David Shields: Don’t Be Afraid of Your Own Mind

It’s difficult to describe David Shields’ new book Reality Hunger. It’s part self-portrait, part manifesto for a new kind of art, and part amazing sourcebook for artistic practice.

It asks questions like: How much of your life do you put in your work? What’s the use of “realness” in art? How do you balance a desire to be authentic with a cut-and-paste aesthetic? The format that Shields uses is as unorthodox as the book’s content. Reality Hunger is composed of 618 short, numbered paragraphs, divided into curious categories such as “doubt,” “genre” and “reality TV.” Some paragraphs are as long as a page or two, but many are as short as a single sentence.

Taken together, they add up to a bold call for writers to dispense with tired storytelling conventions and embrace a more collage-based way of writing. But beyond that, Reality Hunger is a tremendous resource for those hankering for creative encouragement. The book is insanely quotable; here are a few nuggets:

82

Art is not truth. Art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.

311

Forms serve the culture; when they die, they die for a good reason: they’re no longer embodying what it’s like to be alive. If reality TV manages to convey something that a more manifestly scripted and plotted show doesn’t, that’s less an affront to writers than a challenge.

539

Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note carefully just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like – then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.

541

What you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her own limitations.

555

If your picture isn’t any good, you’re not standing close enough.

566

We have too many things and not enough forms.

So what’s the catch? Shields practices what he preaches; that is, the book itself is a collage of sorts. A majority of the quotes are from other people’s work – those passages above are from, in order, Picasso, Cocteau, Steinberg, Capa, and Flaubert. Only #311 was “his.” But so well blended are the borrowings that it’s relatively difficult to say where the original writing starts and where it ends. Of course, that’s the point – Shields wants writers to give up on the idea of pure invention, which he sees as limiting.

Beyond Reality Hunger’s appeal for readers who are bored with vanilla fiction, it’s a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in innovating within their creative practice. Since that’s our bread and butter here at 99U, we caught up with Shields for a few words on how he put together the book, and his advice on unlocking creativity.

How did you go about writing

Reality Hunger?

I taught a course over many years, collecting and composing thousands of quotations and passages from myself and others. Then I pushed passages into categories, then I rearranged the materials within categories. Then I rearranged the categories. Then I added new materials. And I reworked the passages for years until I had what I wanted.

And at what point did you sense that gathering and composing these passages was turning into a book?

When I realized I could move the passages into rubrics. I moved the passages around within rubrics, I moved around the rubrics. And I kept reading and rereading and rereading what I’d done, and I kept being surprised and then convinced: this is a book.

You also teach writing. What are some of the lessons you try to impart to your students?

Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Don’t be afraid of your own mind.

Who are some writers or artists whose process you admire?

David Markson. Gerhard Richter. Lynn Shelton. Ross McElwee. I could go on and on.

So what is it about their process that you admire?

In Shelton and McElwee, overt openness in serendipity, chance, improvisation.

Can you describe a typical workday?

I write for as long as possible, then I swim. Then I check email. Then I read.

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