“If work comes easily, it is suspect”

On David Salle, Janet Malcolm, and feeling like you’re doing everything wrong

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Advice on self-marketing (ugh) with guest columnist Ron Hogan.

The other week, following the sad news of the writer Janet Malcolm’s passing, I spent an afternoon reading her New Yorker colleagues’ tributes plus several of the Malcolm articles mentioned therein. The most-mentioned piece was “Forty-One False Starts,” Malcolm’s 1994 profile of the American painter David Salle, which Adam Gopnik calls “one of the most influential profiles of the past thirty or forty years.” Somehow I had never read it.

As the title implies, the piece is structured as 41 attempts to write the lede for a profile of Salle. This sounds like a gimmick, but the result does not feel gimmicky at all. Instead, all of Malcolm’s false starts add up to a brilliant portrait of Salle and a vivid illustration of how difficult it is to say anything authoritative about, well, anything—but, in particular, about a living artist and his work.

My favorite false start is number 17. In it, Malcolm visits Salle’s studio and blurts out her envy of his productivity. By comparison, her writing seems to proceed with excruciating slowness. To her surprise, Salle—whose demeanor so far has been cool, detached, ironic—becomes flushed and defensive. Malcolm has hit a sore spot. Salle is bitter about his reputation in the art world as a bit of a lightweight, and the speed with which he produces new work has been used as evidence of this.

Salle says:

If work comes easily, it is suspect.

But it doesn’t come easily. I find it extremely difficult. I feel like I’m beating my head against a brick wall, to use an image that my father would use. When I work, I feel that I’m doing everything wrong. I feel that it can’t be this hard for other people. I feel that everyone else has figured out a way to do it that allows him an effortless, charmed ride through life, while I have to stay in this horrible pit of a room, suffering. That’s how it feels to me. And yet I know that’s not the way it appears to others. Once, at an opening, an English critic came up to me and asked me how long I had worked on the five or six paintings I was showing. I told her, and she said, “Oh, so fast! You work so fast.” She was a representative of the new, politically correct, anti-pleasure school of art people. I could easily visualize her as a dominatrix. There was some weird sexual energy there, unexpressed. I immediately became defensive.

When I work, I feel that I’m doing everything wrong. Same! I relish passages like the above because, well, I too suspect that everyone else has figured out a better, more efficient, less tortured way to do their work, and it’s such a comfort to know that’s not the case. Hope some of you reading find this comforting too!

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When it was Janet Malcom’s turn to be interviewed about her own creative process, she didn’t sound quite as tortured as Salle does above—but she did emphasize the extremely painstaking nature of her writing. Here she is in the Paris Review in 2011:

Could you could say a bit about the mechanics of your writing process? Do you work regular hours or in bursts of inspiration? Do you edit yourself? Do you approach writing in a workmanlike way? Are you are a cabinetmaker making a cabinet, or is there more drama or torment?

I’m definitely more a cabinetmaker than a tormented artist. Not that writing comes easy. I don’t know about cabinetmakers, but I often get stuck. Then I get sleepy and have to lie down. Or I make myself leave the house—walking sometimes produces a solution. The problem is usually one of logic or point of view. I keep regular morning hours. The first hour is the most productive one. The two or three others are less so—they can even be completely fruitless. I sometimes work in the afternoon as well, but the morning is the obligatory work time. As for the “mechanics” of composition, all I can say about them is that the machinery works slowly and erratically and I am ­always a little nervous about it, though by now I’m pretty used to it. I guess I trust it more.


Recently, the writer Rob Walker asked me if I have a “noticing- or attention-related habit” I could share with the readers of his terrific The Art of Noticing newsletter. Find my (sorta depressing?) reply below, or read the entire issue here.

“The other week I was listening to a podcast where the guest mentioned, in an offhand way, that researchers have found that 80 percent of the thoughts we think are the same from day to day. This blew my mind — and not in a good way! Here I was going around believing I was a curious, engaged individual thinking novel, interesting thoughts. Nope! Just the same old garbage, day in and day out.

“Ever since, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my everyday thoughts, to determine if the ratio is really this dismal. And I think it … is? I can truthfully say that a lot of my thoughts are more or less the same from day to day, and that a lot of them are expressions of fretful underconfidence: that I’m not getting enough done, not (at this rate) going to achieve the things that I’ve set out to achieve.

“A depressing realization, yes — but also potentially freeing. I’ve been wondering: Am I thinking these thoughts because they’re true … or because I’m just in the habit of thinking them? And if it’s the latter case, then maybe I can let those thoughts float away, and make room for more genuine, in-the-moment reactions to what’s happening in my everyday life?” 


I’m devoting the last issue of each month to an advice column. Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)

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