Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

12 AUGUST, 2014

Bukowski’s Letter of Gratitude to the Man Who Helped Him Quit His Soul-Sucking Job and Become a Full-Time Writer

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“To not have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.”

“Unless it comes unasked out of your heart and your mind and your mouth and your gut,” Charles Bukowski wrote in his famous poem about what it takes to be a writer, “don’t do it.” But Bukowski himself was a late bloomer in the journey of finding one’s purpose, as his own “it” — that irrepressible impulse to create — took decades to coalesce into a career.

Like many celebrated authors who once had ordinary day jobs, Buk tried a variety of blue-collar occupations before becoming a full-time writer and settling into his notorious writing routine. In this mid-thirties, he took a position as a fill-in mailman for the U.S. Postal Service. But even though he’d later passionately argue that no day job or practical limitation can stand in the way of true creativity, he found himself stifled by working for the man. By his late forties, he was still a postal worker by day, writing a column for LA’s underground magazine Open City in his spare time and collaborating on a short-lived literary magazine with another poet.

In 1969, the year before Bukowski’s fiftieth birthday, he caught the attention of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin, who offered Buk a monthly stipend of $100 to quit his day job and dedicate himself fully to writing. (It was by no means a novel idea — the King of Poland had done essentially the same for the great astronomer Johannes Hevelius five centuries earlier.) Bukowski gladly complied. Less than two years later, Black Sparrow Press published his first novel, appropriately titled Post Office.

But our appreciation for those early champions often comes to light with a slow burn. Seventeen years later, in August of 1986, Bukowski sent his first patron a belated but beautiful letter of gratitude. Found in Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters 1978–1994 (public library), the missive emanates Buk’s characteristic blend of playfulness and poignancy, political incorrectness and deep sensitivity, cynicism and self-conscious earnestness.

August 12, 1986

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s overtime and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank

Complement with Bukowski’s “so you want to be a writer,” then revisit this essential compendium of advice on how to find your purpose and do what you love and the spectacular resignation letter Sherwood Anderson wrote when he decided to quit his soul-sucking corporate job and become a full-time writer.

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12 AUGUST, 2014

Flashlight: A Whimsical Wordless Story about Curiosity and Wonder

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Shedding light on the wonderland that unfolds when you simply dare, and care, to look.

As an immense lover of smart children’s books and of cleverly deployed die-cut ingenuity, I was instantly taken with Flashlight (public library) by Vermont-based illustrator Lizi Boyd — a wordless story about curiosity and wonder, following a little boy who sneaks out of his camp tent at night and, with a flashlight in hand, discovers the whimsical world that lives under the nocturnal veneer.

Beneath the sweet, enchanting illustrations, with a sensibility partway between The Black Book of Colors and Jon Klassen’s art for Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, lies a deeper reminder about the wonderland that unfolds when one is simply willing to look.

Flashlight was preceded by Boyd’s equally delightful Inside Outside.

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12 AUGUST, 2014

Art, Inc.: A Field Guide to the Psychology and Practicalities of Becoming a Successful Artist

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How to master the business of art without buying into the toxic myth that doing so makes you a lesser artist.

“Art is a form of consciousness,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. But for many working artists, who straddle the balance between creativity and commerce, art swells into a form of uncomfortable self-consciousness — something compounded by a culture that continually pits the two as a tradeoff. Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod captured this perfectly in proclaiming that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.” Such sentiments, argues artist Lisa Congdon in Art, Inc.: The Essential Guide for Building Your Career as an Artist (public library), are among the most toxic myths we subscribe to as a culture and reflect a mentality immeasurably limiting for creative people.

Congdon, a longtime collaborator of mine and a prolific artist herself, offers those looking to make a career in a creative field, wherever they may be along the journey — aspiring artists just discovering their talent, part-time artists trying to transition into full-time, seasoned artists seeking new ideas to reinvigorate an existing career — the necessary tools for defining success by their own standards, then attaining it on their own terms. From practicalities like pricing, marketing, and photographing your work to psychological tussles like dealing with self-doubt, learning to say “no,” and managing the ebb and flow of success, she offers a 360-degree map of the terra incognita that is the modern creative life-cum-living.

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Tender Buttons,' an illustrated inventory of Gertrude Stein's favorite objects. Click image for more.

Interspersed throughout the seven chapters are conversations with established artists, from legendary graphic designer Paula Scher, who shares the semi-serendipitous evolution of her magnificent typographic map paintings, to Nikki McClure, whose exquisite cut-paper illustrations make it hard to believe she is an entirely self-taught former ecologist.

In the foreword, Jonathan Fields, courageous explorer of what it means to lead a good life, observes the resistance so many creative people have to labeling ourselves “artist” — a resistance that bears striking parallels to the way many women relate to the label “feminist.” Reflecting on growing up with a mother who was a gifted potter and painting with great joy throughout his childhood, he writes:

For some reason, when you hit a certain age and a certain level of “seriousness,” and you start calling yourself an “artist,” making a living at it becomes a source of great controversy. People who have nothing to do with the exchange between you and those who would enjoy your work start to pass judgment. Money, they proclaim, bastardizes both the process and the output.

Why this cultural rift emerged, I really don’t know. Maybe it has to do with the establishment of a power and money structure defined largely by gatekeepers and chosen ones — external arbiters controlling not only the flow of eyeballs, but income. Maybe it comes from the ire of those who’ve not yet figured out how to make their calling their profession seeking to tear down those who have, labeling them sellouts and hacks. Maybe it stems from something entirely different.

Whatever the source, what’s become clear to me is that you no longer have to wait to be picked.

Indeed, the precipice to which the internet has pushed creative culture is in large part what makes Congdon’s book so timely and urgently valuable, and her own atypical journey lends her advice hard-earned credibility. Congdon didn’t grow up dreaming of being an artist, nor did she have even a hobbyist’s art practice until her thirties when, struggling to recenter after an eight-year relationship ended, she picked up a paintbrush for the first time since middle school. She took a painting class at the local university’s continued education department and quickly fell in love with art, eventually going from “someone with no art experience and a very basic skill set to someone who now has a full-time career drawing and painting.”

Illustration from Lisa Congdon's 'Whatever You Are, Be a Good One,' a hand-lettered compendium of famous wisdom. Click image for more.

In the introduction, she marvels at the remarkable sense of arriving into herself that art afforded her:

What felt different about art from former pursuits was that I was motivated by something I hadn’t experienced before: an intrinsic desire to create. It was deep-seated and primal; once I discovered it, I had to make art like I had to breathe. From this passion came a desire to expand my skills, even in areas that were out of my comfort zone. I taught myself to use new media and techniques and practiced for hours and hours until my hand felt like it would fall off.

But, in a testament to the idea that getting noticed hinges on actively showing your work, it wasn’t until she started sharing her art online in 2005 that Congdon began connecting with people who would eventually buy it — and this art of sharing art is, not coincidentally, a centerpiece of Congdon’s handbook. Doing that, it seems, is in large part a matter of getting out of your own way creatively. Congdon writes:

While there is no one perfect formula that will work for every artist, I realized there are a few clear paths and work habits that, used in some combination, can lead to consistent, paying, and satisfying work.

[...]

One thing I know for sure is that to be a successful artist, you must start with the simplest proclamation: I am an artist. It’s a basic assertion, but seeing yourself as an artist — legitimate and genuine — can be transformational.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon from 'The Reconstructionists,' our yearlong celebration of remarkable women. Click image for more.

But perhaps Congdon’s most urgently important point has to do with the mythology of what it means and what it takes to be an artist artist. She admonishes against buying into the perilous notion of the “starving artist”:

Much of what separates successful artists from those who struggle is simply their mindset. Struggling artists often create obstacles in their minds by making erroneous assumptions about the way the world works. They give weight to the “starving artist myth”—part conventional belief that pursuing a career as an artist leads to financial struggle and part romanticized notion that art is better when created in a state of deprivation. But the starving artist myth is just that: a myth. And believing in any part of it will keep you from becoming a thriving, working artist.

Creating a flourishing art practice comes from passion, talent, and hard work. Promoting your work means that people will know what you do. And selling your work will support your livelihood and allow you to make even more art. This is the “thriving artist’s mindset.” Artists who possess this mentality are not frightened by the notion of making money. They think in terms of possibility and abundance, not limits and scarcity. They’ve given themselves permission to thrive.

As a vehement opponent of the “starving artist” myth myself, I’ve often marveled at how the inimitable Patti Smith embodies precisely the difference Congdon outlines. Smith was, quite literally, an artist who starved early in her career, as evidenced by her lettuce soup days. But, as Seth Godin once remarked in considering the necessary vulnerability of being an artist, even though Smith was homeless for years — dumpster-diving for food and sleeping on park benches — she never thought of herself as a homeless person; she thought of herself as “an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.”

Congdon illustrates the difference between these two mindsets, which map rather neatly onto Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s pioneering model of fixed vs. growth mindset.

Ultimately, Congdon suggests that the fusion of creative purpose and financial fruition comes from the integration of our values with the price of success, however we choose to define it. She writes:

Finding equanimity in the midst of our creative and entrepreneurial journeys is truly our life’s work.

Complement Art, Inc. with a lesson from Muppets creator Jim Henson on bridging creative integrity and commercial success and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s wise admonition against buying into the notion of “selling out,” then revisit Anna Deavere Smith’s invaluable advice to aspiring artists.

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