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What's the key to creating great art? This author spoke to 40+ artists to find out

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I've got a 400-page book. I have a couple hours to spend with the author talking about it, and I have eight minutes of your time to tell you about this book. So where should I begin?

ADAM MOSS: Yeah, no, I'm feeling, very exposed and somewhat terrified.

SHAPIRO: Exposed? Terrified? That seems like a good start. We've got emotion, stakes and a character. The author? Adam Moss. His new book explores how creative people make things.

MOSS: The book is called "The Work Of Art," and that is kind of what it's about.

SHAPIRO: It's about the work. In more than 40 chapters, one per artist, the book tries to answer the question - how does a sketch become a painting, a scribbled lyric become a song? Or how does a sprawling interview become a radio story?

You know, on second thought, maybe I should start this piece with a scene instead - take two.

MOSS: So this building used to be pretty much all artist studios, and then, over the years...

SHAPIRO: Adam Moss and I walk into a square room with white walls, light streaming in from windows on two sides...

MOSS: Which is my sort of secret painting studio, and it's kind of my den of torture.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MOSS: And this is where I come, you know, many days and wrestle with trying to make something (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And it's just art everywhere you look. The difference between this and other artist studios being that you've never allowed anyone in this space before now?

MOSS: That is true - just my husband and my teacher. That's it. Two people in my entire life, and I've had this thing for five years. So welcome.

SHAPIRO: Well, what a privilege. What a privilege.

See, when Adam Moss gave up his job as editor-in-chief of New York Magazine five years ago, he started painting. He loved it, and it was agonizing.

MOSS: I really wanted to be good, and it made the act of making art so frustrating for me. And what - you know, just to cut to the chase - you know, what I learned from this book is that the end product is not the point. Everyone I talked to was, in many ways, indifferent to the product of their labors - and, really, extreme labors. And what they were consumed by - why they did what they did - is because they were consumed by the work.

SHAPIRO: Ugh. Is this too forced - trying to emulate the form of the book in the form of this radio piece? Oh, wait - I know. The solution to my problem of how to start this story is in the book.

How do the artists you spoke with deal with the blank page?

MOSS: Well, it was a preoccupation of all of them. And they all approached it differently, but, basically, they tried to get through that as quickly as possible and with as little thought as possible. Many of them write in longhand, giving themselves...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MOSS: ...Explicit permission to fail.

SHAPIRO: Key, it sounds like, is it doesn't have to begin with something good. It just has to begin.

MOSS: It just has to begin.

SHAPIRO: Phew. OK, then - let's move on.

The artists in this book cover so many different genres. There are composers and crossword-puzzle-makers. There are poets and playwrights, painters. What interested me the most was the number of things they all have in common. Can you list off a few of those for us?

MOSS: Sure. Fundamentally, they all have drive. They all have a compulsion - an obsession to make something. It gets into their system, and they can't let go of it. They have faith. They have patience. They have perseverance. They have luck.

SHAPIRO: The book is a visual feast full of drafts and sketches. Every page offers images showing how an idea becomes a finished design. You know what? Maybe I should zoom in, give you a specific example. And since this is an audio story, it should probably be a musician. Adam Moss and I talked about composer Stephen Sondheim and singer-songwriter Rostam, who's less well known. Which one do I put in this story? Well, Sondheim already gets a lot of attention on NPR, and I like an underdog. So...

You spoke with the artist Rostam, formerly of the band Vampire Weekend, now a solo artist, and he described to you the process of writing the song "In A River."

MOSS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: What was that process for him?

MOSS: The process for him was he had purchased a mandolin. And he was just plucking it, sitting in his house, and a chord progression came to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF RASTAM BATMANGLIJ SONG, "IN A RIVER")

SHAPIRO: But it had to be a simple chord progression 'cause he wasn't good at playing the mandolin.

MOSS: Absolutely. He'd never played it before.

SHAPIRO: Which gets to the theme of limitations are so helpful to so many of these artists.

MOSS: Limitations are helpful. And also, he had played the guitar. So he had in him ingrained a certain facility, which - he was able to adapt to the mandolin. He played this little, simple chord progression. He would then revisit this sound now and then. At one point, he started to sing kind of gibberish, which was, by the way, what all the songwriters do at first.

SHAPIRO: All of them.

MOSS: All of them - every single one - they start by just singing the thing that comes to their mind. It's the blank page that you were talking about before. And in this case, the line - the key lyric of the song came to him in that very first instant, swimming in a river with no clothes on. And he liked that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN A RIVER")

ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ: (Singing) We are swimming with no clothes on in a river in the dark.

SHAPIRO: In the book, you print the draft lyrics that he was playing with and then the final lyrics, and so we can see how it evolves from, yeah, I'm holding on to you, yeah, I got you by the arm, to and I'm holding on to you, boy, in the faint light of the stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN A RIVER")

BATMANGLIJ: (Singing) And I am holding onto you, boy, in the faint light of the stars.

MOSS: And in fact, when he - you know, when he looked at his early lyrics in any number of places, he'd cringed.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, I mean...

MOSS: But he said, as he says - he says, but that's what - you've got to get through the bad in order to get to the good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN A RIVER")

BATMANGLIJ: (Singing) In the faint light of the headlights of passing cars.

SHAPIRO: And so as we sit here in your painting studio, surrounded by studies half-finished, entirely finished paintings that you have felt like were torture as you were making them...

MOSS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...What has the experience of writing this book and speaking with all of these geniuses taught you?

MOSS: It's taught me to appreciate the making, not the made, which is enormously relieving for me and allows me to feel joy, even when I don't like what I make.

SHAPIRO: Every creation is, in some sense, defined by its limitations.

MOSS: Mmm hmm.

SHAPIRO: And one of the limitations on this interview we're conducting is that it is eight minutes on the radio - no more, no less.

MOSS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So how do we end it? What did you learn from the artists you spoke to about how to end the thing?

MOSS: Well, people end for all sorts of reasons. They end because they're afraid they're going to screw it up. They end because they're bored. They end for completely arbitrary reasons. And let's end it there with - let's just end it.

SHAPIRO: Adam Moss - his new book is "The Work Of Art: How Something Comes From Nothing." Thank you so much.

MOSS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RASTAM BATMANGLIJ SONG, "IN A RIVER")

SHAPIRO: Sorry, there was one thing about endings that I really loved, which was Twyla Tharp basically saying, like, an ending is just another thing.

MOSS: Yeah, we can actually end there if you want.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MOSS: That's good.

SHAPIRO: How do people end the thing?

MOSS: They end it all sorts of ways. The choreographer, Twyla Tharp, when she says, well, you just end it, the ending is another part, just like the middle, she says - love that.

SHAPIRO: Adam Moss is the author of the new book, "The Work Of Art: How Something Comes From Nothing." And you didn't hear this from me, but he's also a very talented painter.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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