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6527212 September 15, 2011

Penn Jillette: Magic Hole Puncher

"I don't have any powers others don't have; I just have a different job."

Yesterday afternoon, I rode the train into Manhattan to spend a few hours at Monkdogz Urban Art, the gallery that represents my art.  In my arms I carried a roll of my recent paintings, all on unstretched canvas secured by two large rubber bands.  The plan was to share some of my new work with gallery owners, Bob Hogge and Marina Hadley.

The good news is: they liked it; they handed me a drink, gave me a cookie, and didn't fire me.

The bad news is: I left New York with a profound empty twist in my gut. It was wrapped around the gnawing truth that, in the end, no one can provide validation.  Sprinkled on top was the disgusting realization that I've known this for years, yet I can't shake my addictive pursuit.  External approval of all the creative things I work so hard to achieve will never fill the holes punched in my psyche.  I realized that if the overwhelming need to paint has become my main source of therapy, then I must paint a deeper truth. My friend, artist, Jean Marc Calvet wrote to me about this today.  He said, "Go inside the hole (don't be afraid) and you will find what you lost," and I know he's right. Otherwise it all becomes a meaningless, time filling duty, a job no one wants.

In looking at the work with Bob and Marina, I was jittery and uncomfortable.  I'd brought a few pieces that hold less meaning for me, and as we gazed at them, they wilted and grew lifeless.  On the other hand, the ones that have profound significance left me feeling exposed, as if we were all staring at my naked body in the worst sort of light. Those were the monstrous ones, and as I looked at them, I saw myself, a living, breathing freak, simultaneously full and empty.  But I knew there was much more where that came from; it wasn't enough.

If I can't put myself fully on the canvas than there's no point for me in art. Finding a way into the hole is why I'm driven to paint.  I need to take a deep breath and get on with it. I'm not sure why yet or who gave it to me, but that's my real job, my life's work.

With that in mind, I went home, spread my fingers through the paint, and literally felt my way into the start of a new painting.  It's messy, juvenile, and ugly but it looks like what I am, and I'm determined to push forward in that direction.

My guest today, Penn Jillette, of the famed Penn & Teller, says he has no creative powers that others lack; he just has a different job. Speaking of powers, Penn has written a book that seems to effortlessly punch holes in religion. He escorts us into that space many refuse to acknowledge or explore. My mother would likely burn this book based on the title alone: God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales.   In the book, Penn takes readers on a roller coaster of exploration and flips conventional religious wisdom on its ear to reveal that doubt, skepticism, and wonder -- all signs of a general feeling of disbelief -- are to be celebrated and cherished, rather than suppressed.

I have no magic either nor do I fully understand where creative ability or drive comes from, who gives it to us, or how we can be rid of it once blossomed.  I'd love to believe that God gifted me with the same special packet Picasso, Pollock, and Kandinsky received on their way to Earth. Maybe he did and maybe he didn't. 

The point is: we're all made of the same basic biological building blocks. Those complex blocks usually get dragged through some level and form of crap as we make our way.  As the dark, stinking mess we're struck with races up our noses, splashes into our eyes, and seeps between our teeth, we reach into our packet and yank out whatever seems as if it can save us. Even if I did get Picasso's packet, a million other people may also be toting around the same bag of tricks. 

Who's fully utilizing it and what does it all mean?  Whose job is it to find out?  I'd love to sit down to dinner with Penn and discuss this at some point. 

Maybe someday it will happen.  After all, I do believe in magic.  I'm a freak.


What's your story? How did you end up in the comedy / entertainment field, and are you surprised by your success?

I'm from Greenfield, a small factory town in Western Massachusetts. I learned to juggle when I was 12 and got good. I met Teller while I was still in high school and "got out" (not really graduated) of high school on a plea bargain. I wanted to be a great existential writer and live in Paris, but I went to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College instead. I hitchhiked around the country and hopped trains, did a lot of street performing, and put a show together with Teller. I gave up on Paris but not on being an existential writer. I'm more successful than I ever dreamed I could be. The first person I met in showbiz was me. I didn't know this was possible for anyone, never mind me.

You've have an interesting, successful career that seems to be going well. What made you decide to write a God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales?

Glenn Beck challenged me to write about atheist morality. I got carried away.

With regard to the book, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yeah, when I realized that proselytizing really was very good thing - the backbone of the marketplace of ideas.

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did writing the book change or impact your life in any way that perhaps goes beyond other creative work that you do?

Yes, I've talked to a lot of religious people because of this book and the more I talk with them, the more I like them. I respect and love people, even when I don't like their ideas.

In general, how does creativity factor into comedy writing? Where do you get most of your ideas?

I rarely write jokes. I never wanted to be in comedy. It just seems when I tell the truth, I like to tell it funny. But, I don't ever like to do any joke that isn't true to me.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being creative have caused you aberrations (issues) in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

I don't think "creativity" is anything "magic" or even special. I think we're all just doing our best. I don't have any powers others don't have; I just have a different job.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand some of the personality traits, interests, or drive that go along with being creative? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

It's kind of the same answer. The people who don't understand when I get jacked up and rant and pull focus . . . are right -- that's just a lack of self control on my part. It's sometimes hard for my family to understand that I need to sit and think to do my job. But, that's hard for me to understand, too. It might be a lazy lie.

Have you developed a specific process that enables you to meet your professional goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

I do the opposite of procrastination, to a fault. I leave my "in box" empty. I do everything when I'm asked to do it. As soon as I can. This request came in and I wrote it. I didn't wait until I had time to do it. I try to be early on everything. I fail now and again, but I try to just do it.

"You've got to do it, till your through it, so you better get to it" - Elvis Costello.

Were there specific challenges to writing the book that you can share with us?

See above, all of my challenges are time. I have so much more that I want to do than I can do. I don't ever get to sit down and write a book. All of my books have been written in stolen moments. When I have 15 minutes -- I write. I can't warm up and put it off. It's all done in the spaces, and I love it that way, but I sometimes think of what it would be like to have a 10 hour writing day. It seems great, but maybe I couldn't work that way.

Will there be more Penn Jillette books?

Yes, whether published or not, I'm always writing. I love it. My sister always said that she saw me first as a writer, and she knew me better than I know myself.

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