Just held the first print copy of Keep Going in my hands. I love how this book turned out and can’t wait to send it out into the world.
At the end of Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (a terrific thriller), serial killer Hannibal Lector writes inspector Clarice Starling a letter to let her know he won’t come after her if she won’t come after him. “I have no plans to call on you, Clarice, the world being more interesting with you in it. Be sure to extend me the same courtesy.”
In the (perfect) movie adaptation, Hannibal calls Clarice on the phone, and he says it just a little differently: “The world’s more interesting with you in it.”
I think about this line all the time in our contemporary era. The world is so big and full of people and we’re receiving updates about it all constantly. Sometimes it’s a relief when people — particularly celebrities or artists — mess up and do something awful and we feel we can now just write them off completely. We can unfollow. We can cancel our subscriptions to them, so to speak. “Everyone is Canceled,” was the title of a recent NYTimes piece about the phenomenon, starting with the lede, “Almost everyone worth knowing has been canceled by someone.”
I cancel as much as anyone, I suppose, but I often find myself thinking of that Hannibal Lector line, with a little change to the pronoun. “The world’s more interesting with him in it.” (I used to apply it to Kanye, but never to the president.) Sometimes I modify it for use on music, movies, books, etc.: “This book wasn’t for me, but the world’s more interesting with this book in it.”
The line works in many contexts. You could, for example, flip it around and aim it at yourself: Don’t disappear on us. Don’t cancel your own subscription. Stick around. Keep going. The world is more interesting with you in it.
In Keep Going, I have a chapter called, “Forget the noun, do the verb,” and after seeing it on the poster, a reader asked if it was inspired by Stephen Fry. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I did a little googling.
In 2010, Fry was interviewed by “14-year-old Eden Parris in an interview for a Radio Times feature that enabled young readers to meet their TV heroes.” During the course of the interview, he “warned Parris that language could shape and limit people’s ambitions”:
Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.
Of course, this would’ve been perfect for the book, but that is one of the universal laws of writing books: once you finish them, you find all the stuff you should’ve included but left out based on your ignorance.
The quote I did put in is from R. Buckminster Fuller’s classic, I Seem To Be A Verb:
Back in 2013, The New Statesman ran a piece called “What Atheists Can Learn from Believers,” in which the writer Karen Armstrong emphasized religion as a verb. “Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work.” She pointed out that in the modern west, there’s this idea that you have to believe first, and then do. But no, “we have turned faith into a head-trip,” when, originally, the English word “belief” meant something like, “commitment.”
“Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.
It’s remarkable to me how much you could apply what Armstrong is saying to creativity or making art. “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it,” Armstrong says. Religion is something we do, a “practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart.”
“It’s a practice,” Mary Karr says of her own faith. “It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions.” I remember once, when asked to make a case for religion, she replied, “Why don’t you just pray for 30 days and see if your life gets better?
So many people think you have to first call yourself an artist, know who you are and what you’re about, and then you can start making art. No, no, no. You do the stuff first, then you can worry about what it is, who you are. The important thing is the practice. The doing. The verb.
We aren’t nouns, we are verbs. Forget the nouns, do the verbs.
I’m proofing the third pass of Keep Going. I find it really difficult at this stage of a project to get the right perspective — “fresh eyes” — for the thing, which makes it really, really hard to make edits.
The production schedule for this book has been much more accelerated than any of my other books, so my usual device for estranging myself from the text — the plain ol’ passing of time — hasn’t been quite as helpful.
The device that has: reading aloud.
I find that reading my work aloud makes it weird enough that I can’t scan or gloss over anything.
Reading to an audience is best, because you start really judging the thing when you have to project it into a room full of people. Quentin Tarantino says he likes to read his scripts to his friends, not for their feedback, but their presence. “I don’t want input, I don’t want you to tell me if I’m doing anything wrong, heavens forbid,” he says, “But I write a scene, and I think I’ve heard it as much as I can, but then when I read it to you … I hear it through your ears, and it lets me know I’m on the right track.”
I don’t have the time (or the friends) to bother with such a table reading, and I don’t want to pester my wife any more than I already do, so an (admittedly expensive) solution I’ve found is to put on my headphones and fire up my podcasting microphone and pretend I’m recording the audiobook. I don’t know why exactly this works, but it does. (I think it’s being able to hear my voice through the headphones.)
I mistakenly triggered one of the accessibility settings on our family TV that I can’t figure out how to turn off, so when we’re watching PBS with the kids now, in addition to the dialogue, a calm voice explains everything happening onscreen. I borrowed that for proofing the illustrations: when I get to the visual sections of the book, I’ll narrate what’s going on in the illustration, and read any text that appears. That actually helps me look at the illustration and see if there’s anything that needs fixing…
The 5-year-old has been coming out to the studio with me while I finish up the back matter for the new book. He wrote about it in his diary (above) and then I came back from working the other afternoon and he had drawn an ad for his books. (Including the classic, How To Make Your Life Go On Forever.)
How it usually works: The minute I finish a book, I find something that would’ve been perfect for it.
Yesterday I got a big overnighted envelope in the mail with the printout of the first pass of the next book. I dare say, it’s pretty damned good! Here are some teaser pics of some spreads:
I walked into the kitchen to tell the 5-year-old that it was tubtime, and this scene unfolded:
Unfortunately, we have to wait eight months for it to come out in April of next year, which is actually super quick in publishing time, but glacial on one’s nerves. Soon the book will enter what Jonathan Lethem calls “The Gulp”: “that interlude where the book has quit belonging to you, but doesn’t belong to anyone else yet.”
My friend Alan Jacobs, who was the one who got me into Horace, suggests that the poet might “be the man of our social-media moment — the man who shows us another and better way.” He quotes the letter “To Maecenas,” i.18:
what do you think I pray for?
“May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I’m self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me for another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.”
“Not to waver with the wavering hours…” There’s a motto.
I heard Richard Strauss’s “Waltz Sequence No. 1” from Der Rosenkavalier on KMFA in the car this morning and it made me want to go home and rewatch Don Hertzfeldt’s marvelous short film, World of Tomorrow:
Sometimes when I get low, I think about Emily’s monologue:
Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away, and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well, and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.
I love this picture of actor Nicholas Hoult on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. I love that he’s in his full makeup and you can’t really see any other crew in the background — you can almost imagine another film in which his character, Nux, the War Boy, goes off on his own and spends the apocalypse making caps or something.
I thought of the picture while watching the BBC film, George Orwell: A Life in Pictures. Since there is no surviving footage of the author on film, actor Chris Langham plays Orwell in fake newsreels and documentaries, delivering monologues that are straight from the essays. At one point, Langham starts quoting the essay, “England Your England,” which Orwell wrote during The Blitz of 1941: “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.”
Orwell is trying to describe what makes English culture unique and why the English seemed to be resistant to fascism. Only a few paragraphs in, he mentions the English “love of flowers” and their “addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations, the privateness of English life.”
We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above.
In my post, “In Praise of the good old-fashioned hobby,” I quoted actor and director Mackenzie Crook saying that he suspected that a penchant for hobbies and pastimes was a very British thing. I then suggested that as our own empire crumbles, “we would do well to observe how citizens of former empires enjoy a nice pint, a ramble, and a bit of tinkering.”
I’m interested in this idea that hobbies can not only help us cope in times of crisis, but they can also foster in us a sense of personal liberty that, no matter how small, can help us resist tyranny.
I’m thinking, now, of Leonard Woolf planting iris, or Paul Kingsnorth, in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, on leaving the environmental movement to tend to his own little “square of earth”:
Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.
All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything.
I like this idea of tending to your plot. The prerequisite for resisting a tyrannical government, as Orwell showed in 1984, is maintaining the “few cubic centimeters inside your skull.”
I suppose some would scoff at these ideas with the old expression: “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” The funny thing about the phrase is that fiddles, or violins, weren’t actually invented yet in Nero’s time. So he didn’t literally fiddle. But there’s the other meaning of the word fiddle: to fidget or pass time aimlessly, without really achieving anything. And yet, fiddling, in this sense, is so much a part of how artists arrive at their work: they fiddle around, they putter, they waste time.
There’s another story about fiddling during a crisis: the orchestra on the RMS Titanic, who played music to keep the passengers calm as the crew loaded the lifeboats. (There is speculation as far as what final song they chose.) A passenger said:
Many brave things were done that night, but none were more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.
Bertolt Brecht wrote a short poem called “Motto” about 1930s Germany:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
It’s for this reason that my next book starts with this poem, “Overheard on the Titanic”: