Here’s video of a 40-minute keynote I gave during the Scratch Conference at MIT’s Media Lab last month. It was one of the most enjoyable talks I’ve given — it’s a kind of mashup of my books, and it was received by a great room full of enthusiastic people. (Followed by a Q&A with the wonderful Karen Brennan.) If you’re interested in having me speak at your event, check out my speaking page.
I’m catching up with the latest season of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which I used to enjoy, but now seems like it should be renamed Rich People in Expensive Cars Getting Coffee and Looking Nervous About Not Having Proper Seatbelts.
There was one great spot in the Dave Chappelle episode, though, that I felt was worth transcribing and sharing. Seinfeld asks Chappelle whether he feels like, knowing he can do a great TV show, he shouldn’t try to do another one.
CHAPPELLE: Sometimes the offering drives. If I [have] an idea, it should drive. It’s like the idea says, “Get in the car.” And I’m like, “Where am I going?” And the idea says, “Don’t worry, I’m driving.” And then you just get there.
SEINFELD: The idea’s driving.
CHAPPELLE: Sometime’s I’m shotgun. Sometimes I’m in the f—ing trunk. The idea takes you where it wants to go.
SEINFELD: That’s great.
CHAPPELLE: And then other times, there’s me, and it’s my ego, like, “I should do something!”
SEINFELD: “I should be driving!”
SEINFELD: That’s not good.
CHAPPELLE: No, ‘cause there’s no idea in the car. It’s just me. That formula doesn’t work.
SEINFELD: If the idea is in the car honking, going, “Let’s go…” It pulls up in front of your house.
CHAPPELLE: That’s exactly right.
SEINFELD: “You’re in your pajamas. Get dressed!”
CHAPPELLE: “I’m not ready!” “You can go like this.” “Where are we going? What are we doing?” “Don’t worry about it. You’ll see.”
Although, there’s another great story about cars and ideas, told by Elizabeth Gilbert:
Tom [Waits], for most of his life, he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalized.
But then he got older, he got calmer, and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles, and this is when it all changed for him. And he’s speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, it’s gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn’t have a piece of paper, or a pencil, or a tape recorder.
So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, “I’m going to lose this thing, and I’ll be be haunted by this song forever. I’m not good enough, and I can’t do it.” And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving?”
“Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”
And his whole work process changed after that. Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever. But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it back where it came from, and realized that this didn’t have to be this internalized, tormented thing.
Gilbert interviewed Waits in 2002 and he elaborated on his attitude:
“Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don’t care if they lose it; they’ll just make another one.” This openness is what every artist needs. Be ready to receive the inspiration when it comes; be ready to let it go when it vanishes. He believes that if a song “really wants to be written down, it’ll stick in my head. If it wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember it, well, it can just move along and go get in someone else’s song.” “Some songs,” he has learned, “don’t want to be recorded.” You can’t wrestle with them or you’ll only scare them off more. Trying to capture them sometimes “is trying to trap birds.” Fortunately, he says, other songs come easy, like “digging potatoes out of the ground.” Others are sticky and weird, like “gum found under an old table.” Clumsy and uncooperative songs may only be useful “to cut up as bait and use ’em to catch other songs.” Of course, the best songs of all are those that enter you “like dreams taken through a straw.’ In those moments, all you can be, Waits says, is grateful.
Brian Eno puts it in terms of surrender and control:
On one side of Eno’s scale diagram, he writes “control”; on the other “surrender”. “We’ve tended to dignify the controlling end of the spectrum,” he says. “We have Nobel prizes for that end.” His idea is that control is what we generally believe the greats – Shakespeare, Picasso, Einstein, Wagner – were about. Such people, the argument goes, controlled their chosen fields, working in isolation, never needing any creative input from others. As for surrender, that idea has become debased: it’s come to mean what the rest of us do when confronted by a work of genius. “We’ve tended to think of the surrender end as a luxury, a nice thing you add to your life when you’ve done the serious work of getting a job, getting your pension sorted out. I’m saying that’s all wrong.”
Somebody asked Stravinsky what he did when he didn’t have any ideas.
“I wait,” he said. “I wait… like an insect waits.”
I have been working like a maniac lately, cranking out words. I expect a crash soon, but for right now, I’m trying not to lose momentum. When I’m working like this, I feel like my brain is on fire, and I remember why so many writers are alcoholics: when you’re thinking so intensely all day, sometimes booze is the only thing that will calm you down.
Something else I’ve noticed in this frenzied state: my creative energies aren’t really sapped if I switch over to other projects. My son will ask me to draw a new page in the book we’re writing together, or I’ll need to write a blog post for the day, and it just doesn’t faze me. I finished a first draft of something this morning, and I was up and looking around for something else to do, Hulk-ed out, like, “WHAT NOW? COME AT ME!!”
I’m also internalizing, finally, what Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life:
One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.
Creative energy is a renewable energy. Right now, I’m all charged up. I know that soon I’ll need to recharge again, but for now, baby, I’m burning, burning, burning.
“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” —Thoreau
Almost every single morning, rain or shine, my wife and I load our two sons into a red double stroller (we call it The War Rig) and we take a 3-mile walk around our neighborhood. It’s often painful, sometimes sublime, but it’s always essential to our day. It’s when ideas are born, when we make plans, when we spot suburban wildlife, when we rant about politics, when we exorcise our demons.
That last one might be the most important. Here’s Linn Ullmann, on her father, the film director Ingmar Bergman:
My father was a very disciplined and punctual man; it was a prerequisite for his creativity. There was a time for everything: for work, for talk, for solitude, for rest. No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk and then work, he’d say, because the demons hate it when you get out of bed, demons hate fresh air.
These morning walks are so important to me, and so crucial to my work and home life, that I try to never plan anything before nine in the morning. They are also the reason why I, regrettably, almost never attend our local Creative Mornings meetups: every morning pushing The War Rig is a creative morning, and I just can’t afford to miss one.
Related reading: Get out now
Last August I wrote about my belief in creative seasons, and after I read Matt Thomas’s great post about trying to live with the seasons, I doodled this little chart in my notebook, trying to map some of the markers of “clock time” to organic things that happen in nature, wondering if I could learn something by paying attention to them. Right away, you can see that the week is manmade, and therefore, so is the week-end, and with it, the “Sunday Blues” and other neuroses, which Witold Rybczynski writes about so well in Waiting For The Weekend.
Other bits of clock time map approximately to nature’s doings. I find that the moon phases, for example, are much more interesting than months when tracking my own creative time. (Yes, I’ve become the kind of person who can guess what phase of the moon it is just by how shitty I feel.)
Still, the months are different characters that do different things for me, and it’s now October, my favorite month, and it feels a lot like how Henry David Thoreau described it, in a journal entry, dated November 14, 1853:
October is the month of painted leaves, of ripe leaves, when all the earth, not merely flowers, but fruits and leaves, are ripe. With respect to its colors and its season, it is the sunset month of the year, when the earth is painted like the sunset sky. This rich glow flashes round the world. This light fades into the clear, white, leafless twilight of November, and whatever more glowing sunset or Indian summer we have then is the afterglow of the year. In October the man is ripe even to his stalk and leaves; he is pervaded by his genius, when all the forest is a universal harvest, whether he possesses the enduring color of the pines, which it takes two years to ripen and wither, or the brilliant color of the deciduous trees, which fade the first fall.
I’m reminded of a sign you see in craft stores in Texas: “Happy fall, y’all.”
After being a nun in Los Angeles for 30 years, Corita Kent moved to Boston to live quietly and make art. Her apartment had a big bay window with a maple tree out front, and she liked to sit there and observe the tree changing throughout the seasons. (Something much harder to do in Los Angeles, or here in Austin, Texas, where we have two seasons: hot and hotter.)
“That tree was the great teacher of the last two decades of her life,” her former student Mickey Myers said. “She learned from that tree. The beauty it produced in spring was only because of what it went through during the winter, and sometimes the harshest winters yielded the most glorious springs.”
An interviewer came to visit Corita and asked her what she’d been up to. “Well… watching that maple tree grow outside,” she said. “I’ve never had time to watch a tree before.”
I moved to this place in October and the tree was in full leaf then. I watched it lose its leaves. I watched it covered with snow. Then these little green flowers came out and it didn’t look like a maple tree at all. Finally the leaves were recognizable as maple leaves and that in a way is very much how I feel about my life. It seems a great new stage for me – whether it will ever be recognizable by anyone else I don’t know, but I feel that great new things are happening very quietly inside of me. And I know these things have a way, like the maple tree, of finally bursting out in some form.
For Corita, the tree came to represent creativity. In winter, she said, “the tree looks dead, but we know it is beginning a very deep creative process, out of which will come spring and summer.”
Creative work has seasons. Part of the work is to know which season it is, and act accordingly.
People occasionally wonder out loud when I’m going to write another book. “I don’t know,” I say. They ask me what I’ve been up to lately. “Not much,” I say. “Reading a bunch. Raising the boys.”
To an outsider, it sounds like I’m doing nothing. It looks like I’m doing nothing. But I feel very much like Corita: “new things are happening very quietly inside of me.”
It may be the hottest day of summer, but it’s winter in my world. There are processes at work that you can’t see.
Things waiting to burst forth.
Leslie Barker, a writer at the Dallas Morning News, got in touch with me way back in October and asked me about a subject I consider myself an expert on: the benefits of boredom.
Here’s what I wrote in Steal Like An Artist:
When it comes to the benefits of boredom, I’m certainly not the first to write about the subject…
Last weekend at the Texas Book Festival I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Wolf Shenk, the author of one of my favorite books of the year, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. I had a hunch that we’d have a lot to talk about, so I recorded our discussion and edited it down (liberally) to the post below. Enjoy.
AK: Let’s start out with The Lone Genius Myth.
JWS: I argue in the book that the lone genius is a mythical creature. Which is not to say that we don’t require solitude and it’s not to say that we might not take sole ownership over our work as you and I both do — we don’t have anybody else’s name on the covers of our books. Yet, there are very often characters offstage who are not acknowledged.