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A scrapbook of stuff I'm reading / looking at / listening to / thinking about...



Jul 31, 2014
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James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show, 1964

One of my favorite all-time performances. Glad to see it being passed around so much lately, thanks to David Remnick’s appreciation in the New Yorker.

One thing I didn’t know:

This was the first time that Brown, while singing “Please, Please, Please,” pulled out his “cape act,” in which, in the midst of his own self-induced hysteria, his fit of longing and desire, he drops to his knees, seemingly unable to go on any longer, at the point of collapse, or worse. His backup singers, the Flames, move near, tenderly, as if to revive him, and an offstage aide, Danny Ray, comes on, draping a cape over the great man’s shoulders. Over and over again, Brown recovers, throws off the cape, defies his near-death collapse, goes back into the song, back into the dance, this absolute abandonment to passion.

Of course, James Brown, like so many soul acts, stole straight from the church:

That falling-to-the-knees-overcome-with-emotion dramaturgy is straight out of the Holiness Church, out of a belief system holding, in the charnel heat of the moment, that a person could be overpowered by a sudden tap from the Holy Ghost. Holy Ghost jumpers were what they called those filled with the spirit in the earliest days of Pentecostalism. It was a form of possession, of yielding with glory to a higher force. Many figures in the black Pentecostal tradition wore the cape.

There’s so many things I love about this performance — be sure to note towards the end how you can see the dust from the stage on James’ knees from falling down so much. Incredible.

You can get the full T.A.M.I show on DVD here.

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I was going on a train from Manchester to London and I was looking out of the window at some cows, I believe, and I just thought: “Boy doesn’t know he’s a wizard - goes off to wizard school.” I have no idea where it came from. I think the idea was floating along the train and looking for someone and my mind was vacant enough so it decided to zoom in there.

Jul 29, 2014
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Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs

I get sent a lot of books about “creativity” and “innovation,” and most of the time I throw them on the pile, but after Shenk’s Atlantic piece on Lennon and McCartney got passed around so much, I thought I’d give this one a spin (I also remembered that my friend Ryan Holiday recommended his book on Lincoln’s depression.) Glad I did, because so much of what Shenk has investigated here is stuff I looked into for Show Your Work!

Some excerpts, below.

How creativity really works doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional narrative


  The lone-genius idea has become our dominant view of creativity not because of its inherent truth — in fact, it neglects and obscures the social qualities of innovation — but because it makes for a good story.
  
  The network model has the opposite problem. It is basically true, but so complex that it can’t be easily made into narrative. Where the lone-genius model is galvanizing and simplistic, the network model is suitably nuanced but hard to apply to day-to-day life.


Shenk says the “creative pair,” on the other hand, gives us a clearer narrative as an anecdote to the lone-genius myth without getting scrambled by the messiness of networks.

The trouble with this knowledge is that people want the lone genius myth — something marketers certainly know:


  Members of an audience want to identify with a single individual, a person with whom they can have an imagined relationship. It’s well known in publishing that coauthored books are generally a tougher sell than works by single authors because readers expect (often unconsciously) to be in direct communion with an author.


This is backed up by studies that have found “viewers value single creator art better than art created through a collaborative process”:


  Our perception of art… is largely dictated by the amount of time and effort we think went into it. This notion was first put forth by Denis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, where he argued that we evaluate art not just by the final product, but also by the process that created it. We then use our evaluation of the process and final product to determine the quality of the piece we are admiring.


So, if people value our work based on what we tell them about our process, is our duty to be honest about how we work, or to give them a good story that makes them feel good about the work?

The lone genius idea is wrapped up in our Romantic notions of the individual and the self


  …it’s a fantasty, a myth of achievement predicated on an even more fundamental myth of the enclosed, autonomous self for whom social experience is secondary.


The “lone genius” is usually backed up by a partner who remains in the shadows.

Take the couple I just wrote about: George Lucas and his first wife, Marcia. Or William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Or Tiger Woods — his caddy, Steve Williams wouldn’t just carry his bag, but he’d give him wrong yardage to compensate for his distance problems and he’d taunt him to “get his blood up,” and “deliberately misled him when he thought it would improve his play.”

There’s also a hilarious story about Picasso and his girlfriend, Francoise Gilot—every morning the chamber made would bring him coffee and toast and then he’d begin this ridiculous process:


  Picasso “would groan and began his lamentations… He would complain of his sicknesses… He would declare his mercy, and how little anyone understood it. He would complain about a letter from [his ex-wife] Olga. Life was pointless. Why get up. Why paint. His soul itches. His life was unbearable.”


Then Gilot would basically have to convince him to get out of bed, and after AN HOUR, he’d finally get up.

As Shenk writes, “No one is freed of the burdens of everyday life. One may, however, outsource them.”

(Speaking later of John Lennon, Shenk has another good line: “No grownup lives like a kid unless someone around him takes the adult role.”)

“We need to be able to get wired up without overheating, and disconnect without going cold.”

Finding a balance between is tricky, and depends on the individual.


  John Lennon, for instance, was so devoid of an internal relation that he had a hard time being by himself. “His reclusive lifestyle notwithstanding,” his friend Pete Shotton said, “John could never bear to be left completely alone — even when he was composing his songs. Much of my time at Kenwood was spent idly reading or watching TV while John, a few feed away, doodled at the piano or scribbled verses on a scrap of paper.” “If I am on my own for three days, doing nothing, “ [Lennon] told Hunter Davies in 1967, “I’m just not here…I have to see the others to see myself.”


And:


  The art of living, as [Esther] Perel wrote, is to “balance our fundamental urge for connection with the urge to experience our own agency.”


(Which, come to think of it, reminds me of this Rob Walker quote I almost used in SYW.)

Side note: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre used to work in the same cafe but at separate tables.

Even Emily Dickinson needed to connect.

She just had to do it through words.


  ”Her letters are beyond brilliant,” Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson authority who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me, “and you can’t really understand her as a poet and a writer without seeing that she approached this form, alongside her poetry, with equal energy and commitment.”


Dickinson wrote poems for specific people in her life and mailed them — she even sent “more than two hundred letters and two hundred and fifty poems” to her sister-in-law Susan, “even though they lived next door to each other.”

A good rivalry, if used constructively, can push the opposite parties further than they could go on their own.

Witness Lennon and McCartney’s competitiveness (Lennon said his new album would “probably scare [Paul] into doing something decent and then he’ll scare me into doing something decent, and I’ll scare him, like that.”) or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.


  “The feeling of rivalry,” [William James] said, ”lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it… The deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another. The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort.”


On a side note to all this, I have a bad habit when reading books of wondering to myself what other structures the book could’ve taken, and whether I would have done it differently. I do wonder how this would’ve read if the “grand theory” of collaboration were stripped out and each creative pair were given their own chapter, with the stories simply juxtaposed against each other. This idea is actually alluded to in Shenk’s (rather strange, actually) epilogue:


  About a year ago a friend of mine, an accomplished editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, told me that the plan for the book — to consider scores of stories alongside one another — was nuts.


Shenk himself seems to have realized it is the stories of these pairings that really fly:


  I’ve pushed for organization via the traditional mode of narrative; [my editor] has pushed for a more audacious organization by idea.


And that he’s well aware (as we all are) that this book is going on a certain spot in the bookstore shelves:


  My job is to push against the conventions of “big idea” books. Eamon’s job is to hold the project to the primary necessities of the form.


Regardless, I found this a fascinating read. It comes out next week.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs

I get sent a lot of books about “creativity” and “innovation,” and most of the time I throw them on the pile, but after Shenk’s Atlantic piece on Lennon and McCartney got passed around so much, I thought I’d give this one a spin (I also remembered that my friend Ryan Holiday recommended his book on Lincoln’s depression.) Glad I did, because so much of what Shenk has investigated here is stuff I looked into for Show Your Work!

Some excerpts, below.


How creativity really works doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional narrative

The lone-genius idea has become our dominant view of creativity not because of its inherent truth — in fact, it neglects and obscures the social qualities of innovation — but because it makes for a good story.

The network model has the opposite problem. It is basically true, but so complex that it can’t be easily made into narrative. Where the lone-genius model is galvanizing and simplistic, the network model is suitably nuanced but hard to apply to day-to-day life.

Shenk says the “creative pair,” on the other hand, gives us a clearer narrative as an anecdote to the lone-genius myth without getting scrambled by the messiness of networks.

The trouble with this knowledge is that people want the lone genius myth — something marketers certainly know:

Members of an audience want to identify with a single individual, a person with whom they can have an imagined relationship. It’s well known in publishing that coauthored books are generally a tougher sell than works by single authors because readers expect (often unconsciously) to be in direct communion with an author.

This is backed up by studies that have found “viewers value single creator art better than art created through a collaborative process”:

Our perception of art… is largely dictated by the amount of time and effort we think went into it. This notion was first put forth by Denis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, where he argued that we evaluate art not just by the final product, but also by the process that created it. We then use our evaluation of the process and final product to determine the quality of the piece we are admiring.

So, if people value our work based on what we tell them about our process, is our duty to be honest about how we work, or to give them a good story that makes them feel good about the work?

The lone genius idea is wrapped up in our Romantic notions of the individual and the self

…it’s a fantasty, a myth of achievement predicated on an even more fundamental myth of the enclosed, autonomous self for whom social experience is secondary.

The “lone genius” is usually backed up by a partner who remains in the shadows.

Take the couple I just wrote about: George Lucas and his first wife, Marcia. Or William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Or Tiger Woods — his caddy, Steve Williams wouldn’t just carry his bag, but he’d give him wrong yardage to compensate for his distance problems and he’d taunt him to “get his blood up,” and “deliberately misled him when he thought it would improve his play.”

There’s also a hilarious story about Picasso and his girlfriend, Francoise Gilot—every morning the chamber made would bring him coffee and toast and then he’d begin this ridiculous process:

Picasso “would groan and began his lamentations… He would complain of his sicknesses… He would declare his mercy, and how little anyone understood it. He would complain about a letter from [his ex-wife] Olga. Life was pointless. Why get up. Why paint. His soul itches. His life was unbearable.”

Then Gilot would basically have to convince him to get out of bed, and after AN HOUR, he’d finally get up.

As Shenk writes, “No one is freed of the burdens of everyday life. One may, however, outsource them.”

(Speaking later of John Lennon, Shenk has another good line: “No grownup lives like a kid unless someone around him takes the adult role.”)

“We need to be able to get wired up without overheating, and disconnect without going cold.”

Finding a balance between is tricky, and depends on the individual.

John Lennon, for instance, was so devoid of an internal relation that he had a hard time being by himself. “His reclusive lifestyle notwithstanding,” his friend Pete Shotton said, “John could never bear to be left completely alone — even when he was composing his songs. Much of my time at Kenwood was spent idly reading or watching TV while John, a few feed away, doodled at the piano or scribbled verses on a scrap of paper.” “If I am on my own for three days, doing nothing, “ [Lennon] told Hunter Davies in 1967, “I’m just not here…I have to see the others to see myself.”

And:

The art of living, as [Esther] Perel wrote, is to “balance our fundamental urge for connection with the urge to experience our own agency.”

(Which, come to think of it, reminds me of this Rob Walker quote I almost used in SYW.)

Side note: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre used to work in the same cafe but at separate tables.

Even Emily Dickinson needed to connect.

She just had to do it through words.

”Her letters are beyond brilliant,” Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson authority who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me, “and you can’t really understand her as a poet and a writer without seeing that she approached this form, alongside her poetry, with equal energy and commitment.”

Dickinson wrote poems for specific people in her life and mailed them — she even sent “more than two hundred letters and two hundred and fifty poems” to her sister-in-law Susan, “even though they lived next door to each other.”

A good rivalry, if used constructively, can push the opposite parties further than they could go on their own.

Witness Lennon and McCartney’s competitiveness (Lennon said his new album would “probably scare [Paul] into doing something decent and then he’ll scare me into doing something decent, and I’ll scare him, like that.”) or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

“The feeling of rivalry,” [William James] said, ”lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it… The deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another. The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort.”


On a side note to all this, I have a bad habit when reading books of wondering to myself what other structures the book could’ve taken, and whether I would have done it differently. I do wonder how this would’ve read if the “grand theory” of collaboration were stripped out and each creative pair were given their own chapter, with the stories simply juxtaposed against each other. This idea is actually alluded to in Shenk’s (rather strange, actually) epilogue:

About a year ago a friend of mine, an accomplished editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, told me that the plan for the book — to consider scores of stories alongside one another — was nuts.

Shenk himself seems to have realized it is the stories of these pairings that really fly:

I’ve pushed for organization via the traditional mode of narrative; [my editor] has pushed for a more audacious organization by idea.

And that he’s well aware (as we all are) that this book is going on a certain spot in the bookstore shelves:

My job is to push against the conventions of “big idea” books. Eamon’s job is to hold the project to the primary necessities of the form.

Regardless, I found this a fascinating read. It comes out next week.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

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Anything you promote, there’s a game that you either play or you don’t play. I decided very early on that I was very ambitious and I wanted to play.

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You see, part of me is a monk and part of me is a performing flea.

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The woman who helped make Star Wars and Indiana Jones

Ever heard of editor Marcia Lucas? There’s a long, fascinating history of her life over at The Secret History of Star Wars:

Biographer Dale Pollock once wrote that Marcia was George Lucas’ “secret weapon.” Most people are aware that George Lucas was once married, and probably some are aware that his wife worked in the film industry herself and edited all of George’s early films before their 1983 divorce. But few are aware of the implications that her presence brought, and the transformations her departure allowed. She was, in many ways, more than just the supportive wife—she was a partner as well. “Not a fifty percent partner,” as she herself admits, but nonetheless an important one, and the only person that Lucas could totally confide in back then. Today, she has been practically erased from the history books at Lucasfilm.

Mark Hamill (a.k.a. Luke Skywalker) says Marcia was the “warmth and heart” of STAR WARS, and points to a radical shift in George Lucas’s filmmaking after their divorce:

[George is] in his own world. He’s like William Randolph Hearst or Howard Hughes, he’s created his own world and he can live in it all the time. You really see that in his films, he’s completely cut off from the rest of world. You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little “kiss for luck” before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: “Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,” and she said, “George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected”—and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it. She was really the warmth and the heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of, who would tell him when he was wrong. Now he’s so exalted that no one tells him anything.

Marcia, who was always pushing George to focus on story and character, also provided a crucial woman’s perspective to Raiders of The Lost Ark:

[Marcia] was instrumental in changing the ending of Raiders, in which Indiana delivers the ark to Washington. Marion is nowhere to be seen, presumably stranded on an island with a submarine and a lot of melted Nazis. Marcia watched the rough cut in silence and then levelled the boom. She said there was no emotional resolution to the ending, because the girl disappears. ‘Everyone was feeling really good until she said that,’ Dunham recalls. ‘It was one of those, “Oh no we lost sight of that.” ’ Spielberg reshot the scene in downtown San Francisco, having Marion wait for Indiana on the steps on the government building. Marcia, once again, had come to the rescue.”

In his recent piece, “Temple of Gloom,” Wesley Morris points to the Lucas’s divorce as a source of the darkness in the Indiana Jones sequel:

Spielberg, who’s two years younger than Lucas, was poleaxed by his friends’ divorce. “George and Marcia, for me, were the reason you got married … ” he told 60 Minutes in 1999. “And when it didn’t work, and when that marriage didn’t work, I lost my faith in marriage for a long time.” Spielberg had his own problems. He’d just split with Kathleen Carey, a girlfriend of three years. A few months earlier, Spielberg had told People, “I think Kathleen and I will have kids.” Suddenly, the two most successful moviemakers on the planet were under-40 bachelors.

And:

“I was going through a divorce,” Lucas said, “and I was in a really bad mood. So I really wanted to do dark. And Steve then broke up with his girlfriend, and so he was sort of into it, too. That’s where we were at that point in time.” That’s the reason Temple of Doom… is difficult for its creators — and lots of Indy fans — to love. It’s a breakup movie. It’s a record of gloomy images that were scrolling through its creators’ heads. “Sometimes,” Lucas told me, “you go to the dark side.” For two bummed-out guys, Temple of Doom was a catalog of what it’s like to get your heart ripped out.

Filed under: George Lucas

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Cory Arcangel’s, Working On My Novel

theparisreview:

“It’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying.”

Dan Piepenbring on Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel, a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels.

I heard about this idea on Twitter and thought it was stupid, but then I saw images of the book and sort of loved it. (Kind of amazing that Penguin actually published something so minimal and artsy fartsy?) Also this Saul Bellow quote in the post:

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

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Any book has behind it all the other books that have been written.

Jul 28, 2014
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The only lyrics I’m really interested in are the lyrics I find, not the ones I invent… You just have no idea that’s a thought that you had. It surprises you. It can make me laugh or make me emotional. When it happens and I’m the audience and I react, I have faith in that because I’m already reacting. I don’t have to question it. I’ve already been the audience. But if I make it up, knowing where it’s going, it’s not as much fun. It may be just as good, but it’s more fun to discover it.
Paul Simon, quoted in Songwriters on Songwriting

Jul 27, 2014
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Saul Steinberg and Kurt Vonnegut

In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut called Steinberg “the wisest person I ever met in my entire life”:

I could ask him anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer, gruffly, almost a growl. He was born in Romania, in a house where, according to him, “the geese looked in the windows.”
I said, “Saul, how should I feel about Picasso?”
Six seconds passed, and then he said, “God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be really rich.” I said, “Saul, I am a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists and good ones, but when we talk I keep feeling we are in a very different businesses. What makes me feel that way?”
Six seconds passed, and then he said, “It’s very simple. There are two sorts of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”
I said, “Saul, are you gifted?”
Six seconds passed, and then he growled, “No. But what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.’

Filed under: Steinberg, Vonnegut

Saul Steinberg and Kurt Vonnegut

In A Man Without A Country, Vonnegut called Steinberg “the wisest person I ever met in my entire life”:

I could ask him anything, and six seconds would pass, and then he would give me a perfect answer, gruffly, almost a growl. He was born in Romania, in a house where, according to him, “the geese looked in the windows.”

I said, “Saul, how should I feel about Picasso?”

Six seconds passed, and then he said, “God put him on Earth to show us what it’s like to be really rich.” I said, “Saul, I am a novelist, and many of my friends are novelists and good ones, but when we talk I keep feeling we are in a very different businesses. What makes me feel that way?”

Six seconds passed, and then he said, “It’s very simple. There are two sorts of artists, one not being in the least superior to the other. But one responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”

I said, “Saul, are you gifted?

Six seconds passed, and then he growled, “No. But what you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.’

Filed under: Steinberg, Vonnegut

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