Personally, I’m more inspired by Zen Buddhism than Stoicism, which is why I was happy Ryan looked a little more to the East for Stillness is the Key. (Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind speaks more to my artistic practice than any Stoic text, but I’ve read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations several times and I really dig Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.)
“I’ll be your mirror / reflect what you are / in case you don’t know”
I taped this photo of Kanye West and Donald Trump on my copy of Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy, because the two fall neatly into the Bill Hicks’ category of Fevered Egos That Are Tainting Our Collective Unconscious and Making Us Pay A Higher Psychic Price Than We Can Imagine.
I take these two very personally, for an absurd reason: they are, like me, both Geminis, and I look at them in disgust and I think, “This is why I read books and listen to Prince (the best Gemini) all day.”
I realized a long time ago that the qualities I truly despise in other people are the qualities that I myself possess and have tried my best to suppress. (“If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part yourself,” says the character Pistorius in Herman Hesse’s novel, Demian. “What isn’t part ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”)
The president, of course, is completely irredeemable, and not worth thinking about too much. His election was like watching one of those X-Files episodes where a mutant monster emerges from the toxic runoff of our civilization.
He’s old and evil and ugly and like Vigo in Ghostbusters 2, it took a river of poisonous mood slime to put him in the position to potentially end the world.
Kanye, on the other hand, has actually contributed something decent to his country. He is, no matter what you think of him, an artist. And he’s made some amazing music that I love listening to. (I have fond, vivid memories of cruising Maui to Watch The Throne and painting my garage while blasting Yeezus.) That he’s given us such good music and said such stupid things makes him even more maddening.
But, as Carl Jung wrote in his memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
What can we learn from these two?
1. Don’t believe in genius.
Kanye and The President both believe deeply in the idea of individual genius.
Kanye has placed himself in a lineage of unconquerable men: Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, Michael Jordan, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein. This idea has fueled him and absolved him in the past, but it is killing him now.
As for the President, in the words of Dana Goldstein, he is “obsessed with two of the most dangerous concepts in education history”: genius and I.Q. He thinks of himself as a “Very Stable Genius,” and is always talking about his I.Q., which is “sorry losers and haters…one of the highest.” So, in his mind, there are very talented and special individuals, the smart winners, and everybody else, the dummies, the losers.
It also seems very important to him to keep up this fantasy of his own genius, and in doing so he seems to have discovered the exact recipe for remaining a horrible person forever, which he shared with the people of Wisconsin in 2016: “Always be around unsuccessful people, because everybody will respect you.”
It’s true: if you want to never grow or change or gather any sort of wisdom or perspective on life, you should surround yourself with people who are not only not as good as you, but who worship and defer to you.
The “Yes Men,” of course, are the kiss-of-death for many a would-be genius. Creative people need somebody around telling them how dumb they’re being.
Take, for example, George Lucas, who made his best movies while married to film editor Marcia Lucas. Several people have pointed to their divorce as the point at which his work took a dive. Here’s Mark Hamill (a.k.a. Luke Skywalker) on her crucial role:
[George is] in his own world. He’s like William Randolph Hearst or Howard Hughes, he’s created his own world and he can live in it all the time. You really see that in his films, he’s completely cut off from the rest of world. You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little “kiss for luck” before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: “Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,” and she said, “George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected”–and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it. She was really the warmth and the heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of, who would tell him when he was wrong. Now he’s so exalted that no one tells him anything.
(Kanye has Kim, which seems to help a little bit. He also collaborates a lot, which, again, is all a matter of who you surround yourself with.)
The antidote to the Bad Idea of Genius is, in my opinion, Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius,” or the collective form of genius. Genius is an ego-system, and scenius is an eco-system.
the only mofos in my circle are people that I CAN LEARN FROM. i believe THAT is the first and foremost rule to a successful life.
you are going to be as educated and successful as the 10 most
frequented people you call/text on your phone
2. Read a freaking book.
“I am not a fan of books,” Kanye said in 2009. “I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.”
Shocker! The President doesn’t read books, either.
(Unfortunately, this proud non-reading doesn’t stop them from writing their own books.)
My friend Matt Thomas, who is a scholar of both egos, says: “Kanye would have been that kid in college who didn’t always do the reading but had a really high participation grade because he always debated people in class and did alternate assignments.”
It strikes me over and over, reading old books, how the past is just one gigantic subtweet of these fevered egos.
Here’s Emily Dickinson:
“There are those who are shallow intentionally / and only profound by accident”
Here’s Lao Tzu, a few thousand years ago:
I’m already tired of writing about these two, so I’ll leave it there.
I’ve kept a notebook for 20 years, but the triumph of my year has been, for the first time, keeping not just a logbook, but a daily diary. (This is what it looks like.) I keep looking at the stack and thinking, “Okay, but where’s the book?”
Almost every writer will tell you how important it is to keep a daily diary or notebook, but very few emphasize how important it is, if you want to publish, to have a system for going back through those personal notebooks and diaries and turning them into public writing.
One of the things I like about Ryan Holiday’s notecard system, the one he learned from his mentor, Robert Greene, is its emphasis, not just on taking notes, but on going back and revisiting your notes: after you take notes in a book, you let the book sit for a week, and then you go back through the book and transfer your notes to notecards, and then you go back through your notecards and find themes, and then you go back through the themes and assemble a book, etc. There’s a kind of constant creative revisiting that goes on, one that leads to new ideas, and new writing. (Re-vision is re-seeing.)
This year, randomly, without planning it, I’ve become familiar with the notebooks of 3 different writers: Leonardo da Vinci, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s bio, Henry David Thoreau, thanks to Laura Walls’ terrific bio and NYRB’s beautiful reader edition, and David Sedaris, thanks to his newly published diaries. All three have much to teach.
It could be argued that Leonardo’s notebooks were his life’s masterpiece. Over and over again, Isaacson points out that Leonardo jotted down discoveries and hunches that other scientists wouldn’t confirm for hundreds of years. Unfortunately for the wider world, Leonardo’s notebook was all about exploration, and he didn’t put much, if any, effort into actually sharing his findings. If he had, he’d probably have changed the history of science.
It could be argued for Thoreau, too, that his true masterpiece was his journal, which he used, like Leonardo, to explore his world, his philosophy, and his amateur science. Unlike Leonardo, however, his journals were self-consciously journals, daily records of his life and thought tied to dates, and Thoreau mined his journals for books and lectures, then used his public lectures as a way of working up material for articles and books.
Though Sedaris might seem like the outlier here, he works in a Thoreau-like way (even though he despises the verb “journaling” and finds it “creepy”). I find him the most instructive and worth stealing from in the batch, if only because his process has been thoroughly documented, not just by others, but by himself. His essay, “Day In, Day Out,” from Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, summarizes his method as “You jot things down during the day, then tomorrow morning you flesh them out.” That sounds simple, but he actually has a robust system for generating material. Here are the steps:
1) He carries around a little reporter’s notebook and is constantly jotting down funny things he notices and overhears. “Everybody’s got an eye for something,” he says. “The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall.”
2) The next morning, he takes a look at his notes to refresh his memory, and then types out his diary on the computer. (In the old “embarrassing” days, he’d write on placemats, then in hardcover sketchbooks, in which he’d collage and draw, and then a typewriter, etc.)
3) He prints out his entries and binds them with special covers. In the recent “Visual Compendium” of his diaries, he notes: “I generally bind four volumes a year, so if at age 59, I have 153, by the time I’m my father’s age—should I live to be 93—I’ll have 289. If I die much earlier, at 75, say, I’ll still have 217, which isn’t bad.”
Maybe most importantly, he keeps a separate diary index, which numbers hundreds of pages by itself, in which he “lists only items that might come in handy someday.” A few entries:
Volume 87, 5/15: Lisa puts a used Kotex through the wash, and her husband mistakes it for a shoulder pad.
Volume 128, 1/23: Told by saleswoman that the coat I’m trying on is waterproof “if it only rains a little.”
“Over a given three-month period,” he writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out.” (It is not clear to me at what frequency he re-reads his diaries to keep this index. If I had to bet, I’d say he updates the index when he has a new book bound.)
4) He will then read selections from his diaries out-loud, live to his audiences. (This is actually how he got his start — he was reading from his diary in Chicago when he met Ira Glass, who gave him his break-out radio gig with “Santaland Diaries.”) He has a pencil and a marginalia system for recording audience reactions: Laughs get a check mark, silence gets a skull.
5) He’ll go back and rework the stories based on what he’s learned from reading live.
So far, I have stolen the first two steps. As for the third, I have no index for the notebooks (unless you count my logbook), and no way, really, of knowing what’s in them, a condition worsened by my terrible memory, and the fact that one of the reasons I like keeping a diary, as Henry Jones, Sr., said, is because I don’t have to remember what’s in it. I plan on starting an index in the coming weeks, and updating it for each new notebook.
As for steps 4 and 5, the live reading and revision, that’s what this blog is for. It’s the place where I take private thoughts and turn them public, see what the reaction is, if any, and then weave what I’ve learned back into the work.
For years now, I’ve been collecting stories about artists whose physical “shortcomings” or disabilities have led to their signature work. Examples:
- Chuck Close, along with his paralysis, “suffers from Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, in which he is unable to recognize faces.” And yet, he’s most famous for his face paintings, which help him remember faces.
- Tommy Iommi, guitar player for Black Sabbath, after he lost fingertips in an industrial accident, was inspired by Django, and formed homemade prosthetics, and detuned his guitars down to C#, so there was less tension on the strings. This detuning is part of what makes Sabbath’s guitars sound so heavy, and thus we have heavy metal…
- Henri Matisse’s failing eyesight and health led him to make his “cut-out” paper collages
- The guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of 2 of his fretting fingers, and played all of his solos with two fingers
- Regina Spektor has very small hands, and while studying classical piano, “scores had to be rearranged, her left hand taking on part of the role of the left.” After a while, it became clear that “the life she expected was perhaps not so attainable.” So she quit classical piano, but sat at the piano and wrote songs instead. (“The gift of small hands” as a NYTimes profile called it)
- Art Spiegelman has amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” which flattens depth perception. He says he suspects it’s one of the reasons he’s a cartoonist—because the world looks flat to him
- Walter Tandy Murch (father of film editor Walter Murch) a magical realist painter, was almost blind in one eye from a teenage accident, his vision as if “seen through translucent plastic”
This list is, of course, terribly incomplete, and man-heavy. (Please email me or tweet at me if you can think of other examples.) I’ve also done a poor job of including other creative types, like inventors, scientists, etc.
(There are all sorts of stories of inventors and artists with impairments related to their work. Beethoven’s deafness is the classic example, and while reading Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog last night, I found out that two of the men who developed the telephone had connections to the hearing-impaired: Alexander Graham Bell’s mother was deaf, he taught in a deaf school, and married one of his deaf students, and Thomas Edison was deaf in one ear, almost deaf in the other.)
One of my favorite contemporary examples is Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. For almost 25 years, she’s been confined indoors with crippling vertigo. She can’t go out and do research, she can’t attend literary festivals or book signings, or do any of the “normal” stuff that most authors do.
In a NYTimes profile, Wil S. Hylton writes:
It may be tempting to think of Hillenbrand as someone who has triumphed in spite of her illness. The truth is at once more complicated and more interesting. Many of the qualities that make Hillenbrand’s writing distinctive are a direct consequence of her physical limitations. Every writer works differently, but Hillenbrand works more differently than any writer I know of. She has been forced by the illness to develop convoluted workarounds for some of the most basic research tasks, yet her workarounds, in all their strange complexity, deliver many of her greatest advantages.
For example, she can’t go to the library and read old newspaper microfiche, instead she orders old vintage newspapers off eBay and reads them in her living room:
Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period — the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details…
…It was in those vintage newspapers that Hillenbrand discovered her next book. “I happened to turn over a clipping about Seabiscuit,” she said. “On the other side of that page, directly the opposite side of the page, was an article on Louie Zamperini, this running phenom.”
Since she can’t travel, she can’t do interviews her subjects face-to-face, so she relies on phone interviews:
This would seem to almost any reporter a terrible handicap. One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation. But Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages… “I thought it was actually an advantage to be unable to go to Louie,” she said. Because neither of them had to dress for the interviews and they were in their own homes, their long phone calls enjoyed a warmth and comfort that might otherwise be missing. She could pose the deeply personal questions that even her father had trouble answering.
Finally, because of her vertigo, she often finds herself unable to read, and so she has to listen to a ton of audiobooks:
Hillenbrand sometimes longs for the tactile pleasure of the printed page, but she believes her immersion in audiobooks has actually improved her writing. “It has taught me a lot more about the importance of the rhythm of language,” she said. “Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”
Saul Steinberg said, “what we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.” I am not sure where I am going by collecting all of these examples, and I certainly do not mean to romanticize these artists or their conditions, merely point out that by (creatively) dealing with them, the artist came up with something new, or great.
What lesson or takeaway there is for the rest of us, if one exists, I’m not sure of yet, other than confirmation of the title of Ryan Holiday’s book: the obstacle is the way…
* * *
- (9/18/2019) After a tonsillectomy, Ernest Tubb couldn’t yodel like his hero Jimmie Rodgers anymore. So he started writing his own songs.
- (7/21/2020) Film director Martin Scorsese couldn’t play sports or run too much with the other kids, so his parents took him to the movies. (He developed a habit of observing people from a distance…)
- (3/29/2021) Pianist Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, and turned to playing left-handed pieces and teaching, eventually regaining his use of both hands again
- (3/29/2021) Composer Molly Joyce, who lost use of her left hand in a car accident and found a toy organ with chords on the left, keyboard on the right, which became a signature sound