Today’s newsletter is full of good stuff.
I spent 40 minutes or so this morning watching and doodling Greil Marcus’s “Why I Write” lecture, recommended by Stephanie Zacharek as “deeply personal and… extraordinary. It may help anyone involved in any creative endeavor who’s feeling…stuck.”
I write for fun. I write for play. I write for the play of words.
I write to discover what I want to say and how to say it.
And the nerve to say it.
The key word for me isn’t ‘fun,’ isn’t ‘play,’ but it’s ‘discover.’
I live for those moments when something appears on the page as if of its own volition, as if I had nothing to do with what is now looking at me in the face…
He then tells the story of the father who he never met, who was also named Greil.
(Perhaps this is too obvious, but unless I missed something, he never explicitly points out that his name sounds like “grail,” or the mysterious thing which is eagerly pursued and sought after. In fact, if you try to type his name into your computer, spell check will correct it to “grail” — nominative determinism!) *
You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.
* I was struck by the autodidact’s curse here: I’d always read Greil as “Grail” and ignored all evidence to the contrary, though Greil emailed me and told me when his great-grandfather first emigrated from Prague to Alabama, the name was pronounced “grail” and changed to “greel,” so maybe I was onto something after all. (In talks, whenever I have to pronounce a name like “Brancusi,” I joke that I’m from Texas, so I’m allowed to mispronounce anything I want to.)
To enjoy a book like [Froissart’s Chronicles] thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined. I often wonder — considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrapbooks — why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.
Alan Jacobs brought this to my attention, and we texted a bit about it. He pointed out that little kids have a tendency to ignore purpose-built toys in favor things they can turn into toys, like cardboard boxes, sticks, dirt, etc. (See: “Throw out the instructions.” As Alan put it, if you only follow the instructions for a toy — or a book — you get what you expect, no more, no less.)
It makes me wonder if irreverence towards an object is the first step towards turning it into a toy, a plaything.
One thing these books do is highlight how interactive a paper book is, no matter the content — you turn the pages, you take them in. It’s your energy that unlocks whatever is on the page.
But the minute you become a little irreverent towards a book — underlining, dog-earing, scribbling arguments with the author — that’s the minute things really get cooking and reading becomes the act of making that C.S. Lewis was talking about.
When I was thinking about books as toys, chapter 88 of Grant Petersen’s Just Ride popped in my head: “Your bike is a toy. Have fun with it.”
IF YOU’RE SERIOUS ABOUT something, there’s a tendency to talk about the equipment for it as tools as opposed to toys. Tools are for work, for being productive and efficient; toys are for play. Tools cost more than toys, so there’s that, too. A wealthy amateur photographer with a Leica M9 wouldn’t call it a toy, nor would the shop that sold it. It’s “a tool for self-expression, a tool for communication, a tool for social change.” Calling it a toy will get you kicked out of the camera shop.
No matter how much your bike costs, unless you use it to make a living, it is a toy, and it should be fun. Whatever benefits accrue from riding won’t stop accruing just because you’re having fun. In fact, the more fun you have on it, the more you’ll ride it.
Montessori said play is the work of the child. Play is also the work of the artist. Can we get closer to play if we re-label our tools as toys?
“Here Comes the Sun” was written at the time when Apple [Records] was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote “Here Comes the Sun.”
Playing is part of the artist’s job description, and sometimes you have to ditch work to do your job.
Sometimes you have to play hooky so you can actually learn something.
(Thanks to @garethchughes for this story and the title of the post.)
“Curious, this child-love of stones! Stones are the toys not only of the children of the poor, but of all children at one period of existence: no matter how well supplied with other playthings, every Japanese child wants sometimes to play with stones. To the child-mind a stone is a marvelous thing, and ought so to be, since even to the understanding of the mathematician there can be nothing more wonderful than a common stone. The tiny urchin suspects the stone to be much more than it seems, which is an excellent suspicion; and if stupid grown-up folk did not untruthfully tell him that his plaything is not worth thinking about, he would never tire of it, and would always be finding something new and extraordinary in it.”
— Lafcadio Hearn, “In Cholera Time,” Japanese Ghost Stories
Filed under: stones
“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.
Then, during a recording for the Stacking Benjamins podcast, host Joe Saul-Sehy described to me a Camus quote he saw in a piece at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “It was handwritten on this print of a bag of Wonder Bread…”
The quote comes from “Create Dangerously,” a lecture delivered by Camus at the University of Uppsala in December 1957 (collected in the book Resistance, Rebellion, and Death).
Here it is in full:
Great ideas, it has been said, come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation; others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. As a result, there shines forth fleetingly the ever threatened truth that each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.
Corita used the Camus quote to emphasize that the artist can’t turn away from the world, but must find their work within it.
“Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against which we are living,” Camus wrote. “Instead, let us seek the respite where it is—in the very thick of the battle.”
PBS’s The Art Assignment also recently shared this great 15-minute video about her work. It has a bunch of stuff I didn’t know, like how all art majors at Immaculate Heart had to be English minors, and Corita’s concept of “Plork,” a combination of play and work, the “one responsible act necessary for human advancement” that represents “the ecstasy we feel when work and play are one.” (I wish I’d remembered that bit of Learning By Heart when I wrote the “Your Work is Play” chapter of Keep Going!)
“Work is the best medicine for everything,” said the piano maker, who’s done his job for 46 years.
I feel constantly torn between my admiration for craftspeople and a deep, lazy Sluggo suspicion in me that working is for chumps. I told my friend Matt Thomas about this and he sent me Bob Black’s essay, “The Abolition of Work.”
“No one should ever work,” Black writes. “Like the surrealists — except that I’m not kidding — I favor full *un*employment.”
Black advocated for a new “ludic” life based on play:
Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. This is axiomatic. Bernie de Koven has defined play as the ‘suspension of consequences.’ This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is).
But what happens when play is your job? When I’m working, I’m hard at play.
I’m thinking, now, about doing nothing. Staring off into space. “Leaning” and “loafing” at my ease, as Whitman put it. Being downright lazy. Sluggo. (“Totally watching television,” etc.)
In Ross Gay’s “Loitering is Delightful,” he points out that another phrase for loitering is “taking one’s time,” and “the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one’s own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is.”
To waste one’s time is often seen as sinful, but it’s also the ultimate freedom. (To steal a line from Maxine Waters, I’m “reclaiming my time.”)
The older I get, the more I suspect that my laziness and my discipline are interconnected. The two give each other meaning. Laziness without discipline would lead to nothing doing, and discipline without laziness would lead to nothing worth doing.
There’s also the plain fact that this job I do is 24 hours a day. “You’re never not working,” my wife says, and, indeed, I might be doing the most when I look like I’m doing nothing. “Some of the most successful creative workers I know appear way more lazy than busy, at least at first glance,” writes Carl Richards.
“Deep down I’m enormously lazy,” said Marcel Duchamp. “I like living, breathing, better than working.”
That’s what he said, but never listen to what an artist says.
Duchamp was working all the time.
Walking around the Mission yesterday, my agent and I saw Anthony Holdsworth painting on the street. We stopped to admire his painting, chatted briefly, and then I said, “Thanks for letting us interrupt your work.”
“Doesn’t feel like work,” he said, cleaning his brush. “Feels more like play.”
“There is work that is play / There is play that is work.”
—Cass McCombs, “The Executioner’s Song”
“I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
—Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”
In our culture, when something is easy, you refer to it as “child’s play,” even though play is the work of children, and it requires enormous focus and effort. (Anybody who thinks a child’s play is always easy and fun should witness the passion and epic fits of frustration my sons manage to throw themselves into.)
Our neighbors are remodeling their bathroom, so there have been a few mornings when I’m outside with the kids, supervising with a cup of tea or drawing in chalk in the driveway, and I’ll say hello to the contractors when they’re having a smoke break.
Child care, like writing, is work that might include play but is often mistaken wholly for play. (Look up the average salary of a preschool teacher to see how much we value it.) It can feel weird being out in the world with the kids when most everybody else your age is off at a job, and it’s doubly weird when you’re out spending time with your family in front of workers who are visibly laboring.
There was one morning when I was up on the porch shuffling index cards around while the contractors were unloading large pieces of lumber out of the back of their truck. Even though writing is hard like any job can be, I know how lucky I am. (Tony Fitzpatrick once said, “Writing is hard fucking work, but it’s not labor.”) A neighbor down the street told my wife her husband saw me out one day and said, “I want his job.”
When I finally went out to the garage to get some real heads-down fingers-to-keys Writing done, I thought I was going to be annoyed by the din of the drills and the saw blades, but instead, I’ve found the buzz of the power tools to be encouraging. The contractors are practicing their trade and I am practicing mine. Who will finish first?
My favorite compliment is when somebody tells me they keep my books on top of the commode. When the contractors’ work is done, the neighbors can sit on the john and admire their work. When my work is done, maybe somebody will sit on their john and admire mine.