Here is a photo I took at the Richmond Airport sometime during the Keep Going tour. It’s not exactly a secret sentence, but one way I thought of the structure of the book was: the first half is about stopping the bleeding, and the second half is about beginning to heal…
In this week’s mailbag, Susan asks: “Have you ever created an altered book? I would like to but I can’t get over the voice in my head that says ‘don’t deface books!’ I usually don’t even write in my own books!”
When I first started making my newspaper blackout poems, it was in the spirit of recycling: there I was, staring at a blank Microsoft word document, with no words, and there, in the recycle bin next to me, were thousands of them. The thing I always enjoyed about using newspapers is that no one was ever aghast at my choice of medium: Newspapers are considered disposable media. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapping. Etc.
At about the same time I started making the poems, I started working in a public library, and one of my duties there was “weeding”—going through the collection, checking circulation records, and removing books from the stacks to make room for new acquisitions. This was an educational experience for an aspiring writer. It is eye-opening to take a cold hard look at what kinds of books the average population actually reads. It is also eye-opening to understand how many books are thrown out or sold off. (I’ve heard David Sedaris say of his books, “I just imagine every book ending up at Goodwill.”) When you publish a book, it is one of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are published each year.
While I appreciate beautifully printed books and the fine art of bookmaking, I have become less and less interested over time as books as fetish objects to be worshipped for their inherent magical powers. There is a magic to reading, but it comes mostly from the energies of the reader. A book is dormant until the reader comes along to bring it back to life.
On to altered books: I’ve never made one, myself, but I buy books in junk shops to cut up and use in my collages later. (At my feet are ratty copies of Gray’s Anatomy, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, and The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, all purchased for less than a dollar.) Do I feel guilty for cutting up these books? Not a bit. For one thing, I have clean, duplicate copies elsewhere on my shelves, for another, these books are finding new life in my diaries.
As for writing in books: I’ve been reading with a pencil for over two decades. It’s my way of owning the book, of engaging with the material, making it my own. It’s a step in between reading and writing. (I do wonder sometimes if my attitude towards books comes from a middle-class place of plenty. I grew up with as many books as I wanted.)
Your question made me think immediately of Brian Dettmer and Tom Philips, two of my favorite artists who both use old books to create their art. Here’s Dettmer on dealing with his initial guilt of cutting up books:
My first works were with telephone books and other disposable catalogs and I slowly developed a tolerance. Now, I don’t feel guilty as long as I know I’m working with something that is not rare and more often than not, has completely lost its function, but I do still feel an obligation to the material, to respect it and push it in a worthy direction to raise these questions in the viewer.
If you really want to attempt an altered book, you might follow his lead, and begin with newspapers, magazines, and more ephemeral material that’s headed for the recycle bin, anyways. Over time, that voice in your head might quiet down…
Got a question? Ask it here.
Back in June, I wrote about writers and stuttering, and how many writers feel that their stutters make them better writers. In the past few weeks, there have been two notable essays written by journalists who stutter:
1. In his essay “Stammer Time, Barry Yeoman writes about how he and other stutterers are starting to feel that fluent speech is not only overrated, but that stuttering can be a gift, both to those who stutter and the people around them.
I’m most interested by the idea that stuttering messes with our notions of mechanical time and efficiency:
“There’s something interesting about stuttering in a world that moves at increasingly breakneck speed,” says [Joshua] St. Pierre, the Alberta professor. For most of human history, we measured time in lunar cycles, menstrual cycles, agricultural cycles. Today we rely on “clock time,” standardized and designed for industrial production. Clock time values efficiency; it has no patience for silences and repeated syllables. “Stuttering highlights that fact: that clock time runs roughshod over all these other ways of creating time, but that they still persist and are still important,” he says.
Elsewhere, Yeoman has written about how he thinks his stuttering makes him better at his job. One, it helps him empathize with marginalized people, and two, he knows how to “shut up and listen.”
2. In The Atlantic, John Hendrickson wrote about “Joe Biden’s Stutter, and Mine:”
Yet even when sharing these old, hard stories, Biden regularly characterizes stuttering as “the best thing that ever happened” to him. “Stuttering gave me an insight I don’t think I ever would have had into other people’s pain,” he says. I admire his empathy, even if I disagree with his strict adherence to a tidy redemption narrative.
One of the frustrations Hendrickson writes about in the piece is how Biden speaks about stuttering as something that’s behind him, something he’s overcome. (“I don’t say I was ‘cured,’” says another stutterer, James Earl Jones. “I just work with it.”) “The underlying message,” Hendrickson writes, “beat it or bust—is out of sync with the normalization movement.”
“I don’t want to hear Biden say ‘I still stutter’ to prove some grand point; I want to hear him say it because doing so as a presidential candidate would mean that stuttering truly doesn’t matter—for him, for me, or for our 10-year-old selves.”
Yesterday, Yeoman tweeted, “With today’s attention on Biden’s stutter, here’s a contrast: @KatarMoreira, a politician in Portugal who embraces how she speaks. ‘I stutter when I speak, not when I think. The danger in parliament is individuals who stutter when they think.’”
Filed under: stuttering
Some of them are drawn from life, some from my camera roll.
This one started by copying a drawing of Charlie Brown and letting my hand go.
I really love drawing chickens. (The cigarette is a nod to Lynda.)
This one started with a swiped drawing from my 4-year-old.
More “Good morning, diary” on Twitter…
“‘The Uncommon’ is a better name than ‘art.’”
If you’ve followed me for very long, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about the artist and educator Corita Kent. She’s showed up on this blog many, many times, and she was a huge influence on Keep Going: not only does she show up in chapter 5 and 10, she looked down on me from the top of the bulletin board when I was writing the book.
The city and county of Los Angeles have named today — November 20th — Corita Day in honor of her 101st birthday.
There are two books related to her that I think are really terrific:
1) Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent is a lovely introduction to her work (and unfortunately out of print)
2) Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit is a book I rank up there with some of my very favorite books about making art.
Learning By Heart has so much to teach not just the artist, but the parent. (One of the assignments is “Borrow a kid.”)
Here is luke 2.14, 51 — a gift from my wife that hangs in my office. Corita sent it to LBJ in 1963 “after reading that his wife Ladybird had been telling him to slow down.”
“We have no art,” she said. “We do everything as well as we can.” In this letter to the editor, she says she doesn’t think of what she does as art. “I just make things I like bigger, assuming that if I like them some other people might too.”
She taught her students to learn to see by looking at the world one piece at a time.
She took from advertising, but then she produced, it too — here are advertisements for Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.
Her pieces include quotes written in her own handwriting…
Here’s the thing she’s probably most famous for these days — the list of 10 rules for the art department at Immaculate Heart.
Happy birthday, Corita!
Here’s a video my friend Dan Roam and I recorded for his Napkin Academy about how to stay creative in good times and bad. Dan is so good at what he does — I remember seeing him give a presentation at SXSW five years ago and 20 minutes later everybody in the room wanted to buy a copy of Show & Tell. We always have fun, and I’m already looking forward to the next time.
I walked past this handicapped spot yesterday and thought of the “Make it art” assignment from Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing:
Think then of some regular walk or drive or ride you experience often, or even that you’re experiencing for the first time. Imagine yourself a curator. Decide what, among the things you notice, you might declare public works of art.
Perhaps a disheveled pylon marking a street flaw that ought to have been fixed by now. Maybe a post that seems to be a lingering remnant of an otherwise departed fence. Possibly even a child with a piercing stare.
Grant yourself the superpower of making “art” wherever you go, and see how that changes what you perceive.
Art is everywhere, if you say so.
(More in his newsletter.)
Related: “Borrow a kid.”
To warm up for the past couple mornings I’ve pulled out my trusty ol’ Pentel Pocket Brush Pen and filled a page in my diary before writing. (Hard not to be influenced when reading Lynda Barry!) The pen is probably half a decade old, and still works like new. Something magical about drawing with this thing…