“Tell all the truth but tell it slant…”
— Emily Dickinson
It feels like it should be a time in which people need advice more than ever, but I’m not so sure. (And though I could be seen as a professional propagator of advice, on the whole, I am skeptical of giving it.) I think, in all times, but especially in these, if you sit quietly for long enough, you can hear that voice inside you that tells you exactly what you need to do.
“Advice, wrote David Foster Wallace in The Pale King, “even wise advice — actually does nothing for the advisee, changes nothing inside, and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path.” (I got that from Tim Kreider, who is “Against Advice.”)
Besides, as Steinbeck said, “No one wants advice — only corroboration.” I think my advice books mainly give voice to what the reader already thought but couldn’t put into words. The books are permission slips, in a sense. “Go make some art!”
Then again, some advice is good. I know I always sought it when I was starting out. A reader on Twitter a few days ago told me, “Thanks to your advice I’ve stopped being an artist and I’m making art again.” That was my message perfectly distilled and it made my whole day.
Anyways, this zine is not actually about advice at all. It’s about the power of staying quiet when people ask you how you’re doing what you’re doing. Refusing to answer, Bartleby style. (“I prefer not to!”) Because the thing you’re doing is still very close to you, and it’s still very much alive, and like a wild horse that’s somehow letting you take a ride, you don’t want to spook it. Or it’s a gift being given to you and you don’t want to cheapen it. Whatever metaphor you want to use, it’s something precious to you right now, and you don’t want it out in the air. You want to keep it close and see where it goes. And besides, those who really look close, they’ll get what they’re looking for.
But it’s also about how much easier it is to say these things with art. And how freaking good it feels not to talk, but to make.
I’ve been making mini zines throughout quarantine. Here they all are, with links to read them. I also post them as I go on Instagram. (This list will be periodically updated whenever I hit a new batch of nine. Scroll down to see video of how I make them.)
1. ONE HUNDRED AND ONE FAMOUS POEMS
2. ONE FAMOUS POEM & A Letter to a Young Friend
3. Song Birds
4. much slower
5. Stay Home
6. I feel weak and fruitless and lost
7. the cost of love
8. USA OVER / FOREVER / US
9. NUTSO #1
UPDATE (4/23/2020): I can’t seem to quit making these things! Here are some more:
31. The Man With No Advice
32. Miracle Unmoving
33. Reminded of a Shipwreck
34. Rough Landscape
35. Survive the Savage Sea
40. the evolutionary development of plan s
UPDATE (5/3/2020): Another batch:
41. skin of rock
42. a stern land
44. 56 DAYS: Rations almost spent
45. untitled (madonna)
46. HOW TO PROVE SOMEONE HAS NO TASTE
47. HOW TO DETERMINE HUSBAND’S AND WIFE’S COMPATIBILITY
UPDATE (6/4/2020): Yet another batch:
50. pansy luchadores
51. How To Talk To Someone With A Missing Imagination
52. Pocket Calculator
53. How To Draw What is Invisible
54. Cheerful Hodgepodge
55. Sleep Dirty
56. 100 Blind Self-Portraits
57. Sleep Dirty Two
58. Angry and Curious
Here’s a video of how to make your own zine from a single sheet of paper:
“Maps are of two kinds. Some seek to represent the location of things in space. That is the first kid — the geography of space. But others represent the location of things in time — or perhaps their progression through time. These maps tell stories, which is to say they are the geography of time… But these days I have begun to feel that stories, too, are basically concerned with spatial relationships. The proximity of bodies. Time is simply what interferes with that, yes?”
—Dylan Horrocks, Hicksville
Twelve years ago, when my wife and I bought our first house, I wrote this:
In the five years that we’ve known each other, we’ve never lived in anything bigger than a one-bedroom apartment. Now we both have offices, a washer/dryer, a two-car garage…it’s very surreal.
When you live with someone in a tiny apartment, you’re always in close proximity. You never see that person more than 10 or 20 feet away, because there isn’t 10 or 20 feet to gain between you. You get used to seeing them from a particular distance.
Meg and I often meet each other for lunch on campus. When I see her from far away, walking towards me, she looks like a different person—she looks like a stranger, or someone I just met. It’s like a visual refresh. (I wonder if this visual element isn’t part of the hidden magic of what self-help couples books tell you to do: meet for dinner, but take separate cars…)
Twelve years later, present day, my wife and I have been home with our kids for almost four weeks now, in a townhouse not too much bigger than that first house we shared, and I see them all now, only in close-up. There’s very little stepping back, getting perspective.
Before this, I would stand outside my first grader’s school, waiting, and when he would walk outside when the bell rang, for a minute, I got to see him in his own world, for a brief few steps, until he saw me and entered our shared world again. My wife and I would pull up to my pre-schooler’s school early, and see him waiting with the other kids, and it was the same thing: eavesdropping on him in his own world, before he was back to ours.
I’m keeping everyone else in the world at a distance, but the people in my house have never been closer. It’s hard to get any kind of perspective. (This is the only time in my life I’ve envied people I know with ranches and lots of property — a “spread,” as in, “Why don’t we spread out?”)
Here is my friend Alan Jacobs on why he’s reading ghost stories right now:
“Tell the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson counseled writers; and fifty years later W.H. Auden spoke of readers like me: “When have we not preferred some going round / To going straight to where we are?” People often cry out for writing that, as we say, “speaks to our condition,” but more often than we might wish to acknowledge we are not prepared to have our condition spoken to directly. Another poet, T.S. Eliot this time: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”
When you’re looking at a painting in a gallery, you sometimes find that you need to step back a bit in order to see it whole, to grasp its structure and proportions. You don’t get too far away; just far enough. Perhaps that’s what these stories have been for me: A step or two back from the details of our current predicament gives me the critical distance to process what’s happening with less stress, less mind-warping anxiety.
We were at the kitchen table the other night and my first grader picked up his little binoculars, turned them the wrong way around, and looked at me. “You’re so far away!” he said.
I wish, sometimes, that I had a similar way of zooming out, and getting some more perspective on him. It’s like how one of my camera apps alerts me, when I’m trying to take a picture, “You’re too close!” I need to step back to really see.
I’m typing this now in my front office. The boys are outside with my wife, looking for the slugs and caterpillars eating her plants.
Amazingly, I can’t hear them, but I can see them in my mind.
And I miss them!
My wife, at the very beginning of our self-isolation, said, “I wish the government was as comforting as the HEB website.”
I made this zine a few days ago, and an hour after I posted it, I read this story of how HEB prepared for the pandemic. “Texas. Where a grocery chain responds to crisis better than our top state officials,” somebody tweeted at me. “National officials,” I corrected him.
“Such were my thoughts as I drifted through HEB the other day, lulled into the particular coma that those familiar aisles induce,” wrote Sarah Bird in A Love Letter to Texas Women. “I don’t know why, but HEB is a place of both meditation and epiphany for me.”
One day we’ll wander the aisles again with the luxury of being in such spirits.
My wife is the oldest of four kids. Her parents were once asked at a birthing class if they had any advice for the rookies.
My father-in-law stood up and addressed the group:
“Look, you’re going to want to throw it out the window… and that’s okay! The important thing is that you don’t.”
Then he sat back down.
After all these years, it’s still the greatest parenting advice I’ve ever heard.
(I thought the advice and this zine spoke to each other.)
A quarantine zine.
Inspired by Malaka Gharib’s zines and Warren Craghead’s drawings for his daughter’s lunches, I’ve been making these tiny little zines for my son Owen’s lunch out of a single sheet of paper. (See more of them below.)
It’s a really simple and old technique. Nothing fancy. Tons of people use it. I first learned about it years and years ago from the great book, Whatcha Mean, What’s A Zine?
Here’s my version in a short video:
Here’s a diagram from Keri Smith’s wandering zines:
And here are some of the results (see more on my Instagram):
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