A Saturday morning with elementary school-aged kids: These drawings were drawn before 8:30 a.m. (Made a couple blind contours, too.)
A Saturday morning with elementary school-aged kids: These drawings were drawn before 8:30 a.m. (Made a couple blind contours, too.)
The show’s most frequent listener these days might in fact be Ray himself. He said he still listens to the show “all the time,” mostly to hear his brother’s voice and remind himself about times they had together. To remind himself of the jokes they shared. To remind himself of the good times.
“I love to hear his laugh, and I love to hear his take on things,” Ray said. “It’s a rare opportunity that I’ve had to still communicate with my brother that most people don’t get.”
A few years ago at I heard Cord Jefferson tell a story at Pop Up Magazine about a voicemail his mother left him a month before she died of cancer, and about “the power of the human voice and what we lose when a voice goes away.” (At one point he cites a study that concluded a Mother’s phone call is as comforting as a hug.) “It seems increasingly worth considering what we’re missing out on when we neglect the voices of the people we love.”
My wife and I used to make homemade audiobooks with our phones and play them for the boys in the stroller. Now the boys can read on their own, and I wonder whether those recordings will survive, whether anyone will ever listen to them again.
My mom has an old tape of me at age 5, singing Christmas songs for her. A few years ago, I archived it onto a CD so she could play it on her boombox whenever she wants.
My first grader has recorded songs for several years now, and he’s so obsessed with recording everything around him that he asks me at least once a day to record something on my phone. Until this moment, I haven’t realized what a favor he’s been doing me. I can listen to his little voice wherever I am, whenever I want, as long as my hard drives last.
“No other male American writer has been so discredited for enjoying a meal with loved ones or for not doing his own laundry.“
—Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life
“Thoreau” was trending on Twitter yesterday, not because anyone was actually reading him or grappling with his ideas, but because his “mom did his laundry” and “brought him sandwiches” at Walden.
There have been many takedowns of Thoreau and many defenses of him. (I recommend this essay and Laura Walls’ wonderful bio.) But “over the question of the laundry,” Rebecca Solnit wrote an attempt to “exonerate” him in 2013. (The essay, much like this blog post, was provoked by getting mad at something someone said on social media. It was published in Orion under the title “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved.” Poke around a little online and you’ll find it. It’s funny and good.) The essay begins:
There is one writer in all literature whose laundry arrangements have been excoriated again and again, and it is not Virginia Woolf, who almost certainly never did her own washing, or James Baldwin, or the rest of the global pantheon. The laundry of the poets remains a closed topic, from the tubercular John Keats (blood-spotted handkerchiefs) to Pablo Neruda (lots of rumpled sheets). Only Henry David Thoreau has been tried in the popular imagination and found wanting for his cleaning arrangements, though the true nature of those arrangements are not so clear.
She goes on to list “a long parade of people who pretended to care who did Thoreau’s laundry as a way of not having to care about Thoreau,” even though it is unclear, even amongst Thoreau scholars, who actually did do Thoreau’s laundry.
Do we care who did the chores in any other creative household on earth? Did Dante ever take out the slops? Do we love housework that much? Or do we hate it that much? This fixation on the laundry is related to the larger question of whether artists should be good people as well as good artists, and probably the short answer is that everyone should be a good person, but a lot of artists were only good artists (and quite a lot more were only bad artists). Whether or not they were good people, the good artists gave us something.
“None of us is pure,” she writes, “and purity is a dreary pursuit best left to Puritans.”
Solnit points out that unlike other lit’ry men looking for a woman to look after them, Thoreau never married and “did little to make work for women.” In fact, though we obsess over his two years at Walden, Thoreau was an integral part of his household throughout his life, both supporting his family and gaining support from them. (Which is, you know, the whole damned point of a family.)
It’s also the case that the abolitionist women in Thoreau’s life did a whole lot of influencing on him. “The Thoreau women took in the filthy laundry of the whole nation, stained with slavery, and pressured Thoreau and Emerson to hang it out in public, as they obediently did.”
“This,” Solnit writes, “is the washing that really mattered.”
“‘Of course, we’ll make it!’ The answer came from my heart but my head was telling me a different story.”
—Dougal Robertson, Survive The Savage Sea
When I saw Nina Katchadourian a few years ago, she mentioned that one of her favorite books of all-time is Survive The Savage Sea, the true story of a family who gets stranded at sea after a killer whale attacks their ship. “It’s about what they talk about and how they stay alive and the world that is the sort of raft they’re stuck on together, which to me is a sort of metaphor for family.”
Katchadourian’s mother read it to her when she was young, and she’s re-read it dozens of times over the years. Shipwreck stories have become one of her obsessions:
What I have come to understand about my obsession with shipwreck is that I am often interested in working in situations where there’s a certain kind of scarcity, where there isn’t necessarily that much to work with. I find that I put myself in those situations again and again. The “Sorted Books” project is one such situation, where I’m limited to the books within that collection. it’s bounded, in some sense it’s a project that involves absolutely nothing but my own time because what I’m working with is already there. I would say that “Seat Assignment,” that series I made on airplanes, is similar. Here you are, where art doesn’t seem possible, you have absolutely nothing to work with, nothing of interest, and the challenge to myself is always to try and think beyond the limitations and find a kind of optimism in those circumstances.
(“Seat Assignment” has a starring role in Keep Going.)
One of my favorite things about Tibor Kalman’s monograph, Perverse Optimist, is how much he talks about his kids. He dedicated the book “for my children who have made me change my mind about everything.” Later he writes, “Your children will smash your understanding of knowledge and reality. You will be better off. Then they will leave. You will miss them forever.” The greatest benefit of having children, he said, “has been to look at the world through their eyes and to understand their level of curiosity and to learn things the way they learn things.”
Some friends of ours are about to have their second kid, and I was thinking about what a leap it is between 1 and 2, how many parents say “it’s exponential,” but how I never really understood why until I drew the diagram above and was able to really see all those relationships mapped out.
“We chose to increase the complexity of our lives by having children,” Kalman writes. That’s really it. With each kid, your household becomes increasingly complex.
It’s not lost on me that when you switch “complex” from an adjective to a noun, it means a network, or “a group or system of different things that are linked in a close or complicated way.” In psychoanalysis, a complex is “a related group of emotionally significant ideas…that cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behavior.” In chemistry, a complex is “any loosely bonded species formed by the association of two molecules.” All of those things sound like my family.
More moving parts, more complexity.
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:
“Cabinet of Curiosity” is the (perfect) title for Jeffrey Jenkins’ introduction to the visual compendium of David Sedaris’s diaries: It alludes to the history of the “wunderkammer,” of course (I have a whole chapter devoted to the subject in Show Your Work!), but also, literally, to the cabinet in Sedaris’s London home where he keeps his diaries, his lifelong record of his curiosity. (Complete with momento mori!)
In yesterday’s post on Sedaris’s diary habit, I mentioned that Sedaris averages around 4 volumes a year, but what I didn’t know then is that he usually binds these volumes by season. Jenkins grew up a close friend of the Sedaris family, and writes:
The Sedarises were as attuned to the change of the seasons as anyone I’ve known… I think this attention to the seasons helps explain David’s devotion to finishing one diary and beginning another in conjunction with the year’s solstices and equinoxes. While we’re adjusting our clocks forward or backward, he’s picking out a new diary cover.
I was particularly pleased to discover that the Sedarises celebrated October 1 as an official holiday — I wrote my piece about thinking in terms of “season time” on October 2 this year.
After 23 hours of labor, my wife gave birth to our first son, Owen Wells Kleon, on October 25th at 4:32 a.m. He came in at 6 lbs., 11 oz., 20 3/4″ long.
His birth was the most amazing feat of human strength and endurance I’ve ever witnessed. (Granted I’ve now attended exactly *one* natural childbirth.) If you know my wife Meghan, you know her brains, her class, and her charm, but in that room you would’ve seen a force of nature, something primal and powerful. I’m so unbelievably proud of her.
The day after we got back from the hospital, I gave a talk at the Texas Book Festival, and luckily John Anderson from the Austin Chronicle was there snapping a few pictures:
Austin Kleon (Steal Like an Artist) began his presentation on the creative process by showing off pictures of his newborn son. “I’m sure you can all tell I’m super sleep-deprived.” He inhaled his sleeve deeply. “But I am a little high on new baby smell.”
Owen’s now a week and two days old, feeding well, sleeping a little more, getting bigger and even more alert. He’s pretty much the coolest project I’ve ever worked on, the ultimate creative collaboration, and anyone who says publishing books is like birthing babies, they’re nuts — birthing babies is way, way harder, and way cooler.
If you’d like to see more pictures of him, follow me on Instagram: @austinkleon
Many people have expressed interest in originals, and so far, I’ve been really hesitant to give in: after all, newsprint deteriorates, and permanent marker, believe it or not, is not permanent. A print will far outlast the original. I’m not sure how one would preserve newsprint like this—a couple of museum folks are coming by this week, so maybe I’ll ask them. Who knows? It might even be interesting to watch the original slowly disintegrate on your wall.
I’m keeping the broadsheets intact now, just in case. They look like this:
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