“God can see it.”

In May 2011, designer Richard Seymour gave a TED talk in London entitled “How beauty feels.” He introduced this talk with a very charming story that was passed down to him by his father:

“When I was little — and by the way, I was little once — my father told me a story about an 18th century watchmaker. And what this guy had done: he used to produce these fabulously beautiful watches. And one day, one of his customers came into his workshop and asked him to clean the watch that he’d bought. And the guy took it apart, and one of the things he pulled out was one of the balance wheels. And as he did so, his customer noticed that on the back side of the balance wheel was an engraving, were words. And he said to the guy, “Why have you put stuff on the back that no one will ever see?” And the watchmaker turned around and said, “God can see it.” Now I’m not in the least bit religious, neither was my father, but at that point, I noticed something happening here. I felt something in this plexus of blood vessels and nerves, and there must be some muscles in there as well somewhere, I guess. But I felt something. And it was a physiological response. And from that point on, from my age at the time, I began to think of things in a different way. And as I took on my career as a designer, I began to ask myself the simple question: Do we actually think beauty, or do we feel it?”

(Richard Seymour)

I love this romantic illustration of the importance of detail and the discipline demanded to create truly beautiful things. It is this very practice of putting care into everything, especially when “only God” sees it, that leads to true and complete works of art. This design philosophy was also championed notably by Steve Jobs at Apple, who inherited the attitude from his own father. Early in the immaculate Walter Issaacson biography on Jobs, there is a story of him and his father was building a cabinet together. Jobs’ father says that the back of the cabinet should look as good and be built as well as the rest. Jobs elaborates on the lasting effect of this lesson:

“I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it. When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

(Steve Jobs)

An homage to work ethic: “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.”

We are all so impatient.

And, growing moreso. Advances in technology have exponentially expanded markets for both traditional goods and services as well as more personal exchanges like dating. We have far greater choice than any point in history, and our brains are still deeply incapable of the cognitive processing of so much choice for so many things. Biology is in the process of adapting itself to the new environment that our technology revolution has created. In the meantime, we have greater access to a greater number of options, which means that more things are more attainable at a more rapid pace than we can process choosing them. In other words, we are in a symbiotic relationship with instant gratification.

In a way, not having to work for something has made the pay-off of getting somewhere or creating something less valuable… it’s the law of diminishing returns. Basic economics. We seem to have lost much of our patience for hard work and delayed satisfaction. And yet, history shows that figures of true achievement tend to rely heavily on a superior work ethic. A clever piece called “How David Beats Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell summarized the power of hard work:

“David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life.”

And so, as both inspiration and reminder, below are some examples of  the determination and effort and patience that operating at a high level in life requires….

Jerry Seinfeld, comedian

For Seinfeld, whose worth Forbes estimated in 2010 to be $800 million, his touring regimen is a function not of financial necessity but rather of borderline monomania — a creative itch he can’t scratch. “I like money,” he says, “but it’s never been about the money.” Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”

When he can’t tinker, he grows anxious. “If I don’t do a set in two weeks, I feel it,” he said. “I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, you literally become a broadband: the nerve pathway in your brain contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down. Reading that changed my life. I used to wonder, Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.

[New York Times]

Jiro Ono, sushi chef

“Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

[Lifehacker]

Brandon Stanton, street photographer

“For the first year and a half, I photographed every single day. The time I was most devoted to it was the time the least amount of people were paying attention. And that’s really what you’ve got to do to be an artist today. With so many people competing for attention — everybody has a digital camera, everybody has a Tumblr account — you’ve got to be willing to do a lion’s share of the work before anybody notices you. I didn’t leave New York. I photographed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, I was on a train at midnight on New Year’s Eve. That’s really what it takes, and a belief that it’s gong to be good. Even if your parents don’t like it, even if your friends don’t believe in it, you’ve got to believe it’s beautiful. And you got to do it over and over and over again before anybody’s going to care.

[New York Magazine]

The art of the essay: “our best hope of liberating text from texting.”

The essay form is a surprisingly slippery thing – fundamentally, an essay is a short piece on a given subject from an author’s perspective. So, somewhere on the spectrum between short story and journalism, lies essay. I enjoy the form. In particular, I regard the popular styles of Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell, whose conversational pieces make hairpin points with buttery ease. As I experiment with the form, the best discussion on the topic of the essay itself I have encountered is esteemed New York City based British author and professor Simon Schama’s piece “Why I write.”  In his summation, Schama calls essay writing to arms:

Like the best non-fiction long-form writing, it essays a piece of the meaning of what it’s like to live – or, in the case of Hitchens’ last magnificent writing, to die – in a human skin. Essay writing and reading is our resistance to the pygmy-fication of the language animal; our shrinkage into the brand, the sound bite, the business platitude; the solipsistic tweet. Essays are the last, heroic stand for the seriousness of prose entertainment; our best hope of liberating text from texting.

[The Financial Times]

How Tony Kushner responds to procrastination.

Pulitzer Prize winning American playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner granted a 2011 interview for the Paris Review, in which he discussed The Art of Theater. He splices open the potentially generic territory of such a well-trodden subject with characteristic precision and nuance. While the full interview is well worth the read, he answers the question “Have you developed techniques for dealing with procrastination?” with notable acuity…

“The lesson I learn over and over again – and then forget over and over again – is that writing won’t be so bad once you get into it. One’s reluctance is immensely powerful. It’s like what Proust says about habit – it seems tiny in the grand arc of a person’s life narrative, but it’s the most insidious, powerful thing. Reluctance is like that.

When you feel most terrified – I think this is true of most writers – it’s because the thing isn’t there in your head. I’ve found it to be the case that you’ve got to start writing, and writing almost anything. Because writing is not simply an intellectual act. It doesn’t happen exclusively in your head. It’s a combination of idea and action, what Marx and Freud called praxis, a combining of the material and the immaterial. The action, the physical act of putting things down on paper, changes and produces a writer’s ideas.”

[the Paris Review, No. 201]

David Foster Wallace highlighted this worthy sentence.

Writer Maria Bustillos published a piece chronicling her insightful finds from a three day exploration of writer David Foster Wallace’s papers at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which included some three hundred-odd books (most of them annotated) from his personal library. Wallace, who died by suicide in 2008 at the age of 46, had among his collection a copy of “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.” In it, he had highlighted the following:

“[…] at certain moments in our lives in fact, it seems that the most fundamental choice each of us has is between fighting ourselves and laughing at ourselves.” (The Spirituality of Imperfection)

[The Awl]

Storytelling tips from The Moth.

The Moth, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, began when Founder George Dawes Green (also a poet and novelist) wanted to recreate, in New York, the evenings in his native Georgia when he and his friends would gather on his friend Wanda’s porch to share spellbinding tales. There was a hole in the screen which let in moths that were attracted to the light, and the group started calling themselves The Moths. The first New York Moth event was held in George’s living room, but events soon moved to cafes and clubs throughout the city. Now, in addition to excellent live events, there is a free weekly podcast. I am an enthusiastic consumer of The Moth’s stories and have collected favorites along the way. However, if I must single out one, it would be the emblematic story of original porch talker Wanda Bullard about her dad titled “Small Town Prisoner.”

In addition to the stories themselves, The Moth provides potential storytellers with a set of storytelling tips that I find to be applicable tips across many different forms of storytelling. They are posted here in full:

Be forewarned:
Moth stories are told, not read. We love how the storyteller connects with the audience when there is no PAGE between them! Please know your story “by heart” but not by rote memorization. No notes, paper or cheat sheets allowed on stage.

Have some stakes.
Stakes are essential in live storytelling.  What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.

Start in the action.
Have a great first line that sets up the stakes or grabs attention.

No: “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain.  But then I watched a little TV and made a snack and took a nap and my mom called and vented about her psoriasis then I did a little laundry (a whites load) (I lost another sock, darn it!) and then I thought about it again and decided I’d climb the mountain the next morning.”

Yes: “The mountain loomed before me. I had my hunting knife, some trail mix and snow boots. I had to make it to the little cabin and start a fire before sundown or freeze to death for sure.”

Steer clear of meandering endings.
They kill a story! Your last line should be clear in your head before you start. Yes, bring the audience along with you as you contemplate what transpires in your story, but remember, you are driving the story, and must know the final destination. Keep your hands on the wheel!

Know your story well enough so you can have fun!
Watching you panic to think of the next memorized line is harrowing for the audience. Make an outline, memorize your bullet points and play with the details. Enjoy yourself. Imagine you are at a dinner party, not a deposition.

No standup routines please.
The Moth LOVES funny people but requires that all funny people tell funny STORIES.

No rants:
Take up this anger issue with your therapist, or skip therapy and shape your anger into a story with some sort of resolution. (Stories = therapy!)

No essays:
Your eloquent musings are beautiful and look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won’t work on stage.

[The Moth]

“[N]ot all beauty is beautiful.”

There was a brief period of time when Charlie Rose (a longtime favorite show) posted transcripts of their programs. As a regular viewer, I would often pour over them after watching a show that struck me, even going as far as to occasionally save selections. One such striking show, aired on December 28, 2010, featured actor Javier Bardem and writer-director Alejandro Iñárritu. They were appearing to promote their film “Biutiful”, which tells the story of Uxbal (played by Bardem), a man living in this world, but able to see his death, which guides his every move. In this heightened context, please see below for some of their selected remarks on a few different topics. (Also, one minor note on the transcriptions: though their English is extremely comprehensive, there are certain idiosyncrasies owing to Spanish Bardem and Mexican Iñárritu’s native Spanish speaking.)

Therapy vs. Acting

CHARLIE ROSE:  Is it a series of problem solving in terms of how you approach him, what you can discover about him, how you feel inside about his own dilemma?

JAVIER BARDEM:  Yes.

CHARLIE ROSE:  What’s that about?

JAVIER BARDEM:  That’s about how much of your vanity is in the game and how much of your humbleness, can you say, is on the game, because when you’re facing a character that has to go so deep in himself you are discovering layers and layers of yourself in it and insecurity usually makes you to put yourself in there in a way that doesn’t allow you to go through the really — through a real person you’re portraying.

In other words, it’s like a use the character to portray myself.  And that’s not performing, that’s therapy.  I do that with my therapist.

(LAUGHTER)

JAVIER BARDEM:  Performing is to really be able to detach yourself from everything in order to go to the place that the character demands.  Sometimes that place is very hard.  And those are the actors I like.  The actors you see they are not putting themselves in front of the character because they think they are more — they are worth to be listened and watched rather than the character they play.

CHARLIE ROSE:  OK, so what you what you admire is when you see the character do what?

JAVIER BARDEM:  I admire when the actors really puts himself in the place where he’s not there anymore.

The love that connects us…

CHARLIE ROSE:  What is the most important thing to allow you to access the things that you might be fearful of exposing?

JAVIER BARDEM:  I would say love.

CHARLIE ROSE:  Really?  Love for the character?  Love for the —

JAVIER BARDEM:  Love for the —

CHARLIE ROSE:  The story?

JAVIER BARDEM:  I know it’s going to sound very ‘60s, but love for you, my friend.  Love for everybody.  Love for the human race.  What I mean is love for the people, because I like people and I believe in people and I still trust in people, including myself.

I do this job otherwise I would have done something different because I am obsessed about portraying people in are going through a very hard circumstance struggling with themselves in order to become better and to do less harm to others.  That’s what inspires me and that’s what I look for when I read material, when I read a script.

And there’s a moment where you have to really give up, when you have to really give of yourself and give up yourself and give all of yourself to something in order to remind us that there is hope that we can see each other and we can help each other and we can thank each other for being just us.

The importance of truth…

ALEJANDRO IÑÁRRITU:  Basically what I look for — when I offer a role to somebody, in this case I’m looking for truth-ness, you know what I mean?  It’s not about the skills, it’s not about the craftsmanship, it’s not about nothing more than to get this to a level of truth to imprint these characters with that.  And I demand that, and to get that is very difficult.

 “Bleak” and “Dark” are reductive adjectives…

ALEJANDRO IÑÁRRITU:  Yes I think that this is a film that for the first time I’ll dealing with the tragedy.  It’s not a drama.  It’s a genre that I have never touched with a metaphysical element and with a social commentary approached in a very imperialistic way.

But at the same time what Javier is saying is true that for me there’s an immediacy reaction.  People will not be indifferent to this film.  I promise that.  Now I guess that you sometimes can go in or not go into a film and that’s the right of it.

But if you let yourself go in, and you scratch a little bit on the service and the obvious reaction of people at some time they find it very emotional or this bleak or dark or reductive adjectives to give to a film that sometimes put you in uncomfortable position, I have found and I discovered that not all beauty is beautiful.  That sometimes beautifulness or real beauty has to be found in ways and places that are not obvious and you can — you have to look a little deeper.  And even when they are not beautiful in the way that we understand things are much more meaningful and profound and much more full of life.  And that’s what it is for me.

[The Charlie Rose Show]

The best ever homework assignment. (Thank you Kurt Vonnegut.)

Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to watch a 2002 lecture that writer Kurt Vonnegut gave at Albion College. In the cleverly titled “How to Get a Job Like Mine”, Vonnegut gives the audience a lovely homework assignment:

“tonight, write a six-line poem. rhymed: no fair, tennis without a net. make it as good as you possibly can. for you. don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. alright. as soon as you have the poem, six lines as good as you can make them. you – good for you. don’t memorize it, don’t show anybody, don’t tell anybody you wrote it. tear it up. scatter the pieces in widely separated trash receptacles. and you will find out you have been rewarded, big time. this came out of you! this is the act of creativity! the hell with fame, the hell with money! you created this. so please do that tonight.” [at minute 7:44]

I fell in love with this assignment for its wonderful illustration of the value that act of creativity has in and of itself. There are many, many nuggets of joy to be had in this lecture, so I must recommend watching it in full. It can be found in 5 parts here:

“What books should I read?”

Writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, who I first came to know through a delightful longread New York Times article chronicling the altered state of visiting Disney World, answered reader queries in an online segment for The Paris Review. One reader wanted advice on which books he should read. An excerpt of the Q&A is here:

I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start.

A place to start is with Guy Davenport’s nonfiction collections, Every Force Evolves a Form, The Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus (with more pieces in The Death of Picasso). You’ll learn an enormous amount from these essays and sketches, but almost without realizing, because they give off the pleasure of great stories. Read the title essay in The Hunter Gracchus (about Kafka and the way symbols can take on a life of their own), and see if it isn’t as stimulating and creepy as the last good movie you saw.

Come up with a system of note-taking that you can use in your reading. It’s okay if it evolves. You can write in the margins, or keep a reading notebook (my preference) where you transcribe passages you like, with your own observations, and mark down the names of other, unfamiliar writers, books you’ve seen mentioned (Guy D. alone will give you a notebook full of these). Follow those notes to decide your next reading. That’s how you’ll create your own interior library. Now do that for the rest of your life and die knowing you’re still massively ignorant. (I wouldn’t trade it!)

Read My Ántonia, and then read everything else by Willa Cather. Inside her novels you’ll find it impossible to doubt that high enjoyment and extreme depth can go together. The most difficult art.

Read Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. I’m saying that randomly, because it seems right, and to approve the spirit of randomness.

If you get into a writer, go all the way and check out everything he/she has written. This summer I fell into a Defoe hole. Started with the major stuff, the best novels and the good journalism, and then read everything down to the poems and the tedious political pamphlets, since by that point I was equally interested in him as a human being and wanted to have as accurate a map of the inside of his brain as possible. His is one of the minds that helped shape the modern world—we’re literally still telling his stories—so there’s a vital interest. I read Maximilian Novak’s super-solid biography of him, Master of Fictions. That sort of questy reading ends up enriching your experience of each individual book and piece, and it lends a sense of adventure to the whole business, which after all involves a lot of lying down or sitting on your ass.

Borges and Denis Johnson—anything by either. Edith Wharton’s story “The Young Gentlemen.” (Random, random.) Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and then his poems if you’re feeling spry. Find on the Web and buy an old paperback copy of the Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine–edited anthology Six Centuries of Great Poetry (a book for life). Read the next two things I’m going to read and then see how you like them: Grant’s Memoirs and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Books that got me kick-started were the great modernist biographies, especially Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. Read those two books and you’ll have a decent-size grid on which to plot the rest of your reading. I’m somehow moved to spurt out, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. People have been writing about Shakespeare for half a millennium, and the very best of it just happened.

Ignore all of this and read the next cool-looking book you see lying around. It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop. I was reading Phoenix Force novels until I was like thirteen. These days a lot of people I know are into Murakami. I should have said more novels. If it’s by a Russian, read it.

[the Paris Review]

“And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”

When words are true, they are timeless. So it is that a collection of ten letters written from 1903-1908 by poet Rainer Maria Rilke to an aspiring young poet continue to circulate en masse. Collected in a simple volume entitled Letters to a Young Poet, these letters serve an almost Biblical function for many people, especially artists. Personally, I have continued to refer back to my copy over the years, and in contrast to ephemeral pop songs, the hooks of Rilke’s letters seem to increase in their power over of time. While the letters are better read directly and completely than interpreted contextually, I want to highlight one passage in this introductory post. It is a passage that seems to sum up the very thrust of life.

“…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

(Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903)

It is with this spirit of living the questions that I provide further commentary (“notes”) as I have them. After all, as evidenced by these turn of the century pen pals, it is in the shared nature of living the questions that the pursuit transcends the struggle of individual battling and becomes a pleasurable practice.