During your speech for The Economist, you said that “people want to save the things they love from oblivion,” which is very much what services like tumblr and Pinterest provide. Do you think that this sort of hoarding of ideas is detrimental to creating because it’s promoting regurgitation than emulation?
It’s funny when you save something to Pinterest or tumblr, because it means you’re almost blowing it out into the world and making it more available. When you think about clipping a newspaper article, it just stays on your fridge, but tumblr is your public fridge so anyone else can grab it and put it on their fridge. It’s really strange and it’s a really good question. I would think the opposite might be true, in that, maybe in this day and age, the things you keep to yourself are more valuable than what you tumble or tweet.
There’s definitely been times for me where I see something that I’m like “this is a gold nugget, I should stick it online,” but it’s just always been really important to me to share my influences and to be as open as I can. That’s what comes from literature. I share almost everything. If you were an insane person you could go back and say well this quote in the book came from this post and you could re--engineer the book.
Lynda Barry is tumbling right now and an artist in residence at University of Wisconsin, Madison and it fits perfectly with her personality and it fits perfectly with her artistic ethos. She is so open about her technique and is so open about her process and that just fits. She’s a great blogger as it turns out. She does this YouTube video where she says “’Kay class you have your composition books? All right we are going to write for five minutes,” and just sits there and writes for five minutes in front of this YouTube video — so you can play along and anyone can do it. I don’t know if it was her idea, but tumblr or not, that to me is what is so cool — when these artists that have been really inspirational to me, but aren’t digital natives, engage with the medium.
What ways do you think people can break out of this notion that curation equals creativity — people who repurpose content without taking it to different level?
I think listening to hip-hop, and especially Jay-Z and Kanye, gives you this artificial confidence.
I don’t know, there are people that would argue curation is in its own way creative. Organizing things, for instance, someone like Maria Popova, who runs Brain Pickings. Maria is a friend of mine and I think she’s engaged in mind as a lot of the artists I know are. I would think that she’s in touch as much, she reads and is more influenced than a lot of lazy artists. For me I don’t want to touch that because there are plenty of curators that we might make a distinction between a curator and an over-sharer, but I don’t want to make that argument either.
There’s a glory in saying “this is the thing that I love and I think a lot of you will love it.” I want people to read this stuff too that I love. I want everyone in the world to read Lynda Barry cause I think she is brilliant. She’s had such an effect on me and I’m amazed that she isn’t more widely popular. But to me it’s about that love that brought you to the form in the first place, and to continue to share it.
Not just pinning your own work all the time, it’s also like paying tribute to the people that came before you. There’s a quote in the book that came from Kobe Bryant — I’m not a basketball fan, but Kobe Bryant, as far as athletes go, he’s a really interesting case because he’s one of the first generations to be able to watch VHS tapes, so that influences his basketball game. He can study moves and emulate. He’s got that great quote “When I go out on the court I’m honoring all the guys that I stole from who came before me.” To me what’s even greater about being online is that you can be like “here’s one of these guys I stole from.
Going on with that, one of your pieces of advice is that artists should figure out what to steal and take that. How does an artist figure out what’s worth taking and why?
That’s a really good question. I mean, first of all you take stuff that you love. A lot of artists think that they have to do certain things because they tell you to in art school, or they tell you that’s popular, and I think really the way to come up with some sort of voice for yourself is to just stay really in touch with what really sets you off, what really gets you going.
For me there’s all kinds of artists that resonate with other people that I just don’t get, and there’s artists that I love that people don’t like, so I think part of it is having confidence in your taste and liking what you like, and I think when you get into the art world, it’s not even art — it’s any career. Any career has its figureheads, or what’s important, or what you should pay attention to, and it’s really important to keep some sort of personal compass on what you like and what jazzes you.
I think that’s how you figure out whom to steal from. What to steal is really interesting because when I write a book — if you just steal the style from someone’s work its not going to be anything other than a knockoff, but if you try and reverse-engineer the style and figure out where the artist is coming from — like where the thinker was coming from, what they were reading, what their biographical details were, then you can really get a sense of how they were looking at the world. That’s what you want to steal. You don’t want to look like someone else. You want to see like someone else.
Speaking of careers, there’s a big contradiction in the book. I think it was in Rule Number 9, which is “Be boring.” You talk about how you do creative work when you live a boring life…
When I talk about boring, a lot of it is a little bit tongue and cheek but its more about being like the Flaubert quote “I try to be regular and bourgeois in my daily life so I can be violent and original in my work.” It’s really about having energy. There are people out there that do drugs and come back and do great art. We know them. They’ve been around. Now the question is how long they stay, what kind of lives they lead, and what’s left in their wake.
Crazy, wild artists are going to be crazy, wild artists. But for the majority of people I think the advice to be boring, to take care of yourself, to not go into debt, to marry well, to think about your relationships. I think that advice is not saying be safe, it’s being boring in that you get your work done. When I think about Lynda Barry, Lynda lives in a farmhouse with her husband on a prairies and acreages. She used to be pretty wild, but I don’t think she’s that wild now. I can’t speak to what her life is about now, but I live a really quiet life with my wife. We live in this suburban new development and we have a little dog, but the things we say to each other are insane. We have this insane personal life. It looks boring on the outside but we constantly are on fire for our work — coming up with crazy ideas. The boring part is just about energy — it’s just about not wasting it on poses or scenes or whatever and really channeling it into your work instead.
One of your rules is to have side projects. I know you were listening to Watch The Throne while you were writing the book. Could you explain how that inspired you?
I’m going to be real honest. I was neither a Jay-Z nor Kanye fan until Watch The Throne came out, and that was really the gateway drug to both of them for me. What’s amazing to me is to even think Watch The Throne is a side project. It seems so fully formed and so canonical. I would think in like ten years we’re going to be listening to Watch The Throne. There’s no way we wont.
To me, it’s the idea that like in my own career there are so many different entryways that people have, like sometimes they come to me because of my drawing, and sometimes they come for the poems, and a lot of people have come from the #StealAcrossAmerica tour, but there are all these gateways and entryways into the main show. But you are so uncertain when you are writing a book that uncertainty can creep in and you start, and you get these feelings like “Do I have any right say in this? Am I right? Am I wrong?” I think listening to hip-hop, and especially Jay-Z and Kanye, gives you this artificial confidence.
“Don’t let me get in my zone.”
That’s right! Don’t let me get in my zone! Yeah I mean exactly. Don’t let me get in my zone. You gotta get in your swag.
Lastly, since 2005 you’ve kept a list of best things you’ve read every year. What is on your list this year?
Well one thing about my reading here is that it’s not actually for the year, it’s just whatever I happen to read that year. I don’t make a point to say this is the best book that came out this year, it’s just a very personal list like “this is what I read this year.” Every year I try and pick a writer that I think I can get their whole outlook done in the year, so last year I did Charles Portis because he only has 5 books and this year I’m going to do Nicholas Baker.
Let’s see. I thought Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts was really good. My wife is an introvert and I’m a super extrovert so that knowledge has really helped us a lot. I think Susan Cain’s book is really good. I actually read a book called Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, which was a little bit too long, but that was a great book. I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity this year because when you start talking “fake it until you make it,” and thinking about where authenticity is real, which is kind of a funny statement, like “what is this thing that makes us want things that are authentic?”
I like Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story; I thought that was fun. And So It Goes, the Vonnegut bio, bummed me out but it was really good. Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence inspired me a lot — I remember when the original plagiarism piece came out in Harper’s Bazaar and that was kind of a time bomb for me, as well as David Shield’s book, Reality Hunger. And they’re buddies so I know they’re pushing this stuff out. Probably the best book I’ve read so far this year was Will Hermes’ Love Goes to Buildings On Fire about the five years in New York that changed music forever. I love music so much and it’s such a perfect portrait of New York in that time. That was just a great book!