A few years ago I made a free zine about gratitude that you can print and fold and fill out. I’ve gotten some lovely messages from people who have used it in their classrooms and at the Thanksgiving dinnertable. Look inside and download it here.
Every time I’m in California, there’s at least a little bit of magic to the visit.
The family and I were in Los Angeles for a few days and the nice surprise of the trip was popping down to Huntington Beach for an impromptu Dairy Queen picnic, hunting for sand dollars and playing fetch with random pups we befriended.
California visits also usually inspire newsletters — see our “Let’s Talk Travel” Tuesday discussion and my “A Path With A View” Friday letter. (At least one reader mentioned that the photo below reminded them of Hockney’s Pearblossom Highway.)
I’m doing some of my best writing, I think, in my Tuesday newsletter.
This week, I wrote about “entering into the spirit” of the holidays:
For artists, we get to play at Halloween all year. That veil between the material and the immaterial stays razor thin. Every day, we get to step into our costumes, don our masks, perform our rituals, and enter into the spirit.
Two weeks ago, I shared three poems from the sports section:
For years, my favorite section of the New York Times for making newspaper blackouts has been the Sports section. (Ironic, considering they recently disbanded their sports department.) This isn’t because I’m a huge fan of sports, but because you find good nouns and verbs there: I like the way coaches and athletes talk in plain language — and sometimes clichés! — and how they speak a lot about “seasons,” etc.
I stitched those poems them together with quotes from my commonplace diary and the result was really fun. I’m going to try to do more letters like this soon.
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the art of forgery:
Because I wrote a book called Steal Like an Artist, some people think I’m really interested in plagiarism. Actually, I’m much more interested in forgery.
“Plagiarism is the flip side of forgery,” wrote Andrew Potter in The Authenticity Hoax. “Forgers pass off their own work as that of someone else, while plagiarists pass off the work of others as their own.”
In other words: Plagiarism is taking credit for someone else’s work. Forgery is giving someone else credit for work you create.
The difference is you doing the work.
Though I love having the deadline and the form to play with, what’s best about the Tuesday newsletter is the comment section — a sane corner of the internet that makes me feel better about the world. (See our recent “What’s Good?” discussion thread for a lift — there’s a free trial at the paywall.)
From Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer’s book about wrestling with D.H. Lawrence:
“Films and books urge us to think that there will come certain moments in our lives when, if we can make some grand, once-in-a-lifetime gesture of relinquishment, or of standing up for a certain principle – if we can throw in our job and head off, leave the safe life with a woman that we do not love and, as it were, come out – then we will be liberated, free. Moments – crises – like these are crucial to the cinema or theatre where psychological turmoil has to be externalised and compressed. Dramatically speaking what happens after moments such as these is unimportant even though the drama continues afterwards, with the consequences of these sudden lurches beyond the quotidian. Up until then the question is what you are freeing yourself from; the real question, however, as Nietzsche points out – and Lawrence repeats in his Nietzschean Study of Thomas Hardy – is free for what?
Unless, like Thelma and Louise, you plunge off the side of a canyon, there is no escaping the everyday. What Lawrence’s life demonstrates so powerfully is that it actually takes a daily effort to be free. To be free is not the result of a moment’s decisive action but a project to be constantly renewed. More than anything else, freedom requires tenaciousness. There are intervals of repose but there will never come a state of definitive rest where you can give up because you have turned freedom into a permanent condition. Freedom is always precarious.”
I’ve long been inspired by the punk band Wire’s rules of negative self-definition: “No solos; no decoration; when the words run out, it stops; we don’t chorus out; no rocking out; keep it to the point; no Americanisms.”
In How Music Works, David Byrne writes about the early style of the Talking Heads playing CBGBs as a three-piece combo, how “it was less a band than an outline for a band,” and how they, too, defined themselves against the “overwhelming” sense of what had come before:
The only sensible course was to avoid all of it, to strip everything back and see what was left. Some others in that scene had similar ideas. The Ramones didn’t allow guitar solos, for example, but we took reductionism pretty damn far. It was a performance style defined by negatives—no show-offy solos… no rock moves or poses, no pomp or drama, no rock hair, no rock lights (our instructions to club lighting people were “Turn them all on at the beginning and turn them off at the end”), no rehearsed stage patter (I announced the song titles and said “Thank you” and nothing more), and no singing like a black man. The lyrics too were stripped bare. I told myself I would use no clichéd rock phrases, no “Ohh, baby”s or words that I wouldn’t use in daily speech, except ironically, or as a reference to another song.
It was mathematics; when you subtract all that unwanted stuff from something, art or music, what do you have left? Who knows? With the objectionable bits removed, does it then become more “real”? More honest? I don’t think so anymore. I eventually realized that the simple act of getting on stage is in itself artificial, but the dogma provided a place to start. We could at least pretend we had jettisoned our baggage (or other people’s baggage, as we imagined it) and would therefore be forced to come up with something new.
In Jonathan Gould’s “The Origin Story of ‘Stop Making Sense,” he writes about how director Jonathan Demme defined his film of the band by what he wasn’t going to do:
Demme made it clear that he wanted to focus the whole production solely on the band’s performance. Unexceptional as this might sound, it was a departure from the way that rock concerts had previously been presented on film, from Richard Lester’s mock-documentary “A Hard Day’s Night” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” by dispensing with a “backstory” of the musicians coming and going; the logistics of staging the show; interviews with the band members, promoters, and fans; and the fervent response of the crowd. Instead, Demme proposed to simply film the band onstage, expertly, while avoiding the rhythmic, fast-paced, jump-cut style of editing associated with the music videos being shown on the recently established platform MTV.
In Rob Walker’s recent newsletter, “‘No’ Rules,” he talks about how extreme self-imposed constraints can spur creative leaps and your signature work. (Rob has an assignment he gives to students, “Always/Never,” in which he has his students make a list of 3 things their work must always do, and 3 things their work must never do.) But, Rob says, you are totally within your rights to eventually break your own rules and start subtracting the subtractions.
In fact, it might be crucial to your artistic survival to break your own rules. Jonathan Gould points out that while Jonathan Demme took a minimalist approach, by the time Stop Making Sense came around the Talking Heads had “jettisoned many of the musical and theatrical restrictions they had originally placed on themselves.”
Rob pointed out their amazing Live in Rome concert from 1980 as an example of the great leaps they had already made in just a few years:
You can see the same progression with a band like The White Stripes — at first, they began with their extreme constraints of threes: voice, guitar, drums; red, white, black, etc. Slowly, they broke their own rules, added in other instruments on later albums, expanding their sound. (
Their biggest single, “Seven Nation Army,” was radical at the time because they included a bass line! Okay, so it wasn’t actually a bass line, it was Jack White’s guitar tuned down an octave with a whammy pedal, but everybody thought it was a bass, so it seemed like they were breaking their rules…)
I love this idea of subtraction and addition, contraction and expansion, breaking your own rules…