Plagiarism Yay(?) and Pay Me to Daydream (Part 1 of 3)

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 47 min.

What began as a blurb about an essay somehow erupted into a three-part something or other—sometimes bleak, sometimes joyful—to do with creative life on a planet of material and mental scarcity. Plagiarism is the loosely construed theme of generative departure.

This is Part 1. A lot of words, the most important of which is probably attention. I’m tempted to not share this one, as I worry it’s not successful in any of the ways I hoped it’d be. And it ventures into unanticipated questions (Is creative inspiration a gift or a curse?) and murky introspective territory. But it sets up a clarifying context for Parts 2 and 3. So here ya go. It’s in four parts (plus a short closing section):

(1.1) Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” (A plagiarism);
(1.2)  Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (Or Is It a Curse?);
(1.3) Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!;
(1.4) Attention Is the Gift.

In Part 2, my favorite of the three (the joyful one), I’ll share some of my own plagiaristic transgressions, along with some previously unreleased songs.

In Part 3, I’ll suggest a new model of arts patronage I bet you’ll love, or I’ll optimistically try to convince you to love it.

Parts 2 and 3 will be linked here once written.

1.1 Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” (A plagiarism)

I recently read Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” from his excellent 2011 collection of the same title.

The piece was first published in Harper’s Magazine in February 2007. You can read it at their website, but the book is worth getting for Lethem’s response to the backlash it was bound to receive. Not to mention for the other writings therein, most of which are nonfiction. The worst that can happen is you’ll come away with great reading recommendations from someone who, if he weren’t a writer, would be a clerk in a used bookstore; or so he claims in “Clerk,” another of the volume’s essays: “No other possibility. I worked in eight bookstores in fifteen years” (p 29). We may take the book, Lethem assures us in the preface, “as a list of books to read after reading mine or instead of reading mine” (p xxi).

And you might come away—as I have—entertained, moved, edified, and even of the opinion that the collection is required reading for anyone aspiring to craft short-form nonfiction (or in my case hasty blog posts).

My experience while making my way through “The Ecstasy of Influence”—the essay, not the book—was one of growing annoyance. Which reached its peak, maybe, at Lethem’s claim that

Art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—is received as a gift is received. Even if we’ve paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us that has nothing to do with the price. (pp 106–107)1

Or maybe it was here:

The power of a gift economy remains difficult for the empiricists of our market culture to understand. In our times, the rhetoric of the market presumes that everything should be and can be appropriately bought, sold, and owned—a tide of alienation lapping daily at the dwindling redoubt of the unalienable. (p 107)

My thoughts on reading these points were, respectively: fuck that, it’s not a gift unless I say it is and I don’t care about that; just don’t want to see artists sick and hungry and definitely don’t want to see consumers savoring that sickness and hunger.

Lethem makes those points in a section called “You Can’t Steal A Gift,” in which he distinguishes between gift and market economies. The idea, I guess, is that we should mix them carefully, or not at all. But I might have been too distracted by the aspects made salient by the section’s title to give it a fair reading. The title put me in mind of an idea often used to ground horrid pro-digital-piracy arguments. An idea that, even several years after first encountering it, I’m still surprised to hear from smart people, from artists no less, and from Lethem himself earlier in this very article:

For a car or a handbag, once stolen, no longer is available to its owner, while the appropriation of an article of “intellectual property” leaves the original untouched. (102)

Actually, that might be where my annoyance hit its high point, thereafter sustained for a few pages before waning. I’ll say only a tiny bit about why I hate that idea, my first encounter with which went something like: “The difference between stealing a truck and a song file is that the song file is still there in the morning.”

I use the word idea here deliberately, as I take the thing to be an idea and not some mere obvious observation, given its reliance on metaphor, the understanding of which involves unstated and unconsidered background assumptions. For instance, I can’t imagine any sane person finding it elucidating in the case of someone breaking into buildings to copy random people’s private files. Also, the word stolen itself doesn’t clearly denote the same activities across contexts. Interpretation is left to intuition.

That said, what is being stolen—a word I use here in a moral more so than legal sense—is not a file or a song, nor is it the experience of the song. It is, among other things, the livelihood of the artist and the ability to make more art of the kind the thief presumably cares about (which makes me utterly unconcerned about people downloading songs they’ll never care to listen to; those aren’t lost sales, for one thing; more about livelihood, for creative work, or imaginative/fundamentally mental work, more broadly, in Part 3).

Some might say that a single download (of the relevant kind) can’t hurt. Fair enough, provided you are consistent: using one straw or burning one lightbulb or taking one airplane trip won’t destroy the environment. Are you consistent? I like that analogy. When artists are unable to make the work that sustains us, that feeds our souls in ways nothing else can, we deny our future selves and descendants the soul-nourishing experience of art gone unmade. Or if it is being made, much of it is done at great cost to the artist (more about this in a moment).

What is being stolen or denied (or use whatever term you like), then, is worth at least as much as some random purse or truck. Put something—a nickel, a link share, whatever you can manage—towards the existence of the art you love. That’s all I ask.

And that’s all I’ll say here on the piracy question. Which ceased to be much of a question not long after Lethem’s essay was published in 2007, twenty months before the launch of Spotify. (The question was answered, at least to the listen public and their suppliers’ satisfaction, by royalty-paying streaming services that I used to collectively call soft piracy after “Spotify,” but increasingly just call streaming services.) Though the question of livelihood remains as relevant as ever (more about which in Part 3).

This gives some sense of the harsh light cast, at least from my vantage point, by the Horrid Idea on much of what Lethem had to say next. But that light began to fade, and my annoyance to dissolve, as I came to understand that he doesn’t seem sold on the idea’s most infuriating applications (though I wish he’d explicitly and vehemently denounced those). His claim, rather is that the sale and distribution of culture is not—in this era of digital piracy any more than in earlier eras of increasingly accessible paper or plastic reproduction—the zero-sum game that “industries of cultural capital” (p 102) make it out to be. Agreed.

Ultimately, however, Lethem’s essay isn’t so much about piracy as it is about artists’ endless exchange (consciously or not, admittedly or not, graciously or not) of ideas, discoveries, and works. The overlap with piracy isn’t to be ignored (especially in 2007*). But neither is it the point here. Thank goodness. Now we can get down to the more stimulating discussion of artists’ culture of exchange (or, if you rather, their role as participants in the “gift economy”).

[*Maybe the question retains more relevance than I realize, at least for writers. From Chuck Palahniuk’s brilliant 2020 book, Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different, which I read while writing this post:

Bret Easton Ellis tells me the novel is no longer even a blip in the culture. You’re too late. Piracy has destroyed the profits. (p xvi)

Later in the book, however, Neil Gaiman speaks to Palahniuk of the pirated book as a “first no-cost shot of heroin that, with luck, will create a lifelong addiction,” or, at any rate, is “just a cost of doing business.” (p 157). I’ll leave it to you to go read Palahniuk’s own colorful and complicated thoughts on the topic.

On a personal note, I buy more new books than ever in the digital age. I love my Kindle.]

Towards that discussion, Lethem introduces the term usemonolopy (i.e. “monopoly on use”), in place of copyright, as a way to characterize the legal dominion one has over an intellectual property before it moves into the public domain, while warning us that the “rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest” (p 103). The words rapacious and monopoly lend this move a question-begging air, but fair enough. I certainly agree that severe copyright law, severely policed, is sinful. And I’m warming up to Lethem’s (perhaps not only rhetorical) framing of “the case for perpetual copyright” as “a denial of the essential gift-aspect of the creative act. Arguments in its favor are as un-American as those for the repeal of the estate tax” (p 111).

From here a self-conscious tension emerges that I’m relieved to detect. The tension of an artist who wants and needs the freedom to fully experience and indulge in “The Beauty of Second Use” (to cite the essay’s next section title), but who also wants (and perhaps needs) to make a living as an artist, and wants such a living for others, too. Evidence for these points shows up thought the book, but is best put in this essay’s closing paragraph:

As a novelist, I’m a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I’ll be blown away. For the moment I’m grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don’t pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing. (p 112)

By now he’d mostly won me over. In part due to the tension. In larger part due to my agreement with a core premise running through the essay’s argument: none of us is as original as we think we are. An implication of this is that it’s nearly impossible to develop into a decent artist without copying others. We should enthusiastically embrace rather than try to escape this fact.** Art as we know and love it is impossible without borrowing, without exchange between artists, without plagiarism. Yay plagiarism! Of a certain kind.

[**Can I escape by rolling dice to choose each note for my song? No. That’s nothing new (it’s called aleatoric music). And unless you get so clever with the process that it loses the point, the resulting music will by definition probably sound like other music made that way (though it would be fascinating were Chance to gift you the lost Bach Cantata for your efforts). But originality is overrated. Do what you want and enjoy.]

But what finally won me over was the twist ending, which I won’t spoil here but will say wasn’t really a twist so much as a result of my not having really digested the piece’s subtitle (not to mention the piece’s occasional off-brand anachronisms and metaphors and a certain wobble and bow at the joints—though the writing is as beautiful and intimidating as ever, and maybe I’m only noticing all this in retrospect).

The precise moment was a Dizzy Gillespie quote that got from me a smile and conceding nod:

Dizzy Gillespie, defending another player who’d been accused of poaching Charlie Parker’s style: “You can’t steal a gift. Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.” (p 117)

1.2 Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (Or Is It a Curse?)

I’m certain I haven’t done justice to Lethem’s key points (particularly the several that I don’t mention here). I doubt I fully understand them. For that, I’ll need to better understand his gift economy. And to fully understand that, maybe I’d need to read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (first published 1983; as of 2019 in its third edition), which Lethem recommends ahead of any other book referenced in this essay.

In The Gift‘s front-matter blurbs, Lethem characterizes the book as “epiphany, in sculpted prose” and tells us that “few books are such life-changers.” He’s not alone in lauding the book’s transformative powers. David Foster Wallace’s blurb puts it bluntly: “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

And Margaret Atwood ends a foreword added to the book in 2012 with: “One guarantee: you won’t come out of The Gift unaltered. This is a mark of its own status as a gift: for gifts transform the soul in ways that simple commodities cannot.” Or, at least, we can look to this “essential work” as defense against being changed for the worse, as Atwood puts it earlier in the foreword: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, read The Gift. It will help to keep you sane.”

With those endorsements, I figured I should read it. So I tried. But what I’ve seen of it reignites my earlier skepticism. What I see there is a style of fanciful and speculative analysis I rarely enjoy. Though I do find the historical accounts interesting, and can imagine them being extra thought-provoking for someone previously unexposed to that history—e.g., the misguided origins of the term Indian giver. In fact, maybe the book has seeped so deeply into the culture that it’s responsible for my familiarity with some of its most interesting ideas.

But what most stands out to me is a heavy reliance on strategically selected and self-servingly interpreted cultural objects (e.g., folktales). Those objects, reduced to symbology, are brought together into a kind of warm and easily downed soup for the credulous.

But Lethem, Atwood, Wallace, and other impressive fans I haven’t mentioned here (e.g., Zadie Smith2) are definitely not among the credulous. The Gift also shows up on Palahniuk’s nonfiction recommended-reading list in the above-praised (by me) Consider This, along with another Hyde book, Trickster Makes This World (1998). So what am I missing? (Interpret the word missing as applying to me or to the book, as you wish.) Credulous might be better replaced by something to do with hunger for Hyde’s interpretive slant. Or maybe to do with openness.

Perhaps, in having read only several of its pages, I’ve not sufficiently opened myself to its magic. I don’t mean this sarcastically: I certainly don’t begrudge the book’s fans their transformations. At the same time, plenty of readers who apparently finished the book share my complaints.

Here’s another reason I stand behind the complaint. In much of what I have read, some of which I looked at closely, Hyde’s analyses could be reversed without much effort in the service an opposite conclusion to the one that undergirds Hyde’s book. This opposing conclusion strikes me as rather reasonable and often, in fact, as true. I’ll explain.

Hyde’s book seems to take as given that being inspired to make art is itself a gift (one that must be kept in circulation; more on this shortly). I often feel, however, that the ceaseless onslaught of ideas (whether as music or words or whatever) and more importantly the bizarre need—unshakable compulsion—to capture it all (with paper, computer, recording device) thus resulting in hours and hours and hours of obsessing and capturing and obsessing and capturing, often to no meaningful end other than to have met the compulsion, that this is not a gift, but a curse.

This is real. Not some cynical or post-romantic (Gen-X) effort to sublimate self-pity into high art or, failing that, appearing interesting. (It also occurs to me that this is one of the many stories in Gaiman’s Sandman series: “Calliope” in the Dream Country book, third in the series.)

It is real, sometimes brutally so. How to put it into more down-to-Earth terms? How about: diagnosable disorder? One that strains relationships to their breaking point, even when the behavior is remunerated, but all the more so when not, when engaged under crushing debt and the risk (or reality) of loneliness, self-loathing, shame. A gift?

What about those of us sacrificing everything to write books nobody wants to read and music nobody wants to hear? What about those of us who aren’t good, who are actually bad at what we do, and the whole world agrees, but are compelled to do it anyway? Sacrifice (though that term implies too much agency) everything anyway?

Maybe this in itself is a kind of entertainment. I’ve often thought of the “follow your dreams” ethos a sick joke to which the punchline is “be sure to follow them to national television so we can laugh at you.” If you’ve every laughed at an American Idol season-opening audition, you know the joke I mean.3

If you are exquisitely and passionately bad enough, or are perceived to be, you (I need not name names) might still luck into a career of sorts.

The phrase diagnosable disorder is borrowed from a Meet the Composer podcast interview I’ve never forgotten with composer Dennacha Dennehy, in an episode called “Composing with Frequency” (8/25/14):

It was hard work, though. In the early days [of teaching] I would often stay up through the night, like really, because I’d have to be writing these new lectures, then I was setting up the group [music ensemble] and composing and I had very little sleep for a while … I actually need to write music, you know. It’s a fundamental need. It’s probably a diagnosable mental disorder.

I mean the phrase literally. I won’t speculate about the effects of Dennehy’s disorder on his life. But his music is excellent and seems to have taken him to some fascinating places. As for me, my musical obsessions have mostly brought trouble. Trouble in high school (where I composed string quartets in class instead of paying attention), in jobs (ditto, including in the military; more about that lifetime ago in Part 2), in friendships, and of course in romantic partnerships.

(Was it a fair request when someone I used to date recommended that I seek medication to turn off the idea flow, or at least the compulsion to capture it? I don’t know. If the ideas are mediocre, or even if they’re excellent, and are wrecking my life in nearly every possible way, why not block the flow? Because I identify with it, for starters: blockage sounds like death. Though it’s not like I haven’t done this at times by less healthy means, namely alcohol.)

It often feels like I’m channeling something when in the flow state, which is not mania: it’s lifelong, daily, exhausting, usually low-energy, and loaded with self-criticism. But I don’t tend to experience the state itself as good or bad. More like a glitch in brain chemistry. A spider mindlessly spinning and spinning, doesn’t matter if it’s beautiful or ugly or unremarkably plain or situated in a dank corner of a rotting and abandoned forest shack. Spinning and spinning, pointlessly.

An image that has materialized in recent years is that of a having to empty—to lance, to bleed—a brain bladder that never stops filling up, swelling. This situation calls itself a prism grotto, where facets are the translucent residue of myriad influences (artworks and otherwise), inside and outside of which all scenery is functional. This extends what I have in the past felt as a farraginous boil (where boil may be the swollen brain bladder or its product: a rolling or roiling stew, a boil).

The near-mindlessness, the repetitiveness, of the thing—of the spinning, spinning—is a key feature.  with on small shift in sensibility—were I to suddenly not be so desperately in need of novel voices (the same reason my “Reading Now” list contains over 50 books)—my compulsion could easily manifest as writing the word “porcupine” over and over again or washing my hands for hours on end, the movements for which strike me as only a few degrees difference from practicing a musical instrument for hours on end (as I did in high school, at any cost), an activity that can become rote without deliberate intervention, of which there are endless possibilities (a drastic example would be re-tuning your guitar to an awkward tuning).

I could write a long account of the lengths to which I went to keep my hands on a guitar in high school—often inciting deep frustration (and sometimes anger) in the adults who cared about me. I stopped caring so much about guitar at around age 17, but that compulsion has been in me in some form or another since I was a very young child, and it usually involves isolation. I recognize it every time I hear, as I often do, an artist or writer or composer talk about the hours they spend in a room (or in their head) alone. To lose that—even while others think you should be “on vacation”—is to suffer metaphysical constipation (to match my above-noted gluttonous consumption). Vacation is a word for “extra time to drain the brain bladder”—particularly, I’d think, for those who have a day job or three.

I recognized it in writer Chelsea Cain when she spoke, in an interview I happened to hear this morning, of being able to “get away with being in a room for ten hours… I love that… I love being alone in a room and living in my head” (“Chelsea Cain Interview” with Bill Kenower of, YouTube, 9/7/2012).

And I recognize it in the words of the wise and talented Moon Zappa on Mark Maron’s WTF podcast (Episode 343, 10/21/2013), where she discusses the compulsion of her father, Frank Zappa, to work for hours on end in a room to which food was lowered via dumbwaiter:

I was stoked when he got cancer, like “Finally he’s gonna be home, finally, I mean, we’re gonna have some face-time, this is gonna be awesome.” … I moved home to be with him. And then, wanna hear what he was interested in doing? Finishing all the work he had in his head.

Maron tries to process this as something transcendent, but Moon Zappa brings it down to Earth:

Maron: It seems like … your dad had in his mind that, like “I’m gonna leave this stuff and it’s going to transcend time somehow.”

Zappa: I don’t think he was thinking about that.

M: No?

Z: No. No, I don’t think he had that.

M: He was just compulsive and needed to keep creating?

Z: I really felt like he just answered the calling. He just kept creating and so… I mean, it’s weird living opposite somebody who’s just like, “Nope, just gonna answer the calling. Just gonna keep answering just what’s in me that wants to be said and done.”

M: Right. It’s a great thing, it’s a rare thing.

Z: Yeah well, it’s not great for raising children. But, yes, for artistry it’s outstanding.

I’ll bring the thought even closer to Earth by pointing out that most people with the compulsion are making work of interest to no one, and, irrespective of whether it’s of interest, they lack Frank Zappa’s legendary marketing genius (he who famously once said of a rough recording not “We’ll fix it in the mix,” but “We’ll fix it in the packaging,” and who, when asked if disco would ever make a comeback, said, “Not without the participation of the fashion industry” [he was right]. We could go on all day citing examples).

For whom was was Frank Zappa’s compulsion a gift? For himself? His family? For me (a once-teenage-disciple, unknown to him)?

Another way I sometimes characterize the “gift” is: Walk around all day listening to a different podcast in each ear while taking care of normal life and with the knowledge that the punishment for failing the quiz you’ll later be given on those podcasts is death.

gift? I need more convincing. And I know at least one artist who’d reject the premise of Hyde’s book on the grounds other than mine. Who’d say that being artistically obliged, bio-chemically speaking, is neither a gift nor a curse. Is no different than any other vocation. I agree with this to a point. If it weren’t were crushing debt and a fear of the dangers of loneliness, one can better justify sitting for hours on end scribbling (as Cain does above) or singing or whatever, it’d be no different than any other time-and-energy-consuming vocation.

So I texted the above-referenced person to ask whether the bundle of inspiration/talent/motivation is a gift or curse. After some discussion, the answer was curse, because most people can’t do art full time. This was revised to “capitalism” being the real problem. I could imagine someone revising that to “scarcity of resources,” which I would refine to “scarcity of attention,” which in a certain sense is a scarcity of time.

Someone else might say its a scarcity of good taste, but that’s an ultimately impossible or at least irrelevant worry. Impossible because it’s a dice roll whether one’s ceaseless spinning happens to align with the popular tastes of one’s time and, indeed, it’s often the case that precisely what one enjoys making is that which does not so align (paradoxically, such artists still would generally rather be paid than not by the very people—as consumers or grant-funding taxpayers—whose sensibilities they aim to offend; there’s no rhyme or reason to any of this, which is the point). This is one of many unfortunate and impossible predicaments in which a human’s tastes and circumstances can land them. A special case, I suppose, of evolution being your friend or not, depending on your circumstances. When you can’t eat, food is a hideous miracle; and when you next eat, it will feel like a gift.

So, a gift and a curse, of course. But a gift because it’s a curse, and vice versa. The point is: it’s not merely a gift. It’s not a gift simpliciter, without qualification, with the giver’s saying so, and then too maybe it’s not.

Even The Gift‘s chapters I most looked forward to, on Walt Whitman and, especially Ezra Pound, whom I also happened to read about recently in Steven Moore’s wonderful introduction to Beerspit Night and Cursing (2002), the collected 1960–1967 letters between Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli. My reason for buying that book is a fascination with the latter, first brought to my attention in the guise of Sheri Donatti, a dominant presence throughout Anatol Broyard’s candid, post-WWII-era-illuminating, unfinished, posthumously published autobiography Kafka Was the Rage (1993), and from whom I wished to hear much more in her own words.

Among other things (read the Beerspit intro!), Martinelli was a Pound devotee (who refers to him in her letters to Bukowski as maestro) and regular during Pound’s stay while exiled to the psych ward of St. Elizabeths Federal Hospital for the Insane in lieu of being arrested for his treasonous support of the Italian fascists.

I know little of Pound’s work, but am curious to know more about the genesis of his fascist sympathies, which Hyde apparently casts as a response—a maladaptive, but nevertheless, explicable response—to the wider failure of U.S. culture to appropriately interweave the gift economy into the social fabric. What I’ve seen of the chapter, it strikes me as at least an informative and interesting complement to another book I haven’t read, E. Fuller Torrey’s The Roots of Treason (1984), which is dedicated fully to the Pound question.

My worry though, for both books, is one feel often: too much reliance on mind-reading. Add this to Hyde’s enthusiastic interest in integrating Pound’s story into the book’s greater narrative, and my skepticism keeps me from investing in a full reading of the thing. Both of these books may suffer from this. Maybe one day I’ll see them at the library and will plop down for an afternoon to compare. I can’t afford to buy them for that purpose—I really can’t even afford the books that do transform, or at least enrapture, inspire, or edify me. If I one day find The Gift to be such a book after all, I’ll happily correct what I’ve written here.

Perhaps Pound is meant to be a cautionary tale about not keeping one’s gift in circulation, in which case a gift is transformed into a curse (as happens in at least one of the folk tales analyzed by Hyde). I find this interpretation just as problematic, however, and not only for reasons I’ve already given for worrying that the gift was never a gift in the first place. Namely, it seems that what is required in order to keep the gift in circulation is conveniently arbitrary: it need only be another gift of the same value. Thus, the inspired artist is able to share the gift of inspiration in the form of consumable works. I suppose Pound gave up freedom, a thing of value, in addition to his works and inspiration (to those who saw him as maestro; Bukowski not among them). And what do the highly motivated and inspired but untalented have to give?

I wonder. Were the above-mentioned famous writers transformed by The Gift before or after the world told them they were geniuses who deserved a best-seller’s livelihood in exchange for their gifts? Hyde’s book was initially conceived of for poets (see again the Whitman and Pound chapters)—a group that generally doesn’t expect remuneration. Less so even than do writers who work in longer forms. (Maybe that’s the common denominator here: being a writer. Which I am not.)

The lack of remuneration for poets likely says more about our society than it does about poets, or, more broadly, about people to whom the words just come and come and come. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine what would happen to the poetry industry were it to suddenly become as easily lucrative as, say, novel-writing, surgery, law, bartending, or flipping burgers.

To be clear, I by no means begrudge anyone their love of this book. I’m simply not sold on the core premise. Mention of poets suggests to me another reason for my resistance. I mentioned earlier the awkwardness of what to do with the works arising from the untalented, but inspired and motivated, artist. (Aside from the several ultimately unsatisfying surrogate alternatives, such as joining a group of artists similarly in need of attention who tacitly agree to declare one another brilliant. 4 Really, attention alone may be enough, given its worth. More on attention below. Also: Brilliance is overrated as a personal attribute, underrated as an attribute of process and objects.)

Poems come to me on occasion. I write them down because, again, I’m compelled to (or they’ll clog the pipes). My gift is that I don’t show them to anyone. (Would you like to read the last 30 poems written by the person sitting in the cubicle next to yours? How about the last 3,000?). I don’t keep those so-called gifts in circulation.

I make the same no-gift gift of most of what I do, words and music. I’ve had friends who barely ever knew I’ve made music, and I’m resistant when they ask to hear it. Maybe that’s going too far. But in a certain sense, it’s a gift to us all if they don’t have to figure out something nice to say (music is so subjective: even the most popular music barely registers a notice by most people—this is especially true across time). I prefer to leave things someplace people with the relevant sensibility can find them, and, even then, I worry about contributing to the clutter. More about that in section 1.4 below.

Artists aren’t gifts to the world. Artists—the great, good, mediocre, and terrible—are people. Just people. Their sickness and hunger aren’t gifts to be savored. And their art isn’t a gift unless they say so. I still believe this. I still believe that neither you nor Hyde nor God get to declare my thoughts and obsessions and work as gifts; it’s up to me to do that. Despite being won over by Lethem’s essay and Gillespie’s words (if not Hyde’s book). And despite being happy to often in fact call it a gift, or at least to give it away, and even happier to take freely from other artists.

I write these words with an acute awareness of the distinction between giving away in the sense of providing free content to consumers, and giving away in the sense of freely exchanging ideas with other artists, a practice that comes with its own distinctions, becomes stealing or appropriation when too one-sided in favor of the powerful.

The jagged overlap of these distinctions render them easily conflated. Thus the tension I was happy to detect in Lethem’s essay. A tension I share. In the next two sub-sections, especially 1.4, I’ll push harder on the tension. And in Part 2 of this three-part series, I won’t even acknowledge it while sharing some unreleased recordings, particularly of songs inspired by the work of others. I relish the opportunity to share their work and what I’ve done to it.

1.3 Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!

Gift or not, art is important. Aesthetic rapture is an absolutely critical piece of the human experiential complex. For this and other complicated reasons I’m about to struggle to articulate, I’m happy to make freely available (gift or curse), for those interested (particularly those who have reach out to me over the years; I assume they’re not wholly aberrant in their tastes), most anything that manages to wormhole its way out of my jumbled mass of insomnia-inducing obsessions and into daylight.

I already do so with no expectation of remuneration. I’d be even happier to do so—and would do better work—if I didn’t have to hold down three jobs just to keep up with interest payments on my debts (maybe that’s why the insomnia). But that’s how it goes. And I’m grateful for those jobs.

These thoughts bring to mind a book that also came to mind as I perused Hyde’s The Gift. One that happens to speak more to my particular sensibilities: Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered.

I enjoyed the book when I read it the same month it was released in 2014, and I enjoyed it on rereading it while writing this post (it’s a quick read). I like that it focuses on sharing, and that it unapologetically uses the word stealing:

Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. (loc 23, Kindle Edition)

Notice the phrasing: “try to steal.” The value of failed plagiarism is something I’ll touch on in Part 2 of this blog post series.

I also like that Kleon’s book doesn’t shy away from seeking something in return—something I should probably be better about.

I encountered a form of expectation in Hyde’s book as well, but in a form that is alien to me. Namely, it seems to issue not from what people want for themselves directly, rather from some sort of fear or respect of a (super)natural force wherein bad things happen to those who don’t keep gifts in circulation. Or, more to the point, bad things happen to the local social fabrics of communitarian groups in which these (super)natural laws have been violated. See again, perhaps, the Pound case.

In more localized cases, the disruption stems from a failure to maintain certain long-standing taboos and superstitions that stem from ecological bases. As one of many examples, consider, by analogy, the taboo on eating pork among Jewish taboo against eating pork, which many stipulate began as the easiest way to program safe behaviors at a time when pork was dangerous, or when wandering groups would be much better off with less energy-consuming livestock. This becomes a tradition that outlives its ecological necessity.

(For a fascinating book that proposes identifiable ecological bases of several taboos and superstitions, see Marvin Harris’s controversial Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture (1974). The chapter on cargo cults—called “Phantom Cargo”—alone is worth the price of admission.)

I suppose the idea is that, in more abstract or culture-wide practices, we can’t know what we’re messing with, or threatening to disrupt, by failing to adhere, even as we acknowledge the superstitions therein. Which reminds me of explanations many self-proclaimed atheists have given me for continuing to publicly practice certain religious rituals, in participation with other self-proclaimed atheists, in a community wherein a belief in God would be seen as naive (I’ve heard this, for example, from Orthodox Eastern Europeans).

Rituals more relevant to my own experience (as an atheist raised among people who claimed to genuinely believe in God, Jesus, Heaven, and Hell), and probably yours (however you were raised), are those related to Christmas. Hyde writes, in service of his crucial gift-circulation premise, that “You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away” (p 4). In the “true sense”?

If you don’t know what that true sense is, not to worry. The “something else” there is open to interpretation as well, as I already noted earlier when I wondered about how one keeps the gift of inspiration to make art (including art everyone around you hates) “in circulation.” This is all somehow reliant on the condition that “those donors who prize their closeness to the recipient are careful to make it clear that the gift is not conditional” (p 90). (I take it, at least, that this is an essential, if virtuous, feature of gift-circulation, and not just an observation of how people tend to behave.)

At any rate, Kleon’s book doesn’t rely on interpretive whims. And rather than aiming to help me cope, resigned, to a world that doesn’t value or care about the work I do, it tries to help me cope with the constant and incompatible drives to manifest my mental content into objects of consumption and to rebel at the thought of offering them up for consumption (not for my own purity’s sake, but for the would-be consumer who likely has better things to do). More to the point, Kleon’s book aims to help us enjoy and make the most of the search for like-minded sensibilities with whom we can engage in creative exchange. A subset of that engagement is with what we call audience.

In other words, Kleon’s is a

book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion. An alternative, if you will, to self-promotion. … about how to influence others by letting them steal from you. (loc 26)

It didn’t transform me, but it helps with the project of not transforming for the worse. I recommend it in particular for introverts (like me) seeking permission to pursue digital alternatives to in-person networking. Those alternatives are often frowned upon.

(Who knows how social practices may be altered by the current COVID-19 crises. Could online coursework become the new standard, or at least more valued than before, with less or no need for affiliation with a particular institution, making it possible to customize curricula and colleague–collaborator networks as suits one’s goals and projects, etcetera? Will this extrovert’s world invert itself into an introvert’s world? Introverts unite! That said, E.M. Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops” has been on my very worried mind in recent days. Read it for free at goodreads.)

Interestingly, Kleon has written of Hyde’s book in a 2008 blog post, about six years before his own book dropped. Another indication, unenthusiastic though it is, that there might be more to the book than I’ve so far gleaned:

In other words [to summarize Hyde’s own summary of The Gift], “Don’t quit your day job, dude.”

I’m not really sure what to say about this book. It just kind of re-affirmed a lot of what I’ve been thinking about making art: that it’s important for me to have a day job, so I can separate work from play, and that the more generous you are with your audience (through blogging, teaching, sharing, etc.) the better off you’ll be as an artist—spiritually and financially. Good companion reading would be Cory Doctorow’s article, “Giving It Away.”

All right. Moving on now to some (awkward) closing thoughts.

1.4 Attention Is the Gift

Twenty years ago, I heard Jacques Brel say, in a documentary whose title I’ve unfortunately forgotten, that he habitually vomited before going on stage.5 What most struck me were Brel’s deeper thoughts, as I remember them, about why he vomited. To stand on stage in front of hundreds of people is to say, “Look at me! What I’m doing is worth your precious, precious time!”

I think the stakes are even higher than that. Life is cashed out in terms of time, experience, and memory. Memory of the sort I’m largely (though not solely) concerned with here amounts to recollections of sense experience; that is, experiences whose sources are principally understood to be external stimuli. Better yet, memory isn’t recollected experiences, but rather arbitrarily, fallibly reconstituted simulacra of experiences.

Better still is Jorge Louis Borges’s definition, in his 1922 essay “The Nothingness of Personality,” of memory as not an “enduring and tangible granary or warehouse,” but as

…no more than the noun by which we imply that among the innumerable possible states of consciousness, many occur again in an imprecise way. (p 4)*

(*From the phenomenal Selected Non-Fictions (1999), surely near the top of the aspiring essayist’s required-reading list. I read it daily in the hopes that some of his superhuman restraint will rub off on me.)

The channel through which the external flows inward to solidify into experience of the relevant kind is not mere perception, but attention. So attention is what I am really concerned with here; well, attention, and that which flows through it.

Given the role attention plays in the above-noted terms (and some might claim in world- and self-making), when I ask for your attention, I ask for a piece of your life. When I ask you to watch my movie, I imply that it’s worth an exchange that moves you 98 minute closer to annihilation.

There are disparate reasons to look back on the move as worthwhile. These may be social or professional, and may be independent of the film itself, if such a thing is possible (every artwork comes with layers of context, personal and broad, that informs a given consumer’s experience). This is far too complicated stuff to worry about here. So I’ll focus our attention on my essential point.

I believe it is immoral to ask people for their attention if I do not believe it’s worth it to them to give up some portion of their life. However they happen to make that determination—a mysterious matter of which I think I have some responsibility to at least try to understand.

If I’ve tried to understand—if I believe in good faith—that is the most I can do. If I don’t believe that it at least might not be worth it, I view it as risking a small murder. Perhaps this is part of why I so hated school as a child: I experienced it then and remember it now as attempted murder by increments (while understanding now that some teachers are doing their good-faith best, or feel themselves as chewed up by that system as I did). I feel the threat even more acutely today, in an era whose very structure is largely designed by tricksters whose job is to steal attention. How this trains the tastes and wills of distracted consumers into a euphoria of sustained complicity is, again, far too complicated to get into here.

My point is clear enough, I trust. As is what struck me about Brel’s sentiment, about why he vomited. A rational fear of not living up to meriting the spotlight, to being the central content of a crowd’s evening, a temporary monopoly on their (polite and, as teachers like to say, undivided) attention. To mount the stage is to declare a belief in one’s ability to live up to that responsibility, in one’s belonging there. Otherwise, you attempt a small murder.

(“Attempt” because people can zone out or snooze out or walk out or boo you out—but society is usually too polite for that, or will at least expend energy trying to be; as it stands, zoning out—turning attention inward or to nowhere in particular—is our most powerful defense in such situations and provides a buffer for the worried artist; more on this in Part 3 of this series).

How to come about that belief? An iron ego? Because others assure you that you are (or at least your work is) worth it? There’s tension there, related to the tension I think I detect in Lethem’s essay. For Brel’s part, whether he’d agree with my thoughts here I have no idea, but I do see in his explanation for vomiting not one of merely autonomic stage fright, but rather of a fight between an outsized ego and an insecurity to live up to the responsibility that ego invites.

I suppose there are many for whom such questions never materialize. The mindless collection of attention may even be felt as virtuous, both measured and rewarded in clicks and likes and shares and comments and newsletter signups. Attention goes chronically disrespected, treated not as a channel for the stuff that makes a precious life (or makes life precious), but rather into monetary value counted in the thousandths (the worth of a single click or stream).

It is no accident, then, that our current world is characterized as being driven by an attention economy, wherein attention is something to be fished for in large, indiscriminately amassed quantities (e.g., with clickbait). The worst offenders merit no mention here. I’m concerned more for the subtler phenomenon of how this influences artists and the creative process.

Artists if anyone should recognize the sacredness of attention. The artist’s attention, directed both inward and outward, free to go where it will, is essential to the creative process. And it is, I think, more than ever under the demand of others, of blurry and endless streams of transient nothing, of chasing algorithms and of—well, I’ll stop myself here as this will be revisited in Part 3.

What I will say here is that we who make aesthetic objects are owed nothing—no more than anyone else is. We’re certainly not owed a chunk of someone’s existence. It’s up to us to earn attention, and to not demand it of those for whom our work is likely to not be worth the exchange, and that is likely to be many people; again, even mega-famous artists fail to connect with the deepest sensibilities of most people.

(And plenty of artists I consider to be wildly and perplexingly under-appreciated get “meh” responses from most of those with whom I share their work. This fact is also why I aim to champion the work of the terrible artist: I fear any actionable policy that would democratize aesthetic rapture, namely because so much of what I love has small audiences and gets shrugs when I play it for other people. I won’t believe the world just unless terrible artists with no charisma are able to spend all the time they want on their terrible art. I’m not sure my brain believes this, but my heart does, and it has a lot of say in these matters.)

Lethem shows respect for the sacredness of his reader’s attention when he expresses in his book’s preface that, at the very least, it is a gateway to other books. “It might be a lucky selection,” he writes, “simply for being ultra-informative” (p xxi).

And Simone Weile got it right when she wrote, in a a 1942 letter to poet Joë Bousquet that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I’ve used that quote before, in a post called “Attention: Mind the Mind Gap,” in which I offer “active, mutual attention” as our best bet for dealing with the “mind gap,” which is my shorthand for “our inability to really know—directly, firsthand—what one another is thinking.” I characterize the mind gap as “one of humanity’s greatest sources of conflict.”

Mutual attention—in which discussants, for example, listen rather than merely wait to speak—is a kind of miracle in which mental states are teleported, with varying degrees of fidelity, between brains. It’s a big deal. One-sided attention, in which I ask you to open your brain so that I may install mental states into it without opening my own brain to you in return, is a bigger deal. Asking you to pay for me to fill your opened brain is an outlandishly big deal. I am asking you to pay to fill your experience—to in a real sense constitute a chunk of existence—with my creation as you move that much closer to nonexistence, to death!

Contrast this with me paying you for your temporary attention. More than one industry relies on that model. Clinical psychology comes to mind. And its not unheard of for artists to pay others for their attention; there are companies that offer the service.

These thoughts are often on my mind and sustain the tension I’ve referred to here often, in various forms. Here it is the tension of feeling a need to share my work, lest my time spent on it—much of my life—would feel pointless.

I’ve never vomited before going on stage, but I have broken out in welts, particularly when trying something very new, like accompanying myself on piano rather than guitar for the first time.

The tension operates here, too, on this blog. I feel a little guilty for everything I post here, particular more unresolvable (by me) philosophical fare. After all, I mostly write not in order to figure out what I believe, as so many others claim they do, but to figure out how confused I am; “quite confused” is a typical answer.

I feel better about things people can use, like explanations of probability problems, especially counterintuitive ones that further the cause of showing just how hard to fathom even the easy stuff is. (See again Lethem’s mention of the “ultra-informative”). My “useful” posts typically get the most views. So I guess all goes as it should. Not too many small murders there, I hope.

I don’t want you to read or listen to me unless you think it’s worth your time. I don’t want the responsibility. Again, I sometimes take this too far. I have a newsletter signup, but have so far refused to send out a newsletter. Why? People signed up for it. And they can unsubscribe any time.

And I recently told a friend whom I’ve known for a few years, when they asked to hear my music (just after a group of us had watched a movie they wrote): “Don’t listen to it. Just read the reviews,” I said. “I … don’t understand … what’s happening,” they said. I think I saw myself as giving a kind of gift. A gift of non-incremental murder. A gift of life, of time, a license to train attention unrestricted by social duty. And by reading the good reviews, they’ll see what others have liked about the music. An experience they likely won’t share, but that they’ll know is possible.

Maybe I have a problem. Something more than distended generosity. Maybe it’s a matter of insecurity or/and an attempt to push, with proportional force, against the life-consuming obsession that I know to be in the roots of my music. But it also comes after many instances of seeing acquaintances strain to find something nice to say (“it’s interesting” or merely “I listened to your music last night” with no further comment). There’s no need. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve over the years received plenty of emails from strangers who’ve stumbled onto my work, who have with my blessing copied my albums for friends (go for it). If I need validation, I have it.

I can’t stand waisting the time of people who are listening for the wrong reasons, who arrived at it by an unnatural path, a path not given to them by the guidance of their freely wandering attention, who won’t experience it as something they were destined to discover (rather than shoved at them, an intrusion to “carve out” time for, in the mood for it or not); and who will then have to address with me the flaccid experience arising from this artificial course of events, to which I’ll be expected to nod and say “thank you for listening.” And I’ll really mean it—too much and for the wrong reasons. “I didn’t ask you to,” I’m thinking. “I’d rather you have found it or not on your own,” I’m thinking.

(That’s if the person actually listens. Often they don’t. Putting a song on double-speed and running it in the background while making phone calls is not listening. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, in my experience, this is precisely the sort of person to be the most confidently, bombastically, insipidly critical.)

That people can find the work on their own implies of course that I put it out into the world to be found. And so I do. As much of the world as I can. Fan response from around the world, via email and even snail mail, have validated the effort. Or, if not validated, saved me from total hypocrisy (though I do think hypocrisy underrated, especially self-conscious hypocrisy). And I’ve usually sent my music to professional reviewers—it’s their job.

But I don’t want to overstate the worry. I do think the music is worth the time—a small chunk of life—of someone of a certain taste. And I’m certain that there are people who would require multiple listens to realize they are of that taste (because plenty of people have told me so; this is true of me as well: many of my favorite musicians took several listens, sometimes spanning years, before things clicked). But there’s a natural way this occurs. You can’t force it.

So, my reticence isn’t just a matter of humility. There’s a tremendous ego there: there must be. And it’s appetite is correspondingly large. And it knows that the best crops will come from seeds correctly sowed. The more natural and organic the better.

I imagine also that the ego is vulnerable. It can’t be helped. This is why I prefer playing for larger audiences, if I’m unknown to the crowd: it increases the likelihood of things clicking for someone. But I know the ego can sustain a lot, because it already has. A whole lot.

But here again is the tension, or another variation on it. Between the ego that feeds on attention, that views the world as an attention-farm, and the conscience warning against murder by increments. The conscience helps keep one from becoming addicted to attention (many artists do), but the ego is important as well. Being starved for attention is for many their principle drive.

We would have no Wagner operas if had he not believed himself a genius. He was an autodidact whose gifts only fully shone in expensive, grand-scale, long-form productions. Alfred Schnittke once remarked, I don’t remember where (some CD liner notes, I believe), that anyone would support a young Mozart, nobody a young Wagner.

Most artists who get anywhere are probably closer to Wagner than to Mozart, or at least feel that way. Even those receiving attention today believe, or should believe, that they can lose it tomorrow. Something has to sustain the pushing of the work, even when inspiration is itself ceaseless.

(Don’t forget, running in the background to all this is a constant inflow of ideas that, if not moved from the brain to some other medium [paper, flash drive], will not dissipate on their own, but instead will continue to circulate there in the swelling brain bladder. A situation I’ve struggled to get across here. I’m sure many will say I’m incredibly naive and even horrifically insensitive to say this, but every idea lost to the swirl, even the bad ones, feels like a part of me that is lost. I have a theory that I won’t elaborate on here but will sketch as follows.

I’ve never felt a drive to have children. But the essence of that drive is in me with a different target: to make creative works. All the instincts humans usually have in relation to their children, I have in relation to creative work. It feels like an evolutionary fact to which I am, and to which my entire catalog of instincts is, helplessly subject. I don’t say this lightly. And I know I’m not alone. There’s much more to say that is compatible with, though won’t be touched on, what I say in these three posts. I’ll save those thoughts for another day.)

If not genius or brilliance, one must believe there’s something worth people exchanging a bit of their life for. With cynical alternatives. One could be a huckster or a narcissist or, less interestingly, simply compelled despite oneself. Or one might think we’re all bored couch potatoes anyway who will watch whatever happens to slide across screens; so why not my own work? Maybe so. But there’s not much to push for there. It can be accomplished effectively, and often is (I’m given to understand), with a lot less heartache than when one really insists on transmitting into the world the stuff of their own, personal sensibilities.

Perhaps I value people’s time—and so their lives?—more than they themselves do (or act as they though they do). But I couldn’t bring myself to exploit that fact, any more than I’d push addictive poison on them. Or this is what I tell myself.

It’s clear by now that I’m conflicted on all of this. It’s more than tension. It’s a tectonically improbable swirl of tensions that enspheres me like that cloud of filth around Pig-Pen. It’s not interesting or multitudinous. Just self-alienating and exhausting.

Whatever the case, I wrote a song called the “Heap” after hearing a playwright I know say that he hopes he’s not just contributing more to the already piled-high heap of merely good work. A scary thought.

I’ve mostly been talking about music here. I’m not a writer, but I write a lot. I mentioned above that I feel at least a little guilty every time I publish a blog post. The shorter writings have garnered my conscience the right sort of feedback. But long posts such as the present one feel selfish and gluttonous. Or like half my head spontaneously exploded, voluntary and violent as a vernal sneeze, my conscience providing me just enough restraint to keep the other head-half in place (I delete a lot of words along the way), or, even better: an elaborately sustained tic that ends with my ego coming out just ahead enough to tap Publish. And then I slink away to try again on cleaner ground. I certainly wouldn’t ask anyone to read it (and they almost certainly won’t).

Again, I often write in order to figure out how confused I am. I won’t do a good job of this unless I intend to share what I write. This comes with a few hopes. One is that someone will help clarify what I’m struggling to understand. Another is that someone, somewhere, will somehow benefit from what I write—that I’m not just adding to the clutter.

And I hope that, whatever (currently overvalued) attributes I lack, I make up for them a little with obsession. This sentiment is nicely expressed in a quote shared by Kleon in Share Your Work!:

Writer David Foster Wallace said that he thought good nonfiction was a chance to “watch somebody reasonably bright but also reasonably average pay far closer attention and think at far more length about all sorts of different stuff than most of us have a chance to in our daily lives.” (loc 79)

(The quote is from this 3/2/2006 KCRW Bookworm interview with Michael Silverblatt: “David Foster Wallace: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays,” named for a volume of yet more required reading. I’m realizing I feel this way about most essay collections I read.)

Maybe this exemplifies what Lethem means when he writes that

Mailer’s unfashionably preening brand of self-consciousness seems to me to be crucial in the formation of another, lately fashionable brand—the Eggers of Heartbreaking Work or the Wallace of A Supposedly Fun Thing—which, inoculated with savage undercutting doubt, conceals the lineage. (p 253)

Lethem is probably onto something here, something I recognize empathically. Something that smells like the tension I keep talking about. Wallace was notoriously plagued by the question of when to stop—of submitting far too many papers to his hiring publications’ editors (I wish I could afford an editor). I’ll risk the embarrassment of talking about myself in the same breath as these brilliant writers, but not as a writer: as a generational cohort. That is, perhaps there is something Gen-X about the particular manifestations of the tension I’ve explored here (Eggers and I are unambiguous Gen Xers; Wallace and Lethem, close enough).

Eggers’s beautiful A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius carries that tension right in its title, as well as inside the book (which begins with excerpts of deleted passages and whose copyright includes longwinded original text and I wouldn’t have it any other way).

And someone not listed here, but of the same cohort, is Karl Ove Knausgaard. I finished the first book (only five more to go!) in his My Struggle series the other evening. The word that comes to mind is sensual. In the deepest, most body–mind sense of the word. I count Knausgaard of the cohort in question, and do detect in his book something of the tension. But there’s something distinct here as well, something particularly bare. It so happens Lethem’s words shows up on the cover; they might help me here. Actually, I will include them along with several other lines of the original text from which they’re lifted:

The book investigates the bottomless accumulation of mysteries everyday life imposes, from the vantage of a helplessly undisguised narrator: a stroller-dad, navigating a mundane world of nappies and tantrums on train platforms, who suspects he is the possessor of literary genius, and finds these selves bitterly incommensurate. …

Knausgaard’s approach is plain and scrupulous, sometimes casual, yet he never writes down. His subject is the beauty and terror of the fact that all life coexists with itself. A living hero who landed on greatness by abandoning every typical literary feint, an emperor whose nakedness surpasses royal finery.

The excerpt is from a short review by Lethem for The Guardian, called “My Hero: Karl Ove Knausgaard” (1/31/14).

Knausgaard, in writing this books, wrote in an increasing fury. At one point, 20 pages per day, ready for the editor. A perfect marriage, it seems, of “just gonna answer the calling” (as Moon Zappa put it), and pleasing one’s audience. I do recall reading recently, however, in the New Yorker, his ex-wife, writer Linda Boström Knausgård commenting without so much pleasure on the toll answering the calling takes:

“Things would have been different, I think, if Karl hadn’t gone away into his books,” Boström Knausgård said. “He is really caring about his children, but he was bored being a full-time parent. He thought that he would like it, but he really didn’t. He would act like he was dying when I got home from work. The idea that he could not physically bear to spend time with his baby, that his writing was the only important thing—it hurt me.”6

As for Lethem, I don’t get from his writing that he’s compulsively longwinded. But I detect the Tension throughout. Maybe he’s got near-Borgesian self-restraint. (As for myself, I fear that what you see here is me with restraint: again, I delete a lot. And most of what I write, I don’t share. I bet nearly everyone says that.)

He might say differently. Maybe he’s constrained by imposed word counts, or he vents his long-winds elsewhere. From a short bit of metacognitive reflection called “Repeating Myself,” in reference to being interviewed on book tours:

I turned out to be one of the garrulous ones ….

Some Beckett part of me endlessly muttered “copious,” trying to interrupt my Mailerations on so many subjects, but was drowned out.

The subjects included, always, my books and myself. I’m a too-willing explainer, a penchant useful in a father of a toddler but embarrassing otherwise. “All I do is go around trapped in a bubble of regard,” I said somewhere. “A book tour is a solipsistic nightmare.” I spoke these words while on book tour, in a newspaper’s offices. Even here, now, I’m explaining my explaining. “I don’t know how to stop,” Coltrane complained to Miles Davis, who replied, “Take the horn out of your mouth.” My fascination at this anecdote suggests I don’t know how to take the horn out of my mouth. (p 243)

The jazz anecdote also appears earlier in the book, on page 180, in a fantastical spot of what I’ll call satire, “The Drew Barrymore Stories.”

“Just take the damn horn out of your mouth.” Sounds about right.

If you’ve read this far, I sincerely thank you. (And I ask: Why??)

1.5 Next Up on Plagiarism…

In the next post, Part 2, I’ll share some thoughts on plagiarism and borrowing and so on. The basis of it is simply my joyous acknowledgement that to be creatively engaged is to be involved in exchange with others, engaged in lots of give and take. It will mostly focus on music-making. I’ll come clean on my own plagiaristic transgressions as a songwriter and will share some of my previously unreleased songs.

In a third post, Part 3, I’ll offer a brief solution for what to do about all this plagiarism and gift economy stuff with respect to artists earning a living. My thought is: Pay your favorite artists not for products or to chase algorithms, but to daydream.

I’ll link Parts 2 & 3 as I publish them.

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Further Reading


  1. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Who a handful of months ago wrote:

    …what insults my soul is the idea—popular in the culture just now, and presented in widely variant degrees of complexity—that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally “like” us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally. That only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of a fiction. I do not believe that. I could not have written a single one of my books if I did. (“Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction” – The New York Review of Books – 10/24/219)

  3. One of the best commentaries I’ve seen on this comes from the segment “Non-Fiction” in Todd Solondz’s 2001 film Storytelling, which strikes me as a clear indictment, and one I agree with, of those who experienced Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary American Movie as a work of hilarious ridicule rather than—and here I may wander outside the lines of Solondz’s sentiments, but they are my own—as celebratory admiration for the awe-inspiring perseverance of a creative soul in the face of a lifelong barrage of obstacles both innate and environmental. Interestingly, I’ve never seen anyone make the connection between these movies, but it seems clear to me in several respects, one of which is the inclusion of one of American Movie‘s subjects in Storytelling, where he goes by his own first name.
  4. I often worry that academia, in its own particular way, follows a similar model. One of the things that makes me ambivalent about that world. A topic for another day.
  5. He told this story to others as well, as reported in this 1/12/1995 New York Times article by Mike Zwerin: “Henri Salvador and the Easy Life, Ha-Ha.”
  6. New Yorker, 1/6/20 Issue, “Linda Boström Knausgård’s Post-‘Struggle’ IKEA Trip” by Katy Waldman.

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