Life is Short; Art is Shorter

By David ShieldsMay 2, 2011

Life is Short; Art is Shorter
Image: “Daughter of The Circus” (detail) by Michael Garlington. © Courtesy of the photographer.


Real Life

AT A VERY EARLY AGE I knew I wanted to be a writer. At six or seven, I wrote stories about dancing hot dogs (paging Dr. Freud ...). For a long time, being a writer meant being a journalist. My parents, both freelance journalists, were anti-models. I saw them as "frustrated writers"; hope deferred maketh the heart sick. They saw themselves the same way. They were always keeping the wolf from the door, if that is the expression, by writing yet another article they didn't want to write. They worshipped "real writers," i.e., writers who wrote books. Thomas Wolfe. Saul Bellow. Joan Didion. Joseph Heller. I wanted to write books.

My mom died during my junior year of college. She read a few of my early short stories (e.g., "A Few Words About A Wall"), which she over-praised. My father died a couple of years ago at ninety-eight. I once asked him what he thought of my writing, and he said, "Too bad you didn't become a pro athlete. You had some physical gifts." I sent him a galley of my book The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, in which he plays a major role; he sent me back a list of errata.

I was the editor of my junior high and high school papers. In high school I worked at McDonald's. Got fired. I worked at a fabric store. Got fired. My freshman year of college I wrote for the school paper and also worked as a custodian. From the latter position, got fired. Wasn't too good at the physical stuff. (I've never learned how to whistle, dive, somersault, rope-climb, swing on a swing.) One of my fellow student-custodians asked me if I was so bad on purpose or whether I was really that uncomprehending of the relation between soap and water. I also worked as a proofreader at the Rhode Island Historical Society. I worked as a TA at Iowa. Then I house-sat a lot of houses for people. I got a lot of grants. I made a very small amount of money stretch a long way.

I first started teaching at a private high school for the children of the rich and semi-famous in LA. The kids at the LA private high school would be, say, the daughter of the comedian Flip Wilson. Or the girlfriend of the son of Elizabeth Montgomery. Chad Lowe. Branches in Santa Monica and Malibu. The kids, needless to say, were not interested in schoolwork. I would sit in front of the class and pretend to have answers to their questions about geometry, history, science, etc.: "Who wrote The Scarlet Letter?" Maybe look at the spine of the book; might be a clue there. Where was Google? This was 1985. The entire day would go by like that. During recess and even during class, they would be running to the bathroom to drop acid and I'd be madly working on revisions of my autobiographical novel about a kid who stutters so badly that he worships words.

I'd show the kids the manuscript I was working on. They'd laugh at my autobiographical woes; no way this book is being published, dude. They were beyond charming. For the graduation ceremony, I wrote brief, satiric profiles of all of the seniors; these profiles received the most genuinely appreciative response of anything I've ever written. I have an image of myself on the bench during recess working and reworking the sentences from Dead Languages, hoping beyond hope that there was life in this book, that books could be my life.


Love and Theft

Originally, feathers evolved to retain heat; later, they were repurposed for a means of flight. No one ever accuses the descendants of ancient birds of plagiarism for taking heat-retaining feathers and modifying them into wings for flight. In our current system, the original feathers would be copyrighted, and upstart birds would get sued for stealing the feathers for a different use. Almost all famous discoveries (by Edison, Darwin, Einstein, et al.) were not lightning-bolt epiphanies but were built slowly over time and heavily dependent on the intellectual superstructure of what had come before them. The commonplace book was popular among English intellectuals in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. These notebooks were a depository for thoughts and quotes and were usually categorized by topic. Enquire Within Upon Everything was a commercially successful take-off on the commonplace book in London in 1890. There's no such thing as originality. Invention and innovation grow out of rich networks of people and ideas. All life on earth (and by extension, technology) is built upon appropriation and reuse of the preexisting.


Real Life

In Liesl Schillinger's review of Antonya Nelson's novel, Bound, Schillinger begins by writing, "If you take an exit off a Midwestern highway and drive through a square-gridded prairie town, you might think there's nothing much going on, nothing to see but the 7-Eleven and the high school, nothing to do but gas up, get biscuits and gravy at the diner, and move on." In the "Arts & Leisure" section of the same paper on the same day, in a profile of the painter Wayne Thiebaud, Patricia Leigh Brown's first sentence is, "Many people would consider State Highway 160 to be a why-bother sort of landscape, an isolated and unremarkable byway atop a levee along the Sacramento River in which the lone landmarks include a ramshackle bait and tackle shop and rusty pipes from an old sugar beet factory." Perhaps it's time to retire this quaint trope-the critic's shock that an artist has found matter other than in the agreed-upon precincts. Life is interesting all over. Every life, properly understood, is compelling. Anyone aspiring to be an artist knows there's no such thing as why-bother or nothing-to-see.


Life / Art

Let me see if I have this right: Weary of converting past experience into currency, Jonathan Franzen goes on a vacation, which he immediately converts into a lengthy article for The New Yorker. The article, "Farther Away," which eviscerates his "friend" David Foster Wallace, appears very nearly on the publication date of Wallace's unfinished novel. Franzen, who claims that Wallace committed suicide as a career move, responded to Wallace's suicide at the time by asking, "Does it look now like David had all the answers?" Franzen is horrified on behalf of all of us that there's a difference between Wallace's persona and his actual existence. Perhaps the difference that Franzen should contemplate instead is the one between Wallace, who delved, heroically, into the darkness of his own soul, and his "friend" Jonathan Franzen, whose oeuvre (and this article in particular) is devoted to fighting off any insight into himself and locating instead all shade and shadow elsewhere, out there, the next precinct over.


A Day Like Any Other, Only Shorter

Without religion, no one knows what to say about death-their own or others-nor does anyone know after someone's death how to talk about (think about) the rest of their lives, so we invent diversions.

Lance Olsen's Calendar of Regrets is about tourists, travelers, cafés, voyeurism, the lure and illusion of art, what happens when we die: "Movement is a mode of writing. Writing is a mode of movement." Every major character of Olsen's moves from existence to literal or figurative nonexistence. "I've been dreading the disengagement one experiences upon arriving home. You end up maintaining a fever-distance between where you are and where you've been. As if you're recovering from some sort of illness.

Mesmerized-at times unnerved-by my 97-year-old father's nearly superhuman vitality, I undertook an investigation of the human physical condition; the result was a book called The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, which tries to look without blinking at our blood-and-bones existence, at the fact that each of us is just an animal walking the earth for a brief time, a bare body housed in a mortal cage. Some people might find this perspective demoralizing, but I don't, truly. Honesty is the best policy; the only way out is deeper in: a candid confrontation with existence is dizzying, liberating. This was my ninth book and the one that has changed me the most, by far. I now see life entirely through its Darwinian prism. I keep trying to shake off the aftereffects of writing this book, and I find I can't. All good books wind up, I think, with the writer getting his teeth bashed in.

Sarah Manguso's The Guardians goes to hell and back, just barely back, and ends with a tiny glimmer of uptick-not too much but not too little, either. It's the only affirmation that anyone can offer: astonishingly, we're here. The book majors in bone-on-bone rawness, exposed nerve endings. Without which, sorry, I can't read anything. It always points simultaneously outward and inward: outward toward her friend Harris, who on p. 1 commits suicide; inward toward herself (she's dead now, too). "It doesn't mean shit," an Italian security guard tells her Israeli friend about his passport, which is crucial, since Manguso is always asking, What if anything means shit? Nothing does, or rather everything, sub specie aeternitatis, is shit. How then to put one foot in front of the other? Well, let us investigate that. Life and death are in complete tension. (So, too, are Manguso's vow not to make anything up and her promise that she will.) With The Guardians, I did something I do when I love a book: start covering my mouth when I read; this is very pure and elemental, and I wanted nothing coming between me and the page.

Vladimir Posner says that when a Russian is asked how he's feeling, he tends to go on and on about how he's actually feeling, whereas when an American is asked the same question, he invariably answers, "Fine." We're doing fine. We're moving forward, moving ahead, no problems, unto death.


Life / Art

Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley, the co-founders of the Necronautical Society and co-authors of the "Joint Declaration on Inauthenticity," when asked to present their declaration at the Tate Britain, found and trained two actors to pretend to be them. Many people in the audience were angry when they discovered that the actors were not actually the authors... of a declaration on inauthenticity... presented in a museum.


Life / Art

In Germany, there are pretty much only two categories: literature-work aspiring toward literary merit-and then just pure information, train schedules and the like. (Unfortunate example.)

John Cheever's "legacy" is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It's simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it's what all his other work was building toward. So, too, the encomia several years ago re: Leonard Michaels when he died. It's his journals that matter to me-not his stories, or if so, only the extremely collagistic stories in I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, such as "Eating Out." Same with David Foster Wallace; only his two books of essays matter to me, and these matter a lot.

I like art with a visible string to the world.

In fiction, the war is between two characters-Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, say-whereas in serious essays, there's just as much war, as much "conflict," but it's within the breast, as it were, of the narrator/speaker/author. The essayist tries to get to everything that Macbeth does; he just locates it all within his own psyche. Every man contains within himself the entire human condition.

Thoreau: "The next time the novelist rings the bell, I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down."

When my daughter Natalie was seven, she read the Lemony Snicket series, which is about three orphaned kids who undergo various and terrible adventures as they try to find a home. They get handed off to Count Olaf, a distant cousin who is an utter ogre. A middle-class kid can read it from the vantage of her secure home and love the characters' horrific lives. Anything cute is by definition damaged: what's alluring to children about something that's cute is that they can love it back to health and thereby feel powerful themselves. In their ordinary lives, children are constantly condescended to; it's important that they can condescend to something else.

One of my students, who was on the quiz show The Weakest Link, mailed me a videotape of her appearance and then sent me the essay she wrote; I showed the video and read the essay to Natalie. I wanted to make it clear to her that you can write about anything that happens to you, that it's a natural response to experience.


Life is Short; Art is Shorter

A reviewer said about my third book, a collection of linked stories, that if I kept going in this direction (i.e., toward concision), I'd wind up writing books composed of one very beautiful word. He meant it as a put-down, but to me it was wild praise.

I love infinitesimal paintings, the more abstract and compressed the better.

Simon Gray's four-volume Smoking Diaries is one of the greatest things I've ever read. A man, whose friends are dying and who by the final book is dying himself, stands before us utterly naked and takes account: Rembrandt's self-portraits, in prose. The gravitation is very extreme to always make himself look bad and, in so doing, of course, render himself utterly adorable. Each mini-section of Gray's book is typically only a few pages long, the subsections connect in beautifully oblique ways, and each book is held together by a low-angle trope. An entire life, a way of thinking, comes to life as he dies; having read the book, I feel less lonely.


The Fourth Law of Thermodynamics

When I'm having trouble writing something, I often close the document and compose the passage as email. I can feel the tug of the recipient at the other end of the wire, and this creates in me a certain pressure, an urgency. The letter always arrives at its destination.


A Day Like Any Other, Only Shorter

Christian Marclay's 24-hour-long video, The Clock, is constructed out of thousands of film fragments in which a character interacts in some way with a clock or watch. As each new clip appears, a new narrative is suggested-only to be swiftly overtaken by another one. The video is synchronized to the local time. At any moment, you can look at the work and use it to tell the time. There are amazingly few different kinds of gestures available in the repertory of human behavior, and yet there's a comfort that at, say, 5 pm for almost everyone it's quitting time. Film-life itself?-is an irreducibly melodramatic medium. Very, very few clips from comedy: would wreck the mood, which is "Our birth is our death begun." Many of the actors are now dead. One day you, too, will, astonishingly enough, be dead. The seconds are ticking away as you're watching. You want to ID the clip-I exist-but the fragment and your identification are almost immediately overwhelmed by time, which always wins: Koyaanisqati rearranged by Hamlet.


Life / Art

I have no wisdom, so I fake it by sounding dire. I take my essentially happy middle-class life and make it sound serious by pulling out all the consolations. Who knows how to write about happiness?


The isolation of the widely spaced sans serif characters on the cover (above) is the isolation of the characters in the book. The clean lines on top contrast with the water bleeding. The T-shirted boy's eyes are covered and thus is Everyboy. The title is a kind of impossibility (for whom would such a manual be intended? who would bother to compose such a gloomy guide?), as is the photograph: unreadable, paradoxical; is he sinking or ascending or, somehow, perhaps doing both simultaneously? People in bookstores often can't abide the endlessly falling figure and need to turn the book "right side up"-upside down-but any such resurrection reveals the method of its contrivance.



Collage is Not a Refuge for the Compositionally Disabled

In books I love, the writer is manifestly aware that he or she will pass this way but once, and all possibilities are available; we're outside genre and we're also outside certain expectations of what the writer can say, and in this special space-often, interestingly, filled with spaces-the author/narrator/speaker manages, in hundreds of brief paragraphs, to convey indelibly what it feels like for one human being to be alive, and if explored fully enough, by implication, all human beings.


I often stop reading front to back and read the book backwards. I can't predict which books it will happen to me on, but this reverse-reading will tug on me like a magnet about halfway or two thirds through. It often occurs on books that I love the most.


Use a tree as a fence post and string barbed wire across it; allow ten years to pass; the tree will have grown around the barbed wire, and the barbed wire will now go through the tree rather than around it.


Am I missing the narrative gene? I frequently come out of the movie theatre having no idea what the plot was: "Wait-he killed his brother-in-law? I didn't know he even had a brother-in-law."





LARB Contributor

David Shields is the author of twelve books, including Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which was named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications, and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestseller. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.


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