Paul Hanson Clark Interview Part I: Sleep, The Creative Process, and Staying Organized

Paul Hanson Clark is a poet, visual artist, and occasional musician heavily involved in the local poetry and art scenes in Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska.  Until recently he worked two jobs: mornings in an office doing web design and afternoons mixing dough for a cookie shop (more about this in Part 2!), though he went on to leave the cookie shop job several weeks after our interview.

We sat on the floor of his living room—a large, carpeted room with no furniture and walls hung with his drawings and paintings—to talk about structuring your time and keeping organized.


But I Also Have a Day Job: So, what do you do in a typical day?

Paul Hanson Clark: My day starts to take shape at the end of the night before.  If I want to have a productive day, I try to go to bed early, and I find that if I stay up past 12:00, or if I’m out even past 11:00, the chances of me having a productive day decline very rapidly, whereas if I go to bed at like 10:00, I’ll almost certainly wake up early and have a productive day the next day.  So, that’s a thing.

This isn’t always so easy, because I care to be a social creature, which in my life requires me to hang out with people in the evening.  And you know, I like to kick it, and I don’t like to be some lameass who’s going to bed early.

BIAHADJ: When you say “hang out with people in the evening,” “evening” of course turns into 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, or some later, non-evening part of the night.

PHC: Yeah.  I don’t know how to put it…the largest definition of evening.  I’ve also been experimenting with trying to take naps, but I’m still fucking with it so I don’t know how it’s going to play out.  But what I try and do is after I get home from work I’ll try to take a nap first thing.

BIAHADJ: Like an actual, go-to-sleep, unconscious, REM sleep nap?

PHC: Yeah, like a snooze for an hour or two and then wake up around like 6:30, or 7:00.  I’ve been digging it because it kind of gives me two days in a way—I have my day where I work, and then I take a nap, and then I have another day where I can do whatever the fuck I want, and I’m pretty cognitively where I want to be well into the evening, usually until like 12:00 or 1:00, whereas if I don’t nap, sometimes after a day’s work I start to shut down at like 8:00, which is annoying,

BIAHADJ: How do you keep your day organized?

PHC: I have a list of index cards that I write tasks on, and I like to try and go through those.  I have three main stacks, essentially: the stuff I’m trying to do right now, the Around the Corner stack, and then The Future, which is stuff I’m not trying to do right now or close to right now, but stuff I want to do, eventually, at some point.  So, I go through the right now stack, the Around the Corner stack, and then I sometimes go through the Future stack as well just to keep my memory fresh about it, and then I’ll decide what I want to do the next day in terms of tasks that I’m trying to complete. I also have stacks for specific things where a bunch of tasks tend to pile up, one example is Writing Ideas. I review these stacks less frequently but try to have it so at any given moment there’s a card or two from each of my secondary stacks in my main stacks.

What I’ve been finding is that I used to not have a system to approach doing different things, so all this random shit would pile up, like “Oh I gotta do laundry, Oh I gotta get my oil changed, Oh I gotta go to fucking Wal-Mart and get some dumb shit.”  These things just have a way of building up, and then they become this psychic stress—and I find that keeping on top of the smaller, more mundane tasks frees up a lot of mental space for me to focus on bigger picture, more intensive things that I actually give a fuck about, more than like, getting my oil changed.




BIAHADJ: Is having the task written on a physical card helpful to you?

PHC: Yeah, very much so.  I’ve tried many different list-ish exercises in productivity that haven’t really done very well for me, and then I read about this index card thing, which I’d read about a long time ago and then kind of half-assedly tried to implement, but it never really worked too well, but I tried it again thinking it almost certainly wouldn’t work for me, but this time it’s actually working out really well so far.

It’s just like a To-Do list that I can reshuffle and reorder whenever I want.  So if I want to take something off the To-Do list, I can physically move the card to the bottom of the pile where I don’t have to look at it, or put it into The Future stack that I don’t check as often, whereas with a fucking To-Do list on a piece of paper, you gotta rewrite the list, or all of a sudden there’s so much shit on the list—it’s psychically exhausting to look at a list with like forty items on it. I like having a card with one item on it, being able to focus on that, and not get distracted.

An issue for me with the traditional “To Do List” is the physical reality of a piece of paper—like, folded up in a pocket, or in a backpack or folder—I just don’t like having a piece of paper that I’m bringing with me throughout my day.  It really bothers me.  The index cards, however, fit.  I have my left back pocket where I have my stack of cards that I write new things on, so if I get some notion of something I need to do I’ll write it down right quick, and I try and capture shit in the moment as best I can. But yeah, in my right back pocket I have the stack of cards with the shit I’m trying to do that day written on them.

BIAHADJ: That’s really funny you mention that, because I’m the same way with consistently putting the same things in certain pockets.  The comfort of having those things there is a tremendous boost for me throughout the day.

PHC: I’m super weird about pocket real estate—like, the space in my pocket—and the index cards work very well for my back pockets, so in my front right pocket I have my wallet, in my front left pocket I have my iPhone and two pens, and in my back left pocket I have [slaps legs] my fucking blank cards and then in my back right I have my cards with shit to do on them.  And sometimes in the little tiny pocket in the front right—if your pants have those, in jeans they usually do, like a pocket that a lighter fits in easily—I’ll put a jump drive or cash, just in case. At first I tried to put the fucking blank cards in the front right pocket with my wallet, cause I was like “Oh, I’ve got two items in my front left pocket, the phone and pens, so I could make it so there’s two items in the front right pocket.”  But…nah, it just drove me fucking up the wall.

Another thing I like about having the task written on a physical card is when I get to cross it off. If I complete a task, I draw a line through it, then I’ll write the date of completion underneath. But if it’s a task I decide for whatever reason not to complete, like maybe the card was redundant, or maybe I felt like the task was a waste of time, I’ll draw an X through it and make a note on why I didn’t complete it. I keep the finished tasks around and I like seeing them pile up, like it gives me some sense of making progress.

The ritual of putting lines through a task is a nice closure at the end of something, even if it’s a really simple thing like buying pens. And when it’s something that took me months to do, drawing that line through it—putting the date of completion at the bottom—makes me feel really good. And putting the X through something I decide is stupid, and putting the date of non-completion at the bottom, that’s also really rewarding, [laughs] like giving myself permission not to do every damn thing that comes into my brain.




BIAHADJ: Do the drawings on the stacks have any significance?

PHC: They don’t and they do—I like them, and they’re appealing to me, and as you notice [gestures around] being in my room there’s lots of art.  I like looking at things, I like looking at the same things—like in my bedroom I have a painting of two women beheading a man, and staring at that and thinking about it all the time, I feel like it’s changed me as a person.  I believe that images can have a power, so I like to populate my life with images, but also be kind of intentional with the images that I’m populating my life with.

When I was making these stacks, I started to get annoyed when I’d visually survey the stacks and they’d all look basically the same, and that was bothersome to me.  But then, the first drawing I made was the one for The Past, so the stack that was actually distinctly different was the one where I’d cross off the thing on the card, so I had this giant stack of things that were crossed out.  And I was like…that’s like, the past, so then I decided to write The Past on the card and I drew a skull on it, and I think I was just fucking around, but I started thinking of it that way.

The one that says The Future has a weird spiral image on it, and I just like to draw spirals, and I guess I do view the future as a strange portal that we’re going through all the time but we don’t know where it’s going to lead, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking that, I just drew that because I like to draw spirals, and it felt somewhat appropriate.

When I was thinking of Around the Corner—I was trying to think up a visual thing to signify NOT RIGHT NOW but also NOT IN THE DISTANT, UNDEFINED FUTURE, and what can you draw to signify that?  So, I was kind of stumped for a while, and then I was thinking a lot about the baseball phrase On Deck, and I was really thinking of drawing a baseball bat or some sort of baseball player, but it just seemed like I wouldn’t be able to do a cool drawing of that.  But that led me to the phrase Around the Corner because those two phrases serve near-identical functions in our culture, and THEN when I thought of Around the Corner I was like, I guess I could just draw a perspective cube, because a cube is an object that is literally defined by having corners, and that’s funny to me, to look at a temporal phrase in this spatial way, even though the phrase is itself spatial.

But mostly I just do the drawings to keep myself locked into what I’m doing, like it’s enjoyable for me. I read in some To-Do self-help book that when you do shit that’s designed to enhance your productivity that you should do it in a way that’s fun for you, so I try to keep that kind of shit in mind.  And making little drawings that I look at when I look at my stacks of shit to do makes it a little more fun for me.

BIAHADJ: You talked about having both creative projects and the menial laundry and oil-change stuff in the same stack—do you find it’s easy to separate the two?

PHC: Yeah.  Although, I now have a subcategory stack for writing projects.  So what I noticed is that I’d be going through the main stacks and there’d be like, sixteen cards with different ideas for shit to write about.  And I just kept looking at these same cards—for me, working on some piece of writing is not something I can just do in the course of my day, whereas doing laundry is something I can work into my day, and e-mailing Joe Blow about this dumb thing, I can work that into my day.  So for me, if I want to do a writing thing, pursue some idea, I can’t just casually work it into my day—I have to sit down and fucking write. It takes time.



BIAHADJ: How do you decide which things to do that day?

PHC: Uh…so I’m going through these cards every day, maybe a couple times a day, so they’re all very fresh in my mind—and then on a whim I’ll just kind of pick out the things I want to pick out.  And I tend towards trying to get a mix of different things—even though it’s probably more productive to email like eight people in a row, and then do like, six errands the next day—each day I’ll email a couple of people and do a couple of errands, or something, and then maybe do one creative thinking thing.

BIAHADJ: When you sit down to do something creative do you know beforehand what project you’re going to be working on?

PHC: I guess it depends.  Lately, if I’m writing poetry, I typically just go into it as I’m writing, just writing things in a notebook—or on a computer, but usually in a notebook.  I have a note file on my iPhone called endless notes, where if I’m somewhere where I don’t have a notebook I’ll write in there, so when I go into that it’s typically very spontaneous, just whatever happens to be in front of me or be inside me, and that’s generally how I approach writing poetry.  I’ve never been one to be like, “Oh, I’m going to write about this thing, now,” because that’s not what poetry is to me.  Poetry is this space of freedom, creative freedom, intellectual freedom, and so on.  So I don’t approach it with an agenda typically.  The items in my writing ideas stack are often not content-oriented, more just strange prompts that interest me, like “write a poem where every line begins with the word ‘to'” or “write a poem for Kyle that rivals the poem he wrote for me,” these broad directives that get me going but I don’t know exactly where.

Then again, my grandmother passed away recently, and my mother asked me to read a poem at her funeral.  So that poem had a project bent to it. When I was writing it I very much went into my writing that week with an agenda—but it was very difficult for me to write the poem.  Everything I wrote that entire week I was super fucking annoyed with, and it wasn’t until the night before where I was just like, “There’s no time left, you have to fucking write,” and then I wrote the shit I actually wanted to write.  So having the agenda held me back, but I also think it helped things gestate in an interesting way.

Lately I’ve also been thinking about branching out into writing ABOUT something, as opposed to simply writing.  To me, writing poetry signifies just writing—I conceptualize the things I write down as poetry as nonsense when I’m writing them, and then I edit them into something that’s meaningful to me and hopefully to other people.  But lately I’ve been trying to open my mind more to writing ABOUT something, usually not within the context of poetry—for example, my friend Margo asked me to contribute to a music zine that she put together, and it’s out in the world, and I was like, OK, so I have a fucking directive—it has to be about music, to some extent, so I had some sort of agenda going into it. When I go into that sort of thing I think of what I’m doing more as an essay.

But with other kinds of creativity, say drawing, I try to approach drawings in three different ways.  I make drawings that are just shit from my imagination, I make drawings that are studies of great drawings or paintings or photographs that I admire, or that I just think are cool, and I make drawings that are things that I can see in the world in front of me—you know, like you for example.  And trying to do all those things—not necessarily at once but keeping those things in the mix, I feel has been good for me with my drawing and with my creativity generally.

Drawing is more like working on a discrete project than writing—writing, for me, is this broadly creative, freewheeling zone because I can just write and write and write and write and write, about whatever the fuck.  But with a drawing, once you start to make the marks on the paper, you’re already setting parameters that you have to work within. I know people who approach drawing the way I approach writing but it puts my head in a different place. Part of me wishes I could approach everything in life the way I approach writing, but another part of me has serious doubts about that idea.




BIAHADJ: Do you feel like working in several different media over the course of a week or a short period of time enhances your ability to work within each individual medium?  Or do you notice any competition factor?

PHC: There is a competing thing, but it’s just a function of time.  Like if I’m making a drawing, that time is being spent not making a poem.  So, if I’m drawing a lot the writing sides. I also like to sing, so then if I’m writing a lot, the singing slides. Or if I’m singing a lot, the writing slides, and so on.  Time is a big driving force in our whole fucking world, and naturally it influences the art we make in all these weird ways.

However, I think that approaching creativity by exploring it in different mediums strengthens you—at least for me they’re more complementary than they are competing.  For instance, with my drawings, I have words and symbols in them, which is what poems are made of, and I find that certain words I’m kind of obsessed with, but that obsession gets lost in a poem because there’s so many other words.  You can’t exactly dwell on your obsession with the word MONEY or the word FEAR, but within the context of a drawing, I can just write the word FEAR in the drawing, and because it’s so present and large in the drawing, this thing that’s a poetic idea takes on a new life in the visual medium.

And I guess that for me, poetry is this expansive place where I’m always just exploring as broadly as I can—the good the bad and the ugly, the smart the dumb and the pointless—whatever, and when I approach a song or a drawing there’s natural limitations, and it’s almost a boiled down version of what I want to do with a poem.  I’ll like a poem that captures the whole experience of whatever it is I’m writing about, whereas I’ll like a song or a drawing to have a more singular quality.

But I got into drawing because I like the idea of being able to give an object to someone, like “Hey I care about you, here’s a drawing that I made.”  I like that, and you can’t really do that with a poem. With a song, I feel like a song can capture a moment more fully than a poem can—with a poem I can write a lot within a moment, but maybe 4 out of the 6 lines are stupid.

With a song, because your stupid lines are imbued with the emotional energy of singing, all of a sudden they take on this wave, and since there’s fewer words, they have more weight to them, and something that might be bland on the page is full of life when it’s a singing sound. The first song I ever wrote is just the lines “I’ve been told a lot of lies and I don’t like them at all / I’ve been told a lot of lies they make me wanna hit my head against the wall” sung over and over. These lines repeated on a page might have an interesting visual effect but when I go to poetry I want to be swimming in a crazy stream. Other art forms can help me stay still.

BIAHADJ: Do you ever wish you had more time?

PHC: [sighs]

BIAHADJ: Or how do you deal with the time you have available to you?

PHC: Yeah, I wish I had more time.  [My friend] Bandido just emailed me from the Philippines, and he described to me his day, which is: he wakes up, he eats a peanut butter sandwich, he writes for 4 to 6 hours, he eats lunch, which his aunt makes for him (she lives next door), then he reads for 4 to 6 hours, then he eats dinner (which his aunt also makes for him), and then he, like, chills, and watches a movie or hangs out or whatever.  And that sounds fucking great.  I would LOVE to do that.  You know that sounds like a fucking dream.

I remember reading an interview with César Aira, and he said about his day, “Yeah, I like to write a few hours a day, then go for a bike ride and spend time with friends, watch a film, read a book, that’s my day—I really only write like 2 or 3 or 4 hours a day at most.”  If I could do that, that’d be fucking sick.

Check out Part 2 of our interview here.



Here’s the actual César Aira quote (which is pretty close), or you can read the interview in its entirety here:

“At around ten in the morning I go to a nearby café with a notebook and a pen…and order an espresso. I write for a while, never more than an hour, and I never end up with more than a page. Back at home I type it up and then print it. That’s it. I dedicate the rest of the day to reading, watching films at home, meeting up with friends, or riding my bike.”

Paul Also Recommends:

Getting Things Done by David Allen (“very much a businessy self-help book, but the author has a funky spiritual side to his thinking that makes it really effective”)

Hipster PDA article on 43 Folders that inspired the notecard system

Another great César Aira interview