Words to Live By

"The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy"

But there's no reason to cry. If it's true that first-rate novels are rare, it's also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do. It is a writer's duty. It is also a reader's duty. Did I mention that yet?” — Zadie Smith, "Fail Better"

Possible Though Unlikely

At times, whatever he might say, he was surely lost in a cloud of unknowing; but at least it was a peaceful cloud at present and sailing through a milky sea towards a possible though unlikely ecstasy at an indefinite remove was, if not the fullness of life, then something like its shadow. — Patrick O'Brien, HMS Surprise

Perfectly Average Things

The problem with nonfiction these days is that everybody wants—this idea of a personal vision is very important. “Where do you stand?” I find all that pretty tiresome. I’m not ever saying anything unusual, you know? I’m just trying to think about general things just a bit more specifically. I’m not claiming to any unusual emotions, tastes, opinions—I have a very average taste in most things. It’s not that. It’s just trying to express, as precisely as you can, these perfectly average things. — Zadie Smith

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Zadie Smith

So True

 Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working. — Stephen Destaebler, from Art & Fear


Don’t wait for inspiration — it comes while one is working.

— Matisse




Painting is Talking With the Hands Made Permanent

I recently found this meditation/musing on painting by Ken Kewley, an artist whose work I was not previously familiar with. It’s wonderful. It’s pretty  long, the kind of thing you can dip in and out of, pulling out little inspirational nuggets when you need a nudge in one direction or another, a jumpstart, a friendly hand, a reminder of something you know deep down but keep forgetting. It’s had me in a good mood all week long.

A few choice quotes:

Love colors as writers love words. It is the love that comes through when the mind gets out of the way. Don’t think too much. Trust your instincts. I try not to worry about what I do not know, what I have been unable to teach myself. My inabilities serve me better than my abilities. That art is not something that is learned and then practiced, it is a form of communication and one is always trying to say something clearer

. . .

You are emphasizing what interests you and minimizing other things by putting them in the service of your true passion and leaving out altogether what distracts. Keep it simple.

. . .

As far as keeping a painting fresh to the end, you cannot lose site of the reason for starting the painting in the first place. That first excitement, that one big relationship, if the details slowly obscure that relationship the painting becomes dull, then it is necessary to dig back in and pull it out even if it means upturning days of work. In the end nothing is lost and it will be more exciting for being harder found and deeper felt.

. . .

I tend to like paintings where the abstraction is strong. By this I mean that the paint, the colors and shapes, are distinct, like strong actors in a play. Going towards abstraction does not mean going away from representation. It is more like describing something real by other means than illustration. It is like describing an apple with your hands, forming the shape in the air with your hands, by enclosing an imaginary object with two hands. You do not try to make your hand look like an apple. Paint takes over the role of the hands and does not hide the fact that it is paint. Painting is talking with the hands made permanent.

. . .

Paintings are not finished, they are stopped.

. . .

Do not work too hard, but work all the time.

Eye, Hand, Heart

Hello, you fine faithful few: The thing is, I've actually got lots of stuff to write about, I've just been terribly procrastinatory about actually posting it. I plan to get to it all very soon. Although I say that to myself almost every day . . .

But in the interim, I thought I'd share this quote from David Hockney, whom I've been reading a lot these days. It's, well, unfashionable; it may even be downright cheesy; and the sentiment it espouses, untrammeled by finer discrimination, may lead to absolutely terrible artwork. But I don't care.

When the eye, the hand and the heart come together, that's when you get the greatest art. I think that's profoundly true. And the eye links to the hand, and the heart gives the love. That's where the creativity comes from — the heart.

Cold as Ice

Recently, Graham Greene's (in)famous quote about observing other people's tribulations has been on my mind:

There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer. I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need . . .

And, in a similar vein, Peter Schjeldahl on the artist Paul Thek:

But he was always coolly acute in his mind as an artist, with an inner detachment that characterizes first-rate talents.

I certainly do not possess Greene's chilly sliver, always averting my eyes from uncomfortable or painful scenes in movies, and cringing from social awkwardness rather than relishing it the way some are able to. And it's always difficult for artists to look upon their own work with a measured gaze, but now more than ever, I aspire to a Thek-like measure of detachment. It wasn't until rather recently that I even understood that separating myself emotionally from my work — at least a little — would actually improve it. Looking back on earlier years, I feel as though I was being boiled alive in my own emotional stew, struggling to see my work through the murky broth, but unable to extricate myself from the soup. But I think I'm seeing things a little clearer now. Or at least, I feel clearer about what my work is, and perhaps more importantly, what it isn't. An important first step.


Ever since the age of six I have had a mania for drawing the forms of objects. Towards the age of fifty I published a very large number of drawings, but I am dissatisfied with everything which I produced before the age of seventy. It was at the age of seventy-three I nearly mastered the real nature and form of birds, fish, plants, etcetera. Consequently, at the age of eighty, I shall have got to the bottom of things; at one hundred I shall have attained a decidedly higher level which I cannot define, and at the age of one-hundred-and-ten every dot and every line from my brush will be alive. I call on those who may live as long as I to see if I keep my word. Signed, formerly Hokusai, now the Painting-Crazy Old Man

from One Hundred Views of Fuji, translated by Harold P. Stern

Why Art Cannot Be Taught

After an unsuccessful day in the classroom last week, I came home feeling frustrated (pretty evenly divided between myself and my students), and reached for James Elkins' book Why Art Cannot Be Taught for some solace or at least a couple of laughs. I don't always agree with Elkins but he is reliably not boring, which is more than I can say for approximately 99% of the people who write about matters art-related. A couple paragraphs struck me, not so much about teaching or being taught as what comes after (or doesn't):

Out of a thousand art students, maybe five will make a living off their art, and perhaps one will be known outside her city. That’s not a condemnation. It’s the nature of fame, real quality, and genuine influence to be rare. In addition the mechanisms of fame are strongly random. Many interesting artists don’t make their work at the right moment or show it to the right people. A bad critique, or bad weather on opening night, can be enough to topple a career. No one will agree on what’s great or important or worthwhile, and in the second half of the twentieth century the avant-garde became notoriously evanescent and hard to locate. Yet beyond those problems of luck and history, it is still true that most artists do not make interesting art . . .

Average people have average energy, and that means they may be significantly different from those few that find a voice for more urgent, passionate, timely, “essential,” or “profound” thoughts. This is only melancholic if every artist wants those qualities . . . Most of us are relatively contented with our level of energy and our mastery. Everyone is a little discontented, but few people are strongly discontented. Most of us are not profound and we have obvious limitations.

Is that depressing? I guess so, but I don't think it's wrong. If a definition of adulthood is recognizing one's limitations and doing the best one can within them, then perhaps a genius is someone who does not or will not recognize their limitations, and thereby somehow, transcends them. Perhaps part of youth is still thinking that you could turn out to be a genius of some kind, and adulthood is realizing that it ain't gonna happen; but that maybe, actually, we don't care that much, and pressing on regardless, making the best work we can within the parameters of our lives. Even if we are average, unprofound, limited.

Reality Hunger

This is the wager, isn't it? It's by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature that you stand the greatest chance of conveying something universal.

Geoff Dyer, quoted in David Shield's book Reality Hunger

To be alive is to travel ceaselessly between the real and the imaginary, and mongrel form is about as exact an emblem as I can conceive for the unsolvable mystery at the center of identity.

David Shields, Reality Hunger

A great painting comes together, just barely.

Picasso, from Reality Hunger

The Inimitable DFW

I have this—here's this thing where it's going to sound sappy to you. I have this unbelievably like five-year-old's belief that art is just absolutely magic. And that good art can do things that nothing else in the solar system can do. And that the good stuff will survive, and get read, and that in the great winnowing process, the shit will sink and the good stuff will rise.

— David Foster Wallace, from Although of course you end up becoming yourself: a road trip with david foster wallace