craftspersonship and sauntering buff-models

First: I’m giving a lecture to a class at NYU about innovation in publishing in a few weeks. What should I talk about—whether we still need dust jackets in an age of robot vacuums? I’m lost. Help.

Second: anyone coming to town for the 800-CEO-READ Business Book Awards next week? If so, let’s meet up for a bowl of poke this week. (Since the last time you were in NYC, poke has become a thing.)

Third: My arch-nemesis, Matthew Butterick, now has a site dedicated to his fonts, as well as a new sans-serif to try: Hermes Maia. I want to use this across all my sites now. Wait, isn’t Butterick my arch-nemesis? True, very much so, but Art transcends any personal rivalry that might simmer/flare/erupt between Baron Butterick and myself from time to time. So I’ll use his lovely font. That said, we’re going over the side at Reichenbach Falls one day, clutching madly at each other’s lapels all the way down…

All watery vengeance aside, I wish Butterick were my font tailor. I’d go into his charming little shop on Savile Row and he’d take one look at my prose and say, sir might enjoy a Gill Sans in 14 point… What do you say, Butterick? (Can you tell I watched Phantom Thread last night?)

Fourth: At my urging, author and publisher Mark Teppo made a now page of his own. And I realized that Josh Kaufman’s had one for a while. Everyone’s doing now pages now—are you?

Fifth (!): Is it just me, or is this not the first time, even within the past year, that the New Yorker has worked itself into a sanctimonious lather about business and self-help books? Tim Ferriss says you can work four hours a week—absurd! Even my font tailor has more to do than that meager duration would allow—hrumph hrumph—fetch me my monocle soap, Petunia! 

The pot is calling the kettle Brené Brown here, New Yorker. You’re as firmly entrenched in the business-book industrial complex as TED or, well, me. Spelling coöperate with an umlaut, sorry, a diaeresis, won’t fool anybody, you pretentious snobs. 

The article, even if it retained most of its critical stance, would have been a lot more compelling written by someone who reads and benefits from these books. I’m no longer interested in reading hrumph-pieces by people who don’t get something that other people happily do. Nowadays, I want to hear from the articulate superfan, even if I’m not a fan myself. Even the pretense of “mainstream culture” is dead. We can’t just stand around pointing at everyone else’s interests and laughing.

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser praises a passage by E.B. White about the practice of keeping chickens. Zinsser observes:

There’s a man writing about a subject I have absolutely no interest in. Yet I enjoy this piece thoroughly. I like the simple beauty of its style. I like the rhythms, the unexpected but refreshing words. . . . [Mainly] what I like is that this is a man telling me unabashedly about a love affair with poultry that goes back to 1907. It’s written with humanity and warmth, and after three paragraphs I know quite a lot about what sort of man this hen-lover is.

What sort of man this hen-lover is. If our writing in 2018 needs more of anything, it’s humanity and warmth. (The world itself needs less of both, but that’s a separate issue. Fake news.)

The Brooklyn Museum—Dave Franco of New York City art museums—unveiled a new Rodin exhibit. Small but good. While the individual works may not match up to the caliber of what you find at the Met, let alone the spectacular breadth on display at the Musée Rodin in Paris, at neither one of these supposedly august institutions would one encounter a riotous salsa party on par with the one I squeezed through on my way to the exhibit. Nobody museums like the Brooklyn Museum.

The exhibit features grainy black-and-white footage of Rodin himself, fiercely tapping away at a chunk of marble with a hammer and chisel, big flakes of it getting stuck in his beard. In another film, foundry workers cast a new bronze, molten metal reflecting in their eyes, sweat running down their cheeks. (By French law, you can only cast a Rodin bronze twelve times: eight for collectors and four for museums. Then you’re done. Throw the original in le garbage, Pierre. Similarly, you may only forward this essay to twelve other people: eight friends and colleagues, four people who actually matter in this world, like Kim Kardashian’s brother Rob or Mr. Six, the Six Flags dancing old man. You know, public figures. Get forwarding.)

Craftspersonship is marvelous to watch. Thrilling. Carving marble and casting bronze are both dangerous, unstable processes. Like writing. No matter your level of mastery, there is risk inherent in the raw material. You arein one case literally—playing with fire. The dressmaking in Phantom Thread held a similar appeal. What is life on Planet Earth about if it’s not about repairing the princess’s dress by 9 a.m. and making sure it’s perfect before it goes to Belgium? I sure as hell don’t know. Craft is drama.

What am I on about today? Caring about your work, I think. Get off social media and get invested in what you’re doing. Level up. That’s all any of us can really do. Level up. 

There was a Rodin quote on the wall of the exhibit:

I can only work with a model…I declare that I have no ideas when I have nothing to copy; but when nature shows me her forms, right away i find something worth saying and even developing.

Rodin paid male and female models to wander around his studio in the buff on a sort of ongoing basis. (This is what people did for ambient display before computers brought us, um, flying toasters.) The models would just saunter, to and fro, as one does when one is in the buff. (You certainly don’t just “walk naked.”) When Rodin saw a pose he liked, he’d be like, Arrête! (That’s French for “Hold it right there, Pierre. Wait, not literally!”) Then Rodin would whip out his Surface Pro and his Surface Pen and—wait a second, this hypothetical anecdote has become sponsored content! Damn you, Microsoft!

I can’t write without a model either. I need something in place, some form or structure or seed, before I start. That’s easy enough when I work with a client—their expertise becomes my sauntering buff-model. When “writing” these essays, however, I still struggle with collecting, organizing, and developing those initial seeds. Enter the Zettelkasten.

What a delightfully nerdy method for notetaking. I discovered it last week and went way down the rabbit hole on it despite a few heavy deadlines. (Like I said, writing is dangerous.) I welcome the like-minded of you to do the same. I’m keeping my zettels in Scrivener. If you get any ideas about the effective use of zettelkasten in your expository writing, please share them.