Tag Archives: Art

Thoughts on Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Do the Work by Steven PressfieldIt’s tough to write about Do the Work by Steven Pressfield without focusing on how the book was published. It’s the second release from the Domino Project, a joint effort between Amazon and Seth Godin. Their first book was Poke the Box by Godin himself, though in Do the Work Godin limits himself to the introduction.

Pressfield is also the author of a slew of successful novels, including Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance.  In Do the Work, he revisits the advice from his wonderfully titled War of Art, offering a basic roadmap for tackling creative projects. He focuses on the concept of Resistance–yes, with a capital “R”–and how it can freeze us on the blank page. He writes mostly of writing, but the formula he lays out could equally apply to any entrepreneurial or political endeavor–anything that requires a massive effort to yank a something from the void. The central tenant is that Resistance will show its fangs each step of the way and must be bludgeoned into submission. To do this, we employ the power of stupidity and its other allies. Don’t overthink it. Banish perfectionism from the creative process.

There’s nothing profoundly new here, and the book doesn’t offer as concrete of a plan as it claims. It’s more rough outline, wrapped in a harsh–think drill sergeant–pep talk. It’s also a slim tome. I was able to read it cover to cover on the bus ride to and from work. But I’ll revisit it, once I get stuck and need a firm kick in the butt to get going again. The book reminded me of Unleash the Warrior Within by Richard J. Machowicz, which I strongly suspect Pressfield has read. His references to the Navy SEAL training program seem to have been drawn from Machowicz’s stories. Though this other book goes beyond the pep talk, and offers help with understanding and evaluating priorities.

I picked up the ebook version of Do the Work for free through a sponsorship that the Domino Project received from General Electric. (Only after reading Do the Work did I realize that this is the second book by Pressfield that I’ve read. Gates of Fire, his novel about the battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, was much beloved at the bookstore where I once worked.) The ebook was briefly priced at $9.99, but for now at least, is free again. It seems to have been designed with the ebook format in mind. The cover–like the first book from the Domino Project–is a single image with no text, perfect for a postage-stamp sized icon. There are chunks of super-sized text throughout the book. And whole pages dedicated to a single–white on black–word.

There’s also a signed, limited edition hardback that comes with a special metal plate–one with a 16th-century style engraving, no less–that’s available for $65. I love to see the Domino Project experimenting with new formats, taking the book beyond just pixels on a screen or bound paper. I suspect this won’t be the last offering from the Domino Project to land on my Kindle.


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Lucas Cranach the Elder and Speed Painting

This blog is getting rather dusty lately, but I have a good excuse, really I do. I’ve been focused on finishing the rough draft of what will be my first novel. I have two other novels in the drawer. Whether they ever see the light of day is far from certain, but if they do, they won’t be the first out of the gate. That spot is reserved for this puppy.

Speed. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and my own scribbles. It seems that the faster I write, the better I write. Short bursts of creative output are key. I’ve also heard this idea debated with the explosion of ebooks. Writers are about to enter a new golden age of pulp. One where fast writers will be far more likely to make a living than slow writers. The pulp writers of the 30s and 40s produced a lot of less than savory tomes, but they also produced the occasional masterpiece. That’s true for all art. A whole lot of fluff, and the occasional gem.

Then I came across the essay “‘… that you paint with wonderful speed’ Virtuosity and Efficiency of the Artistic Practice of Lucas Cranach the Elder” by Gunnar Heydenreich this weekend. It details a myriad of ways in which the Renaissance master, sped up his process. Things like laying down the total composition in a carefully thought out manner to reduce the drying time needed between sessions. Or tracing outlines of figures that would appear across multiple works. Movement and fluidity were the priority:

It was not only the more expensive pigments but also the more refined and lavish painting techniques that were reserved for commissions of greater importance.

Cranach would often take shortcuts, such as painting fur with a double-tipped brush. This technique was apparently never adopted by Albrecht Durer, his less prolific contemporary. Durer did what Renaissance masters are supposed to have done. He painstakingly reproduced each tuft of fur with a single-tipped brush. I’ve always admired how flat, and almost cartoonlike a lot of Cranach’s paintings are, with solid blue or green monochrome backgrounds. I never thought until this essay that this played a role in how the artist was able to make a living from his art. More paintings produced in less time.

Cranach also dabbled in early publishing. He went so far as to purchase a beechwood forest to increase the profits of his business. His books were bound with beechwood covers, and his paintings were often produced on beechwood of the same size as standard book dimensions of the time. Efficiency of scale. The printing press must have gone a long way to introduce this concept of speed to the early Renaissance. We often hear that we live in fast times now, but the rate at which things acclerate today is nothing compared to how much faster the early part of the 16th century must have felt like compared to all that came before it.

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Permanence of Paper: Letters from Dickens, Burroughs, and Hawthorne

I recently came across the University Archives site, and then promptly got lost in its literary offerings. It’s a testament to the staying power of paper. We’ve all heard about how dastardly ebooks are compared with the paper variety. They aren’t bathtub proof. They don’t have concrete solidity. They don’t smell good.

But eBooks aside, what about e-mail? Has it not already threatened paper? And what about future collectors? Will they horde author e-mails? Aside from the facts that there can be infinite copies of any particular e-mail and that most e-mails don’t live much longer than a few milliseconds, there is something that doesn’t feel nearly as worthy of future attention.

Not like paper.

Check out this remnant from Charles Dickens, where he “begs to inform Mr. Scholl that he spoke to Mr. Scholl’s man” about getting some changes made to the lighting outside his house. I love that Dickens writes of himself in the third person. Though apparently Dickens never did get his new light. Not surprising for someone who scribbled all day, he has terrible handwriting. My suspicion is his letter may have gone unanswered because poor Mr. Scholl (or his man) couldn’t read this note.

Then there’s this letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s typewritten, and on stationary from Tarzana California. I think at one time I knew Tarzan was a comic strip back in its day, but interesting to see how much Burroughs promotes his work. My thinking is he would be doing a fine job on Twitter if he were still writing today.

Going even further back than both of these bits of paper, here’s this one from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s more of a receipt, than a letter, but a super fancy one which Hawthorne signed while plugging away at his day job. He apparently worked as surveyor in the Salem Custom House, before he was ousted when the Whigs came to power. Even then, getting laid off could often be a boon to the writing life.

Each of these bits of paper undoubtedly survived way past the time their creators ever imagined they would. Will anyone be able to say the same about e-mail a century from now? Maybe. Perhaps none of it is ever really deleted, and historians two hundred years from now will wonder why all the fuss was made over free shipping and low-interest loans.

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Limited-Edition Bloody Cricket Book for $75,000

It’s often said that a writer’s job is to bleed on the page, but so-called luxury publisher Kraken Opus seems to have taken that mantra a bit too seriously. As reported in The Wall Street Journal last week, a pint of blood from Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar was mixed with paper pulp to produce the signature page for a book about his cricket prowess. The book was limited to an edition of only ten copies, which are offered at the staggering price of $75,000 a pop. Apparently all ten copies are spoken for, so it’s too late for the rest of us.

The article details a number of other luxury collector’s editions that have recently been released:

Earlier this year, Taschen Books sold pieces of the moon with 12 copies of its massive photography book on the lunar landing (one of the lunar-rock editions sold for $112,500). Taschen previously published a $7,500, 800-page book on Muhammad Ali, GOAT (for “greatest of all time”), that comes with four signed photographs of the boxer and a sculpture by Jeff Koons.

“No one says, ‘I want to download the e-edition of this book,’ ” says book analyst Michael Norris of research firm Simba Information. “If it’s a physical object that’s beautifully done, people see the value.”

Is this the traditional publishers answer to the coming e-tsunami? They could offer books bound directly by the author. Or those that feature a few handwritten pages, each slightly unique. Or for writers who also have at least a snippet of artistic talent, the doodle could replace a signature on the title page. All of it, of course, would be available as an extremely limited–and pricey–collector’s edition.

Publishers like Subterranean Press have long been producing higher quality, collector’s editions for well-known science fiction and fantasy authors. But their prices cap out at around $500 and often don’t get much above $50. Are they being too modest? Could they charge a small fortune by producing truly customized editions? Of course, limited-edition, pricey titles will only work for well-established authors. Most of the luxury books mentioned in the article feature celebrities, not writers at all. The rest of us are challenged to even give our words away, gratis.

I’ve often thought that as competition for ebooks heats up, paper books are going to compete by getting nicer. This type of personal touch is a possibility, and could well create a small safe haven for publishers, not the meat-and-potatoes type of safe haven, but maybe a little icing on the cake. I just hope that the blood in wood pulp thing doesn’t catch on as a full-fledged trend.

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$2 Portraits Project: Seeing the Unseen

As a friend mentioned in the comments section on my post on The City & the City by China Miéville, you realize how much you intentionally work to unsee, unhear, and even unsmell parts of your day-to-day life as you read the book. At about the same time, I first came across San Francisco photographer Thomas Hawk, and what he is calling the $2 portraits project. When anyone asks him for money, he agrees to pay $2 but on the condition that the person pose for a picture in exchange. Hawk captures true portraits, and he writes down a piece of the life story that goes with it.

The project has since expanded to include other photographers in a photo pool on Flickr. I love the portraits, but the stories are what really brings it home. Justin Beck added an audio clip on his blog, detailing his meeting with a man whose name is way too interesting to not record. Looking through the portraits, I’m struck with the idea of how rare it is that you see a homeless person smile. They always work so hard at putting on the miserable act to elicit charity, while most of us work so hard to unsee them. This project humanizes these people, shows where they came from and what family they might (or might not) have. All around, it’s a fascinating slice of the web.

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Ray Bradbury and Science Fiction Cave Paintings

In his essay “Dusk in the Robot Museums: The Rebirth of Imagination” from 1980, Ray Bradbury writes about the transition he saw in how science fiction was viewed during his lifetime. This essay, along with many other gems, is collected in Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s one of the best writing books I’ve found, never strays far from my desk.

Bradbury notes: “If you went into the average library as you motored across America in 1932, 1945, or 1953 you would have found no Edgar Rice Burroughs, no L. Frank Baum and no Oz. In 1958 or 1962 you would have found no Asimov, no Heinlein, no Van Vogt, and, er, no Bradbury.” He credits the introduction of books by these authors not only to libraries, but to the curriculum of many schools, with a bottoms up approach. Kids demanded it. Teachers and librarians saw that not only were kids willing to read these books, they devoured them. Why? The books are about something.

The kids grew up and took their pitchforks to art museums and galleries, similarly demanding that art be relevant. While Bradbury doesn’t call it as much, he essentially highlights a postmodernist reaction to modernism:

They have walked through the halls and dozed off at the modern scene as represented by sixty-odd years of abstration super-abstracting itself until it vanished up its own backside. Empty canvases. Empty minds. No concepts. Sometimes no color. No ideas that would interest a performing flea at a dog circus.

Bradbury goes to great pains to say that science fiction first began with cave paintings. Such art doesn’t show some middle-aged guy sitting in a corner ruminating on his existence. It shows fantasy. And action. The hunt is idealized with tiny hunters and enormous prey. First the problem is understood: we need some meat. Then speculative fiction theorizes how it might be solved. Bradbury claims this is essential in creating art that resonates, while also cautioning about having it all get ahead of itself:

I hope we will not get too serious here, for seriousness is the Red Death if we let it move too freely amongst us. Its freedom is our prison and our defeat and death. A good idea should worry us like a dog. We should not, in turn, worry it into the grave, smother it with intellect, pontificate it into snoozing, kill it with a death of a thousand analytical slices.

This lesson seems far more relevant with the state of publishing today than when it was first penned thirty years ago. Please, no more lamentations that there are no readers. There are plenty of them, and they are buying and reading and celebrating books of all shades and colors. They just might not be gobbling up that which those who tend to think that only “good” books written by “good” authors are worthy of anyone’s time.

Interestingly, The New Yorker went to some lengths to claim that the authors they selected for their 20 under 40 list do indeed write books with plots. There is hope. Yes sir. Plots are good enough once again for The New Yorker.

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Henry VIII and His eBook Psalter

Henry VIIIWe’ve all heard the argument that ebooks are nothing like the real thing. They don’t have the same weight to them. They don’t smell like books. Turning virtual pages isn’t nearly as enjoyable as the paper variety. You can’t take them in the bathtub. All true. But let us not forget that the paper variety of books are fairly new-fangled in their own right. Back in ye goode olde days, books were handwritten on vellum, featuring lavish flourishes around capital letters, if not whole illustrated pages.

The British Library has crossed the paths of some of these treasures with the ebook, though they don’t ask that you buy an ereader. My personal favorite from their virtual collection is a psalter that once belonged to Henry VIII. I’m rather fond of page f.48. What’s not to love about a battle scene in a prayer book? The book is in amazing condition, pretty lightly used, though one wonders what sort of quiet, reflective time it spent with the notorious monarch.

Also check out a 17th century illustrated Ramayana, which flips up from the bottom rather than over from the right.  Or see how Mozart scribbled notes in his diary, the illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and History of England, an early work by Jane Austen which happens to have a drawing of Henry VIII on page 12.

It’s all around a fascinating site, though the navigation at the top of the main page is a tad annoying. It never seems to want to stop, and only recognizes clicks on the tiny arrow (not the whole “More” link). Also, their Turning the Pages 2.0 app is one of the few things I’ve encountered that seems to run better in Explorer than Firefox.


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