Advice for Young Writers: Move to the Country

In a live interview, years ago, conducted by Dave Eggers on a stage in San Francisco, Denis Johnson (prolific author, National Book Award winner, war zone explorer, homeschooling dad, recovered addict) was asked the inevitable question: what advice do you have for young writers? “Move to the country,” Johnson said. Most of us in the audience had moved from small towns and suburbs in places like Minnesota or Georgia to great cities such as New York, San Francisco and L.A. to further our creative careers, live among like-minded people, and absorb the creative atmosphere these cities provided, absent in our home towns.  To us, this advice sounded, well, wrong.

Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003
Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003

But Johnson’s rationale was sound. Writing is not a particularly remunerative career. Sometimes it takes years, even decades, to reap the fruit of one’s labors. If you live in a big, expensive city, you’ll spend most of your time paying your rent, not writing your book. The struggle to just stay in the city will take up all your time. Instead, Johnson advised, move to, say, Northern Idaho, where Johnson himself lives, or the equivalent in your part of the world. Besides, you’ll be happier there, and happiness stokes creativity, in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary. Sociologists have long known that people in small towns are happier than those living in cities, as you can see from this chart. You’ll write more, and better.

Rural Happiness
People living in small towns or the country are significantly happier than urban folk. Via https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/18/why-smart-people-are-better-off-with-fewer-friends/

 

Your work may be dependent on what Brian Eno described as Scenius–the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene, the communal form of the concept of the genius–which flourishes in cities. If so, you’re going to have to pick it up and take with you to the country, as Flaubert did, who lived with his niece and extended family in Rouen, but had a lively social life in Paris. It’s largely a matter of style, goals and effort. But tremendous beauty and inspiration can be found in rural areas. And community too.

Northern Idaho
Northern Idaho, where you can finally escape the Information Overlords

Northern Idaho is just as beautiful as this photograph suggests, but if you worry about a cultural deficit, don’t. You can be just as much of a bohemian there as in the Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury of yore–the Bloomsbury folk lived out most of their lives in the country.  You can get a glimpse into Johnson’s family life there in his 1997 article about homeschooling his children. And living in such beauty doesn’t require you to be a nature writer. Denis Johnson isn’t a nature writer–he spent 14 years as an addict, which provided much of the material for his first book, Angels, and his much-lauded stories in Jesus Son. He has spent most of his childhood, and much of his adulthood, traveling around the world, some of the stories from his journeys are recounted in Seek. And then he returns home to the relative tranquility of home and gets so much done.

So don’t worry about becoming provincial. There’s a cabin somewhere just for you.


Seek: Reports from the Edges of American and Beyond. Johnson has traveled to some extreme places, and this collection of essays includes a completely hair-raising account of his trip to Liberia.

 

Tree of Smoke. Johnson’s National Book Award winning novel about the Vietnam War.

Commitment as a Path To Greatness

Life is short.  Paint everything blue.  This is the bittersweet story of the artist Yves Klein, from whom we have much to learn about commitment and maximizing our time on earth.

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In 1947 three teenagers lay basking on a beach in the South of France. They had become close friends at school while all sharing a love for Judo and the arts.  Full of youthful arrogance, these three boys vowed to divide the world between themselves.  The young sculptor named Armand Fernandez chose the earth.  Claude Pascal chose the domain of words, and Yves Klein committed to take on the sky.   If this sounds like a creation myth, that is because, in a way, it was.

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Yves Klein, Anthropométrie de l’époque bleue, 1960

With the sky as his mandate, Yves Klein got right to work. Two years after that pivotal moment at the beach, he summoned the infinite with an ethereal performance piece called “Monotone Silence Symphony”.  Following the minimalist symphony and a Judo focused sojourn in Japan, Yves Klein held his first exhibit of monochromatic paintings in Paris. For his next show in 1957, he narrowed the focus down to one single hue: the color blue.   For Klein, this color represented the concept of the void.  He was interested in how its quality of pure energy was in tension with the materiality of the physical art work.

“At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” – Yves Klein

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Yves Klein, Monochrome bleu sans titre, 1959,

Now known as “Yves Klein Blue”, this vibrant color had once existed only in the form of raw pigment.  Klein became obsessed with the lapis lazuli like quality of the ultramarine powder, and engineered a way to keep its luminosity while transforming it into paint.

From the get-go, Klein understood how to make an impact in the art world, and in turn his rise to success was astonishingly direct.  After the heralded blue paintings, Klein went on to explore the relationship between the physical and the void by staging performance pieces in which he used naked bodies as vehicles for paint application.  He also created painted sculptures and other conceptual performance works.  In the field of photography, Klein published poetic series called Saut Dans Le Vide, which shows him swan diving into the open air.

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Tragically, with a new wife and his first baby on the way, Yves Klein had a fatal heart attack at the young age of thirty four.  It is astounding to contemplate the targeted impact that he made with his brief time on this earth.  The commitment and focus with which he approached his life and career seems almost prophetic- as if he was well aware that the clock was ticking away, and that he needed to triage the situation.

Throughout his time, Klein stayed profoundly committed to the sky and its metaphysical implications. His mission was to outsmart mortality, and his method was to paint the world the color of eternity.

When I see Yves Klein blue I am reminded of life’s brevity, and the mandate to be focused, courageous and to make bold propositions in life.  We are all living out our own creation myths- the question is what piece of the universe will you be responsible for?


CREATIVE EXERCISE:

This exercise is inspired by Yves Klein’s passion for the color blue.

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Join The Creative Hours community. Share your experience!

email us thecreativehours@gmail.com  or post using hashtag #TCHblue


Further reading and supplies:


Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers : With the Void, Full Powers includes examples from all of Klein’s major series, including his Anthropometries, Cosmogonies, fire paintings, planetary reliefs and blue monochromes, as well as selections of his lesser-known gold and pink monochromes, body and sponge reliefs, “air architecture” and immaterial works.

 

Over Coming the Problems of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein The first complete collection of the writings of the visionary French conceptual artist Yves Klein (1928–1962) published in English translation.

 

 

Ultramarine Blue Pigment Oxide Mineral Powder Life is short, paint everything blue.  It is fascinating to think about the relationship between raw pigment and paint.

Thinking and the Creative Process

“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking—thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know.”–Hayao Miyazaki

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity…You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things” – Ray Bradbury

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.”–Dr. Seuss

“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking—thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know,” says Hayao Miyazaki, and of course, how could there be a better way if you look at the result of Miyazaki’s thinking? Hayao Miyazaki is the creator of some of the most astonishing and beautiful films of our time, a master of animation. You’ll recognize them: My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and so many more.

 

If you read the conflicting ideas about creation and thinking at the start of this blog post, it’s clear Bradbury is implying a great enmity between thinking and doing, that the thinking gets in the way of the doing. He’s in the School of Perspiration. Miyazaki is in the School of Inspiration. It’s impossible, of course, that Bradbury never thought, or that Miyazaki never did, but what they see themselves doing is very different. And of course Dr. Seuss thinking of thinking as play and invention.

I went to art school in New York for just one semester, then dropped out. The professors in my classes had us working on abstraction, and conceptual art, and I felt that I didn’t have anything to say. I was 18, I had more to learn, I didn’t know about history, or life, or society, or what I believed. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I had urges and inklings and guesses, but nothing I felt confident enough to make art out of. I wanted skills, mostly, and so I enrolled in figure drawing classes, and classes that focused on technique, the chemistry of paint, the use of different media, but eventually I dropped out and became an English major, because, at the time, I needed more thinking.

The other thing that irritated me, once I became an English major and took some creative writing courses, was the “write garbage” type assignments where you were meant to just do it, write bad stuff, anything that came into your head, especially if you were stuck, just write. I did them, and wrote down a lot of garbage, and never got anything good out of them. Maybe you did. Did you?

On the other hand, children make great art just by doing. They don’t think, they do and do, make and make, wasting shocking amounts of paper and art supplies, indifferent to quality, but fearlessly making art in a state of playful, Seussian quasi-thinking. Our culture is very action-oriented, and most of us adults are focused on Getting Things Done, laboring mightily to get straight A’s in the School of Perspiration. But in our go-go-go daily life, the common-sensical thing is to hew to Miyazaki’s method, and spend our precious free time thinking, thinking and thinking after endless days of doing.

What’s a thoughtful creative person to do? It’s not a matter of either/or, it’s how much of either, and sensing what you need to do at the time, think or write/paint/create.


This creative exercise is inspired by the tension between thinking and doing in the process of bringing out our creativity:

DOING? or THINKING? a creative process exercise

  1. Go to your art-making place.
  2. Make art. Do.
  3. If that doesn’t feel right, or you’re not getting anywhere, think instead. Keep thinking until you’re ready to do.
  4. Do.
  5. Tell us what happened at thecreativehours@gmail.com

Further Reading:

Starting Point: 1979-1996. Miyazaki started out as just another animator, but in this memoir tells of his journey from childhood dreams to founding Studio Ghibli.

 

 

Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. A documentary about Studio Ghibli, featuring Miyazaki, Producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s other director, Isao Takahata

John Cage and The Art of Listening

Inspired by our launch of The Creative Hours, I’ve been compiling a diverse collection of practices that nurture creativity. Tools, rituals and exercises from around the world, across disciplines, and from the nether regions of my own noggin, that are aimed to foster fluidity, imagination, innovation and play. It struck me that a good portion of my collection was dedicated not to making and doing, but rather observing and listening.

Learning how to pay close attention and be receptive is a foundation for creative thinking.

No one embodies this principle better than artist and Buddhist, John Cage. His beloved book Silence: Lectures and Writings is both charming and profound.  I highly recommend keeping it near for creative inspiration and grounding. It is a wise book that never grows old, and offers itself for fruitful rereading again and again.

John Cage
John Cage

Composer, writer, and artist and music theorist, John Cage is considered one of the major American creatives of the 20th Century. He pioneered ways of thinking about sound, silence, instruments, composition and chance.  Also influential in the world of dance, Cage was life long partners with the equally seminal choreographer Merce Cunningham.


For our first creative practice on The Creative Hours, let’s channel John Cage. This exercise pays homage to his his passion for the world of sound and draws from his artistic commitment to mindful listening:

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THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE: LISTENING  MEDITATION   

  1. Find a private moment in your day, and a tranquil spot. Close your eyes. Breathe Deeply.  
  2. Start to turn your attention to the soundscape that surrounds you. Notice the many threads and types of sound.
  3. Start by focusing on the sounds that are farthest away. Do you hear cars humming, wind blowing, an airplane or the buzz of lives spinning outside. Spend one minute carefully finding and listening to these “in the distance” noises. You do not need to name or comment on the sounds, but simply to pay close attention. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  4. Next listen for the nearby sounds that are in your immediate sphere. Let the far away sounds recede, and listen carefully to the composition of sounds around you. Listen to tone, quality, pitch, rhythm of all the different ambient noises. The rumble of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the rustling of a pet. Again, just listen for a minute or so.
  5. Finally, shift your focus inward, and try to listen to the sounds within your own body.  Hear your heartbeat, your stomach growl, your breath rise and fall. See if you might even be able to hear your brain churning or your blood flowing. Stay attentive to the smallest details and feelings. Stay listening for a minute or so.
  6. Take a deep breath and open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Take stock of your body, breath, your emotional state.
  7. What did you notice? Experience? Share your reflections #TCHlistening or email them to thecreativehours@gmail.com

This is a wonderful and grounding meditation to do before you begin a creative practice. It puts you in a sensitive and receptive state- a great state for letting the creative process flow.

Further reading: 

Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage

First published in 1961, Silence is a wise and whimsical collection of Cage’s essays and lectures.  In keeping with John Cage’s experimental approach, many of the pieces feature poetic methods of presentation or composition.

 

John Cage: Visual Art, To Sober and Quiet the Mind by Kathan Brown

A treasure of a book featuring 116 color images.  This exquisite book features Cage’s sublime chance made drawings, and Brown’s insight into his work and the role that art can play in this world.