A morning moon,
a hungry hawk,
and a pair of knuckleheads
sharing a pair of binoculars.
Not a bad life.
This morning a spotlight appeared in the ivy on our back fence. It looked like the rising sun was burning through, opening up some kind of portal. (It was really just a reflection off the window of the house across the street.) I walked out and stuck my hand into the beam to make a shadow puppet.
I wished I could stick my head in and see what was on the other side. Then, just a few minutes later, the sun rose high enough that the portal disappeared.
Here is a book Jules (4) was working on a few days ago:
I think all the time about how much your relationship with your children can be a two-way street — intellectually, emotionally, artistically.
The images you show them in the world enter their minds and come out through their fingers, but, like all artists, the images they make with their fingers also enter your mind and open your eyes to new images out in the world.
Update: I showed the photo at the top of this post to Jules and he dismissed it completely. “That doesn’t look like a portal, that looks like a fence.” HA.
In this week’s mailbag, Nitzan asks: “Have you thought about writing a book for parents? About raising creative kids? I would buy it!”
Yes, and to be 100% honest, I could probably sell that book tomorrow for a bunch of money.
I’ve toyed with writing a book called Parent Like A Librarian, which would have a very simple premise: Most parents conceive of themselves as teachers when they would be much better off thinking of themselves as librarians who provide their children with the time, space, materials, and resources to grow into whatever they want to become.
But, oh, I am so loathe to write about parenting!
For one thing, I’m suspicious of “parent” as a verb and I wonder if it does more harm than good.
I also worry that by writing about parenting, I exclude people without kids, whereas, if I write about what I’ve learned about creative work by being around my kids, people in my audience without kids can learn something, too.
Besides, what I’ve learned about parenting from my boys can be summarized by the late Tibor Kalman in Perverse Optimist: “Your children will smash your understanding, knowledge and reality. You will be better off.” (Although, honestly, I’m not so sure about the second sentence.)
Or, here’s Sarah Ruhl, in 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write:
There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me… and finally I came to the thought, All right, then, annihilate me; that other self was a fiction anyhow. And then I could breathe. I could investigate the pauses.
Or Jonathan Coulton:
I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that’s how it was for me. At any rate, it’s complicated.
What I’m convinced of: Rather than being “the enemy of art,” your children can inspire you to go new places in your art. Hanging around a four-year-old can get you unstuck. And having to be responsible for the creative atmosphere in which your kids grow up can make you re-think your own creative atmosphere. (After all, the atmosphere you create for them is the one you’re creating for yourself.)
Becoming a parent is an opportunity to think about who you’ve become, who you wanted to be, and, if you need to, course-correct. This is what’s so fucking hard about it: You not only have to take a cold look at yourself in the mirror and become the kind of person you want your kids to be, if you have biological children, you spend all day around little people who are living mirrors. And they don’t necessarily reflect back at you the parts of you want to see! (There have been several nights where I’ve turned to my wife and said, “Do you ever feel like they got our worst parts?”) Lou Reed’s song could be about a child instead of a lover: “I’ll be your mirror / reflect what you / in case you don’t know.”
Becoming a parent is also an opportunity to treat yourself more tenderly, to forgive yourself, to forgive your own parents, and move on: Live your own life, love what you love, care what you genuinely care about, and give yourself the freedom and opportunity to go about your days in a way that unlocks who you really are.
Oh god, I’m writing about parenting.
Got a question? Ask it here.
Artists and children both need the right combination of time, space, and materials to do their work.
Here’s how Ursula Kolbe puts it in her book Children’s Imagination: Creativity Under Our Noses (emphasis mine):
The elements of time, space and materials make it possible for children to explore, invent and make their ideas visible. Thinking of these elements as invitations gets to the heart of the matter.
It’s the combination of unhurried and uninterrupted time, inviting spaces and materials that guides mind and hands, that invites creative thinking. Seeing, handling, and thinking are inseparable, as Rudolf Arheim, psychologist and scholar of art and ideas, reminds us.
Together, time, space and materials provide ‘invitations to act’.
Those adjectives are extremely important: unhurried and uninterrupted time, and inviting spaces and materials.
Years ago, my friend John T. Unger turned “time, space, and materials” into an equation for producing work. (Only he uses the word resources instead of “materials” — “Resources meaning materials and tools, or the money to get them.”)
Time + Space + Resources = Work
His insight was that you need all three at the same time, otherwise you fall into idleness. Here, in John’s words, are variations on the equation:
T+R-S=Idle: You have time and resources but no work space. Examples: a rock band with close neighbors, a dancer with a no floor space, any visual artist whose space is improperly ventilated, too small, or is not conducive to the use of their proper tools.
T+S-R=Idle: You have time and space but no resources. Example: you quit your job and moved into your parent’s basement, but ran out of paint & canvas. Or you saved up enough cash to rent a big space and take time off, but your welder just blew out it’s coil and there’s not enough cash left to fix it. Or you took a part time job so you’d have
more time to work, but you can’t afford materials after you pay the rent.
R+S-T=Idle: You have resources and space, but all your time is used to maintain them. Example: You have a great job that pays for a huge loft and you’ve purchased everything you need to do a big project. But every night when you come home, you’re just too burned out to get anywhere with the stuff.
“The trouble is,” he says, “it’s almost impossible to get all three at once.”
Time gets used to make money. Money gets used to pay for space. Space is hard to justify unless you have the time and resources to make it pay for itself. The whole equation can easily turn into a vicious circle in which you constantly have to rob Peter to pay Paul.
We can easily see this play out in the lives of children, too.
S + M – T = You provide a nice space and plenty of materials in the classroom, but the bell rings and it’s time to stop for the day, regardless of where the children are in their work.
T + S – M = You provide the time and space for children to work, but all you’ve given them to draw with is crummy old crayons and scrap paper.
M + T – S = You provide great materials and lots of time, but nowhere to spread out.
My question is whether increasing the quality or amount of a variable in the equation can make up for a lack of one the others.
So, for example, you have very little time, but you have a dedicated space and materials ready to go so you can pop in at any opportune moment and work.
Or, you have no space to work, but you get up early when the kids are in bed, and use the kitchen table.
I’m scratching my head thinking about how space and time can make up for a lack of materials, which might reveal something about their importance. I suppose if you have lots of time, you can scrounge around for materials?
I’ll think about it some more, but until then, remember the equation:
Time + Space + Materials = Work
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.
Another thing I love about block printing is the ability to merge different blocks into a single print. Here I’ve printed out the six-year-old’s tower and added a big bad wolf head copied from a drawing by the four-year-old. (The Big Wolf Energy has not subsided.)