Sam Anderson on the exploratory line

Celebrating Michel de Montaigne’s birthday with a conversation about writing and drawing

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Hey y’all,

Tomorrow is Michel de Montaigne’s birthday. For the past four years now, the writer Sam Anderson and I have been getting together online to celebrate our favorite French essayist by drawing and talking.

I love catching up with Sam. He’s not only a staff writer at The New York Times and author of the wonderful Boom Town, but when he’s not writing, he loves to draw. (You can see his drawings on Instagram.)

Because I’m traveling at the moment, this year we had to record a week in advance. I think it might be my favorite of all our conversations.

We started out talking about our shared love of comedy:

SAM: My friends and I would sit around for hours telling jokes and stupid puns. I've always loved puns. So when I became a writer, it was always really important to me to be funny…. It’s always when I'm writing anything a priority to try to be funny. I'd rather be funny than have an interesting new idea or something…. I'll listen to stand-up comedy sometimes to get myself in an artful, smart mood. Because the truth is, it's some of the smartest writing and most effective writing out there.

We talked about the creative power of being around little kids and the joy of animals. (Sam called his dogs “quadrupedal mindfulness exercises” and said of being around animals: “It’s like touching a root that goes down to the core of the Earth or something. Just makes me present and takes me out of myself but also makes me feel more like myself.”)

Sam also told a funny story about an epiphany he had as a student when he saw Jacques Derrida in a parking lot unlocking his crummy compact car.

Sam’s drawing + watercolor of me, the last page in his notebook

One of my favorite parts of the conversation is when I asked Sam how much he thought being a child of divorce influenced his writing life. “Much,” he said.

SAM: My whole writing life, identity, ambitions, which I leapt into with both feet when I was like 15, 16, 17 years old, was this kind of very adolescent reaction to feeling a little out of control, feeling that life was chaotic. I was like, “Okay, here's a little airlock space bubble that I can jump into, and blast off away from my normal life and control everything inside of this world of my writing.”

Then Sam asked what about me, and I said something I’m not sure I’ve said before…

AUSTIN: I think it's about wanting to be whole again. I think so much of my work is about taking pieces of things and just taking things divorced and trying to stick them together… I see two things in the world and I think they should be together and I want to put them together to see what happens. I think that's the collage work. I think that's why the books are so patchwork. I just want to take these things, and I want to make my world out of them.

Of course, as we often do, we talked about the connection between writing and drawing. Sam said:

SAM: The thing that unites good writing and good drawing — authentic writing and authentic drawing — is the exploratory line. I can tell when a drawing is the real thing for me because it contains surprise in it and it's looking for something and you can see that happening in the work. And it's so magical and ineffable… And the same with writing: it has to have that in it. And you know, I am like a super perfectionistic craftsman about my writing, but in a way that I think, at its best, reinforces that original sort of wandering, exploratory quality.

Here are some links and conversation notes:

Hope you enjoy — let me know what you think in the comments, and who you might like to see me interview for the newsletter in the future!

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PS. If you can’t get enough of Sam and me together, here are links to video of our celebrations from previous years. (We used to do them on Instagram Live.)


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