Picasso's Bull—or, Does Writing Fast Mean Your Work Will Suck?

No bull. Just expertise. I love how he does the horns.

My late journalism professor John C. Keats came from the school of hard-hitting newspapermen of the 1940s and 50s. Later in life he switched to magazine work, which was more lucrative. In one story he told, a publication paid his way from Philadelphia to New York so that he could be on the premises while they edited his work. They were in a rush to get the article edited so those pages could be shipped to the printer. They put him in a nice office with a typewriter, where he worked on other projects while waiting to be summoned. He enjoyed fine lunches and a lovely hotel room at their expense. Finally, after a week, an anxious editor brought in some sheets of paper with some redline comments. "Here it is! We're going to need this right away. When do you think you could get it to us?"

"You can have it in fifteen minutes if you get out and shut the door," Keats said. He was always a little cantankerous. (Read more about him here.)

His editors were under the impression that their edits would require a lot of time to work through. So much time that they imported the writer and installed him close to their offices for one expensive week.

Nothing has changed in 50 years. One thing that hasn't changed is that the person who actually does the work—let’s call that person the freelancer—must adhere to the deadlines, while deadlines for the freelancer’s clients are infinitely more elastic. But that’s another story.

What I really want to talk about is how people equate time with quality. If a book takes a long time to produce, people reason that it must be better than a book that took a short time to produce. A fast writer is judged harshly under this paradigm.

I do a lot of ghostwriting. I wrote a memoir for one client that changed the way people saw him. He gained new fans. His diehard fans loved him even more. All because the book showed his human side. It showed how he came up in the business world by guts and brains alone. Prior to this, the prevailing internet narrative held that he’d inherited a ton of money, or had been handed his career by successful relatives, which wasn’t true at all. Yet the whole time I was researching the book, he fought me on this, afraid to reveal his real story and his vulnerability. But I finally managed to wrench it out of him. The book’s emotionality is what people praise about it to this day.

Our interviews took several months to complete. But in the end, that book took me 14 days to write. (I have a couple of posts coming that talk about this project.)

My wife went through something similar on another ghost project. By the time the editors hired my wife, the book was already in danger of becoming a “problem” in the minds of the editors and the publishing house. The previous writer had walked, nothing had been written, and the deadline was looming fast. On a conference call, my wife announced that meeting a deadline only two months away was reasonable and achievable. The “author” expressed concern: “That’s too soon. This needs to be good.”

The implication: Shouldn't this process take years?

Another book, one of our own that I wrote with Denise, went on to sell 100,000 copies. It was our first big book. People began inviting us to come speak to their groups because of it. At those events, someone would inevitably ask how long it took us to write that book. It’s the sort of thing people always ask writers.

“Five years,” I’d say, telling them what they wanted to hear.

Actually, it took us a month. Not that we wanted it to; it just happened that way. We were really organized, and devoted to the process.

So we’ve been through this a lot. People don’t want to accept that a good first draft of a book can be written in such a short amount of time. If it can, goes the thinking, it can't possibly be any good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t love to write a book that fast. I actually think it’s nice to have a generous amount of time to write a project, take a break from it, then revise it carefully, digitally and on paper. But I don’t always have the luxury of time, because of deadlines and other commitments.

But it is possible to write fast and well. I have one friend who for a while adhered to an insane production schedule, writing a novel a month. He didn’t love doing it, but he could do it. And he did it because that’s what he had to do—at that moment in time—to pay his bills.

I’m sure that there are musicians who’ve written hit songs in days, hours, or even minutes. Stallone wrote the first Rocky script in three and a half days. I know local artists who crank out great examples of their work in days so they’ll have a good inventory to sell at arts festivals at the end of the month. I know designers who do the same thing. They just keep churning the work out, and you can’t tell that they did it in such a short amount of time. All these people do what they do because they’ve attained a certain level of mastery. In the words of another co-writing client of mine, they’re experts.

I took a lot of art classes when I was a kid. I remember one instructor telling me to stop making sloppy circles on my page as a way of warming up, and learn how to put down one correct line instead.

Watch Picasso draw that bull in thirty seconds. Look at how he knows just how to move his hand to create the slope of the bull’s back. When he flicks the brush at the bull’s head, he knows from years of experience that the bristles will leave a stroke suggestive of the bull’s horn. And he knows just how little paint to apply to hint at the bull’s legs.

It's not the time but the talent of the artist that matters. Experts do a lot with the time handed them.

* This post appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, dated March 3, 2012.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks! — Joseph D’Agnese

The Arge Files: Have a Racy Valentine!

Valentines Production for Joe (2019).jpg

My friend, the artist Jon Arge, has a magnificent obsession with the past. Specifically, the past as represented in old ads, catalog copy, brochures, ghastly old cookbooks of unappetizing food photos, and the like. He loves the designs artists came up with when they should have known better, or when they should have been actual artists.

Back of a sample card.

Back of a sample card.

For Valentine’s Day 2019, Arge has released an assortment of “elementary school-style” Valentine’s Day cards that are based on actual racy paperback book covers. In this gleeful world, we find a selection of every species of love you could realistically slap on a book cover—gay, lesbian, straight, and swap-o-rama.

What’s an “elementary school-style” Valentine? If you’re an American of a certain age, you’ll remember a time in your childhood when you received a Valentine’s Day card from every kid in your class. To make those cards cost-effective, a single design was printed on sheets of perforated card stock, which kids then broke apart to share with their classmates. This custom reached ridiculous heights in the 1970s when I was going to school. By the time I got to eighth grade, schools had to mandate a policy about holiday gift-card-giving. Either every kid in the class had to get a card—or the school banned them entirely. Because feelings.

Of course, leave it to Arge to turn something sweet and innocent into a sordid romp through our shared but very-willingly-forgotten publishing history. I asked him to describe why he felt compelled to create the cards. He shared the following:

I made these elementary school-style Valentines for one reason. A couple of years ago, my friend Mischa gave me a perforating tool. It's tiny and plastic and has a blade on it like a pizza cutter. Except, of course, the blade is perforated. Well, I immediately thought it was the greatest thing ever and I couldn't wait to use it—it was all so exciting! Except, I pretty quickly realized—I mean, what the hell do you make with a perforator? Basically, a return card to tear out of a magazine, that's what. And since my complete lack of a Recording House prohibits me from selling 12 albums for a penny, I had nothing. And, whenever I suddenly have nothing to think about, my brain just floods my head with childhood traumas. So during the remembering I knew I had to make elementary school-style valentines.

Using pulp covers was a natural. The basic shape means you can get a bunch on one sheet —so that's a lot of value and people like that. Plus, they're beautiful! With still-whispered subjects that are now familiarly taboo (like your favorite dowager who drinks her dinner at lunch and always works blue after the waiter leaves). Let's face it, the titles are genius.

The art is absolutely magnificent—the pride that beams on the down-low simply never stops thrilling. Each seems at constant war with itself—filled with words no one dared speak aloud privately—under a cover that screams the worst 7 of them in every direction.

And they're important. Incredibly important. People need to remember not to forget that, before the Internet, sex was an act, not an action. The only facts were mysteries and the entire carnival was more fabulous for it. And in the vacuum of a society too polite to talk about almost anything anywhere, these books delight with the fact that, somewhere wonderful, absolutely everything got said.  

Never mind, let's be honest. Any one of them is a marvelous way to tell your favorite sweetheart(s) how you really feel. That you'd like to get a downtown swap on, Hollywood-style, with their country cousin.

Valentines Production (2019).jpg

I’ll leave it there. Check out the whole collection at the etsy shop. Get them now for V-day 2019, or invest in the future.

Follow Arge’s work and obsessions at his Facebook page.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim my in-retrospect-not-so-sexy-looking free book, go here.

I'm a writer, and sometimes I want fewer books

One of my cousins once worked in book manufacturing. I remember him talking about the release of a picture book by Madonna. This was years ago; the book may have been her controversial Sex. “The workmanship in this book, you gotta see,” my cousin said. “Of course, inside it’s all fuckin’ pornography.”

I was thinking about this when a friend showed me the art books she made in a book-making class. They’re shown above.

These days a lot of people are talking about the loss of “real” books. By that I assume they mean books as paper objects, as opposed to digital ebooks. 

Yeah—I get it. Some books are beautifully made, but most aren’t these days. Even hardcovers are not made with stitching, the way my friend learned to make them in her art class. Most books—the kind I like to read—are cheaply made with poorly designed covers, newsprint paper, and glue. But that’s okay. I don’t want them for their intrinsic value but for the stories inside them. 

I do think we are headed toward the age of the physical-book-as-a-collectible. You go to a reading by an author you like and you buy the book. Or you meet them at a con and you want a memento. These days, if I read an ebook that I like, I try to get a copy signed by the author.

But I predict I’ll eventually curtail even that instinct. The books I buy as collectibles end up sitting on my special shelf with other collectible books. Some are in plastic, most aren’t. I never touch them, I never engage with them, and I’ll certainly never read them. Most I ever do is take them down to show someone who shares an interest in a particular author: “Look—Ellroy touched this!”

In the last decade I’ve probably moved about 5 times, twice internationally. Each time, shipping books was my biggest expense. They were more numerous, costlier and heavier, pound for pound, than any other object I owned. 

You understand I’m saying? I’m a writer and I look forward to divesting myself of the “real” books in my life.

I read once that the only reason we hang onto books is that they are a way of broadcasting our identities. This is who I am. Look upon my books, and know me better, man!

It’s a way of announcing our egos. I don’t want to sound too spacey, but isn’t that an instinct we ought to try to get over? I think so.