Though you might not think it from the comic, I’m actually sympathetic to questions about tools and process, as I myself am a kind of process junky. I love hearing about how other writers work.
I’m also not someone who dismisses questions about tools with the line “the tools don’t matter.” In fact, I think tools matter so much that if you don’t talk about them correctly you can do some damage.
In On Becoming A Novelist, John Gardner wrote:
In my experience the single question most often asked during question-and-answer periods in university auditoriums and classrooms is: “Do you write with a pen, a typewriter, or what?” I suspect the question is more important than it seems on the surface. It brings up magical considerations—the kinds of things compulsive gamblers are said to worry about: When one plays roulette, should one wear a hat or not, and if one should, should one cock it to the left or to the right? What color hat is luckiest? The question about writing equipment also implies questions about that ancient daemon Writer’s Block, about vision and revision, and at its deepest level, asks whether there is really, for the young writer, any hope.
Of the question, “pen, pencil, or typewriter,” Gardner said that there “is of course no right answer… nor is the question worth answering except insofar as it reveals something about the creative process.” Gardner then writes beautifully about the “dreaming” part of writing vs. the “mechanics,” and how bad penmanship or poor typing skills can get in the young writer’s way:
The trouble is that having started up the dream and written some of it down, [the writer’s] become suddenly self-conscious, self-doubting. The dreaming part is angel-like: it is the writer’s eternal, childlike spirit, the daydreaming being who exists (or seems to) outside time. But the part of the writer that handles the mechanics, typing or writing with pencil or pen, choosing one word instead of another, is human, fallible, vulnerable to anxiety or shame.
It’s for exactly this reason that when Lynda Barry was suffering from writer’s block, she decided to write the first draft of her novel Cruddy by hand:
She said, of the first draft:
My goal was to not think about things at all. To dream it out instead, trying very hard not to edit at all as I went. The first draft really took shape when I found that I needed to slow way down and distract myself at the same time so I used a paintbrush and Tuscan red watercolor and painted the manuscript on legal paper, trying to concentrate on the calligraphic aspect of writing rather than trying to craft beautiful sentences. I figured as long as the sentences looked beautiful, the rest would take care of itself.
What I love about Gardner and Barry is that they believe that the tools you use do matter, but the point, for them, is finding the proper tools that get you to a certain way of working in which you can get your conscious, mechanical mind out of the way so that your dreaming can go on, undeterred.
You have to find the right tools to help your voice sing.
For Lynda, it was the paintbrush that allowed her to get to the point where she could basically take dictation—“to dream it out” without editing—but it could’ve been anything, really. (I should note that Lynda happily details the exact sumi-e brush and ink she used to make One! Hundred! Demons! in the back of the book.) While I don’t myself use a brush and legal paper to draft my work, I keep a page from the manuscript hanging in my bedroom to remind me of the importance of handwriting and slowing down.
As for non-fiction writing, my friend Clive Thompson took the “pencil vs. typewriter” thing literally and researched when you should write with a pencil and when you should type on the keyboard.
What he discovered was that handwriting is great for coming up with ideas, for note-taking and big picture thinking. So, when you’re at lectures or in meetings or brainstorming ideas, it’s a good idea to scribble or doodle in your notebook. So always carry a pencil. (Clive got me into Palamino Blackwings.)
Typing, on the other hand, is great for producing writing for other people, say, writing an article. The faster you type, Clive said, the better your ideas will be. There’s a thing called “transcription fluency,” which boils down to: “when your fingers can’t move as fast as your thoughts, your ideas suffer.” If you help people increase their typing speed, their thoughts improve. (Learn to type faster!)
So, yes, the tools matter, but again, it’s all about what you are trying to achieve. So a question like, “What brand of pen do you use?” is not as good as “How do you get that thick line quality?” or “How do you dodge Writer’s Block?”
On my Instagram, a follower was very upset with the above cartoon, saying it was “mean” and “hurtful” and not smart and ungrateful to my fans, and that I should try to “remember what it was like to be a beginner.” I’m gonna quote her at length, because I actually don’t disagree with a lot of what she says (although, I would argue that wrestling with your materials can lead you down interesting paths):
I would politely argue that sometimes the tools DO matter, especially at the beginning. Instead of fighting your materials you can focus on the work. We all have to start somewhere; what better way to get started then to try the tools of a creative person whose work you admire? […] When I see people asking about pens and notebooks I think to myself they must be at the very start of their creative journeys, and they’re looking for guidance, maybe even encouragement; for a place to start.
I try, I think, my best to be helpful to my young fans. (What else is this blog and my books but attempts to be helpful?) But I would also push back a bit here: Sometimes when we talk about artists and writers there’s this expectation that they should always defer to the needs of the young fan. Very rarely do we cut writers and artists a break for maybe being a little tired of a constant barrage of the same question over and over or for not necessarily wanting to take on the role of a teacher, a job which, in my opinion, is a very serious responsibility.
It’s the artist’s job not to be a total dick but it’s also the fan’s job to not overstep. If you want to be someone’s apprentice, but they haven’t agreed to be your teacher, you have to stay silent, watch and learn.
There is a Zen parable in John Cage’s Silence that changed my life:
The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “Every time you teach a child something you forever rob them of the chance to learn it for themselves.”
There are actually very good reasons for not wanting to teach young artists. There are good reasons for not answering a question like, “What brand of pen do you use?” or questions about process at all.
If you are just starting off and I tell you exactly how I work, right down to the brand of pen and notebook, I am, in a some small sense, robbing you of the experience of finding your own materials and your own way of working.
Trying to approximate someone else’s work with your own tools can lead to wonderful discoveries. For example, the guitarist Adrian Belew is self-educated: he taught himself to play the guitar by listening to records. Because he was unaware of all the studio trickery involved in many of his favorite recordings, he found a way to reproduce the sounds on his records without any effects pedals or fancy gear. And from those experiments, he “was left with an urge to make the guitar sound like things it shouldn’t be able to sound like.”
In other words: Belew would not necessarily be Belew if he could tweet at Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix and ask them what brand of pedals they’re using.
Just something to think about.
I enjoyed this video of Tatsuo Horiuchi, a 77-year-old Japanese man who’s been painting with Microsoft Excel for the past 15 years:
When Tatsuo retired, he decided that he wanted to paint. But there was one problem: He was cheap. “When I started to do this I had a defiant and experimental mind. [I thought,] “How can I paint with my PC? You don’t need to spend money on paints, and you don’t have to prepare water and so on.” He didn’t even want to pay for an art program. So he used what was already on his computer. “This kind of stingy idea made me prefer Excel. And with a cheap printer…in 10 years, I wanted to paint something decent that I could show to people.”
I am drawn to art made out of ordinary materials. For example, I love the envelope poems of Emily Dickinson like “The way Hope builds his House,” which is composed on an envelope torn to look like a house:
And this morning I started reading A.R. Ammons’ Tape for the Turn of the Year, which he started composing today, 54 years ago, on a roll of adding tape he found in a home and garden store, and began to “contemplate… some fool use for it.” In the first entry, Ammons asks the Muse for “assistance” with “this foolish / long / thin / poem”:
I find that embracing “foolishness” can be a great boon to the artist. “There are many people who make fun of me,” says Mr. Horiuchi, of his paintings. They say, “Why are you making effort on something that is not useful, are you a fool?” And Horiuchi answers, “Yes, I am a fool.”
In order to do find a use for a tool that is not exactly what it was made and advertised for, you need a kind of willingness to look stupid:
I’ve noticed when people post the video of Horiuchi, they say some variant of, “See? The tools don’t matter! Get making!” On Twitter, @doingitwrong posted the video with the words “YOU CAN MAKE ANYTHING WITH ANYTHING (This is why I am reluctant to give advice about writing tools.)” While I agree with the first part, that you can make anything with anything, when it comes to writing tools, instead of shying away from discussion of tools, saying, “it’s up to your imagination!” and leaving it at that, I think we should talk more about tools, and do more exploring, more investigating with students what it means to make art with different kinds of tools.
For example, Horiuchi’s landscapes are interesting (his portraits aren’t quite as dazzling — probably because landscapes lend themselves well to the geometric shapes you can make more easily with line tools), not just because of the novelty of painting with Excel, but because he’s really pushing the limits of what Excel can do. Here’s a screenshot of his computer:
Whether it’s Microsoft Excel or adding tape, pushing against constraints, finding out the limits of the tools, that’s what makes art interesting.
It’s not that the tools don’t matter — it’s finding the appropriate tools, or, maybe even better, the inappropriate tools, and finding some fool use for them.
Derek writes in,
I am very new to drawing and wondered if there are any pens that you would recommend…
I don’t recommend any particular drawing tools, because I think tools are very personal and idiosyncratic–I mean, the tools that work for one artist might not work for another. One of my artist friends won’t draw with anything more than a .5mm mechanical pencil. I, on the other hand, don’t like to draw with anything less bold than a 1mm gel pen.
Regardless, here’s a list of what I carry around in my bag:
- Miquelrius 300 page flexible notebook
I can never decide on gridded vs. blank. Blank makes for prettier drawings, but gridded is great for taking notes.
- Pentel Pocket Brush Pen
- Sharpie Fine Point Marker
- Pilot G2 Gel Pen (1.0mm BOLD)
- 8-pack of Crayola crayons
The tools change, based on the occasion: when I go out with my wife to a movie or a concert, I carry a Sharpie or a gel pen and a stack of index cards.
Feel free to share your own favorite notebooks/drawing tools for Derek in the comments!
Edward Tufte care package
I’ve thought recently about abandoning sketchbooks in favor of single sheets of paper, index cards, legal pads, and binders: sketchbooks are convenient for carrying around, but they’re really hard to scan, and they don’t afford remixing or reshuffling pages. I want to make little books that are more like collages, without destroying the pages by using adhesive on them. I just need a little portfolio with plastic pages…something like what Lynda Barry has in this picture. Or like this. I could also just do the three-ring binder with page protectors. Any suggestions?
I’m thinking about this because Michelle Malott wrote in and asked me what kind of paper I used for my mind maps. My usual reply would be, “Whatever’s around,” but recently I’ve been a big fan of Edward Tufte’s graph paper he sells on his website. It’s acid-free, really nice and smooth, and has a “ghost” grid on it, which makes it easy to lay things out. I’ve been using the regular 8 1/2 x 11 sheets, saving up the 11 x 17 sheets for something really awesome.
You can see the results from my last two maps:
Tufte sent me a big batch of the paper after seeing my Beautiful Evidence and Envisioning Information maps. Tufte’s a “hero thinker” of mine, so it was a thrill to get mail from him. Come to think of it, I’ve had good luck getting mail from my heroes. Love how classy this little card is:
If you don’t know his work, you should.
Feast your eyes on the best birthday present ever: a 6×8 Wacom Graphire drawing tablet. Meg got it to replace my dinky 4×5 that I’ve been using for ages. This baby sits nice and heavy-duty on my lap, it’s got programmable buttons…oh, am I excited to get back to work on the book!
- New Shalom Auslander and Etgar Keret columns.
- Silverblatt discussing Beckett on Bookworm: reading Beckett’s prose opens you up to the comedy in the plays.
- Dan Bejar (Destroyer) talks. Meghan refuses to look at pictures of him because she wants to keep her image of him singing in a Transylvanian castle.
I see no necessity to apologize for the imperfections of this or of any similar imagery. Analogies of this kind are only intended to assist us in our attempt to make the complications of mental functioning intelligible.—Sigmund Freud, talking about his dream diagrams
* * *
I think I might use this someday as the epigraph for one of my comics. I collaged it onto the front of my sketchbook, with a few changes:
Clive Thompson made the great point, “your tools help determine how you think. So long as Freud used realistic modes of drawing, he was hemmed in by the dictates of straightforward physiology. To ponder the abstracts of human behavior, he needed to turn to abstract comix.”
Read some more about Freud’s drawings.