Here is how I think art works: If you’re depressed, draw a picture of Batman depressed. You’re still depressed, but now you have a picture of Batman.
Yesterday designer Jessica Hische tweeted, “I have it in my head that I should pursue an MFA in creative writing to be a better writer and find more space for writing in my life. Really, I should find a way to carve out time to focus on writing without paying tens of thousands of dollars to do so.”
Unsolicited, but here’s my advice for visual thinkers (and others) who want to be better writers:
1) Get Lynda Barry’s What It Is and do the exercises every day in a private notebook.
2) Start a blog and write something there every day.
3) Find or start a writer’s group. (I don’t have one, but I’m married to a fantastic writer and editor.)
5) I believe that the creative process translates across disciplines, so the real challenge to a visual artist who wants to write is learning to operate with words the way you do with pictures. (For example, my blackout poems started out as my attempt to write like a collage artist.)
6) Here’s cartoonist James Kochalka talking about creativity, and how if you can draw, you might be able to write, if you can write, you might be able to make music, etc.:
7) I don’t think most academic programs are set up to help creative workers make these kinds of cross-disciplinary transitions. (Some do or did exist: Carnegie Mellon, for example, used to have an information design program that helped designers learn to write and writers learn to design.)
8) One of the reasons I started the list with Lynda Barry is that she speaks of “The Image” (learned from her teacher Marilyn Frasca) — the thing that is alive in the work. If you can learn to work with The Image, it translates to any art form.
9) I should add that I went to an explicitly “interdisciplinary” college, so I was actually exposed to these ideas in an academic setting. (Lynda went to one too, Evergreen, and she is now a “Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity” at the University of Wisconsin)
10) Cartoonists, because their work demands work from two disciplines (writing/art, poetry/design, words/pictures), are highly instructive when it comes to visual people learning to write, writers learning to make art, etc. (Check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for more.)
11) Read a lot. Write a lot. Repeat.
When asked to comment on her nomination for a Reuben award, Lynda Barry said:
Showing people how to make comics and tell their stories by drawing and writing things by hand on paper in a way that is nondigital, non-searchable, non-‘scrapeable’ or monetizable now feels like something of a revolutionary act. Being a cartoonist and being recognized as a cartoonist means more to me now than it ever has.
More from her tumblr:
Writing by hand on paper is becoming a revolutionary act. Reading a physical book is becoming a revolutionary act. Protecting the books in our libraries, the arts and humanities in our colleges and universities is becoming a revolutionary act. Doing things with warm hand to warm hand, face to face, without photographing them, posting them, is becoming a revolutionary act.
The most valuable thing you have is your attention. It’s also the most valuable condition for survival of the non-digital world.
I agree with her. We need our heads, our hearts, and our hands.
One of my favorite prompts inThe Steal Like An Artist Journal asks the reader to remix a comic strip:
My son got a daily Peanuts calendar for Christmas, so for fun I’ve been taking the old pages and making collages out of them:
This one is made up of a bunch of extra leftovers:
I really love how surrealistic they get when you squeeze two images of the same character into one panel:
And how just swapping a few bits of text can change a strip’s meaning completely (and make it autobiographical — this was originally about Charlie Brown waiting for his dad to get off work):
This one starts with a piece of text from some litter I found on my walk:
It’s interesting how in the process of cutting it up, you really learn a lot about Schulz’s strip: how wordy the balloons are (something Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller famously complained about), how everything belongs to one world and is easily re-arranged and re-combined. Heck, even the characters can be spliced into each other: here’s Charlie Brown with Linus’s hair:
It seems like this kind of thing would be a great exercise for the classroom. I’ve done a variation in workshops in which participants take single panel cartoons from the comics section and swap the captions, like this example in Gary Larson’s The Prehistory of the Far Side:
The Far Side and Dennis the Menace used to be side by side in the Dayton Daily News. One day, back in August of 1981, someone “accidentally” switched their captions. What’s most embarrassing about this is how immensely improved both cartoons turned out to be.
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.
In the most recent episode of Song Exploder, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross talk about their creative process in the studio. Reznor discusses his history with addiction, how he used to be afraid of failure in the studio, but how he now trusts “the process” to getting him somewhere. Maybe most importantly, he says that when the ideas are really coming, he’s learned to give them enough time to come forth, without worrying too much about whether they’re good or bad. “There’s plenty of time to bring out the ‘This Sucks’ hammer,” he says.
Every artist has to balance between at least two modes: call them, for lack of better terms, the creative mode and the editorial mode. In the creative mode, you don’t worry about whether things are good or bad, you just let them happen. In editorial mode, you go back and look at what you’ve got, and you ask the questions, “Is this good? Does this suck?”
Lynda Barry’s essay, “Two Questions,” from her brilliant book, What It Is, explores why and when the editorial mode appears and how you can make it go away long enough to get things on the page. It’s essential, Barry says, “To be able to stand not knowing long enough to let something alive take shape! Without the two questions so much is possible.”
Donald Barthelme says the same in his classic essay, “Not-Knowing”:
The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the… process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing…
Fortunately for Reznor, he says he has been able to offload most of the editorial mode onto Atticus Ross, so he can stay in the creative mode — he’ll even leave the room for 20 minutes while Ross is assembling pieces of what they’ve recorded in Pro Tools (Oblique Strategy: “Go outside. Shut the door.”):
The different mindsets, or different hats one has to wear in this environment: one of them is the subconscious, follow the Muse, eyes closed, and another one, that’s radically different, is the editorial. “What sucked? What was good? What’s the piece that fits with that?” I love having [Ross] do that part, because I can stay in the other mode of not trying to analyze exactly what’s going on, and still stay subconscious. It keeps this momentum going where neither of us are bogged down too much. Our skill sets compliment each other. So, it’s him arranging stuff. I just kind of bang into things.
This is a terrific argument for collaboration, and the power of two, but for those of us who work solo, we have to try to split ourselves into two different people. We have to play the two different roles, inhabit the two different mindsets, wear the two hats. The easiest way do this, I’ve found, is to split up the modes in time: Write something without stopping, let it sit for 24 hours, or even a week, or even a year, then come back to it with the red pen. Or, make something in one space, then take it over to another space to fiddle with it. (This is why I have separate analog and digital desks in my studio: analog for creative mode, digital for editing mode.)
Most important of all, though, is to keep the “This Sucks” hammer out of reach until you’re ready for it.
While visiting our stunning new library, I popped down to the second floor gallery space to see collage artist Lance Letscher’s Books exhibit. It’s an interesting show because all of the pieces started as studies, or warm-ups: Letscher begins his day in the studio by collaging and experimenting on a book. Sometimes he’ll incorporate what he comes up with into a larger or more involved piece, but sometimes the book itself becomes a finished piece. (To learn more about his process, check out the new documentary, The Secret Life of Lance Letscher.) These aren’t your typical Letscher works. They’re rougher, more miniature. They’re beautiful in a more intimate way, like looking inside a Van Gogh sketchbook or listening to a Prince demo.
I love process-based shows like this, and I was reminded a little bit of “Test Me,” an exhibit by Chris Maddux on display at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery’s Image Lab, the interdisciplinary work space run by Lynda Barry.
Of course, I wrote a whole book about sharing your process and showing your work, but this is a very particular kind of move, which is akin to what Jason Fried calls selling your by-products: Taking stuff lying around the studio that you’d usually keep in a box or throw out, and re-framing it and presenting it as a finished piece. Turning process into product. (Fried talks more about selling your by-products in the book Rework and on the Rework podcast.)
Lynda does this herself when she sells off her watercolored calligraphic manuscript pages or her morning pages on eBay:
“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time.”
It was my pleasure recently to be interviewed by Jocelyn Glei for her podcast, Hurry Slowly. We talked about analog vs. digital tools, how space affects your work, working by hand, and slowing down. You can listen to our conversation here.
Festina lente should totally be a model for our age. I came across it just reading about the early days of printing and Aldus Manutius—the great printer who of course figures in the plot of my book. It’s his motto. I’m sure that you could translate it different ways—but the one I liked best is “make haste slowly.” And I just love it cuz it seems like a contradiction, but in fact it’s exactly right. It seems to fit our time really well, but I stole it from a guy 500 years old. Oh wait, maybe this isn’t new, maybe this is not a new feeling.
[Festina Lente] ought to be carved on columns. It ought to be written on the archways of churches, and indeed in letters of gold. It ought to be painted on the gates of great men’s palaces, engraved on the rings of cardinals and primates, and chased on the scepters of kings. To go further, it ought to be seen on all monuments everywhere, published abroad and multiplied so that everyone will know it and it will be before every mortal eye, and there will be no one who doesn’t hold it of greatest use…
Later, Erasmus writes, “Things that ripen prematurely are wont suddenly to go limp. What grows slowly and steadily can endure.” Echoing Erasmus, about 360 years later, is Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry for November 5, 1860:
I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected.
“Let’s slow down,” Steinbeck wrote in his journal while working on The Grapes of Wrath, “not in pace or wordage but in nerves.”
Some of my favorite writers use older technologies to force themselves to slow down: Lynda Barry used a paintbrush and red ink on legal paper to write the first draft of her manuscript for Cruddy. This page hangs in my bedroom:
“People say, But with a computer you could go so much faster,” says David McCullough. “Well, I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower.”
“The real issue with speed,” writes film editor Walter Murch in his book, In The Blink of an Eye, “Is not just how fast can you go, but where are you going so fast? It doesn’t help to arrive quickly if you wind up in the wrong place.”
Top image: my friend Marty’s back yard — photo taken in 2010.
“Sometimes we are so confused and sad that all we can do is glue one thing to another. Use white glue and paper from the trash, glue paper onto paper, glue scraps and bits of fabric, have a tragic movie playing in the background, have a comforting drink nearby, let the thing you are doing be nothing, you are making nothing at all, you are just keeping your hands in motion, putting one thing down and then the next thing down and sometimes crying in between.”
Notes on The Fog of War (see them bigger)
The filmmaker Errol Morris’s blog for the NyTimes has quickly become one of my favorite reads on the internet, so I Netflixed a bunch of his documentaries. I started with The Fog of War (Amazon), since the film’s subject, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, died a couple weeks ago. (There’s a good Fresh Air with interviews of McNamara and Morris.)
This was a lazy set of notes for me: I knew ahead of time that there were “Eleven Lessons” from McNamara’s life, so I just listed them as the movie went along, with a few other scribbles here and there.
The one thing notable about them is that I used the page on the right of the sketchbook for straightforward notes, and the page on the left for doodles. I was thinking of Lynda Barry — how she keeps a legal pad next to whatever she’s working on, so she can keep her brush moving when she gets stuck.
Of course, to me, the doodle page is much more interesting. The right side is straightforward information, the left side is free-associative, with me riffing off the information, processing it. In my better notes, I combine these two sides…