Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

~by Scott Pinkmountain

On Ambiguity


Below is a written conversation between the composer/songwriter Michael Zapruder and myself. (MZ in italics)


A week or so ago we were talking about ambiguity in songwriting (or the lack thereof in the case of a particular song of mine). It’s something we’ve spoken about at length in the past, and a creative principal I’m strongly committed to. And yet, for some reason, which maybe I’m still struggling to articulate, I intentionally avoided a high degree of ambiguity on some songs I recently wrote. I understand and cherish the value of ambiguity – its expanded potential for meaning and interpretation, its grounding in realism and the lived experience, access to a greater depth and resonance – but I wonder if it’s a necessary ingredient in all art. Can there be some creative circumstance that call for limited ambiguity or none at all? If so, what might those be? If not, is ambiguity the defining element that separates art from entertainment (or something else, some non-art expression)?

I think writing or music or any art is too contextual to single out one element, even something as important as ambiguity, as a defining element. I see ambiguity as having a special status, but your question makes me think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, large parts of which consist of the annihilation of ambiguity, really. So there’s an unforgettable and wonderful book which emphasizes extreme accuracy and thoroughness, not ambiguity. That’s also an answer to your question above, about whether there can be some creative circumstance in which ambiguity is a bad thing.

As to your question about ambiguity in art vs. entertainment, I find it really hard to make any definite connection there. What does a pop lyric like Lorde’s “We live in cities you’ll never see on screen / not very pretty but we sure know how to run free” really give you, specifically? Not much. It might even be “bad” writing, since it’s so general (You can’t really judge a lyric without its melody in my opinion). Still, the vagueness really stimulates my imagination. “Cities you’ll never see on screen” reminds me of pretty much everywhere I’ve ever been. In my mind, that’s the power of ambiguous writing right there. Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.
~by Scott Pinkmountain
Excessive Celebration

It’s football season. Or was when I was writing this. I have a shameful, dirty secret, which is that I love football. It’s a newish infatuation that’s grown rapidly over the last few years, so maybe it will dwindle as infatuations often do. I’m kind of hoping it does because I’d like my Sundays and Monday nights back.

A big part of what I love about football is the potential at the beginning of each game, each play, that a new combination of actions is about to occur, and it could be anything. It could be a useless plodding scrum, or it could be a majestic, near-super-human record-breaking feat. The excitement at getting to witness some unique, spontaneous moment in real time is the same thing that drew me to improvised music in my teens. It’s all about the stakes, the risk, the unpredictability, the desire to accomplish the near impossible, and the potential that it could happen at any time. Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

~by Scott Pinkmountain

“Advice Column”


I’ve taught songwriting to college students some, and a few months ago I received an email from a former student. He caught me up on where he landed after college and sent me some of his music to check out. Then he added:

I’ve played a few shows at some bars around Portland and have a streak going of quieting the room, which has been super encouraging. But, I was wondering if you had any advice for going further with my music. I don’t really have any idea where to go from here, or how to take the next step or anything.

P.S. I also got my first short story published a few months ago. Though being a school bus driver for the year made it a constant struggle to pay the bills, it gave me plenty of time for writing, and that’s been totally worth it.

Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

~by Scott Pinkmountain


Don’t You Know Me?


sunrise at the train 113


“I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done,” read the bottom of the plastic bin where I placed my cell phone, wallet, pen, gum, loose change, pocket lint as I passed through security at JFK airport this summer.

Actually, it said:

“I’ll be gone 500 miles when the days is done.”
City of New Orleans, Arlo Guthrie

It was part of some quasi-inspirational marketing campaign by an unnamed outsourced agency trying to garner my affection for an international commercial transportation depot. Or something. Except instead of affection, it filled me with anger, sadness and defeat. Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts

Exploring issues of sustainability in the arts.

~by Scott Pinkmountain

City Walls


Out grabbing a quick burrito one night shortly before I moved away from the Bay Area for parts sparser, I got swallowed into the grinding, smoggy gridlock that throttled the streets of my distinctly not-fancy Oakland neighborhood. I marveled at the density –

cars, trucks, busses, pushcarts – seeing it through my new, exiting eyes. We could power the planet by harnessing our wasted energy, spun wheels. So much determination, so much frothed agenda to clearly signal that we’re all too busy to deal with each other’s needs – every man unapologetically for himself. I poked at my tinny horn as a Planet Crusher almost pancaked a biker. The cyclist swerved, the SUV did not.

I used to bike to my day job, constantly debating whether or not it was worth it. The softened carbon footprint, light cardio workout, and open-air engagement with my environment were pitted against the taxing of my thyroid as I’d dodge to avoid violently negligent drivers. Venomous thoughts poisoned my spirit and soured my pluralistic ideals when people enacted the worst, meanest characteristics of the stereotypical versions of themselves. Not to even mention the pollution, the risk of catching a car door, a bullet, a social disease from one of the used needles littering my path. It was a calculus of value to determine the worth of self-betterment. “It shouldn’t be this way,” I’d catch myself thinking at least once a day. Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts–Get a Dog

~ by Scott Pinkmountain


Five or six years ago, I was visiting with writer Kate Schatz and her all-around creative husband Jason Pontius. I was playing with their great dog and they brought up that one of the main benefits of owning a dog is you think less about yourself. Then they turned to me and both were like, “Scott, you really need a dog.”

I was totally offended by their vehement assessment of how badly I needed to think less about myself.

I finally now have a dog, and I can say unequivocally that Kate and Jason were 100% right. So without further ado, a list!*‡

How Owning a Dog Can Help You Be a Better Writer

The dog can help you access compassion.

False, hollow writing begins and ends with stick figure characters. Caring for another living creature – cotton-balling the gummy filth from its cavernous ears, bathing it while it whimpers and shivers, tweezering cactus spines from its butt – can force us to see things from its perspective. As writers, compassion and empathy are the bazooka and flamethrower of our arsenal.

It can help you think less about yourself.

I think way too goddamn much about my own work, my own circumstance. Why aren’t those editors or agents getting back to me? Why did I get rejected by that committee? My work deserves attention and support…boo hoo. It doesn’t serve me or the work in any way. Dog helps me leave that shit behind. Now I only have the mental space to concentrate on tucking the chicken bones at the bottom of the trashcan.

It can help you see the world fresh.

I imagine this happens more extremely with a human baby, but at a horrendous cost. With puppies you still get that valuable vicarious ecstatic engagement with the sensory world sans the vein-opening sacrifice component.

The dog needs you.

Seriously, how many of us can say that as writers people “need” our work? Them needing it and not knowing they need it doesn’t count. Being needed helps us feel of value in the world. Feeling valued helps build self-esteem. Self-esteem (in the doses moderated by the humility that the dog will also serve) helps us play god. I mean write.

The dog will humble you.

In part because the dog can do stuff you could never do – it can see and smell and hunt and run and leap like one of the hirsute, naked X-Men. But it will also have you picking up its shit with your hands (while it watches) and doing all kinds of other things that I’m going to let you discover for yourself, but which will take you right down to your lowliest hands-and-knees inner peasant. Good! Every writer should spend at least some of his time elbow deep in shit. Again, it’s all about gaining valuable perspective.

On the flip side, you are above something on a hierarchy.

This doesn’t sound good, I’m aware, and on a spiritual level, I don’t really believe we’re superior to dogs, but on a practical level, you have to be alpha to your pet – for both your and their sanity. This can often stand in stark contrast to our relationship with all the people and institutions we so constantly and repetitively have to “submit” to (fuck that word) for years and years and maybe more years. And also, maybe I will gain some perspective into the responsibility and weight of being in a position of power, which might lead me to empathize with those who have some power over me? Maybe.

The dog can help you feel less sorry for yourself.

You’re more capable than a dog! You have logic and thumbs. Along the hierarchy lines, it can be empowering to be a protector, provider, caregiver, all around font of giving. Even though I can’t place a poem to figuratively save my life, I can literally save another creature’s life – I can’t be entirely pathetic.

You are not alone.

In exchange for all that food and care you give the dog, it will render some services. Sitting in a room by yourself for hours and hours making stuff that maybe (probably) no one will ever see can feel like cushy confinement torture. A dog asleep with its paw resting on your foot is up there with Lithium and hot air balloon rides over the Grand Canyon in terms of potency.

There is someone who is genuinely excited that you exist.

If my dog is lying on the ground and I pass within 10 feet, she starts wagging her tail with the hope that maybe I’m coming over to rub her underparts. If I go away for even a couple hours, the homecoming reception verges on orgasmic. I won’t say I’ve never received a “thank you” from an editor, but I’ve definitely never gotten a tail thump.

Everyone needs someone who will lick their face.

Writers don’t often get that instant gratification of applause (or licks) like musicians can. Having something around that will readily apply their tongue your face, hands and feet fills some of the void of working in a medium with little to no direct audience contact.

Dogs are fucking hilarious.

They eat poo and lick their crotches (then your face), they skulk, they tuck their heads and think that you can’t see them, they snarl at their own reflection, they get so happy that they whiz, they try to hump the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock at your door, they chase their own tails for chrissake. They’re absurd, broad comedians for whom vaudevillian slapstick (and murder) is their entire realm. Humor is gold, both in writing and life – arguably the most important expressive form. That’s a separate article.

They’re totally honest.

They do not have the capacity to hide their intention or the fact that they just ate your 16 red velvet cupcakes. Being around honest things can be contagious. Some decent art is made from honesty.

They are totally in their bodies.

Something many of us writers can learn from.

They’re just really pretty.

Dogs are foxy. They move with incredible grace. Their musculature, shape, posture, coloring, patterning, can inform our aesthetics on a sensual level, elevate our attention, sharpen our focus for detail, in the same way as a redwood forest on a cliff above the ocean, a room full of Kandinsky’s, a perfumed, satin-sheeted, rotating waterbed.

The dog will get you out of chair regularly.

The dog will get you exercising regularly.

The dog will get you out of bed in the morning.

More than this, they will get you on a schedule.

It can be great motivation to work efficiently and on a schedule knowing that if you don’t walk dog at exactly noon and 8, dog will go berserk and destroy your espardrilles, your LP collection and your heirloom hand-knit afghans, then knock over the trashcan and find those chicken bones you so carefully buried.

They don’t give a shit about writing.

They have nothing whatsoever to do with the literary world. They will never complain about word count, bust you for excessively adverbing, suggest you tighten your metaphors, ask if your characters are intentionally one-dimensional, or make you feel ashamed for reading Harry Potter. They won’t sit on your manuscript for 7 months, then illegibly jot, “Thanks for sending.” Nor will they ever mention AWP or ask you about your “career.” It’s not that dogs are anti-intellectual, they’re pro-slobber.

*If you already have a child, you don’t really need a dog and can mostly disregard this list (you might not get to think about yourself enough).

‡No one should get a dog unless they are committed to keeping it for the duration of its life, and have the time and space to deal with it and treat it properly. Dogs are expensive and require a lot of attention and energy, and if you do it correctly, they will curtail your lifestyle unless you already never leave your house for more than 4 hours at a time. They will probably ruin some of your precious stuff, and they will drive you fucking insane on occasion. And if you do get one, you kind of have to get it from a shelter. Otherwise it will be killed (in your name).


Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in Pioneertown, CA. His writing has appeared on This American Life, in The Rumpus, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and others. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs. He works as a music analyst for Pandora Radio. He can be found at and @spinkmountain

Work: Surviving the Arts–Tune-Yards in the House

~by Scott Pinkmountain


I recently had the pleasure of hosting Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner of Tune-Yards in my home and studio for ten days. They came down to the Mojave to get away from the busy-ness of their daily lives in order to focus on material for their next album. Oakland can be a great place to be around musicians and artists, to get stimulated and inspired, to take Haitian dance and drum lessons, but it can be a terrible place to do the kind of heavy lifting needed to write or finish new songs. They set up in my studio and worked with hardly any breaks and essentially no distractions, or none of the kind they’re used to at home. No cars dragging up the street, sirens wailing, social obligations.

After taking a half-day to settle in, Merril and Nate made up a scheduled regiment and kept it going until they were forced to break down their gear. Each morning, I’d cross paths with Merrill in the kitchen around 7:30, after she’d already been up a while, walking, sitting on a high boulder, writing, thinking, singing. Over breakfast, we’d talk about making things. Practice, touring, big ideas, niggling details, history, hopes, anxieties, pleasures and doubts. And again at dinner we’d all talk some more, having left them alone during the day, my one promise being I wouldn’t ask about “how things were going,” with the songs and the album. I didn’t want to add any stress to their process of making the follow up to their highly successful album, whokill, though we talked a lot about making something to fulfill a contract, on a deadline, under scrutiny.

I’ve toured in small doses. I’ve played to crowds large enough to where I couldn’t see the back of the room (not my music, but still). I’ve dealt some with labels and press and things like that, but I’ve never made creative work with anything like the stakes that Tune-Yards is making their new album.

I interviewed Merrill over a year ago, before she’d started writing the new record. She expressed some concern about how it was going to go, but she said that eventually she’d move past her anxieties and get back to the business of being herself. Talking with her now, on the other side of the hurdle, it was impressive to see how well she managed to look past all the pressures and just focus on doing her work. Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts–What If I Don’t Want The Future?

~by Scott Pinkmountain

The Rumpus Interview with Miracle Jones (May 6, 2013) is a thought-provoking read. Miracle Jones is an enthusiastic and articulate proponent of new ideas and developments in publishing and the lit world, and he is very much putting the practices he advocates into action. His distaste and distrust for the New York publishing establishment is matched by his entrepreneurial spirit and his sheer positivity and optimism for new forms. And he’s an interesting writer, so the stories he self-publishes (in USB drives or online) are worth checking out. While I was inspired by much of what he said in The Rumpus interview – the future of books will be as communal locations, not as commodities, the publishing world should be globally distributed, not centrally located in NY and London, releasing a book on a USB drive allows you to include video, sound, images, multiple versions of a story, etc… – I was also left with a lot of questions. The biggest among them being simply, “What if I still like books?” And not just as a reader, but as a writer. What if I don’t feel a digitally self-published release carries commensurate significance to the effort I’ve given my work?

I put this question to a friend of mine, Heather Abel, a writer living in North Hampton. Heather is working on her first novel and would ideally like to see it published through traditional channels as a bound hard copy.

“I would definitely weep if it were not made into a tangible, held-in-hands, paper book,” Abel said. “Right now it exists in a document on my computer, and I know, on some level, that’s all any book is – the collection and arrangement of data, easily erased Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts / Failure Porn

~by Scott Pinkmountain


I was getting notes together for an article on coping with, let’s not say, “failure,” but yet-unattained success as an artist: how to cope with rejection, how to avoid feeling alienated when there’s no audience for your work, how to get motivated to make new work when there’s an already moldering pile of your unpublished work looming so large it threatens to smother you and everyone in your intimate circle.

And then a writer friend called my attention to this article on The Hairpin by Christina Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick offers some great tips on how to persevere with humor and grace in the face of long-term failure. In its own way, her article did all I’d hoped to and more.

Then a musician friend of mine posted this spot-on article from The Onion about squeezing in the work that’s most important to us in our barely existent spare time, pretty much nailing whatever else I might’ve hoped to cover.

Then I came across the New Yorker article entitled, “Cry Me A River: The Rise of the Failure Memoir,” by Giles Harvey (March 25, 2013 issue), which observes a trend of successful books by “failed” writers about their experience of having been failed writers. These books, it seems, differ from the nobody-to-somebody fairy tales like Paul Auster’s “Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure,” in that the stories don’t resolve in eventual acceptance, praise and success like Auster’s. Except of course, that once the memoir sells 10,000 copies, they do.

And then, I met this guy at a party. His name was Seymour. He heard I’m a writer and he immediately launched into giving me advice on how to land an agent (QueryTracker and many queries). I, being among the “not-yet-achieved-success” hordes try to listen quietly when people offer me suggestions that might help me change my status, so I leaned in close with the hopes of gaining that key nugget of truth I’d missed in the 40-plus other conversations I’ve had about agent-seeking. And as Seymour implored me to follow his wisdom, it was revealed that not only did he not have an agent himself, but he’d queried fewer agents than I have.

At which point I thought, “maybe it’s best to write my column about something else.” Continue reading

Work: Surviving the Arts

~By Scott Pinkmountain


March 4th was National Grammar Day and has been since 2008. I know this because I was listening to NPR, not because I’m particularly concerned with grammar. Except that of course, as writers and readers, we’re all deeply concerned with grammar (consciously or not), so every day is national grammar day within the boundaries of our own personal sovereign (despotic, financially ruinous) nations. What was interesting about the discussion I heard on the radio was that the conversation focused almost exclusively on the degradation of language as written in text messages and emails, but even more importantly, on the time limitations faced by the authors of those degraded documents.

The whole conversation rapidly devolved to a kvetch-fest about how little time we all have, which seems to be less related to grammar in specific and more related to much larger, arguably far more important things. Like novels. Continue reading