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Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son

“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876–March 8, 1941) sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s greatest letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,


The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.


The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.


You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.

There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children is a delicious read in its entirety. Couple this particular excerpt with Georgia O’Keeffe’s spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson, three years earlier, on success and what it really means to be an artist.


The Science of Productivity, Animated

“Studies have found that the most elite violinists in the world generally follow a 90-minute work regime, with a 15- to 20-minute break afterwards.”

After their illustrated primer on the science of procrastination, the fine folks of AsapSCIENCE are back with a look at the science of productivity — including studies confirming that willpower is an exhaustible source and habit is the key to everything, and specific, actionable strategies for boosting your own efficiency, like crafting a good daily routine and keeping a notebook.

Shockingly, when we look at some of the most elite musicians in the world, we find that they aren’t necessarily practicing more but, instead, more deliberately. This is because they spend more time focused on the hardest task and focus their energy in packets — instead of diluting their energy over the entire day, they have periods of intense work, followed by breaks. Not relying on willpower, they rely on habit and discipline scheduling. Studies have found that the most elite violinists in the world generally follow a 90-minute work regime, with a 15- to 20-minute break afterwards.

Previous episodes have covered such scientific curiosities as what alcohol does to your brain, the science of lucid dreaming, how music enchants the brain, and the neurobiology of orgasms.


Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students from Grade School to Grad School

“The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.”

In 2006, Larry Smith presented a challenge to his community at SMITH Magazine: How would you tell your life’s story if you could only use six words? The question, inspired by the legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write an entire novel in just six words, spurred a flurry of responses — funny, heartbreaking, moving, somewhere between PostSecret and Félix Fénéon’s three-word reports. The small experiment soon became a global phenomenon, producing a series of books and inspiring millions of people to contemplate the deepest complexities of existence through the simplicity of short-form minimalism. The latest addition to the series, Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated: Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students Making Sense of the World, comes from TEDBooks and collects dozens of visual six-word autobiographies from students between the ages of 8 and 35.

In the introduction, Smith speaks to the liberating quality of constraints:

As an autobiographical challenge, the six-word limitation forces us to pinpoint who we are and what matters most — at least in the moment. The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.

The micro-memoirs are divided into four sections — grade school, high school, college, and graduate school — and touch, with equal parts wit and disarming candor, on everything from teenagers’ internal clocks to the escapism of Alice in Wonderland.

Charlotte ‘Charley’ Berkenbile, 8, is in third grade at Florence Elementary School in Keller, Texas.
Sonia Rose Menken, 10, attends Charles H. Bullock School in Montclair, N.J., where she is in fifth grade.
Kenn Doan, 12, is in sixth grade at West Stanly Middle School in Locust, N.C.
Shawn Budlong, 13, is in seventh grade at the Thurgood Marshall School in Rockford, Ill.
Rehana Ottalah, 13, is in eighth grade at J.D. Meisler Middle School in Metairie, La.
Courtney Drude, 16, attends Marriotts Ridge High School in Ellicott City, Md., where she is a junior.
Yoona Chun, 17, is a senior at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, N.Y.
Liz Pendragon, 17, attends Union High School in Union, Mo., where she is a senior.
Devin White, 19, attends Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., where he is a freshman.
Georgia Chouteau, 19, is a sophomore at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Melanie Jeanne Plank, 21, is a senior at the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill.
Minhee Bae, 21, is a senior at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario.
Elizabeth Kay Oh, 23, recently completed her bachelor’s at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City.

Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated comes on the heels of TED’s The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope and offers an inadvertent yin to its yang.


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