When peacocks are hatched, they are ugly grey balls of fluff. When you snap a Polaroid, it is grey, then murky, washed out. When a baker puts a cake in the oven, it is runny, mealy, and inedible. A great burgundy goes into the bottle as grape juice. When a marathoner crosses the finish line, her body is depleted, her heart is erratic, her brain is mush. When you are clinging to the side of a mountain, your face pressed against the granite — you can’t see its shape against the sky, its majesty.
When I was still a young pup, I was asked to write a draft of an incredibly important newspaper ad. It was to explain to the American public the historic breakup of AT&T into eight different companies. This pivotal moment would end a century of monopoly and change American technology overnight.
I pounded away at my Selectric® for days, dog-eared thesaurus at my side, then dumped reams and reams of copy on my boss’s desk. He looked over his reading glasses at me, sighed and said, “I see you didn’t have time to write less,” then picked up a red grease pencil and started to slash at my masterpiece. When he handed it back, gutted and bloody, I was appalled. How could he cut this phrase, that similie, those seven paragraphs of blinding brilliance?
Recently, we went to see Gatz, a wonderful staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The play isn’t based on the novel. It is the novel. All 49,000 words of it, read aloud, over eight hours (including a few intermissions). All they left out were the chapter titles.
Gatz was a profound experience and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I felt as I sat in my narrow theatre seat for the better part of a Friday. The part I’ve been thinking about most wasn’t the length of the experience. Yeah, it was long but I’ve spent more time binge-watching shows on Netflix. The thing that stayed with me was the personal experience of voice and what that means to the way I make things.
It’s Friday and I have to write a blog post. I could start with a humorous anecdote, maybe something self-deprecating —I’ve been doing a fair amount of that sort of self-flagellation lately. Maybe about the time I fell asleep in the library in college and was so embarrassed when I was awoken by another student that….
Or how about a shocking fact — someone just told me that in a recent poll 80% of Americans said they want to write a book (I wonder what percentage want to read one?). Or maybe a bold assertion, like “I shot a man in Reno, just so he would stay still while I drew him…”
We just got back to New York after a month in California. We went west because November had been so awful and cold in NY and we couldn’t bear the idea of an unbroken stretch of winter reaching long over the horizon. So we borrowed a friend’s house near the beach in Venice, then moved inland to a Spanish revival house (above) on a big piece of land in Echo Park.
It was admittedly quite a luxury to flee and cross the country but it wasn’t a vacation. JJ and I spent much of each day sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, working away at our laptops, while the rain beat against the windows and the wind howled through the palm trees. It’s great to have job you can do from anywhere on earth with access to wifi!
When I was a sophomore at Princeton, I had to pick a major. It seemed like the one crucial decision that would determine my life’s path. I sweated over it for months.
There were certain disciplines it was easy to eliminate, the ones that had always seemed like Greek to me. Math. Physics. Chemistry. Greek. History was sorta interesting but I couldn’t stand memorizing dates. Economics? Of course not, I wasn’t going to become a businessman. Art? Give me a break. Who majors in art at Princeton?
English? Well, I loved and devoured books but I wasn’t sure what an English degree would give me. I didn’t want to be an English teacher. Or an academic writing books about other people’s books.
But I’d always loved to write. Stories. Essays. Articles for the school paper. If I could write for a living, I knew I surely would be happy.
When you make something with no consideration of the outside world, no interest in other people’s opinions, no desire to find a market for your product, but just simply because it expresses how you feel, because you find it interesting, because it something you want to do — your creation is authentic.
Being authentic does have a price. You may not be compensated as handsomely as if you created something designed just to satisfy others (but then again, you might). But it’ll compensate you in other ways that are much more meaningful and lasting —like insight, community, credibility, beauty, value and truth.
I love New York but it can be way too much — and the last few months have pushed me to the limit. The streets have been too damned jammed with holiday tourists and texting millennials. The pre-dawn construction project down the block had been going on for too damned long. And winter came too damned early and frigid this year.
JJ and I concluded we had to get out of Dodge, sit in the sun and eat clementines. Now we’re in LA for a month and my sluggish brain is starting to thaw.
My pal Michael Nobbs suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and yet is a creative and productive artist. We had a chat recently about how he does it and how we can all use his techniques to get more done each day.
Michael is also a teacher in the newest kourse at Sketchbook Skool. If you would like to more tips, suggestions and perspectives from him and our other new fakulty, check out Expressing at SBS.com.
Some three years ago, I taught the one and only class of my career, a 12 week program at the Open Center. I learned a lot and met a number of interesting artists over the weeks. Seth Apter was in my class and I began to visit his sumptuous website, The Altered Page , and to talk with him about drawing and art and the creative process. He interviewed me for his blog and again, the conversation broke new ground for me/
Last year, Seth began work on a book, The Pulse of Mixed Media: Secrets and Passions of 100 Artists Revealed, and invited me to participate.
Now, I have been a part of a number of books that collected the work of many artists, and generally it’s a simple and painless affair. In fact, while putting together An Illustrated Life and its upcoming sequel, An Illustrated Journey, I found myself in the reverse position of having to badger other artists to join up and then send me pages from their journals and answer my questions. It’s a fair amount of work but one learns so much by shepherding this sort of book.
Anyway, being a part of Seth’s book was more than I initially thought when I signed up. That’s because Seth really demanded that I think a lot about myself and my process in answering his questions, think in ways I’d not been asked to do before, not even by myself. He’s a psychologist and he challenged me to really explain the many things I take for granted in my work, the media I use and the ways I use them, what defines my work and what does not, He asked me questions like “What three words do not describe your artistic style?” and “If you could sell one piece of art to anyone in the world, whom would you want to buy it and why?”
Seth asked these sorts of questions of me and many, many other artists. From what I’ve seen of it, the resulting book is a rich and beautiful tapestry that explores the deepest aspects of the creative process, and provokes and inspires over and again. The Pulse of Mixed Media will be officially published at the end of this month but apparently it’s in some stores already. You can also get it direct from the publisher. Meanwhile, Seth is doing all sorts of things on his site to dimensionalize the content, with samples and peeks inside. Seth has promised me that the actual book will be in my hands any day now but my trips to the mailbox have been for naught so far. I hope to share a deeper dive between its covers in the near future.
Meanwhile, if you get a copy, do let me know what you think.