to read a popular physics book late at night until the snooze gremlin nudged me with the signal that it was time to call it a day. Prior to falling asleep the following night, my mind relatively empty, I leafed through art books. The next morning, I would often connect images I had seen the night before with concepts in physics contained in my previous night’s reading. Something mysterious happens in the creative process during dreamtime, and I am an avid proponent of the school that advocates, “sleeping on it.”
It’s been pointed out before that dreams and collage work in the same kind of holistic, non-logical, non-linear manner. I love the idea of our brains gluing together the bits while we slumber…