As ever, the question is the same: What will you do with your days?
I bought this handsome NYRB edition of Thoreau’s journal a few months ago when I saw that John Stilgoe had written the preface. (I took it as a BUY NOW sign: I’d read his book Outside Lies Magic earlier this year liked it quite a bit.)
It’s a highly edited and condensed version of the complete 47 volumes of Thoreau’s output, but I still wasn’t sure how to read the thing. I couldn’t imagine actually reading it front to back. Then I noticed that the left-hand page headers refer to the approximate date, but the right-hand page headers refer to what age Thoreau was when he wrote the entry. This seemed like a fun game: Let me see what Thoreau was writing when he was exactly my age.
Then I thought it’d be fun to just follow along with his life day-by-day and year-by-year, almost like turning The Journal into one of those 5 year diaries that you see in stationery stores. I’d stick post-it notes on the current date of each year of the journal, then check the tabs each day to see if there’s an entry.
This turns out to be a terrific way to read Thoreau, because he was so obsessed with observing nature and the changing seasons. You see, for example, how Thoreau repeats himself, noting the fallen leaves in October. (“How beautifully they go to their graves!”)
Yesterday, I read the entry for October 20, 1857, exactly 160 years ago, in which Thoreau writes beautifully about meeting a barefoot old man carrying a dead robin & his shoes full of apples:
I got such a kick out of reading this way I wondered what other books I had lying around the house that I could turn into a daily devotional. How about my Big Book of Peanuts?
I mean, of course a collection of daily newspaper strips, originally written to be consumed on one particular day, makes for good daily reading. (Think of all the “Page-A-Day” Peanuts calendars.) But there’s another reason they’re so great to read day-by-day: Peanuts function as a sort of coded diary for Schulz. This is explained by Bruce Eric Kaplan in the introduction to his collection, This Is A Bad Time:
[T]hese drawings are really my journals. I use them to explore whatever I find interesting, confusing, or upsetting on any given day. But here’s the beauty part—these private thoughts are filtered through the prism of moody children and blasé pets, disillusioned middle-aged men and weary matrons, among others. And so I get to work through whatever I am thinking about in a coded way. No one but me will ever know what the real seed of each image and caption was. So I can be free as I want to say whatever I want, and no one can catch me. It’s great….Every morning… I sit down and think about why I am disgruntled or why I am not as disgruntled as I was yesterday and out come these little drawings…
This connection between daily comic strips and diaries is made more explicit in the work of someone like James Kochalka in his sketchbook diaries, American Elf. I have all 14 years on my iPad now, so it wouldn’t be hard to read them in the same way I do the Peanuts collection. Strangely, I find that having a digital collection of the strips makes me want to reorganize the entries in non-chronological ways, like, reading every strip that includes leaves or clouds.
I have an ebook of Andy Warhol’s diary, and I like to search it whenever I’m in a spot that I know he had some connection to. (When I was in Milan, I typed in “Milan,” and landed on his entry for Monday, September 17, 1979, which contains the question, “Why would anybody want to go to Milan?”)
Anyways, I’m wandering towards a point: To read collected works is to also grapple with the question of how (or when!) to read collected works.
This, by the way, is the end of the Peanuts strip published on Oct. 20, 1962, 56 years ago:
Sound like someone you know?
Raymond Carver loved to quote Isak Dinesen, who said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.
“Someday,” he wrote, “I’ll put that on a three-by-five-card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.”
I stole his idea for my bliss station:
EVERY DAY, WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT DESPAIR.
His widow, the poet Tess Gallagher, said these words were a “quiet banner of determination” that flew over the last decade of his life.
They are now my banner, and they can also be yours, if you like.
Carver, when asked about the impact he thought his work would have on people, was extremely skeptical about the possibility that his stories and poems would profoundly change the world or save anything in it. Of his art, he said:
It doesn’t have to do anything. It just has to be there for the fierce pleasure we take in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something that’s durable and made to last, as well as beautiful in and of itself. Something that throws off these sparks—a persistent and steady glow, however dim.
That “steady glow, however dim” reminds me of the gospel song we used to sing in Sunday School: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” It also reminds me of Edith Wharton: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” (If you don’t have your own light, you can reflect someone else’s — just don’t be Human Vantablack.)
I, too, am skeptical that my work will actually make any kind of lasting impact. To believe such a thing, when one considers the span of cosmic time, seems downright delusional. And, frankly, I no longer need my work to change anything — I just know I need to do it.
I often think of my favorite line from Groundhog Day:
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
How you answer that question is your art.
Whenever anybody talks about “The Creative Journey” I sort of roll my eyes. “Journey” sounds so lofty to me. So linear. Point A to point B.
Here’s a popular version of “The Creative Journey”: A genius comes to the end of his trip, closes his eyes, concentrates, and then the idea comes to him, fully formed.
When I’m working on my art, I don’t feel like Don Draper. No, when I’m working, I feel more like Phil Connors from the movie Groundhog Day.
In Groundhog Day, for those of you who don’t know or have forgotten, Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, is a weatherman who wakes up every morning on Groundhog Day — February 2nd — in Punxsutwaney, Pennsylvania, home of Punxsutwaney Phil, the famous groundhog who forecasts whether there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil Connors hates Punxsutwaney, and no matter what he does, he can’t make it out of Punxsutwaney, and he can’t seem to get to February 3rd. Every morning he wakes up in the same bed at 6AM to face the same day.
And if you remember the movie, you know there are a couple acts: first, Phil tries out everything he can possibly think of to take advantage of the situation: basically, he cheats life.
He learns people’s secrets, steals money, and seduces women, except for one in particular, his boss, Rita. He memorizes her favorite drinks and foods, learns a couple of lines of French, figures out all the right things to say, but no matter what he tries, he can’t seem to get Rita into bed.
After attempting all these shortcuts, Phil becomes super depressed.
In my favorite line from the movie, he asks his bowling buddy, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
And his buddy, who’s a little drunk, looks at him and says, “That about sums it up for me.”
Phil then attempts many, many forms of suicide.
He jumps off a building, he drops a toaster into the bathtub, he drives off a cliff with the groundhog, Punxtatawney Phil. Nothing works. Every morning, Phil wakes up at 6AM, in the same bed, in the same town, faced with the same day, with Sonny and Cher playing on the radio.
He hits rock bottom.
Finally, Phil accepts his fate. He accepts that he’s stuck in Punxatawney forever. And then things get really interesting.
He gets to know everybody in the town. He sees what problems there are in the town to solve, and how he can use his powers to help: he catches a kid falling out of a tree, he helps an engaged couple through their misgivings about getting married, he replaces a flat tire for some old ladies.
He also throws himself into his work: he crafts a super eloquent speech for Punxatawney Phil, which he presumably gives every day.
He learns French. He learns how to play the piano. He learns how to sculpt ice.
And it’s when he finally masters these things, when he’s turned himself into a person worth loving, it’s then that Rita notices him, and they live happily ever after.
Phil learns, as Hugh Macleod says in his book Ignore Everybody, “The best way to get approval is to not need it.”
Now, I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that Groundhog Day is perhaps THE great parable of our time. But I think Groundhog Day has particular relevance for artists and for people who want to do creative work.
Why I think so is clearly laid out by this quote from Ian Svenonius’s somewhat obscure, but great book, Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group:
“If one becomes a lawyer, scholar, mechanist, typist, scientist, production assistant, or what-have-you, the world will commend your decision. Each day at lunch, on vacation, or at whatever party you attend, your choice will be applauded, upheld, and affirmed. And you will know what is expected of you. Even if your job is difficult — if you are a brain chemist, international death merchant, or rocket designer — your responsibilities will be obvious and your goals concrete. If you achieve them, you may be rewarded by promotion. If you fail, you might be fired or demoted, but nonetheless — unless your boss is insane — the job will have tangible parameters. [Art], however, is different. You will never know exactly what you must do, it will never be enough… no matter what change you achieve, you will most likely see no dividend from it. And even after you have achieved greatness, the [tiny number of people] who even noticed will ask, ‘What next?’”
What Svenonius is saying is that the creative journey is not linear. It’s not point A to point B. Even if your wildest dreams come true, you’re still stuck with that question of, “WHAT NEXT?”
In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk following the massive success of her book Eat, Pray, Love. She said something that was so honest, it really knocked me out:
“I’m pretty young, I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely… that my greatest success is behind me.”
She still knew, no matter how successful she was, if she wanted to remain a writer, she had to get up and write another book. And then another book. And another book.
We spend so much time in this culture celebrating fast, early success, but in so many ways, early success is the worst thing that can happen to you.
The New York Times ran a feature a few weeks ago called “Works In Progress,” which was “a very small sampling of the female artists now in their 70s, 80s and 90s we should have known about decades ago.” Everyone should read it. No one even noticed some of these women until they had about seven decades of work behind them. Somehow, they all stuck it through.
Some of my favorite documentaries of the past couple years all focused on people who are eligble for the senior discount at Denny’s.
Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham New York, who gets up every day, gets on his bike, and takes pictures. Joan Rivers in Piece Of Work, who, right up until her death, was playing gig after gig. And Jiro, from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, who gets up everyday and makes the sushi.
These are the people I think we should be looking to for inspiration —
the people who every day of their lives, they get up do the work, regardless of success or failure.
Because you don’t know if or when success will come for you. The best thing you can do if you want to be an artist is to set up your life in such a way that you’re sort of insulated from success or failure.
Now, it might seem like a stretch, but I really think the best thing you can do as an artist or a creative person is pretend you’re Phil Connors in Groundhog Day: there’s no tomorrow, there’s no chance of success, there’s no chance of failure, there’s just the day, and what you can do with it.
Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day after day’s worth of effort over time. Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much, but do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. You do it your whole life, and you have a career.
So, if I can leave you with one piece of advice, something encouraging that I can sear into your brain, it’s this:
Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done. If you fail, the sun comes up tomorrow, and you get another chance. If you succeed, you’re still going to have to get up tomorrow and do something else.
Should you ever start to despair at this fact, like Phil did, remember what the comic writer Harvey Pekar said: “Every day is a new deal. Keep working and maybe something will turn up.”
The creative journey is not one in which at the end you wake up in some mythical, happy, foreign land. The creative journey is one in which you wake up every day, like Phil, with more work to do.
Kurt Vonnegut thought every story has a shape that can be graphed — each has a beginning and an end (plotted on the x-axis) and every character goes through “good fortune” and “ill fortune” (plotted on the y-axis). I put a bunch of them together for this chart in Show Your Work!:
I think our days have shapes, too — each has a beginning and an end, and we go through good and ill fortune as it progresses. [Read more…]