The boys like to work in my studio, but they’re rascals, so we needed to set down some rules.
It’s obviously going to be an evolving list…
I love copying my kids’ drawings and writings into my diary. Copying seems like a mindless activity when you first start out, but by the time you’ve finished your copy, you usually learn something about the thing you’re copying and/or you discover something of your own.
While I copied the poem, I noticed how he writes his lowercase a’s and how he forms the letters starting from the bottom. I thought about Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems and about how the size of the paper we write on affects what we write. I thought about how quickly kids move towards parody with their own work, and how here I was, again, making a copy of a copy.
When I copied the tablecloth, I noticed that the original pattern could become a skull or some kind of death mask.
When I copied the exploding earth, I wondered what was with the teeth, until I realized they were exploded parts of the poles.
Copying is a way of paying closer attention.
Side note: I find it interesting how whenever I post something “dark” that my kids make, strangers assume that they’re “dark” kids. They’re actually quite cheerful kids… it’s called “imagination,” man!
Here is an I.W.W. “stickerette” produced in the 1910s, protesting the exploitation of children in textile mills.
I can’t help but think of it when my first grader complains about going to school:
“The day felt like a week!”
“I don’t get to think about what I want to think about!”
“It takes me away from my music!”
His protests aren’t that school is all that bad (he has a great teacher and a sunny classroom) but it’s just too long.
Here’s Jenny Odell (author of How To Do Nothing) on how she tries to slow down time for the students in her classes:
I can’t give my students more time in their lives; but what I try to do is change the way they think about and value it in the first place. My class typically includes students who aren’t art majors, some of whom may never have made art before. I give them the same advice every quarter: Leave yourself twice as much time as you think you need for a project, knowing that half of that may not look like “making” anything at all. There is no Soylent version of thought and reflection — creativity is unpredictable, and it simply takes time.
Emphasis mine. The first grader knows it already, and all too well… and it’ll only get worse!
“Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World
Here is a six-year-old photo of Owen and me. A few days ago, at a signing, an expectant mother asked me if I had any advice. “Oh man. I don’t know,” I said. “That first year is rough. Just take it easy on yourself.” Then I thought about all the hours I spent trapped with a sleeping baby under my arm. “Try to find a one-armed miniature version of what you do!”
Here are some linocut prints carved by my six-year-old, printed by me on a photo and an advertisement from the New York Times. (The one on the left reminds me of Corita Kent. “Save up” vs. “Power up.”)
I like how the prints (made with cheap Speedball blocks and ink) look like laser print-outs low on toner. Raw and spooky. The one on the left had little bits dirt or food stuck to it, so it ended up looking like stars around the tower. (I was thinking while we were making these that there’s no reason to ever participate in an art-making process unless there’s some chance for happy accidents and moments of serendipity.)
Here’s what the kitchen table looked like by 9AM.
I love cutting up the discarded prints and collaging them into something else…
…and extending abstract shapes into new forms.
“Aren’t you all about sharing?”
But no, I don’t want to instruct step-by-step how the collages are done, because:
1) I’m still exploring the technique myself and I don’t want to codify it or make any rules or make it boring
2) I am certain that if curious commenters sat down and tried to approximate my technique with their own tools and materials, they would come up with something of their own.
I might rewrite it for adults:
YOU ARE FINE WITHOUT ADVICE AND SUGGESTIONS.
My six-year-old stutters. It doesn’t stop him. Not yet. Hopefully not ever.
Yesterday, I was in the kitchen trying to read Philip Larkin. Owen was doing his best to terrorize the rest of us. He rarely stutters when he reads or sings, and he has a weakness for recording, so I handed him Collected Poems, turned to “Next, Please.”
“Why don’t you read that for voice memos?”
I hit RECORD and he read the whole freaking poem, start to finish, stumbling only on four words. (“Expectancy,” “armada,” “wretched,” and, yes, “tits.”) I couldn’t believe it.
“Why don’t you set it to music?” I said. He agreed, and I sat him down with my laptop.
We re-recorded the four mistakes, then I transferred the voice memos to the computer and we spliced them into the first take with Audacity. We cut a couple of slight stutters out of the waveform, too. Then I dumped it into Garageband and let him go to town.
I love the juxtaposition of Owen’s sweet voice, with the ominous synth lines underneath.
In Knotted Tongues: Stuttering in History and a the Quest for a Cure, Benson Bobrick notes that Philip Larkin began to stutter at the age of 4 and it didn’t really let up until the age of 35.
Larkin’s terror of situations in which speaking could be avoided found its way sub rosa into one of his most somber poems, “Next, Please.” Although obviously about disappointed hopes and the inevitability of death and extinction, the poem’s title phrase was one he had dreaded hearing as a child, for it signaled his imminent obligation to speak once he reached the head of a line.
In fact, even in his thirties, Larkin had trouble with postal clerks and getting tickets at the railroad station. (He used to hand slips of paper over with his desired train.)
Larkin isn’t the only one of my favorite writers who stuttered.
Another is Joe Brainard, who said, “Writing, for me, is a way of ‘talking’ the way I wish I could talk.” He recalls his stuttering in his masterpiece, I Remember:
I remember how much I used to stutter.
I remember one day in gym class when my name was called out I just couldn’t say “here.” I stuttered so badly that sometimes words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth at all. I had to run around the field many times.
I remember trying to memorize Shakespeare so that words that began with sounds I stuttered on (s, b, etc.) would not begin with a new breath.
Have you ever heard of a “lipogram”? It’s a word game. A writing constraint. You try to write without certain letters.
A few books have been written as long lipograms. In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby without the letter “e.” Georges Perec, a member of Oulipo, wrote his own book without “e”: A Void. (In French, it was originally La Disparition, or “The Disappearance.”)
This kind of constrained writing, or avoidance, is the kind of mental gymnastics many stutterers do in their heads all the time.
The novelist David Mitchell (author of, among others, Black Swan Green, a novel about a teenager with a stammer) wrote a terrific essay about his stammering, “Lost for Words.” Every stutterer, he writes, collects “a box of tricks”:
By the age of 15 I was a zit-spattered thesaurus of synonyms and an expert on lexical registers. At my rural comprehensive, substituting the word “pointless” with “futile” would get you beaten up for being a snob because the register’s too high—it’s a teacher’s word—so I’d deploy “useless.”
The Paris Review asked him if his stammering made him a writer:
On one hand, yes: it makes sense that a kid who can’t express himself verbally would be driven to express himself on the page instead. On the other hand, no: most writers aren’t stammerers and most stammerers aren’t writers. Perhaps the best answer is that the writer that I am has been shaped by the stammering kid that I was, and that although my stammer didn’t make me write, it did, in part, inform and influence the writer I became.
In the The New York Times: “What feels like a curse when you’re younger can prove to be a long-term ally.”
Here’s author Darcey Steinke in her recent essay, “My Stutter Made Me a Better Writer”:
The central irony of my life remains that my stutter, which at times caused so much suffering, is also responsible for my obsession with language. Without it I would not have been driven to write, to create rhythmic sentences easier to speak and to read. A fascination with words thrust me into a vocation that has kept me aflame with a desire to communicate. As a little girl, I hoped my stutter would let me into the secret world of animals. As an adult, given a kind listener, I am privy to something just as elusive: a direct pathway to the human heart.
Having a disability can uncover weaknesses in our mainstream clichés. Not even a week after Steinke published her essay, Jake Wolff published “A Stutterer’s Guide to Writing Fiction,” in which he takes on the creative writing commandments to “find your voice” and “read your work out loud.” The trouble is laid out in the subtitle: “How do you find ‘voice’ in your writing when your own voice sometimes betrays you?”
[L]ost in this discussion of voice and flow is always disability: the way, for some of us, speech and sight and sound often stutter or simply don’t work at all.
This is not a call to arms against voice, which communicates something important about writing and point of view. But I am, maybe, calling for a greater understanding of the ways in which voice is not always “findable”—it is not a sunken treasure that, once recovered from the sea, allows you to become a Real Writer.
I am not sure yet if Owen’s stutter will make him a better writer, but I think it might just make me a better writer. It forces me to be patient while listening, yes, but it’s given me a research interest. Something new to read and think about. Another lens to look at the world through. (I feel so grateful for having read Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, as both those books gave me a way of thinking about difference and disability as things that can enrich our lives.)
More connections to make between the things I love.
Related reading: “The Hard Way.”
I found this in my six-year-old’s (abandoned) diary.
If you’re reading this, the sun has not died yet.
And that’s not nothing!
I learned so much about art from watching a kid draw. I taught at the grade-school level. Kids don’t call it art when they’re throwing things around, drawing—they’re just doing stuff.
When I talk to artists who are “stuck” I often think they should be prescribed a session with some four-year-olds. (Borrow a kid!) Four-year-olds are the most “unstuck” creatures around. To watch a four-year-old draw is to watch some kind of magic happen, magic that, even in two or three years, will not come naturally, but will need to be conjured, somehow.
Lynda Barry does this at the University of Wisconsin:
“When I came to the university… one thing that struck me was how miserable the grad students were. I thought, I wonder if I could pair them up with four-year-olds?” She started a program called Draw Bridge that did just that. “What I hoped would happen was my students would learn to borrow the kids’ state of mind and learn to approach problems in a way that was less tight and focused, a way that was happier and set the conditions for discovery.”
If you follow Lynda on Instagram, she often posts her collaborations with four-year-olds:
Here’s one about drawing Batman:
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Four year old realizes he can draw Batman. I watch him draw this and he shouts “I just drew Batman! I did not know I could draw Batman!” Then he draws a lot of them. Everyone wants one. I come back the next week and ask if he will draw me a Batman. He says “I don’t draw Batman anymore.”
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And here are some 4-year-olds doing a copying exercise:
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I’m lucky right now because I live with a four-year-old and I get to spend a lot of time with him, watching him draw. (Although, I’m telling you: it’s a lot easier to just borrow one and hand them back!) If you came to one of the Keep Going tour dates, you saw this slide of Jules drawing when he was three:
(I write more about his drawing in the “Your Work is Play” section of the book.)
This is my second time around living with a four-year-old. This one is a little more introverted than the first one. I did a lot more collaborating with the first. I remember transcribing some of his wild monologues:
He was basically an ecstatic poet!
I have two daughters that could both draw like Albrecht Durer when they were about seven years old, before the teachers got ahold of them.
I’m also reminded now of illustrator Mica Angela Hendricks and her collaborations with her 4-year-old daughter, which started out when her daughter saw her sketchbook and asked if she could draw, too. She eventually started draw unfinished heads at night so her daughter could finish them in the morning. “Do you have any heads for me today?” her daughter would ask.
My niece, Winona, contributes the voice of little Emily. She was 4 when I recorded her. You can’t direct a 4-year-old, I learned that really fast. I couldn’t even get her to repeat lines for me. So I just recorded audio as we drew pictures together, played with stuff, talked about the world. I was pretty aware that if the recordings produced nothing, the film would have been dead before it even began. She lives in Scotland and I am in Austin, so I usually only get to see her about once a year. After a weeklong visit, recording five minutes here and there, I had about an hour or so of total recorded time with her. So the first step was finding all of her best reactions and questions, and I began to figure out what her character could be talking about here, or looking at there.
“You can’t direct a 4-year-old…” Truer words never spoken! All you can do is set them up and hit record. And hang on for the ride…
Postcards I sent the boys from the Keep Going tour. (I missed several cities.)