I like making the phrase two-way, so it’s “stay live, get weird,” but also, “get weird, stay alive.” Both have worked for me…
In another interview, he explains:
When I was an artist, I used to walk around feeling sorry for myself, always. Looked at every loft, every apartment. Hated everyone I saw. Everyone. Hated you if you had a better apartment. Hated you if you had more hair. Hated this one for being tall. Hated that one. Everybody had it better than poor me. They had more money. Oh, I was cynical. I knew why she was getting what she got and he got what he got, and I was eaten alive by this envy. Eaten alive, and now I tell young artists and writers: “You must make an enemy of envy today. Today. By tonight, because it will eat you alive.”
I agree with him: it will eat you alive if you keep it inside. I think one thing you can do is spit it out, cut it out, or get it out by whatever means available — write it down or draw it out on paper — and take a hard look at it so it might actually teach you something.
Over at The School of Life, here’s a bit about how Friedrich Nietzsche felt envy could be useful to us:
Nietzsche thought of envy as a confused but important signal from our deeper selves about what we really want. Everything that makes us envious is a fragment of our true potential, which we disown at our peril. We should learn to study our envy forensically, keeping a diary of envious moments, and then sift through episodes to discern the shape of a future, better self…. The envy we don’t own up to will otherwise end up emitting what Nietzsche called ‘sulfurous odours.’ Bitterness is envy that doesn’t understand itself.
So, first, don’t deny your envy, and second, if you can, try to examine it.
My favorite writing on the subject of envy is the “Jealousy” chapter of Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird. “Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer,” she writes.
Some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you.
She says the only things that seem to help with jealousy are: “(a) getting older, (b) talking about it until the fever breaks, and (c) using it as material.” As an example of (c), she points out a favorite poem of mine: Clive James’ deliciously nasty poem, “The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered.” It begins:
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized…
The narrator of the poem goes on to admit, “Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,” but in his case it will be “due / to a miscalculated print run, a marketing error — / Nothing to do with merit.”
Creativity and ego cannot go together. If you free yourself from the comparing and jealous mind, your creativity opens up endlessly. Just as water springs from a fountain, creativity springs from every moment. You must not be your own obstacle. You must not be owned by the environment you are in. You must own the environment, the phenomenal world around you. You must be able to freely move in and out of your mind. This is being free. There is no way you can’t open up your creativity. There is no ego to speak of. That is my belief.
Easier said than done.
You could try to practice the opposite of jealousy, which is something like the concept of “mudita”: “Mudita is word from Sanskrit and Pali that has no counterpart in English. It means sympathetic or unselfish joy, or joy in the good fortune of others.”
Easier than that, even, is to just pretend. Have a script that you rehearse and repeat when necessary.
Practice these words:
“Good for him.”
“Good for her.”
“Good for them.”
“Good for you.”
(That last one is sometimes the hardest.)
You say these words, and then you keep your head down, and you do your work.
And should you get everything you always wanted, remember the words on a pillow Joan Rivers kept in her apartment: “Don’t Expect Praise Without Envy Until You Are Dead.”
I’m finishing up The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. Clocking in at 4 1/2 hours, the documentary presents a portrait of a man never satisfied, always searching, sort of modeling his career and life on Samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Shandling’s diary entries are presented in little snippets throughout the documentary, and one of the of the things I wished for when watching is a longer, closer look at the pages. This morning I discovered that Garry’s friends have been posting them on his revived Twitter feed.
Shandling owed a great debt to George Carlin, who gave him encouragement when he was first starting out. Shandling adopted Carlin’s attitude towards cycles and reinvention. (Carlin famously threw out material and started fresh every year.)
What they both figured out is that the easiest way to re-invent yourself is to find something new to learn.
My book Show Your Work! is basically about learning in public — allowing people to sort of look over your shoulder as you’re working — and in chapter 10 I quote Milton Glaser, who said, “Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.”
The video that quote is taken from is basically a summary of Shandling’s career, and it’s so good that I’ve transcribed a huge portion of it below (emphasis mine):
When I talk to students about the distinction between professionalism and personal development, I very often put it this way: In professional life, you must discover a kind of identity for yourself, that becomes a sort of trademark, a way of working that is distinctive that people can recognize. The reason for this is that the path to financial success and notoriety is by having something that no-one else has. It’s kind of like a brand, one of my most despised words.
So what you do in life in order to be professional is you develop your brand, your way of working, your attitude, that is understandable to others. In most cases, it turns out to be something fairly narrow, like ‘this person really knows how to draw cocker spaniels,’ or ‘this person is very good with typography directed in a more feminine way,” or whatever the particular attribute is, and then you discover you have something to offer that is better than other people have or at least more distinctive. And what you do with that is you become a specialist, and people call you to get more of what you have become adept at doing. So if you do anything and become celebrated for it, people will send you more of that. And for the rest of your life, quite possibly, you will have that characteristic, people will continue to ask you for what you have already done and succeeded at. This is the way to professional accomplishment–you have to demonstrate that you know something unique that you can repeat over and over and over until ultimately you lose interest in it. The consequence of specialization and success is that it hurts you. It hurts you because it basically doesn’t aid in your development.
The truth of the matter is that understanding development comes from failure. People begin to get better when they fail, they move towards failure, they discover something as a result of failing, they fail again, they discover something else, they fail again, they discover something else. So the model for personal development is antithetical to the model for professional success. As a result of that, I believe that Picasso as a model is the most useful model you can have in terms of your artistic interests, because whenever Picasso learned how to do something he abandoned it, and as a result of that, in terms of his development as an artist, the results were extraordinary. It is the opposite of what happens in the typecasting for professional accomplishment.
Every single person is a learning machine. You want the challenge of trying something new, figuring out how to do it, mastering it, and then starting all over again. You want to Learn, Leap, and Repeat.
As I wrote in Show:
When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.
So, perhaps, instead of asking that dreaded question, “What next?” turn it into this question: “What do you want to learn?”
Works whether you’re 5-years-old or 85-years-old.
“And even after you have achieved greatness, the infinitesimal cadre who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”
—Ian Svenonius, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group
Early in 1987, [we] had a dinner inside Disneyland with George Lucas and several celebrities we’d invited to promote the opening of Star Tours, among them Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan. The couple had made headlines a month earlier by piloting a single-engine plane around the world on one tank of gas. At some point in the evening, my wife turned to Rutan. “Now that you’ve flown around the world and done the most adventurous thing imaginable,” Jane asked reasonably enough, “what are you going to do next?”
“Well, we’re going to Disneyland, he replied sincerely. As soon as she had a chance, Jane pulled me aside and described the exchange. “This would make a great advertising campaign,” she said.
“What’s next?” is one of those dreaded interview questions, as evidenced by these two tweets I noticed in the past week:
The first is funny, the second is heartfelt, but they both point to the same borderline paralyzing predicament of having finished something you’ve put everything into.
bell hooks describes it this way in Teaching To Transgress:
Whenever I finish a work, I always feel lost, as though a steady anchor has been taken away and there is no sure ground under my feet. During the time between ending one project and beginning another, I always have a crisis of meaning. I begin to wonder what my life is all about and what I have been put on this earth to do. It is as though immersed in a project I lose all sense of myself and must then, when the work is done, rediscover who I am and where I am going.
In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem describes the unique period between when you finish a book and when it’s published as “The Gulp”: “that interlude where the book has quit belonging to you, but doesn’t belong to anyone else yet.”
In Show Your Work! I suggested “chain-smoking” as a way of avoiding stalling out in between projects: you never really stop working, you just use the end of one project to light up the next. (Joni Mitchell, for example, says that whatever she feels like is the weak link in her last project gives her inspiration for the next.) But sometimes chain-smoking is just impossible. Sometimes how the current project does and where it goes determines what you’ll do next. And sometimes you just have to bug out, get away from work for a bit, recharge, and figure out the next thing.
I think of “What next?” as a sort of ongoing existential crisis best handled with a daily practice. You’re never really going to be sure what’s going to happen, you just know that tomorrow and the day after that you’ll go out to your studio, or you’ll open your sketchbook, you’ll start pushing things around, and you’ll see what happens. No forcing it. Just see what comes.
I’m reminded of comedian Tom Koch’s obituary, which featured this paragraph:
People would say I must have had such a great life doing this,” Mr. Koch once recalled, “people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever. But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”
Uncertainty is a huge part of the gig. I can already see the finish line for my next book, so I’m already thinking about what I’m going to start working on when I enter The Gulp. I’m already formulating my own “I’m going to Disney Land!” answer to that dreaded question, “So what’s next?”
This is one of those poems you tape to the fridge. It ran in the May 18, 1998 issue of the New Yorker. You can find it in Koch’s Collected Poems. I love it because unlike many when they talk about “work-life balance,” there’s no value judgment, no correct answer, just Koch laying out the choices. Work, family, or friends: pick two. You can have it all, just not all at once. (Seasons, man.)
I thought of it again today because Jocelyn Glei made a supercut of some of her podcast guests’ answers to the question “What’s the key ingredient in work-life balance?” My answer was included in the batch (something about loving something more than your work, irreverence, ego, blah blah blah) but I wish I’d just recited the Koch.
One thing I did think was interesting: of the six guests, the two men, myself included, didn’t question whether such a thing as “work-life balance” was possible, while two of the women, both friends of mine, said they didn’t really believe in it or think about it — they didn’t see a big distinction between their work and their lives. On the whole, women have, historically, if they were lucky enough to have creative careers at all, not had much of a choice of easily separating work and life. (I think of poor Clara Schumann, raising seven kids as a widower and a performing artist. I mean, damn.)
There’s a great 2008 conversation between Muriel Murch and Eleanor Coppola on Murch’s podcast, Living With Literature. Coppola talks about the challenges of raising a family and supporting her husband, Francis Ford Coppola, while trying to do find time to do her creative work, too. She says she was always “trying to reconcile these two sides of myself.” She talks about being relieved to start shooting documentary footage on-set during Apocalypse Now so she had something creative to do with her talents other than go to the grocery and find a dry cleaner. (Read more in her books, Notes on a Life and Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now.)
At one point, Coppola speaks explicitly about the different ways that men and women (with families) of her generation worked on their art:
The men artists I knew had a studio, and they went out to their studio, and they spent the day, and worked, and then they came back. I once read a book by Judy Chicago, who interviewed all these women artists, and they made their art on the back porch, they made it on top of the washing machine, they made it next to the kitchen sink, and they made it anywhere they could, for the hour and a half while their kid was taking a nap, and for the two hours while they were at the play group. They made it in between. It wasn’t, like, you get to make art for eight hours. You make art in 20-minute snatches, and you don’t, like, fiddle around. I know one time I went to see Francis in his working room, and he had his pencils all laid out, and his espresso there, and there was this whole little ritual of getting into yourself and into your work. There was no time [for women] for the ritual of getting into your work! You just snapped into that taking 10 minutes and making 3 lines on your drawing or whatever was possible. It wasn’t the same as the way men worked. And that’s how women got their work done.
Tillie Olsen, in Silences, writes: “More than any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible. Children need one now… It is distraction, not meditation, that becomes habitual; interuption, not continuity.” A mother can’t avoid interruptions, so she has to find a way of “scurrying,” as Muriel Murch puts it.
Coppola speaks of having to escape out into the garden, just to “catch a breath” and “hear yourself” and have some time with that creative voice that was speaking to her, and what a terrific luxury it was, later in life, when she was 60, and her kids were gone, and she could have a little studio of her own, outside the house, where she could work uninterrupted. (In spite of all she had to give up, she says she’s thrilled that her children are all good, creative people. “I think they’re my greatest artwork.”)
I am extremely fortunate that my wife stays home with our boys and I have a space of my own out in the garage behind the house where I can escape to work, but, especially now that the boys are older, I am trying to take inspiration from some of these artist/mothers, to counter the “pram in the hall” nonsense, and to not only spend more time with the boys, but to actually bring them into my space here and there and let them work alongside me.
People always ask me how I managed to paint when my two boys were small. My children were a joy to me, and there was no problem working with them around — I just let them play at my feet as I painted. They would even run toy fire engines up and down my easel, but it didn’t bother me.
What is really the issue here is a sense that art and domesticity don’t play nicely together. Here’s Tom Waits:
Family and career don’t like each other. One is always trying to eat the other. You’re always trying to find balance. But one is really useless without the other. What you really want is a sink and a faucet. That’s the ideal.
Maybe family and career are at odds, but I don’t think family and art-making absolutely have to be. I take a lot of inspiration from artists deep in domesticity. (Literally: “home or family life.”) From a New Yorker profile of Ursula K. Le Guin:
At a little kitchen table, over tea served in the indestructible handmade earthenware mugs of the seventies, she commented, somewhat defiantly, that she had always taken pleasure in cooking and keeping house. It sounded like criticism of the heroic writer, alone in his garret, but there’s more to it than that. She feels that marriage and family have given her a stability that supported her writing—the freedom of solitude within the solidity of household life. “An artist can go off into the private world they create, and maybe not be so good at finding the way out again,” she told me. “This could be one reason I’ve always been grateful for having a family and doing housework, and the stupid ordinary stuff that has to be done that you cannot let go.”
In the documentary Look & See, Wendell Berry talks about how he thinks art-making is actually given meaning by interruption. Here’s writer Winn Collier’s recollection of a discussion with Berry on the topic:
You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.
Here’s what I’m trying to do with my life and my work. I’m trying to fully integrate everything. So the transition from work to play to everyday life is all seamless. So that it’s all one thing. There’s no difference between living and making art. I’ve gotten really close. Music, comics, writing, painting, playing with Eli, doing dishes, cooking, all that, fully integrated into one seamless unit. That’s pretty much my goal…
The writer L.P. Jacks might’ve said Kochalka is on to something. He wrote in his 1932 book, Education Through Recreation:
A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.
It’s not going to happen for everybody, of course. In the end, you get away with whatever you can get away with. You live however you need to.
I really did not mean to write so much in this post, but I wanted to wrap up with this story from the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal, a great writer and mother of three, who put “You Want A Social Life With Friends” in her book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and met Kenneth Koch:
In the fall of 2000, I had the privilege of recording Mr. Koch reading this poem in his Upper East Side apartment for an audio magazine project I was working on. I used a tiny Radio Shack tape recorder, and take full responsibility for the lack of high sound quality. (But I do admit I like the crackling and soundproof-lessness.) He was an impeccable, flawless reader–we were finished in two or three takes. Though he had been reluctant to agree to our session, once underway, he was a gracious, charismatic host. He had set up a nice tray with glasses of grapefruit juice. Fitting, because the whole thing was bittersweet. Mr. Koch died a year later. I believe this is one of his last recordings.
Here’s the recording:
I’ve always kept pictures of my heroes above my desk to keep watch over me, like guardian spirits, to remind me who I want to be. These days they help me remember who I wanted to be when I first got started.
Man, there are so many things to push you off your path. Maybe you get a taste of success and say, “Oh, well now it’s time to get serious.” Or maybe you fall into a career you didn’t plan on. Maybe people start lumping you in with some contemporaries you never asked to be lumped in with. Maybe somebody dangles some easy-looking money at you. In my experience, at some point you will wonder what the heck you’re doing and what you should do next.
Your heroes can help. Much depends, of course, on the quality of one’s heroes, but looking to them can help you get re-aligned with yourself. Sometimes it’s a stern look to say, “Stop f***ing this up.” Sometimes it’s a wink, to say “keep going, baby.” (Some of them you need at eye level, which is why I have Queen Lynda keeping watch over my writing desk.)
One of my favorite writer/directors, Billy Wilder, he kept a sign in his office that reminded him of his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, “How would Lubitsch do it?”
(The Paris Review asked him, “Well, how did he do it?” and part of Wilder’s answer was: “It’s funny, but we noticed that whenever he came up with an idea, I mean a really great idea, it was after he came out of the can. I started to suspect that he had a little ghostwriter in the bowl of the toilet there.”)
Anyways. Remember your heroes. They can help.
Today an interviewer asked me what was the common trait that the artists I look up to share, and without missing a beat, I answered, “They all work harder than I do.”
“I don’t like work,” sang Harry McClintock, “and work don’t like me!” I think my fellow millennials, most of whom will spend their lives working harder and harder for fewer and fewer returns, should make this their anthem:
Oh, why don’t you save
all the money you earn?
If I didn’t eat
I’d have money to burn!
(Avocado toast, my ass.)
I’m also reminded of this Ivan Brunetti Nancy strip, which I’ve had hanging above my desk for years (even back when I did have a day job):
Years ago, at SXSW 2009, I drew a panel called “Try Making Yourself More Interesting.” It introduced me to this (possibly apocryphal) story about the writer Barry Hannah, told by Rick Bass in his introduction to Boomerang and Never Die:
Another passed-down tale: a student getting her story back from Barry, with the honest criticism on it: This just isn’t interesting.
As I understand it, the student, a whiner, complained, What can I do to make it be interesting?
The cruelest advice I ever heard, but also the best—advice that I do not think I could have withstood had it been given to me directly, but which I have remembered. Barry, I am told, looked long and hard at the student, decided she was earnest about becoming a better writer, and told her the truth[:] “Try making yourself a more interesting person.
Work on being an interesting person other people want to be around and are willing to open doors for…. There are many roads to becoming an interesting person, but they all involve developing your curiosity and your desire to know and understand — yourself, others, the world around you. You can read. You can pursue a new activity like knitting or rock climbing. You can volunteer. You can commit to asking three people a day an open-ended question about themselves and really listening to their responses. You can share your information and connections freely.
My friend Jessica Hagy wrote a whole book about it called… How To Be Interesting.
I wrote about it in Show Your Work!:
If you want followers, be someone worth following. [“Have you tried making yourself more interesting?”] seems like a really mean thing to say, unless you think of the word interesting the way writer Lawrence Weschler does: For him, to be “interest-ing” is to be curious and attentive, and to practice “the continual projection of interest.” To put it more simply: If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested.
As I’ve said before, if you want to be the noun you have to do the verb.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, which seems to explain so much of our current moment, is paraphrased here by John Cleese: “The problem,” he says, with some people, “is that they are so stupid that they have no idea how stupid they are.”
You see, if you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are…. [Knowing] how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means—and this is terribly funny—that if you’re absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.
Or, here’s Charles Darwin, almost 150 years ago, in The Descent of Man:
[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
The terrifying thing is that we live in a world in which the most confident—confident, as in con(fidence) man—often weasel their way to the top. I’m not sure that this hasn’t always been the case for at least the past thousand years, some of my evidence coming from the Chinese poet Su Shi, aka Su Tung-Po (1037-1101) in one of my favorite poems, “On The Birth of a Son”:
Families when a child is born
Hope it will turn out intelligent.
I, through intelligence
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope that the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he’ll be happy all his days
And grow into a cabinet minister.
Hence, the above prayer, which was part of last summer’s art show: “Let them be smart, but not smart enough to know how dumb they are because then they are really screwed.” (At least when it comes to worldly suck-cess.)
Then again, here’s another prayer, one for decent human beings, who can be humble enough to learn and improve themselves, and just maybe, the world:
See also: You probably don’t deserve it
There’s a very romantic American story that I love, that lots of artists who are young and starting out love, too, and it goes like this: Move to the Big City with nothing, make friends, make art, struggle, but make it. That’s the kind of story told in Patti Smith’s wonderful memoir, Just Kids.
The trouble with this story is that people remember the place (New York) but they don’t remember the conditions. Here’s Patti Smith herself on NYC nowadays:
It certainly isn’t the place I knew when I was young?—?we had no money, the city was bankrupt, it was filled with cockroaches, a lot of rats, it was a bit gritty, and it was cheap to live here, really cheap. You could have a bookstore job and a little apartment in the East Village. There were so many of us, so many like minds. You can’t do that now.
(Emphasis mine.) She continues:
I can’t speak for new generations because they probably have their way of negotiating all of this, but I can just say it doesn’t welcome people that have very little, that just want to get a little job and have a little practice place to play with their band. I mean, all of my band left New York because they couldn’t afford to live there. We lost our practice place. I lost my art studio because all of our spaces were taken by entrepreneurs with a lot of money. But it’s still a wonderful city, a great city, it’s just, I guess, if you’re scrappy you have to find a new way to get around in it.
In another talk, Smith suggested that young artists might be better off finding a new city:
New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there’s always other cities. I don’t know?—?Detroit, Poughkeepsie, Newark. You have to find the new place because New York City has been taken away from you. It’s still a great city, but it has closed itself off from the poor and creative burgeoning society. So my advice is: Find a new city.
No, it’s not necessarily the most glamorous option. (I’m remembering a line from a piece about living a low-overhead in the Rust Belt: “I imagine that many would rather be in debt than live in Northeast Ohio.”)
People, many of them strangers thanks to retweets, had a range of responses, some saying ridiculous things like, “You live in Austin asshole you’re just old and broke and bitter and worried about young people taking your job” (???) to thoughtful, important replies like, “I’m trans, so I need to live somewhere progressive so I feel safe day-to-day and don’t feel like I’m going to get beat up for using the wrong restroom.”
I realize now when I said “young folks” I meant young artists and poets and other creative people who were like me about ten years ago: poor, or not wealthy, trying to figure out where to live, and wanting to do something weird and interesting that doesn’t necessarily fit into a traditional model. Not: get a job at a tech company, get big art world gallery shows, etc.
There’s lots of talk about how the internet is making it possible to live anywhere these days and do their own thing. But I think people my age and younger forget the fact that people made their own scenes even BEFORE the internet. That’s why I love books like Our Band Could Be Your Life, which show how people got together, did their own thing, and built their own networks and businesses, all with not much more than a Kinko’s, a telephone, and the US postal service.
The idea is that you live somewhere cheap, keep your overhead low, make whatever work you want to make, create your own scene. Nobody gets super-rich or super-famous, but dammit, they get to live their lives their own way, unbeholden to anybody.
That, to me, is one of the most inspiring American storylines. It’s not for everybody, and there are plenty of arguments against it, but I think it’s the one that’s the most realistically within reach for a lot of us.