It’s not easy to sit down every morning with next-to-nothing and try to make something appear. But we do it because doing it beats not doing it.
It’s not easy to sit down every morning with next-to-nothing and try to make something appear. But we do it because doing it beats not doing it.
There’s a wonderful bit in episode six of Ken Burns’ Country Music when singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson — a former Rhodes Scholar who studied the Romantic poets! — is explaining his decision to turn his back on a distinguished military career and move to Nashville to be a janitor and write country songs:
I love William Blake…. William Blake said, “If he who is organized by the divine for spiritual communion, refuse and bury his talent in the earth, even though he should want natural bread, shame and confusion of face will pursue him throughout life to eternity.”
He’s telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.
His mother was so disgusted with his decision that she wrote him a letter disowning him for embarrassing the family. (Johnny Cash read it and joked, “Isn’t it nice to get a letter from home?”)
Elsewhere, Kristofferson liked to quote other Blake lines to describe what he was doing. “The Road of Excess leads to the palace of wisdom” or “If the fool persists in his folly, he will become wise.”
The quoted Blake passage from the documentary comes from a letter he wrote to Thomas Butts, a patron and friend, in January 10th, 1803. He talks about his wife’s poor health, declines an offer of money, and then talks about what he’s working on out in the country, away from the city:
but Patience! if Great things do not turn out it is because such things depend on the Spiritual & not on the Natural World & if it was fit for me I doubt not that I should be Employd in Greater things & when it is proper my Talents shall be properly exercised in Public as I hope they are now in private. for then I leave no stone unturnd & no path unexplord that tends to improvement in my beloved Arts.
He then talks about being torn, basically, between commerce and art:
But if we fear to do the dictates of our Angels & tremble at the Tasks set before us. if we refuse to do Spiritual Acts. because of Natural Fears or Natural Desires! Who can describe the dismal torments of such a state!—I too well remember the Threats I heard!-If you who are organized by Divine Providence for Spiritual communion. Refuse & bury your Talent in the Earth even tho you Should want Natural Bread. Sorrow & Desperation pursues you Thro life! & after death Shame & confusion of face to eternity — Every one in Eternity will leave you aghast at the Man who was crownd with glory & honour by his brethren & betrayd their cause to their enemies. You will be calld the base Judas who betrayd his Friend!— Such words would make any Stout man tremble & how then could I be at ease? But I am now no longer in That State & now go on again with my Task Fearless and tho my path is difficult. I have no fear of stumbling while I keep it
Then, without attribution, he quotes four lines (as two lines) from poet Thomas Tickell:
I hear a voice you cannot hear,
Which says I must not stay;
I see a hand you cannot see,
Which beckons me away.
Kristofferson could’ve quoted that bit back to his mother!
I’m thinking now about Keri Smith’s now-classic list, “How To Feel Miserable as an Artist,” which includes two references to family:
2. Talk to your family about what you do and expect them to cheer you on
8. Only do work that your family would love.
But back to Blake: I need to learn more about him, and here is a start.
In his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris writes about this paradox at the heart of American parenting: On the one hand, we think of childhood as a place that should be free of labor — we’ve decided, collectively, that it’s inhumane for our children to slave in sweatshops or dig in a coal mine — and on the other hand, between the classroom, homework, and the extra-curricular activities picked to make a child the perfect college applicant, American kids work all the time.
[I]t takes a lot of work to prepare yourself to compete for twenty-first-century employment. Adults are happy to remind kids of this, telling them, “Put your nose to the grindstone,” “Stay on the right path,” “Treat school like your job.” When it comes to the right to organize, the dignity of labor, or minimum-wage laws, however, students are forced to be students rather than workers.
Maria Montessori said that play was the work of the child, but it’s obvious, now, that we see school as their job.
Last year she said that “a number of members of parliament have come out to the steps to express support for her position, although every one of them has said that she should really be at school. Her parents think so, too, she said—that she should really go to school.”
Here’s a lighter, funnier story from legendary soul singer Jackie Shane about school as unpaid labor:
“I don’t like to be played… At school I was a fast runner. Ooh! Honestly, I’m not bragging, I could run. I just sort of leaped through the air. They asked me to run [in an inter-school competition]. I said, “How much does it pay?” They said, “Well, Jackie, this is your school.” I said, “No, no, no, no! I don’t own this school. If I’m going to perform, I want to be paid.” Everybody said, “Child you’re too much.” No, I found out early that you cannot be too much in this world. You can’t. It’s impossible. If you don’t get your gethers together, people will take advantage of you. I told them “What do you mean my school? I’m not getting a nickel. No, no, no, no honey, you’ve got to give Jackie some money.” All of that nonsense and patting me on the back and giving me a slice of pizza. Give me some money!”
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.
Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, writes about the slow disappearance of hobbies and amateur pursuits, and finds, in their absence, a void of freedom:
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.
Last night I was picking through my stack and started composer Philip Glass’s memoir, Words Without Music. I wound up reading over 50 pages before I passed out. (That’s a lot: I’m a slow reader, especially at 10PM.)
Glass writes about working in his father’s record store and how formative it was for him. His father began as a car mechanic without any formal education, then moved to fixing car radios, then to selling records with a little bench for repairing radios in the back. He wanted to understand why some records sold and why some didn’t, so he’d take home modern classical music and try to figure out what was wrong with it. Instead of diagnosing it, he fell in love with much of it, and started foisting it on his customers. Glass says his dad would come home late, around 9 o’clock, and then start listening to records from 10 to midnight. Glass would sneak downstairs without his father knowing and listen along.
One time Glass ordered four copies of a particularly obscure classical album for the shop. His father got mad at him, but Philip convinced the old man to keep them on the shelves and to let him know when the last one sold. Several years later, his father called and said he’d just sold the last one. “I can sell anything,” his father said, “if I have enough time.”
In an obituary of professional hoaxer Alan Abel, Margalit Fox notes that Abel’s father kept a general store, which is where Abel said he learned the art of hucksterism: “He’d put ‘Limit — Two to a Customer’ in front of the things that wouldn’t sell,” Abel said, “and they’d be gone in a minute.”
In Tamara Shopsin’s memoirs, Mumbai New York Scranton and Arbitrary Stupid Goal, she writes a lot about her experiences growing up with her brothers and sisters in their parents’ grocery store and restaurant. (They now run it.) Her work is filled with the unconventional practice and wisdom of her father. (See my post, “Something to look forward to.”)
I try to let my kids spend a lot of time in my studio, so I’m attracted to these kinds of stories. Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to visit my parents in their offices. My parents had a lot of night meetings — my dad was a 4-H agent and my mom was a guidance counselor and school administrator — so I spent a lot of time in abandoned offices, poking around on typewriters and playing with copy machines and raiding office supply closets.
In How Children Learn, John Holt writes about how important it is to let our children into our everyday worlds and our work:
If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them.
He laments — and he died 33 years ago — how many of us don’t actually do work that means anything to children (“What do people do all day?”):
[H]ow much children must have learned from watching people do real work, in the days when a child could see people doing real work. It is not so easy to manage this now. So much of the so-called work done in our society is not work at all, certainly not as a child could understand it… It is in every way useful for children to see adults doing real work and, wherever possible, to be able to help them.
I’m thankful to do work that my sons can not only understand, but can emulate.
Every day is “take your kid to work” day around here. Sometimes that’s a burden, sometimes it’s bliss, but it’s always full of meaning.
I’m finishing up The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. Clocking in at 4 1/2 hours, the documentary presents a portrait of a man never satisfied, always searching, sort of modeling his career and life on Samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
Shandling’s diary entries are presented in little snippets throughout the documentary, and one of the of the things I wished for when watching is a longer, closer look at the pages. This morning I discovered that Garry’s friends have been posting them on his revived Twitter feed.
Shandling owed a great debt to George Carlin, who gave him encouragement when he was first starting out. Shandling adopted Carlin’s attitude towards cycles and reinvention. (Carlin famously threw out material and started fresh every year.)
What they both figured out is that the easiest way to re-invent yourself is to find something new to learn.
My book Show Your Work! is basically about learning in public — allowing people to sort of look over your shoulder as you’re working — and in chapter 10 I quote Milton Glaser, who said, “Whenever Picasso learned how to do something, he abandoned it.”
The video that quote is taken from is basically a summary of Shandling’s career, and it’s so good that I’ve transcribed a huge portion of it below (emphasis mine):
When I talk to students about the distinction between professionalism and personal development, I very often put it this way: In professional life, you must discover a kind of identity for yourself, that becomes a sort of trademark, a way of working that is distinctive that people can recognize. The reason for this is that the path to financial success and notoriety is by having something that no-one else has. It’s kind of like a brand, one of my most despised words.
So what you do in life in order to be professional is you develop your brand, your way of working, your attitude, that is understandable to others. In most cases, it turns out to be something fairly narrow, like ‘this person really knows how to draw cocker spaniels,’ or ‘this person is very good with typography directed in a more feminine way,” or whatever the particular attribute is, and then you discover you have something to offer that is better than other people have or at least more distinctive. And what you do with that is you become a specialist, and people call you to get more of what you have become adept at doing. So if you do anything and become celebrated for it, people will send you more of that. And for the rest of your life, quite possibly, you will have that characteristic, people will continue to ask you for what you have already done and succeeded at. This is the way to professional accomplishment–you have to demonstrate that you know something unique that you can repeat over and over and over until ultimately you lose interest in it. The consequence of specialization and success is that it hurts you. It hurts you because it basically doesn’t aid in your development.
The truth of the matter is that understanding development comes from failure. People begin to get better when they fail, they move towards failure, they discover something as a result of failing, they fail again, they discover something else, they fail again, they discover something else. So the model for personal development is antithetical to the model for professional success. As a result of that, I believe that Picasso as a model is the most useful model you can have in terms of your artistic interests, because whenever Picasso learned how to do something he abandoned it, and as a result of that, in terms of his development as an artist, the results were extraordinary. It is the opposite of what happens in the typecasting for professional accomplishment.
Every single person is a learning machine. You want the challenge of trying something new, figuring out how to do it, mastering it, and then starting all over again. You want to Learn, Leap, and Repeat.
As I wrote in Show:
When you feel like you’ve learned whatever there is to learn from what you’re doing, it’s time to change course and find something new to learn so that you can move forward. You can’t be content with mastery; you have to push yourself to become a student again.
So, perhaps, instead of asking that dreaded question, “What next?” turn it into this question: “What do you want to learn?”
Works whether you’re 5-years-old or 85-years-old.
“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
“More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary.”
My boys have spend countless hours paging through Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? Originally published in 1968, there’s still nothing really quite like it. (Here’s a nice appreciation of the book.)
The book is probably even more influential than most people realize. In the documentary Studs Terkel: Listening To America, Terkel’s editor, André Schiffrin, admits the children’s book is where he got the idea for Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. “I thought, you know this is something we need to do for grownups.”
Terkel made his oral history by going around America with his portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and conducting one-on-one interviews. Once the book was published, the original tapes were boxed up and put in his archives. Here’s a terrific 40-minute podcast featuring a few of the unboxed interviews. Terkel mostly edited himself out of the book, so it’s interesting to hear what he asks and how he asks it.
Sometimes when you’re reading Scarry’s book you can feel sort of wistful in spots for the days when, as Tim Kreider says, people actually did work with tangible results. (See the comic parodies “Busytown in the 21st century” and “BusinessTown!”) But Terkel’s book really gets to the heart of how people feel about their jobs. This interview with a “token woman” ad executive is an example:
Do I ever question what I’m selling? Oh, I would say all the time, of course. I don’t think what I do is essential or necessary, even that it prefers much of a service. You know, you’re saying to a lady because this oil comes from the bottom of the algae on the sea, you’re going to have a timeless face. That’s a crock of shit. I mean, I know that. It’s a part of my job, I do it.
“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.
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