How to murder your darlings.

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? 

Continue reading “How to murder your darlings.”

How to find your voice.

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.

Let me explain.

Continue reading “How to find your voice.”

How to start.

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…”

Continue reading “How to start.”

How to win by losing.

This is going to be mortifyingly embarrassing but I may as well tell you about it. When I was a teenager, I loved the Newhart show. Not The Bob Newhart Show where he was shrink in Chicago married to Suzanne Pleshette but the later one in which Bob had a different wife and lived in Vermont. You may remember that show, a not-terribly funny precursor to Fawlty Towers, in which Bob ran an inn and there were the three local brothers named Larry, Daryl and Daryl.

I loved this show because of Bob’s second career, his real career. He was a successful author of “how-to” books. This struck me as the perfect ambition. To sit in a cozy study and churn out books that were effortless to write. Not to strive for Pulitzers or National Book Awards but just to crank out shelves full of books on animal husbandry, basket weaving, and transmission repair. Real books nonetheless, arrayed on shelves filled with one’s name over and over on the spines.

Continue reading “How to win by losing.”

How to become a professional.

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.

Continue reading “How to become a professional.”

Podcast 05: The seasons of creation

I woke up super early with a thought in my mind and, as fast as I could type, I wrote this script for the new episode of  art for all, the Sketchbook Skool podcast.  It’s all about  the creative process. How the brain recovers from a burst of productivity, the value of inspiration, how to tackle a giant project, coping with setbacks, and more.

I hope it make some sense.  Let me know.

CLICK TO LISTEN HERE if you don’t have a podcast app.

If you haven’t yet, please subscribe to art for all on your favorite podcasting app.

Links to stuff mentioned in the episode.


EPISODE TRANSCRIPT: Continue reading “Podcast 05: The seasons of creation”

What I did this Summer

It’s been a while. The last you heard from me, I was whining about my extraordinary good fortune, that I had rented a painting studio for the summer to share with my son and how challenged I felt by this enormous hot fudge sundae.

And, while it may have appeared on this blog that I had disappeared into that studio and locked the door behind me for two months, I actually was absent because I gave myself an even bigger gift.

A summer off.

It wasn’t a deliberate plan at first. But despite my industrious and responsible nature, I decided to shirk more and more habits and rutware and see what grew in their place. And to see how much trouble I’d get in to for not showing up.

Studio.

I made a bunch of paintings and some sculptures. Despite my initial trepidation, I let myself go fairly wild with how I made them, experimenting with new media and working much bigger than usual. Most of the paintings were fairly large and the sculptures were all knee high but were installed in various sites as if they were monumental. In a few days, I’ll write a detailed post about what specifically I did and what I learned by doing it, but suffice it to say for now that going to the studio was a refreshing departure that helped me examine and combat a lot of those fears I had expressed to you a few months ago. I drew some but less than normal and didn’t keep any sort of illustrated journal at all.

Reading.

Usually, the summer is a great time to go to the movies. But over the past few years, the cinema has lost its appeal for me. I find most of the films really forgettable. I can think of two I have seen this year that I liked (Hunt for the Wilderpeople and The Lobster) and, because so many of my friends don’t seem to go the movies any more either, even they haven’t been good fodder for dinner party conversation.

Instead, I have watched TV and read books.

I made time to read a lot. I’d get up early and read before breakfast and go to be early and read for an hour every day. I read a fair amount of escapist crap as one should in the summer. I also read some fantastic books, many of them new. Many of these are memoirs and others are novels that feel like memoirs. Here are the ones that have really stuck with me, creating moods and insights that I keep coming back to as the best books do.

Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, Vol.4 of Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Nix by Nathan Hill, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Ahmad.

I read some books about business and about creativity. The better ones include How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton, Makers and Free, both by Chris Anderson, The Prize by Daniel Yergin, Let the Elephants Run by David Usher, Choose Yourself by James Altucher,  and Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Watching.

We watched a fair amount of TV when staying in the air-conditioned living room seemed the sanest plan. We watched the ABC series Lost on Netflix, a strange and endless tease which I hadn’t watched when it was first broadcast. It took the better part of the summer.

We watched the Olympics, although our initial enthusiasm waned over the two weeks of breathless coverage. Partly because living with a millennial for the summer who doesn’t get the Olympic quadrennial ritual and wonders why we need to watch hours of gymnastics and swimming when there 700 other things on to watch instead. And partly because I started to wonder the same thing.

The Election.

(Note: One thing that I have learned in a dozen years of blogging: avoid talking about religion or politics; it just ruins the party. But I’ll break that rule today to share how I have felt watching the election this summer.)

Since high school, I have always been a deeply committed election follower. I was a political science major at Princeton, a White House intern, and devoured all the classic books about campaigns like Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter Thompson, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, The Selling of the President by Joe McGinnis, and the various edition  The Making of the President by Theodore H. White.

I like following the campaign strategies, the unfolding dramas, the twists and turns. And, in at least four elections in my adult life, I have felt pretty passionate about one of the candidates running for office.

This election has been a gobsmacking, rubbernecking train wreck but it lacks the usual pleasures. There’ve been no real discussion of solutions, no traditional campaign strategy, and the result, despite the media’s shrill thrashings, has been forgone for some time. It’s like the 1972 Olympics in Munich — instead of watching a match of amazing accomplished competitors, we are watching a highjacking. It’s disturbing that at a time of such change in the world, this important opportunity for discussion has become just a referendum on two individuals. Like a lot of people in this country, I don’t feel much enthusiasm for either candidate, and I am just waiting for it to be over. Nonetheless, it’s hard to tear one’s self away from the spectacle. I just hope I can get back to enjoying the race next time.

Okay, back to more important things we can all agree on, like Sketchbook Skool.

Sketchbook Skool.

We are entering a new phase in the Skool’s development. It may not always be apparent from outside, but we do a lot of thinking and planning and replanning and rethinking about what the future of the Skool should be and if it should even continue at all. What began as an experiment almost three years ago grew into a business. And a passion project became a job. There are times it has been the best job I could imagine. At times, I have felt like I work for the worst boss ever: me.

This year, we had lots of ambitions, tried lots of experiments, and finally came to a maturing in the early summer that has made us all feel both excited and in balance.

We have created a number of new kourses this summer. We released Andrea Joseph’s Creative Lettering klass, one of our biggest launches
ever and people really love it.

We filmed another intensive kourse with Veronica Lawlor that we will be launching later this year. I am in the midst of creating a kourse called “How to Draw Without Talent” that I am having loads of fun with. And we have several new teachers segments in the can for another 6 week kourse to launch in the winter.

Jack and I even made a film (to be released soon) called “How to Draw Your Dog” featuring our two favorite canine mascots, Tim and Joe. We’ll share that soon.

We are also advertising on Facebook for the first time which has been a great way to welcome new people and has made us completely rethink how we present ourselves and what our Skool can be. It has also been fascinating, as a person who created advertising for thirty years, to be marketing my own business, and to be using new tools and technologies that work in such amazing ways. I can’t say I ever knew exactly how any ad I ever write really worked. Now I know on an hourly basis.

This summer we also committed to doing a Study Hall video for every single week of every kourse, a daily blog post that’s useful and inspiring, a weekly newsletter, a weekly video roundup of everything that’s going on in the community and to our first wave of Teaching Assistants, recruited from our alumni.

Our growth has had some pains. We have come to terms with the fact that our platform may not be right going forward and in the next few weeks, we will begin to transition in a hopefully seamless way to a new technology that is faster, more secure, and has lots of new features that will improve the Skool. It’s one of the most essential and most disruptive things we have to do (we changed platforms last year and it was like moving to a new country) and it’s taken many months to finalize the decision but it’s gotta be done.

We are also getting better at doing our jobs. For the first time, we are regularly getting planning and things done long before they are due, sticking to proper production and marketing schedules. And we are being realistic and focused in what we take on so we can get things done, and grow in the way we want to, to accomplish our personal and business goals.

Sketchbook Skool is a great part of my life and the lives of lots of other people, my colleagues, fakulty, and students. Keeping it viable and thriving is challenging but rewarding and this summer has been one of our most important chapters, even though much of that work has gone on behind the scenes.

Advertising.

I signed on to do a three-month project for a former client which will take me through early October. I can’t discuss the deets but it involves a sizable budget and a fair amount of autonomy.

It has been interesting to fire up those sections of my brain that have been under a tarp for three years and see if they still work. They do.

It has also been interesting to see how I have changed in the past three years, how differently I work, how differently I view the processes of big corporations and of the advertising business. I must say I much prefer how we do things at SBS. So much less bureaucratic, more decisive, more flexible — but so it goes. I don’t miss working full-time for the Man but an occasional visit is fine.

Jack.

My boy graduated this summer and has spent a couple of months working to save up for his move to Los Angeles in the fall. It has been great to have him here with Jenny and me but bittersweet because we all know it’s the last time he’ll really be living here. Soon he’ll start his new life, far away, and I am savoring every one of the moments we have left.

At the end of September, I plan to drive with him from New York to Los Angeles to help him get setup in his new apartment and to leave him the family car. Then I’ll fly home and he will begin his next chapter. Gulp.

Cooking.

We spent last Spring having our kitchen renovated and we love the results. Jenny and I have a beautiful, sunswept place to cook now and we are making the most of it, visiting the farmer’s market, ordering mystery boxes of artisanal veggies from Fresh Direct, and having an excuse to buy even more cookbooks. Our kitchen is so big and well designed that all three of us can work in it together, without knife fights or saucepan jousts.

Exercise.

Maybe it’s my demographic, but more and more of my friends and relatives are getting decrepit. They’re spending time in the hospital, struggling to reach their shoe laces, filling drawers with pill bottles. I want to avoid that. My shingles experience last Spring really brought that home. I have been ever more dedicated to working out with my trainer Keith, to avoiding french fries, double dip cones, and the sun’s rays. I am also realizing that I am not meant to be thin but that doesn’t mean I am meant to be fat. I am, however, meant to be baldish, it would seem.

Ideas.

This summer I began a new habit: I start each morning by writing down a bunch of ideas. Each day I concoct a different assignment and write down whatever occurs to me. It pumps my brain with blood, clears the cobwebs, and is a nice habit. Most of the ideas are worthless but the occasional one is worth developing and that’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll share some of those lists with you here, in time.

Workbook.

I have a new book. It just came out at the end of August. It’s called Art Before Breakfast – the Workbook. It is designed to help you develop a creative habit, of drawing and seeing the world around you every day. If you have read Art Before Breakfast, you will recognize some of the content but it has been redesigned and expanded and printed on high quality sketchbook paper so you can not only carry it around with your for inspiration but also draw and write and even paint right in its pages. I hope you like it.

And if you prefer Frühstück to Breakfast, you will be glad to know that the original Art Before Breakfast is soon to come out in German. That will be the sixth edition foreign language, including Spanish, Russian, Korean, Mandarin and I forget the other one. Aussie?

The fall.

Well, I hope you had a great summer too. Do tell me about it.

School’s back in session, I have my new shoes, fresh haircut and sharpened pencils and will be at my workstation, posting semiregularly again. So get used to coming back to this same batchannel in future for more ruminations on all things creative.