on writing

Top 1 Secrets To An Artistic Life (#1 Blew Our Minds)


Fantagraphics recently published The Complete Peanuts: Comics and Stories, the last of a 26 volume hardcover collection capturing, well, the complete Peanuts. 

The collection took 12 years for the company to produce, which seems like a long time until one considers that it took Charles Schulz 50 years to create the collection’s content.

Fifty years of daily four panel strips, more panels on Sundays. Fifty years of sight gags, subtle theology, and dialog so lean it fits into speech bubbles. A half century of depression, insecurity, heartache, longing, humor, and kindness. Fifty years of Lucy’s sage advice, five cents please.

The artistic merit of Peanuts is debatable. Comedian Adam Carolla, for example, rants occasionally on his podcast about his dislike for the comic strip, noting its lack of jokes. That sort of criticism misses the point. When I look at my 26 volumes of The Complete Peanuts all lined up in order on my bookshelf in their uniform dust jackets, I see a slow, stubborn persistence that made manifest its own unique universe. I see an artistic life well lived.

Schulz’s chosen format, a disposable daily comic strip, and the copious merchandising that accompanied Peanuts (as well as complaints that it wasn’t a reliable joke delivery system) obscure the fact that taken in total the strip stands as a testament to the power of showing up every day. No matter how wealthy Schulz grew or how commercially successful the strip became, the cartoonist still had to sit down at his drawing board each day and write. Decades passed, the panels piled up, and a half century later a massive body of work was left behind–nearly 20,000 strips over 50 years. That is a milestone that I suspect even Carolla can appreciate, as he recently celebrated his 2,000th podcast.

Stephen King is another successful example of the power of showing up every day. Beginning with 1973’s Carrie, King has published 56 novels, 11 short story collections, and five works of non-fiction. If I were a King completist, his output would dwarf Schulz’s on my bookshelves. Does the prolific author’s bibliography qualify as art? The question is irrelevant in this context. What matters here is the immense power of persistence.

Simply showing up represents the overwhelming percentage of what’s required to build a body of work–let’s call it 99% for conversation’s sake. That last one percent is comprised solely of time and materials. A pianist must have access to a piano. A painter needs paint. Writers need paper and pen.


Henry Darger

The math is really that simple, but we complicate it by introducing variables and inflating their value. Talent or aptitude are essential, we insist, but neither is necessary. For 43 years a Chicago janitor named Henry Darger worked on a story entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.  He left behind a 15,145 page multimedia manuscript devoid of what one might consider conventional talent, but nonetheless it is a glorious thing. Like Peanuts, it is a complete world willed into existence over five decades, but unlike Schulz, Darger died poor and anonymous.

Comparing the two artists reveals other variables that we use to complicate the equation. Schulz had “luck” or “access” or a “marketable product” while Darger the janitor had none of these, all of which may be true, none of which matter here. Both men showed up every day. Both chipped away at the thing slowly, methodically. Both created something substantial as a result.

We throw “acceptance” or “acknowledgement,” or at the very least “an audience” into the mix, too. Would Schulz and King have stacked up so many pages without someone to read them? Darger did, and he isn’t the only one. For 33 years Simon Rodia assembled bits of iron, stone, cement, glass, and shells into what we now call the Watts Towers but what Rodia’s neighbors called an eyesore. His life’s work was frequently vandalized, but he persisted. Why? Who knows. Rodia was compelled to build them and when that compulsion ended (i.e., he decided that they were complete), he walked away. The Watts Towers are now celebrated as a masterwork of outsider art, but their creator enjoyed no acceptance or acknowledgement.

Showing up every day: That’s really our fundamental job as makers of things. Doing so will not ensure commercial success, nor will it guarantee that the work is “good,” whatever that word means. Fifty years will pass, regardless of whether we put pen to paper or sit on our hands. The only real question is whether we’ll have anything to show for it.

Slow and steady–a few lines per day, a doodle, a melody, another quilted square. Sit down and do your work, and stop worrying about all of that other junk.

That’s my advice. Five cents, please.

Categories: on writing

2 replies »

  1. This was wonderful timing to help break through a sense of futility, thank you. Your nickel is in the mail. Who knows? It might be a 1913 Liberty nickel which is really what this essay is worth to this particular reader.


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