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The Do’s and Don’ts of Photography

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.

The Do’s

  • 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
  • Edit again
  • 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

The Don’ts

  • 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.


David Byrne’s Lending Library

A colorful case of the mosaic of influences that is art.

“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.

  1. 40 Watts from Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio (public library) by Sue Carpenter
  2. A divina comedia dos Mutantes (public library) by Carlos Calado
  3. A Photographic Record: 1969–1980 (public library) by Mick Rock
  4. A Thelonious Monk: Study Album (public library) by Lionel Grigson
  5. A Whole Room for Music: A Short Guide to the Balfour Building Music Makers’ Gallery (public library) by Helene La Rue
  6. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (public library) by Brandon Labelle
  7. Acoustics for Radio and Television Studios (public library) by Christopher Gilford
  8. Africa Dances (public library) by Geoffrey Gorer
  9. African Music: A People’s Art (public library) by Francis Bebey
  10. African Rhythm and African Sensibility (public library) by John Miller Chernoff
  11. Afro-American Folk Songs (public library) by H.E. Krehbiel
  12. AfroPop! An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music (public library) by Sean Barlow & Banning Eyre
  13. All You Need to Know About the Music Business (public library) by Donald S. Passman
  14. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (public library) by Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman
  15. An Illustrated Treasury of Songs (public library) by National Gallery of Art
  16. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (public library) by Studs Terkel
  17. Arranged Marriage (public library) by Wallace Berman & Robert Watts
  18. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (public library) by Cristoph Cox & Daniel Warner
  19. Austin City Limits: 35 Years in Photographs (public library) by Scott Newton & Terry Lickona
  20. Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music (public library) by Deborah Pacini Hernandez
  21. Bandalism: The Rock Group Survival Guide (public library) by Julian Ridgway
  22. Beats of the Heart: Popular Music of the World (public library) by Jeremy Marre & Hannah Charlton
  23. Best Music Writing 2001 (public library) by Nick Hornby & Ben Schafer
  24. Best Music Writing 2002 (public library) by Jonathan Lethem & Paul Bresnick
  25. Best Music Writing 2003 (public library) by Matt Groening & Paul Bresnick
  26. Best Music Writing 2006 (public library) by Mary Gaitskill & Daphne Carr
  27. Best Music Writing 2007 (public library) by Robert Christgau & Daphne Carr
  28. Bicycle Diaries (public library) by David Byrne
  29. Black Music of Two Worlds (public library) by John Storm Roberts
  30. Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific (public library) by Heidi Carolyn Feidman
  31. Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music (public library) by Jas Obrecht
  32. Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (public library) by Ruy Castro
  33. Botsford Collection of Folk Songs Volume 1 (public library) by Florence Hudson Botsford
  34. Botsford Collection of Folk Songs Volume 2 (public library) by Florence Hudson Botsford
  35. Bound for Glory (public library) by Woody Guthrie
  36. Bourbon Street Black: The New Orleans Black Jazzman (public library) by Jack V Buerkle & Danny Barker
  37. Brazilian Popular Music and Citizenship (public library) by Idelber Avelar & Christopher Dunn
  38. Brutality Garden: Tropicalla and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (public library) by Christopher Dunn
  39. Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise (public library) by David Rothenberg
  40. But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (public library) by Geoff Dyer
  41. Cancioneiro Vinicius De Moraes (public library) by Orfeu
  42. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (public library) by Mark Katz
  43. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (public library) by Timothy White
  44. Chambers (public library) by Alvin Lucier & Douglas Simon
  45. Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir (public library) by Rodney Crowell
  46. Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk (public library) by Deborah Harry, Glenn O’Brien & Shepard Fairey
  47. Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao (public library) by Peter Culshaw
  48. Clothes Music Boys (public library) by Viv Albertine
  49. Cocinando! Fifty Years of Latin Cover Art (public library) by Pablo Yglesias
  50. Conjunto (public library) by John Dyer
  51. Conversations with Glenn Gould (public library) by Jonathan Cott
  52. Conversing with Cage (public library) by Richard Kostelanetz
  53. Copyrights & Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (public library) by Siva Vaidhyanathan
  54. Dancing in Your Head: Jazz, Blues, Rock and Beyond (public library) by Gene Santoro
  55. Desert Plants: Conversations with Twenty-Three American Musicians by Walter Zimmerman
  56. Diccionario de Jazz Latino (public library) by Nat Chediak
  57. Diccionario del Rock Latino (public library) by Nat Chediak
  58. Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution (public library) by Carlo Gebler
  59. Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion (public library) by Mickey Hart & Jay Stevens
  60. Essays on Music (public library) by Theodor W. Adorno
  61. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (public library) by Michael Nyman
  62. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (public library) by Negativland
  63. Fela Fela: This Bitch of a Life (public library) by Carlos Moore
  64. Fetish & Fame: The 1997 MTV Video Music Awards by David Felton
  65. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (public library) by Stephen Sondheim
  66. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (public library) by Bruno Nettl
  67. Folk Song Style and Culture (public library) by Alan Lomax
  68. Folk: The Essential Album Guide (public library) by Neal Walers & Brian Mansfield
  69. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (public library) by Iannis Xenakis
  70. Fotografie in Musica (public library) by Guido Harari
  71. Genesis of a Music (public library) by Harry Partch
  72. Give my Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (public library) by B.H. Friedman
  73. Gravikords, Whirlies, & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments (public library) by Bart Hopkin
  74. Guia Esencial De La Salsa (public library) by Jose Manuel Gomez
  75. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (public library) by Gary Marcus
  76. (public library) by
  77. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity (public library) by Veit Erlmann
  78. Here Come the Regulars: How to Run a Record Label on a Shoestring Budget (public library) by Ian Anderson
  79. He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time (public library) by Jack Isenhour
  80. Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (public library) by Steven Hager
  81. Hit Men (public library) by Frederic Dannen
  82. Hitsville: The 100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazines 1954–1968 (public library) by Alan Betrock
  83. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (public library) by Ellen Dissanayake
  84. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (public library) by Alice Echols
  85. How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond (public library) by John Powell
  86. Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption (public library) by Steve Turner
  87. I Have Seen the End of the World and it Looks Like This (public library) by Bob Schneider
  88. I’ll Take You There Mavis Staples: The Staple Songers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway (public library) by Greg Kot
  89. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (public library) by George Prochnik
  90. Indian Music (public library) by B. Chaitanya Deva
  91. It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues (public library) by Paul Myers
  92. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (public library) by William P. Malm
  93. Javanese Gamelan (public library) by Jennifer Lindsay
  94. Jazz (public library) by William Claxton
  95. Knitting Music (public library) by Michael Dorf
  96. La Traviata: In Full Score (public library) by Giuseppe Verdi
  97. Laurie Anderson (public library) by John Howell
  98. Leon Geico: Cronica de un Sueno by Oscar Finkelstein
  99. Lexicon of Musical Invective (public library) by Nicolas Slonimsky
  100. (public library) by
  101. Light Strings: Impressions of the Guitar (public library) by Ralph Gibson & Andy Summers
  102. Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music (public library) by Eric Weisbard
  103. Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (public library) by Joanna Demers
  104. Listen to This (public library) by Alex Ross
  105. Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (public library) by Stephen Sondheim
  106. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Music Made New in New York City in the ’70s (public library) by Will Hermes
  107. Love in Vain: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson (public library) by Allen Greenberg
  108. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (public library) by Tim Lawrence
  109. Low (public library) by Hugo Wilcken
  110. Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-dirty in Seventies New York (public library) by James Wolcott
  111. Macumba: The Teachings of Maria-Jose, Mother of the Gods (public library) by Serge Bramly
  112. Mango Mambo (public library) by Adal
  113. Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB 1965–1985 (public library) by Charles Perrone
  114. Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll (public library) by Steven Kasher
  115. Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells (public library) by Tommy James
  116. Miles: The Autobiography (public library) by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
  117. Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an imaginary Soul Superstar (public library) by Dori Hadar
  118. Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” (public library) by Alan Lomax
  119. Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture (public library) by Thurston Moore
  120. Music (public library) by Paul Bowles
  121. Music and Communication (public library) by Terence McLaughlin
  122. Music and Globalization: Critical Encounters (public library) by Bob W. White
  123. Music and the Brain: Studies in the Neurology of Music (public library) by MacDonald Critchley & R. A. Henson
  124. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr
  125. Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (public library) by Gilbert Rouget
  126. Music Cultures of the Pacific, The Near East, and Asia (public library) by William P. Malm
  127. (public library) by
  128. Music in Cuba (public library) by Alejo Carpentier
  129. Music, Language and the Brain (public library) by Aniruddh D. Patel
  130. Musica Cubana Del Areyto a la Nueva Trova (public library) by Dr. Cristobal Diaz Ayala
  131. Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia with More than 4,000 Original Drawings (public library) by Ruth Midgely
  132. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library) by Oliver Sacks
  133. My Music (public library) by Susan D Crafts, Daniel Cavicchi & Charles Keil
  134. New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88 (public library) by Stuart Baker
  135. Noise: A Human History of Sound & Listening (public library) by David Hendy
  136. Noise: The Political Economy of Music (public library) by Jacques Attali
  137. Notations (public library) by John Cage
  138. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (public library) by David Toop
  139. On Sonic Art (public library) by Trevor Wishart
  140. Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Opera (public library) by Fred Plotkin
  141. Patronizing The Arts (public library) by Marjorie Garber
  142. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (public library) by Greg Milner
  143. Pet Shop Boys: Literally (public library) by Chris Heath
  144. Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey (public library) by Peter Manuel
  145. The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the Science of Song (public library) by Elena Mannes
  146. Presenting Celia Cruz (public library) by Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte
  147. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (public library) by Lester Bangs
  148. Queens of Havana: The Amazing Adventures of the Legendary Anacaona, Cuba’s First All-Girl Dance Band (public library) by Alicia Castro
  149. Recordando a Tito Puente: El Rey del Timbal (public library) by Steven Loza
  150. Reflections on Macedonian Music: Past and Future (public library) by Dimitrije Buzarovski
  151. Remembering the Future (public library) by Luciano Berio
  152. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording Music and Its Effect on Music (public library) by Michael Chanan
  153. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties (public library) by Ian Macdonald
  154. Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans (public library) by John Broven
  155. Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Pay: The History of Politics in the Music Industry (public library) by Steve Shapple & Reebee Garofalo
  156. Rock Archives (public library) by Michael Ochs
  157. Rock Images: 1970–1990 (public library) by Claude Gassian
  158. Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews (public library) by Timothy White
  159. Salsa Guidebook for Piano & Ensemble (public library) by Rebeca Mauleon
  160. Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music (public library) by Gerard Sheller
  161. Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City (public library) by Vernon W. Boggs
  162. Samba (public library) by Alma Guillermoprieto
  163. Sonic Transports:New Frontiers in Our Music (public library) by Cole Gagne
  164. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (public library) by Steve Goodman
  165. Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture (public library) by Kevin Phinney
  166. Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (public library) by Frances Dyson
  167. Soundings (public library) by Neuberger Museum
  168. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous (public library) by John Broven
  169. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening: Experiencing Aural Architecture (public library) by Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter
  170. Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (public library) by Angelique Kidjo
  171. Starmaking Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album (public library) by Geoffrey Stokes
  172. Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (public library) by Jonathan Cott
  173. Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians (public library) by Tom Schnabel
  174. Stomping the Blues (public library) by Albert Murray
  175. Tango: The Art History of Love (public library) by Robert Farris Thompson
  176. Text-Sound Texts (public library) by Richard Kostelanetz
  177. The ABCs of Rock (public library) by Melissa Duke Mooney
  178. The Agony of Modern Music (public library) by Henry Pleasants
  179. The Anthropology of Music (public library) by Alan P. Merriam
  180. The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library) by Amanda Palmer
  181. The Beatles: Recording Sessions (public library) by Mark Lewisohn
  182. The Book of Drugs: A Memoir (public library) by Mike Dougherty
  183. The Brazilian Sounds: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (public library) by Chris McGowan & Ricardo Pessanha
  184. The Faber Book of Pop (public library) by Hanif Kureishi & Jon Savage
  185. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (public library) by Bernie Krause
  186. The Human Voice (public library) by Jean Cocteau
  187. The Kachamba Brothers’ Band: A Study of Neo-Traditional Music in Malawi (public library) by Gerhard Kubik
  188. The Last Holiday: A Memoir (public library) by Gil Scott-Heron
  189. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States (public library) by John Storm Roberts
  190. The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock (public library) by Charles White
  191. The Merge Records Companion: A Visual Discography of the First Twenty Years (public library) by Merge Records
  192. The Music Instinct (public library) by Philip Ball
  193. The Music of Brazil (public library) by David P. Appleby
  194. The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and the National Identity in Brazil (public library) by Hermano Vianna
  195. The New Woman Poems: A Tribute to Mercedes Sosa (public library) by Ne?stor Rodri?guez Lacore?n
  196. The Performer Prepares (public library) by Robert Caldwell
  197. The Rational and Social Foundations of Music (public library) by Max Weber
  198. The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl (public library) by Trevor Schoonmake
  199. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (public library) by Evan Eisenberg
  200. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (public library) by Alex Ross
  201. The Rolling Stone Interviews: The 1980s (public library) by Various
  202. The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (public library) by Greil Marcus
  203. The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (public library) by Trevor Cox
  204. The Sun and the Drum: African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition (public library) by Leonard Barrett
  205. The Thinking Ear (public library) by R. Murray Schafer
  206. The Traditional Music of Japan (public library) by Kishibe Shigeo
  207. The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art (public library) by Tim Blanning
  208. The Veil of Silence (public library) by Djura
  209. The Wilco Book (public library) by Dan Nadel
  210. This Business of Music: The Definitive Guide to the Music Industry (public library) by M. William Krasilovsky & Sidney Shemel
  211. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession (public library) by Daniel J. Levitin
  212. Through Music to Self (public library) by Peter Michael Hamel
  213. West African Rhythms for Drumset (public library) by Royal Hartigan
  214. What Good are the Arts? (public library) by John Carey
  215. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s (public library) by Joe Boyd
  216. Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955–Present (public library) by Gail Buckland
  217. (public library) by
  218. Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages (public library) by John Shepard, Phil Virden, Graham Vulliamy, Trevor Wishart
  219. Why is This Country Dancing: A One-Man Samba to the Beat of Brazil (public library) by John Krich
  220. Woody Guthrie: A Life (public library) by Joe Klein
  221. The Rough Guide to World Music: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia, and Pacific: An A-Z of the Music, Musicians and Discs (public library) by Simon Broughton & Mark Ellingham
  222. The Rough Guide to World Music: Salsa to Soukous, Cajun to Calypso (public library) by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman & Richard Trillo
  223. World: The Essential Album Guide (public library) by Adam McGovern
  224. Yakety Yak: The Midnight Confessions and Revelations of Thirty-Seven Rock Stars and Legends (public library) by Scott Cohen

Complement with Byrne on how music and creativity work, then revisit the reading lists of Gabriel García Márquez, Leo Tolstoy, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, and longtime Byrne collaborator Brian Eno.


The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

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.

Jack Kerouac’s hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from ‘On the Road’

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 in his white coat

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.

Pages from ‘Virginia Wolf,’ a children’s book about Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell. Click image for more.

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.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks
Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks

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.

Charles Dickens’s manuscript for ‘Our Mutual Friend.’ Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

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.

Gertrude Stein’s famous Model T Ford. Click image for details.

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.


How China’s First Emperor Pioneered Design Thinking and Revolutionized the Branding of Legacy

How to standardize, enforce accountability, and employ design thinking in coining your image and legacy.

How China’s First Emperor Pioneered Design Thinking and Revolutionized the Branding of Legacy

The questions of what makes good design, what it should aspire to be, why it’s essential to culture, and how it harmonizes with human life have long occupied modern thinkers and pundits. That’s precisely what Herald Tribune design critic and writer extraordinaire Alice Rawsthorn sets out to answer in Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (public library).

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.

Hello World is fascinating in its entirety, spanning such varied yet interrelated illustrations of design as the London Underground and the breeding of dogs.

Coin photograph courtesy The British Museum


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