How to think like an artist

Case Study: David Sedaris

how to think like an artist


David Sedaris is a great source of hope for all artists holding down shitty jobs.

Not only is he an award winning, best-selling, very famous American essayist who has been at the top of his game for nearly 25 years (although his writing career didn’t take off until 1992 when he was 36), but he also used to hold one of the very shittiest jobs imaginable.

At the age of 33, he took a job as an elf at Macy’s SantaLand in New York:

“I am a thirty-three-year-old-man applying for a job as an elf.  I often see people on the streets dressed as objects and handing out leaflets.  I tend to avoid leaflets but it breaks my heart to see a grown man dressed as a taco.  So, if there is a costume involved, I tend not only to accept the leaflets, but to accept it graciously saying, ‘Thank you so much’, and thinking, You poor, pathetic son of a bitch.  I don’t know what you have but I hope I never catch it.”

Like many of us, he certainly had not expected, or courted his shitty job when he first moved to New York with hopes of becoming a writer:

“I am trying to look on the bright side.  I arrived in New York three weeks ago with high hopes, hopes that have been challenged.  In my imagination … (i’d) sit in a plush booth at a tony cocktail lounge where my new celebrity friends would lift their frosty glasses in my direction and say, ‘A toast to David Sedaris, the best writer this show has ever had!!!’ … But instead I am applying for a job as an elf.  Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf.  That’s when you know you’re a failure.”

However, he used his shitty experiences as something to write about.  Eventually he took his essays to a spoken word night where he did a reading, and was discovered by Ira Glass.  Glass asked him to read what would become The SantaLand Diaries on National Public Radio in the USA.

This would then become a book.  Since then he has gone on to publish nine further books and contributes to newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker and The Guardian.

David Sedaris used his experiences as a source of inspiration for his writing: he turned taking that shitty job into the best decision of his life.  And not only that, but whilst he was living the reality of his shitty job, he also applied creativity and not a little rebellion to make his time there more interesting:


“I was at the Magic Window for fifteen minutes before a man approached me and said, ‘You look so fucking stupid.’  I have to admit that he had a point.  But still, I wanted to say that at least I get paid to look stupid, that he gives it away for free.  But I can’t say things like that because I’m supposed to be merry.  So instead I said, ‘Thank you!’  ‘Thank you!’ as if I had misunderstood and thought he has said, ‘You look terrific.’”


“Santa Santa said, ‘Oh, Little Elf, Little Elf, come sing “Away in the Manager” for us.’  It didn’t seem fair that I should have to solo, so I told him I didn’t know the words.   Santa Santa said, ‘Of course you know the words.  Come now, sing!’  So I sang it the way Billie Holiday might have sung it if she’d put out a Christmas album … Santa Santa did not allow me to finish.”

Use of Imagination

“I spent a few hours in the Maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn.  We were standing near the Lollipop Forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan.  Father Christmas or the Devil – so close but yet so far.  We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and feces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan.  Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds,  Overhearing the customers we would substitute the word Satan for the word Santa.

‘What do you think, Michael?  Do you think Macy’s has the real Satan?’

‘Don’t forget to thank Satan for the Baby Alive he gave you last year.’

‘I love Satan.’

‘Who doesn’t?  Everyone loves Satan.’”

We love you David, you are our shitty job God!





How to think like an artist

(whilst pretending to work)

Although creativity is certainly a slippery concept – that we not only struggle to define, but also to wrestle under our control – happily there still remain practices that many artists share, and which we can adopt – no matter what we do – to help us achieve extraordinary things too.

We can put many of these into practice whilst sitting at our desks pretending to work.

  1. Think Big and Small
Martin Creed knows how to think big and small.
Martin Creed knows how to think big and small.

Ernest Hemingway would sometimes spend hours on a single sentence. Not because he was attempting to write the perfect solitary line of text, but because he was trying to make that single sentence successfully link to the one preceding it and seamlessly lead on to the next – while also contributing something to the story.

He was so successful at this method of looking at the wider art work, whilst making sure the detail was beautiful that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

  1. Rob Stuff
The great Banksy at work.
The great Banksy at work.

Appropriating someone else’s proven ideas is the obvious, inevitable, and sensible place to start anything. The extensive list of creative geniuses queing up to intellectual property theft includes Isaac Newton, who said ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’ and Albert Einstein, who commented that ‘creativity is knowing how to show your sources’.  So go on, find someone you admire and get ‘inspired’.

  1. Aim to Fail
Plato: definitely not a failure
Plato: definitely not a failure

When it comes to creativity, failure is as inevitable as it is unavoidable. It is part of the very fabric of making. All artists, regardless of their discipline, aim for perfection – why wouldn’t they? But they know perfection is unobtainable. And therefore they have to accept that everything they produce is doomed to failure to some degree. As Plato argued, the game is rigged.

  1. Think
Be your own Noam Chomsky
Be your own Noam Chomsky

When artists sit down in their chairs they switch personas. They stop being the creator and turn into a critic. With the temperament of the most fastidious connoisseur, they look at what they have just created and evaluate their efforts. Their hyper-critical eyes scrutinize the work for insincerity, sloppiness and technical mistakes.

  1. Be Brave
Vladimir Nabokov - he knew what he was talking about
Vladimir Nabokov – he knew what he was talking about

Coco Chanel declared, ‘The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.’ This is what artists do, even though it leaves them exposed. They are, in a way, naked in front of the world, saying, ‘Look at me!’ And they do this when they are not entirely sure what they have produced is any good. Creativity, as Henri Matisse said, ‘takes courage’.

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