I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, how he sort of made that by kind of mastering all of these different styles, so what I want to know is what kind of rules, skills, and theory do you think people need to master before they can steal from these different fields and industries and apply it to something creative?
It’s funny that you mention Bruce Lee, because when Kirby was staying at my house for SXSW there was a Bruce Lee documentary on, so we started googling and talking about Bruce Lee. There is so much in this documentary. People are like: “oh he stole that from this,” and “oh he plagiarized this text,” and then one guy was arguing who was the originator of mixed martial arts and all this stuff, and it’s really fascinating.
To me, what makes really good theft effective is when you’re very, very familiar with what you are stealing from. When you’ve almost immersed yourself completely and you’re not just skimming the surface. You’re not just scraping the style off of what you are taking from. You really dive into it, and you learn what was at the heart of it in order to combine it with something else. Like with Bruce Lee for example, Bruce Lee studied those boxing films. He would watch those boxing films over and over until it was deeply embedded in his brain — the footwork and stuff. Then he brought it into his technique. It wasn’t like he said, “Oh I’ll take a couple of things from boxing” and that was it you know. There is a little graph I have in the book which is “skim vs. study,” and I think what stealing is about is trying to drill as deep into your influences as you can and that’s what the idea of building a family tree, or a lineage of creativity or creative people is about.
You use the term the “genealogy of ideas.”
Yeah, exactly, so it’s like trying to drill back as far as you can and what happens when you do that is that you kind of realize, is that stuff didn’t come out of nowhere, there is actually a history to all of this, and knowing the full history means you can grab whatever you want from it. A lot of times when we talk about creative theft — if you want to talk about the newness of the work — a lot of times it comes from the breadth of diversity of the sources you steal from.
Like if you’re only stealing from the Urban Outfitters catalog, you’re only stealing from your contemporaries. Theft isn’t going to be as interesting because everyone has seen it, but if you go back and drill, like Van Gogh stealing from Japanese wood blocks or Picasso going to African Art. The more different from your own experience what you’re borrowing from is, the more unique the work you get.
There is that notion that progression and originality comes from knowing the rules well enough to know what to break. Is it the same for creativity?
If you constantly just skim the surface of the Internet then you’re just going to have everything else that everyone else does.
I think that there are artists out there that can… you know there is that whole concept of outsider art? But they don’t know the rules and they still come up with something that we think is very original. I’m thinking about someone like Daniel Johnston someone would say Johnston is kind of like an outsider or just came out of nowhere, but like this is a guy that completely saturated himself with The Beatles, comic books and stuff like that. I mean even Daniel Johnston had influences. So that’s where I come from with it.
Speaking of comic books, I understand you grew up a fan of comic books as well, especially cartoonist Lynda Barry, and you bring up this notion of imitation versus emulation. Her book 100 Demons was sort of an emulation of a Zen art exercise. Was it the same idea with this book when you were writing it?
I think for me it was a matter of the imitation vs. emulation… The emulation is when you push through into your own thing, you don’t want to just become Lynda Barry; you want to become the next best thing that Lynda berry occupies. I actually ripped off 100 Demons structure wise in my last book.
My last book was Newspaper Blackout. What I loved about 100 Demons was that Lynda came out and said, “Here’s this form that I came to. This is how I came to it,” and she tells this little short story and then there’s the work. And at the very end there’s this explanation of how it’s done and this call like “you do it too,” so I totally ripped that off for Newspaper Blackout.
The beginning of Newspaper Blackout is about how I came to the form, how everyone did it before me, and then the poems, the collection, and at the end it’s like “you try it too.” When I came to see like an artist I was thinking of a bunch of different books. It wasn’t just one book; it was several different books. The book is full of stuff that I lifted over the years, but as far as the actual structure of the book, I actually borrowed more for the look and feel of the book.
My editor and I talked very early in the process about what size we wanted it to be. And when I came into work, I came in with a dummy book, which I actually had taken from one of my favorite cartoonists, James Kochalka. He has this book, The Cute Manifesto, and it’s the same size so I photoshopped what I thought the cover should look like and I wrapped it up in this book, and I brought it in and put it on the table and was like “this is what I think it should be.” My art director was like “aww” and it’s funny cause the book actually looks pretty similar to the dummy book.
What other cartoonists and authors helped influence this book?
I would probably say there’s this guy named Huge MacLeod who’s been kind of a mentor to me. He wrote a book called Ignore Everybody that I would say definitely influenced this book. Lynda Barry’s, What It Is, definitely influenced me, especially the “use your hands” section. It pretty much all comes from Lynda and my own take on it. My friend Mike Brodie actually did the illustrations for REWORK by the 37signals guys and I just thought he did such a kickass job with it. I found a lot of inspiration there and also, this is kind of an odd influence — Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. I kind of picked that up while we were making the book and loved the texture of that book like how there were drawings and photographs and stuff, and I really wanted the book to feel like that.
I wanted there to be a lot of stuff in the book. I wanted there to be a lot of different textures and different things to look at, and I wanted it to feel like my blog, but I wanted it to be kind of special. I wanted it to feel like the blog, but designed to be a book. I worked really closely with a fantastic book designer Leah Thomas is her name, and she did an incredible job. I worked closely with my editor Bruce Tracy. There was no wasted space in the book. We nailed it right. And now where that came into weirdness is when we went to do the e-book. What’s really interesting is that no one complains about the length of the book — they feel like it’s meaty and there’s a lot to look at, but the only complaints come from people who read the e-book. They think its’ too short, which is really strange, like it feels light to them when they are whipping through the e-book, but when they have the book in front of them it feels good and the cover’s really nice.
In terms of the digital realm, how would you say the Internet changed the way creative minds work?
Aw man. I think it’s funny cause it’s been really good and bad. I think for one thing the Internet is a copy machine. The Internet makes it so easy to copy things that idea of lineage gets completely lost. I mean attribution is such a huge problem on the Internet — knowing where something came from. Honestly, college-aged people are existing more in this tumblr era where images just exist on the Internet and just kind of like pick them up and remix them.
I can’t speak to their psyche, but for me personally, I feel like I’m constantly swimming against this tide of trying to track things down. I see something and love it and then I have to dig to figure out where it came from and who posted what. To me, it’s really important to figure out where it came from because the funny thing about the Internet is, like I said before, everyone is just skimming along the surface. We blog that, but if you figure out who the artist was, then you would have dove down to find out if they have this other cool stuff.
If you constantly just skim the surface of the Internet then you’re just going to have everything else that everyone else does, but if you just dive and go one step further than everyone else, and you research just a little more deeply — there’s this rich world no one is looking in. The Internet helps that because research is so easy. The big thing that Internet has done is that someone like me can come along. I’ve never had a gallery show, I didn’t get an MFA, I didn’t do any of the things that you’re supposed to do to have an art and writing career, and that’s because of the Internet. There’s no way I would have the career I do without the Internet or without my fan base and being online. It’s just enabling people to build whatever they want.