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No. 80 Optimist Devil & Despair Angel

“An angel sat on one shoulder, a devil on the other. Both of them wore my face.”

Michelle Hodkin

from KEEP GOING by Austin Kleon


7:10 am

My morning reading started with Maria Popova‘s Brain Pickings blog about author Zadie Smith’s exploration of optimism in her book Feel Free. Popova’s highlights the book's essay “On Optimism and Despair.” Smith is determined to stand up for the right to exist in both moods simultaneously. If youth is too full of hope, age can strike that balance with cynicism.

Zadie Smith:

"The art of mid-life is surely always cloudier than the art of youth, as life itself gets cloudier. But it would be disingenuous to pretend it is only that. I am a citizen as well as an individual soul and one of the things citizenship teaches us, over the long stretch, is that there is no perfectibility in human affairs. This fact, still obscure to the twenty-one-year-old, is a little clearer to the woman of forty-one."

With her deft attention to detail, in this same blog post, Popova also gives us theories of optimism from Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, and Albert Camus.

9:30am and 3:00pm

On my way to and from work, I listened to Seattle’s Chase Jarvis’ podcast interview with one of my, what I call, Mentor Strangers - someone I don’t know but has a positive influence on me. His name is Austin Kleon. Kleon talked about his excellent fourth book Keep Going. In it, he encourages artists to keep going with “10 ways to stay creative in good times and bad.” He practices his art to find optimism among the muck of the daily news.

Austin Kleon:

"I really wanted to quit a couple of years ago. On the other side of that, I thought what is the point of making work in this climate? Do I want to do this? This is the first book I wrote because I needed to read it. It felt urgent writing this one."

A theme for my day and perhaps the rest of my days has now emerged – How does an artist persevere when the world's on fire?

12:30 pm

All this talk of optimism lead me to wonder about the phrase - American optimism - and what the greatest cynic of my lifetime – Christopher Hitchens - thought of this cliche.

During my lunch break, I searched online “Christopher Hitchens American Optimism” and was delighted to find an article Hitchens wrote about early performances of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.

From the play:

Belize: “America” is what Louis loves.

Louis: So what? Maybe I do. You don’t know what I love. You don’t.

Belize: I hate America, Louis. I hate this country. I hate the lies it tells itself about union when I don’t see any union, about democracy when all I see is democracy dying; and justice and the pursuit of happiness, I hate how America has bartered those things away. The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what America sounds like. He set the word “free” to a note so high nobody can reach it.

Christopher Hitchens:

That scene comes from “Perestroika,” in which Kushner sets out to deflate some of the transcendent, all-American expectations aroused by the magical optimism of the angel at the close of “Millennium.” “I didn’t exactly want an 80s Spielbergian trope,” Kushner told me, “but I did want to hint at divine intervention or extraterrestrial optimism without the magic at the end.” By a similar token, love is under permanent threat in this play but is never quite eclipsed by hatred. And evil must not be permitted to be banal, which is why, says Kushner, “Roy Cohn represents neither self-hatred nor hypocrisy.”

8:23 pm

Tonight all this talk about perseverance and optimism (American or otherwise) lead to me to an interview of our country's current angel over Broadway – playwright and actor Heidi Schreck. Heidi is nominated for two Tony Awards for her play, What the Constitution Means to Me. The play is described as Schreck “. . .tracing the profound relationship between four generations of women in her own family and the founding document that dictated their rights and citizenship.”

The very last thing Heidi says in this interview brings this blog full circle. Watch it.

Also, it’s worth reading this excellent discussion between Tony Kushner and Heidi Schreck.

Now back to the urgent question.

How does an artist persevere when the world’s on fire?

Austin Kleon’s solution: Come up with a daily practice for creating new work indefinitely.

Boom. There it is. THE goal. My goal. No other goal is necessary. It all falls in to place once a daily routine is in place.


Today was full of my usual mad tea parties and rabbit holes leading to inspiring and unpredictable thematic coincidences. I look forward to whatever trip I will take tomorrow.

Thanks for reading.

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