Sitting to write, I let myself fall in love with everyone and everything, preparing to accept they cannot, will not, love me back.
In Spring 2020, like many other middle-class American knowledge worker types, I created a make-shift, “temporary” Work From Home station in my living room. I moved my writing desk, my computer and, it turns out, the creative part of my psyche upstairs so I could spend the 8+ hour work days in better light and the company of my family. It served well for 20 months and got me safely through the worst of the dislocation.
In that time, I worked well and read a lot but did not write much. I told myself it was the stress of everything that kept me from writing – the pandemic, abrupt changes to social and family structures, the eruption of long overdue social reckonings, an actual attempted coup on daytime television, my daughter being a teenager. Too many things to process. Systemic overwhelm. Except writing is usually how I deal with overwhelm, how I process the world and my place in it.
Stress is not a reason to stop writing. Stress is a reason to write.
I was finding it hard to write in the space where I also worked. It was also hard to write in the part of the house where so much of life happens — you know, the “living” room. Interestingly, it was also more difficult to write in the light.
Now, I have returned to the basement. I have carried my desk, computer and all my scattered accoutrements back downstairs. I am inviting the creative part of my psyche, the part that likes to make things, to follow me down here.
For creative work I prefer darkness, much like plants prefer to press roots into fertile, black loam. For creative work I prefer distance, a small sense of apartness from whatever else is happening in the house. For creative work, I need to step down the stairs, which feels like an act of intention, physically stepping down into the unknown spaces of my psyche, my wilder unruly mind.
And so, I am returning myself to see what happens. To refind my seat. To reclaim writing as a thing I do in times of stress and uncertainty. Because the times are always uncertain. The conditions always impossible. The effort always slightly absurd.
I am back in the basement.
I have spent an inordinate amount of my lifetime trying to write my way into stories the same way that I read them: in a straight line. Only just now does it occur to me to try getting into a story the way one gets into a secret room newly discovered hidden in one’s house: punch holes in the weakest parts of the wall until you find the beams.
I published my first Ubiquitous. Quotidian. blog post in December 2010. At the time, I was halfway into what would be my 20 year career as an academic librarian. I was father to a three year old child and the first generation iPad had just been released. I was fascinated by the emerging importance of mobile computing as I watched smartphone ownership transform the way everyone I knew worked, played and related to one another in real time. Being an idealist and informational professional, I was hopeful about the ways widespread (ie. ubiquitous) internet access might unleash and amplify creative capacities of all people in surprising, useful ways in everyday life (ie quotidian).
It did. Looking back these 11 years, I hardly recognize the place.
I thought of my blog as a place to chronicle observations about transformations in my personal life and society at large. I did some of that and captured milestones of my own contributions to that work at my college, library and home.
Looking back 395 posts doesn’t seem a substantial document of everything that happened in those 11 years. I also notice that, with time, I have written less and less about information technologies and more about the emotional and intellectual developments of my own mind. This is a thing, I am told, that happens with maturity. As we age, the world begins to make less and less sense to us and we begin to turn inward. In middle life we turn inward to gather resources for the work of making sense of our own selves. I call it “going into the forest”, which is a phrase I took from an author I read (James Hollis?) or a therapist I once worked with or a wise, long-bearded elder I once met sitting in meditation at the crossing of many roads. (Note: it was James Hollis.)
I have been quiet here in recent months because I haven’t known how I want to use this space. Several years ago, I changed the tagline from “Have Internet. Will travel.” to “Evolution of a Curious Mind.” The tagline feels right but the title no longer does.
My work here is about sense making. It is about protecting my own sense of wonder, inquiry and curiosity against the dulling effects of this never-ending, all-you-can-eat conveyor belt buffet of sensation, information and voice we have made of our 21st century lives. It is about the life and times of a digital magpie. It is about keeping one’s self sane.
I am thinking a lot about the idea of palimpsest:
- Palimpsest definition 1: “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.”
- Palimpsest definition 2: “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.”
The word fascinates me. Palimpsest evokes the realization that nothing new exists except in its relationship to everything else, everything that went before and everything that came after.
We don’t have thoughts really. Our thoughts have us. If we pay attention, we can see traces of our thoughts echoing up to us from the deepest past and echoing also away into the world and spreading toward future. Our thoughts are created from the interactions of thousands of other ideas, notions and expressions reaching us everyday. They penetrate and pass through us like radiation.
And we radiate our own thoughts, ideas and perspectives through interactions with one another every day.
It seems to me a confluence of the Buddhist notion of karma, emerging lines of information theory and the poetic possibilities of quantum physics.
That last sentence is embarrassing. It doesn’t actually mean anything except to say I am wanting a new way to make sense of things and your eyes on this blog matters because it means our lives have intersected, these thoughts I am having are touching some of the thoughts you are now having. And your thoughts, perhaps, are touching mine.
I am tired of my old habits of sense-making. I am going into the forest to find some other way of understanding. Something akin to scholarly rigor, spiritual awe and the feeling of “understanding without understanding” one gets from making poetry.
If you will continue to read, we can enter the forest together.
I set aside my writing because I could no longer understand the world and, thus, could no longer properly hope to describe it.
I left social media because it was making that swelling sense of tumult and incoherence even worse.
I even left reading for a time because it felt hollow and unconnected to things that were happening in my life. I realized, after a while, that I was no longer reading well. Words and ideas were blowing through me, and I was making no effort to catch or keep them. I was losing them and allowing them to be lost.
And so, I turned my attention to learning to read differently. To capture what I read. To annotate, denote. I am creating a practice of commonplacing, a habit I am still trying to cultivate and deepen. Commonplacing helps me hold those fleeting moments of insight called inspiration. Commonplacing helps me connect ideas together and find ways to allow my own thoughts to intersect and interact. Commonplacing is reintroducing myself to my own mind, which has grown weirder and more mysterious with time, to be sure.
I am getting weirder, but I no longer feel as frightened by my inability to catch ideas, to find relationships among thoughts, which is to say I no longer feel as overwhelmed, no longer as convinced I have nothing of particular use to say.
The words no longer simply blow straight through me.
I feel myself become weird and getting weirder.
For a time, I thought this must be middle life.
I am going to allow it keep happening. This is maturity.
I am telling you this because I want you to know.
I am writing.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am reader who writes. I am on a journey to becoming a writer who reads. As such, I adore books about reading and writing. Most disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing does not disappoint.
Adapted from a series of lectures, Atwood offers a philosophical exploration of writing that is both insightful and practical. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Atwood reflects on what is happening when writer is writing without getting cute or wandering into the weeds.
Negotiating with the Dead looks at a writer’s sense of self; the divided nature of writer as both observer and participant; the question of writing as commerce or art; the artifice of the author’s persona; the weird relationship between writer, reader and book; and finally, the work of going down into the dark to bring up useful insights.
My borrowed copy of this book is a porcupine of tape flags — so many vibrant, useful quotes to capture and keep. This is my favorite:
“As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as ‘being a writer.’
“Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”
I’ve been digging holes in the cemetery for more than 35 years. This book helps me understand what it takes to become a grave-digger.
We make too much of genius. Geniuses are fascinating in the way that marathon winners and astronauts are fascinating. I know they exist but there is no point in pretending I will ever be one.
Geniuses aren’t the problem. The stories we tell ourselves about geniuses are a big problem. We make totems from stories of sudden insight and inspiration. We venerate anecdotes of quick leaps but ignore the long run that always came just before.
We admire the astronauts floating proud and confidant in zero g. The thousand hour simulations spent mastering crucial motions are unseen. No one wants to watch astronaut trainees puke into their helmets.
The first man and woman to cross the marathon line are celebrated as heroes. If we care a lot, we might also celebrate the oldest and youngest to cross. We only allow ourselves time for a few heroes but a marathon is made of hundreds of heroes. People who have shaped their lives around the effort of accomplishing unlikely things.
We can’t all be marathon winners, but we can all be like those other people. Marathon runners.
As a writer, I read exceptional writers. I read them to understand their craft and try to apply some of that craft in my own. After the first flash of admiration, fear and discouragement often set in. I see the bright flash of brilliance and wonder why I can’t achieve that same flash. Why won’t the same lightning strike for me? I don’t see the dozens of bad early drafts, the tedious mulch of revision built on notes and critiques of brutally honest friends.
When we talk to ourselves about our own success, we think too often of genius. Our stories convince us success is an outcome of mysterious, unknowable forces, genetics or divine intervention. We imagine ourselves standing at the peak without imagining what it will take to get there. We try to teleport ourselves to the top of Mount Everest. We can’t.
Success requires the courage of sustained effort. There are no shortcuts. There is no escape. Success comes from developing a process and building the courage to stay committed to that process. It takes courage to stay focused when things aren’t going well. It takes humility to hone incremental improvements based on constant, ego-bruising feedback.
Geniuses are geniuses because they committed themselves to their process early. Geniuses have found their focus and shaped their lives to feed and support their own development.
No one sees the work, but the work is there. We should stop disabling ourselves with praise of the quick moments of clarified insight and encourage each other instead to start sorting through the confusion and uncertainty to develop and commit to a brave process of our own. That is a useful story. The courage of process.
A rundown of things I read, saw or heard this week that stuck with me. This week happens to be all podcasts.
Worth a listen
Early in the rise of Facebook, the company realized they needed a rulebook of acceptable behaviors to deal with the occasional appalling, depraved, and possibly illegal content created and shared by users. This was a difficult problem in 2008 when Facebook had a few hundred thousand American users. Now, the platform hosts 2.2 billion users across the entire globe.
This podcast explores the struggle to define and systematize rules of behavior that impact 2.2 billion people everyday with sometime hilarious, sometimes harrowing effect. The challenge of boiling human intent down into discreet, algorithmic if/then rules creates absurd situations where white men are protected against derogatory speech but black children are not. This happened as a result of linguistic nesting of modifiers. White men were protected because the concept of white men belongs to two categories of protected modifiers: race and gender. Black children were not protected because the concept of black children only belongs to one category of protected modifier: race. Children was not a protected category. Hilarity ensues.
Worse still, the discovery that most of the work of monitoring and removing objectionable content happens by low pay, human operators working 8 hours shifts reviewing and removing flagged content at a decision rate of something like one image every 8 to 10 seconds. The workers, mostly Irish and Asian, often turn up with PTSD. I think of them as the Call Centers of Despair.
A clear, concise step-by-step roadmap of how the American government implemented a policy of separating immigrant families at the southern border well before admitting that such a policy existed. These stories reveal a situation far more complex than simply the President and his cabinet are evil. Its worse. They are incompetent, too. The metadata in place for tracking parents and children was lost when detainee’s status changed. A few keystrokes made it possible for the government to lose track of which kids belonged to which parents. The kids were secreted, sometimes in the middle of the night, to detention centers across America. The parents sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of the continent or deported.
Listen for a useful summary to make sense of the disparate reports over the past few months. Listen to remind ourselves that the crisis isn’t over even through our attention has moved away.
Seth Godin reflects on the power of product reviews. Reviews help us find products and services that matter to us, but reviews can wreck the creative process of building those same products and services. This is required listening for anyone who aspires to creative work.
My quick take: when you make something, make it for someone specific. Make it unique. Let it be weird. Making a product to satisfy the reviews results in average content, which soon disappears.
Things made for everybody are actually made for nobody. These things are called commodities.
Things made specifically for someone are called art. These things endure.
Some nights the words absolutely pour out, and you are drowning with things to say.
Some nights you write calmly, evenly, almost absent. You surprise yourself days later reading a thing you didn’t realize you had written.
And then some nights you write 277 words about a man watching television with Death and wonder how you ever manage to talk to people at all since words are so fickle and finicky and tiresome.
But the thing about writing, the trick of it, is realizing that each of these nights is the same. The writing is the writing. The dreaming is dreaming. The telling is telling.
Who are you tonight to know what’s good or bad, dishonest or true?
This is a night I wish to write poetry — loud, brash, unrhyming poems that stick sideways inside your head and make you walk around shaking like a dog, trying to jar loose that cockeyed idea that did not start with you but lodged in and got dressed up in your own life, became your own words.
A poem like home invasion — sudden, brutal, unflinching — arriving like a stranger in the dark unlocked hallway of your home. Unsmiling. Dishonest. Up to no good.
A poem could be that one saving shove back away from the subway tracks where you had stood contemplating. Your reverie interrupted by the rude press of unseen hands and then gone, leaving you there to wonder how close you might actually have come to stepping down while the night’s last train goes barreling by.
Poems like coffee taken black too late at night, a sinister brew of dreams which you will imbibe and quickly forget, except for one phrase that reaches out and scalds your gullet, scorching as you swallow, all the way down.
Poems dumped like a box of cockroaches, scurry and scatter everywhere, finding the cracks, the crannies, all the tiny, secret places of your life you pretend are not there. Places even the finest brushes cannot reach. Places inside yourself which you can never get clean.
Ah. Here comes a poem, approaching like the evening’s last shopper casually strolling the aisles in a grocery store about to close. The cashier has made her last announcement. The lights are half off. The grocers have other places to be, but the poem makes its way, perusing the shelves, making its maddening slow inventory, a list of things it does not need and will not buy. They cannot lock the doors until it pushes its empty cart through the checkout line.
Here it is. At last. A poem about poetry, which is the writer’s main retreat. When you do not know what to write, you write about writing. You post it for others, inject it into their Saturday night. They read it with a shrug, except for that one other writer who feels the same inexorable urge and pours herself another heavy draught.