In 2006, Charles H. Traub, chair of the graduate MFA program in photography at the School of Visual Arts and former director of New York’s renowned Light Gallery, collected some of the most compelling writing on photography in The Education of a Photographer — a fantastic anthology, co-authored by living legend Steven Heller, exploring what it means to become a contemporary photographer through remarkable essays from leading designers, editors, and gallery owners.
One of my favorite parts of the book is a list of maxims, The Do’s and Don’ts of Graduate Studies: Maxims from the Chair, outlining the art and science of photography with prescriptive pragmatism, conceptual insight and a healthy dose of stern humor.
Do something old in a new way
Do something new in an old way
Do something new in a new way, Whatever works… works
Do it sharp, if you can’t, call it art
Do it in the computer — if it can be done there
Do fifty of them — you will definitely get a show
Do it big, if you cant do it big, do it red
If all else fails turn it upside down, if it looks good it might work
Do Bend your knees
If you don’t know what to do, look up or down — but continue looking
Do celebrities — if you do a lot of them, you’ll get a book
Connect with others — network
Edit it yourself
Design it yourself
Publish it yourself
Edit, When in doubt shoot more
Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth
See Citizen Kane ten times
Look at everything — stare
Construct your images from the edge inward
If it’s the “real world,” do it in color
If it can be done digitally — do it
Be self centered, self involved, and generally entitled and always pushing — and damned to hell for doing it
Break all rules, except the chairman’s
Don’t do it about yourself — or your friend — or your family
Don’t dare photograph yourself nude
Don’t look at old family albums
Don’t hand color it
Don’t write on it
Don’t use alternative process — if it ain’t straight do it in the computer
Don’t gild the lily — AKA less is more
Don’t go to video when you don’t know what else to do
Don’t photograph indigent people, particularly in foreign lands
Don’t whine, just produce
My favorite has to be “Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth,” affirming my belief in the importance of cross-disciplinary curiosity in informing, inspiring and enriching the creative process.
The entire book is an absolute treasure and I couldn’t recommend it more.
A colorful case of the mosaic of influences that is art.
By Maria Popova
“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,”Bill Moyers wrote, “democracy is open, too.” A century and a half earlier, Thoreau extolled a different aspect of the library as a technology of thought, writing in his diary: “Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”
It was in a similar spirit that, in curating the 2015 Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, beloved musician David Byrne decided to turn his personal book collection into a lending library. “I love a library. The idea of reading books for free didn’t kill the publishing business,” he writes in The Guardian, “on the contrary, it created nations of literate and passionate readers. Shared interests and the impulse to create.”
His impressively worldly library of more than 200 titles spans nearly every aspect of music — from technique to theory, mechanics to memoirs, instruments to interviews — as well as psychology, art, architecture, history, and copyright law.
A lifelong lover of reading, Byrne grew up in a small suburban town near Baltimore, where the library was his only access point to the wider world and books became his formative creative sandbox. I asked him about his earliest memory of a formative book he borrowed from that childhood library and he points to The Phantom Tollbooth. How apt that the 1961 classic contains the now-iconic map of The Kingdom of Wisdom, with its Mountains of Ignorance, Foothills of Confusion, and Sea of Knowledge — an perfect metaphor for how reading itself equips us with an invaluable compass for navigating the landscape of life.
In resonance with Umberto Eco’s concept of the “anti-library,” Byrne points out that he hasn’t read all the books in his library, but has bought each one with the intention of reading it one day — a practice the Japanese call tsundoku.
I’ve digitized the complete alphabetized list of books in Byrne’s lending library, sent to me in a photograph by Brain Pickings reader Ben Hart. What emerges is confirmation that great art is always a mosaic of vibrantly varied influences.
As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:
One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.
Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:
To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.
James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)
Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:
This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.
Woolf remained incredibly resourceful — an inventor of sorts, even. After she switched from standing to sitting, she created a contraption of which she was very proud: She used a piece of thin plywood as a writing board, to which she attached a tray for pens and ink so she wouldn’t have to get up and disrupt her flow of inspiration should she run out of materials. Driven by a similar fear of depletion of materials, John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He used them so heavily that his editor had to send him round pencils to alleviate the calluses Steinbeck had developed on his hands from the traditional hexagonal ones.
Some habits, of course, were far less pragmatic, harking instead to creative superstition. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.
Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.
A minority, however, measured quantity as inversely proportional to quality. James Joyce proudly considered the completion of two perfect sentences a full day of work and Dorothy Parker, an obsessive reviser, even skewed to the negative, once lamented, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”
Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:
Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.
He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.
We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:
Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.
But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:
[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.
Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”
(A semi-scientific hypothesis of an aside here: If left to rot long enough, decomposing biomass, such as apples, produces methane gas. Though methane is not toxic, it can displace oxygen in a closed space — like, say, an obsessive writer’s small den — and could eventually pose asphyxiation risk if the displacement runs rampant. In small doses, however, it can cause light-headedness — that pleasant near-tipsy feeling of slight dizziness one gets when in the grip of creative inspiration. It is possible, then, that the rotting apples were more than an odd olfactory stimulus for Schiller and actually had a biological effect on his mental state.)
Most authors, of course, didn’t let their food rot for inspiration, but they were no less particular about their preferred edibles for fueling the muse. Agatha Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots, Flannery O’Connor crunched vanilla wafers, and Vladimir Nabokov fueled his “prefatory glow” with molasses.
Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.
Many authors were notorious multitaskers: Alexandre Dumas dedicated every spare moment to his craft, writing between errands and meals, and Gertrude Stein wrote during errands as her wife, Alice B. Toklas, drove the duo around in their famed Model T Ford, Aunt Pauline (named after Stein’s real aunt, because the car, like Pauline herself, “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered”). Johnson tells us:
In the privacy of an automobile, she could let her mind wander and jot down a few lines, no matter where she was. Stein was especially productive during errands. She’d sit in the car while her partner, Alice B. Toklas, dashed into a store. While she waited, Stein would pull out a pencil and a scrap of paper. She was particularly inspired by the traffic on busy Parisian streets. Automobiles stopped and started with a rhythm that thrummed right into her poetry and prose.
Stein, like Vladimir Nabokov, even liked to write in a parked car, which served as a perfectly contained bubble of stillness ideal for writing. But other authors’ relationships with transportation and the muse were decidedly less safe — Eudora Welty jotted down ideas during the long drives to her mother’s nursing home and Sir Walter Scott composed poetry on horseback.
Moving vehicles and motion, in fact, have a long history of stirring up inspiration. (I get the vast majority of my own ideas while riding my bike around the city or working out on the elliptical at the gym.) Joseph Heller arrived at some of his greatest ideas while riding the bus and even famously stated that the closing line of Catch-22 came to him on a bus. When he was sixteen, Woody Allen channeled his budding comedic genius on his daily crowded subway rides to the New York ad agency that had offered him an after-school job. Most impressive of all, however, was that he managed to write his ideas down without the luxury of a seat, standing and wobbling alongside irate commuters. Johnson cites Allen’s recollection:
Straphanging, I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes … fifty jokes a day for years.
But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:
That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.
You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.
Odd Type Writers is both fascinating in its particular oddities and oddly assuring in its general testament to the grounding power of personal habit and the coexistence of creativity and quirk. Complement it with some more practical help from famous authors in their collected wisdom on writing.
Rawsthorn begins with a necessary definition of the essence and cultural significance of design, so often misunderstood and diminished to mere decoration:
Design is a complex, often elusive phenomenon that has changed dramatically over time by adopting different guises, meanings and objectives in different contexts, but its elemental role is to act as an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening around us, and to turn it to our advantage. Every design exercise sets out to change something, whether its intention is to transform the lives of millions of people, or to make a marginal difference to one, and it does so systematically. At its best, design can ensure that changes of any type — whether they are scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic, social, environmental or behavioral — are introduced to the world in ways that are positive and empowering, rather than inhibiting or destructive.
One of Rawsthorn’s most illustrative examples comes from Ying Zheng, who took the throne as king of the Chinese State of Qin in his early teens in 246 BC and went on to become the first emperor of unified China in 221 BC. Today, he endures as one of the most formidable figures in world history, equally known for his military might and his uncompromising despotism, which included book-burning and burying scholars alive. Design, as it turns out, was his major ally, which he employed on various levels, from the practical to the tactical to the political.
One of his major feats, Rawsthorn tells us, was standardization:
The design of all weaponry was improved under Ying Zheng’s command. The optimum size, shape, choice of material and method of production for each piece was determined, and every effort made to ensure that weapons of the same type adhered to the chosen formula. The Qin army had used bronze spears for over a thousand years, but the blades were rendered shorter and broader. The dagger-axes were redesigned too. Putting six holes in the blades, rather than four, ensured that their bronze heads could be attached more securely and were less likely to shake loose in the frenzy of battle.
Even more important were the changes to Qin’s bows and arrows. Archers were critical in determining the outcome of every stage of combat in Ying Zheng’s era, but their weapons were made by hand, often to different specifications. If an archer ran out of arrows during a battle, it was generally impossible for him to fire another warrior’s arrows from his bow. Similarly, if he was killed or injured, his remaining ammunition would be useless to his comrades. And if a bow broke, that archer’s arrows risked being wasted. The same problems applied to more complex weapons like crossbows. The result was that an army’s progress was often impeded by weapons failure because its archers were unable to fight at full efficiency, if at all.
With standardization also came a new level of production accountability:
Ying Zheng’s forces resolved these problems by standardizing the design of their bows and arrows. The shaft of each arrow had to be a precise length, and the head to be formed in a triangular prism, always of the same size and shape. The components of longbows and crossbows were made identical too, and these design formulas were rigidly enforced. Each piece of government equipment was branded with a distinctive mark to identify who had made it and in which workshop. If a particular weapon was deemed substandard, the offending artisans would be fined, and punished more severely if the problem recurred.
But Ying Zheng didn’t stop at weaponry. Next, he rebranded his very persona, renaming himself Qin Shihuangdi, or “First Emperor of China,” and employed design in shaping various aspects of culture and commerce, from literacy to currency, even enforcing his own reputation by way of early propaganda design:
A unified system of coinage was introduced, as were standardized weights and measures, a universal legal code and common method of writing. These changes made daily life more orderly, and boosted the economy by making it easier for people from different regions to trade. They also had a symbolic importance in helping to persuade the new emperor’s subjects, many of whom had fought against his army in battle, or had family or friends who had died doing so, that they had a personal stake in his immense domain. Take the new coins. Every time a farmer or a carpenter used them, they saw a tangible reminder that they themselves were part of a dynamic new empire, and had good reason to feel grateful to its visionary founder and ruler.
He also made sure that the inhabitants of even the most remote regions knew of his power and achievements by ordering descriptions of his feats to be carved into mountains across China.
This use of design strategy, in fact, was a primitive example of the buzzworthy concept currently known as “design thinking”:
Qin Shihuangdi [identified] what he needed to do to secure the future of his regime, and to communicate the results to his subjects. There are parallels between his strategic use of design and its role in successful corporate identity programs, such as Nike’s, and communication exercises like Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns.
But Qin Shihuangdi’s greatest design feat was the application of design as a medium of self-expression, specifically in the preservation of his legacy. He commanded the construction of a monumental burial chamber — a massive underground palace spanning over twenty square miles on Mount Li, discovered there accidentally by farmers in 1974. Its construction was so demanding and grueling that many of the workers died in the process of it and were buried on the site. Rawsthorn explains:
Just as Qin Shihuangdi had deployed design with extreme efficiency to amass wealth and power during his life, he used it to secure what he believed would be an equally resplendent death, by creating the afterlife of his fantasies, which served a practical purpose too. Building such an outlandishly extravagant burial site was so eloquent a testimony of his might that it reinforced it as effectively as his celestially planned palaces, mountain inscriptions and the new imperial currency. But it was also a physical manifestation of the inner world of his imagination, a material expression of how China’s first emperor saw himself, and wished to define his place in history, which presaged contemporary design spectacles such as Olympic Games opening ceremonies, the Arirang Festivals in North Korea and the elaborate sets of Chanel’s haute couture shows at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Yet unlike latter-day design tacticians such as Apple, Chanel, Nike, Barack Obama’s campaign advisors and the despotic Kim dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi conceived and executed his design feats entirely instinctively.