Issue 11 | Write What You Know? Write *to* Know
More poetry and faith, Beyonce, good boredom, and more
Hi, friends. It’s March, my birthday month. So by next issue, I’ll be a year older.
Here are five things I’ve been doing lately:
Thinking (more) about poetry and faith;
Listening to James Blake cover Beyonce;
Writing about boring stuff;
Recording with writers; and
Reading Lydia Millet and Shel Silverstein.
1. Write what you know, they say. What about write *to* know?
Last month, I wrote about reading Didion’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Assuming y’all didn’t immediately go out and read it, let me tell you about one of the essays I didn’t mention.
In “Why I Write,” Didion tells the story about how her novel A Book of Common Prayer came into existence. It all started with an image of an American woman ordering tea in an airport. Not a physical picture, I should say, but a mental one, an idea. The first thing she did with this idea was write a line: “I knew why Charlotte went to the airport even if Victor did not.” The thing is, she explains in the essay, Didion didn’t know why Charlotte was there or even who she or Victor was. She writes,
This ‘‘I’ was the voice of no author in my house. This “I” was someone who not only knew why Charlotte went ot the airport but also knew someone called Victor. Who was Victor? Who was this narrator? Why was this narrator telling me this story? Let me tell you something about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.
For her part, Didion is depicting the kind of self-aware curiosity that good authors marry with the courage (and skill) to explore. For my part, her story seems to illustrate what painter Makoto Fujimura explores in his new book, and that’s the relationship between art and belief. Or, similar to what I talked about last month, between poetry and faith.
I talked with Fujimura last week about Art and Faith and what he calls the “practice of knowing.” More clearly: Art, as it relates to the life of faith, isn’t just a reaction to learned truth about God and the world, rather it’s an inextricable part of knowledge itself. As he began down this path of thinking, Fujimura told me, he checked his thinking with a friend:
When I began to think about that, I emailed [N.T. Wright], and he emails back in about 20 minutes with this long email explaining that, in the context of Philippians 2, the form of hymns and poetry is central to the gospel message. He said [here Fujimura quotes from an email that he also discusses in his book]: “It isn’t the case that first people sorted things out theologically and then turned them into poems, but that from very early on some people — perhaps especially Paul — found themselves saying what needed to be said in the form of short poems.”
They’re talking about an epistemological version of what Didion describes. They’re saying that to make — to write or paint or build or cook — is part of what it means to know.
That’s sort of esoteric, I know. I’d love to hear what you think about it. Email me.
Sidenote: It’s a couple of years old now and I’d be surprised if you haven’t already seen this, but if not, you should read David Brooks’s ode to Fujimura, “Longing for an Internet Cleanse.” Or read it again.
2. Give the other James Blake cover(s) a try.
Alright, look, when it comes to James Blake’s music, who cares. But this isn’t that. It apparently started the eruption of his cover of Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed,” and that led to December’s EP of piano-driven, vocal-forward covers, including this at once delicate and ominous take on Beyonce’s “Otherside.” It’s basically been the soundtrack of my February.
3. Take an hour and do nothing. You’ll accomplish more.
You probably saw that mega-politician George Shultz died earlier this month. Among the celebrations and reflections on his life, one thing jumped out to me: His practice of what some now call the “Shultz hour.” For one hour a day, Shultz quite literally locked himself in his office with only a pencil and paper. For him, this was the only way he could tune out the minutia and urgency of day-to-day government and focus on, well, focusing.
I’ve been writing an editorial about the Shultz hour. Here’s some of that:
The Shultz hour taps into something Manoush Zomorodi, host of the crazy-popular podcast Note to Self and the 2017 book Bored and Brilliant, has been documenting for a few years now. In her book, Zomorodi talks about boredom as an essential phenomenon for, get this, productivity:
“When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our loves and set future goals,” she writes. “The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.”
Basically, Zomorodi’s research confirmes what Shultz was doing when he closed his office for an hour. In other words, the proliferation both of the internet and of hand-held devices has only made the chaos Shultz felt even more pronounced.
I know, I know, stopping in the middle of a workweek — and if your children are like mine, the middle of a weeknight — to do nothing seems not only impossible but unwise. But here’s a layer of all this that will boggle your mind: the cost of constant distraction.
I just saw some research from Harvard that shows that American businesses lose an estimated $16 million per year from sick days — and a zing-pow estimate of $307 million to distraction. Workplace focus represents just one area of our lives. But, let’s be honest, if we’re distracted in the confines of work, it’s not better when we’re at home, church, or otherwise off the clock.
4. And now, a latent image.👇
5. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
A Children’s Bible. This story revolves around a cadre of kids (well, teenishagers) forced by their parents’ decadent apathy to care for each other amid a ruinous-turned-apocalyptic storm. It moves well, and it’s moving. Novelist Lydia Millet accesses two tools that I didn’t expect: humor and allusion (though, the title should have clued me in to the whole allusion part).
Where the Sidewalk Ends. My older daughter is approaching the age where she can enjoy Shel Silverstein. Of course, I mean of course, we’ve read The Giving Tree since both girls were in utero, and now we’re getting into Silverstein’s poems. A lot are still too dark, odd, or gross. But if you want to get a big laugh from Ellen just read, “Pirate Captain Jim”:
"Walk the plank," says Pirate Jim. // "But Captain Jim, I cannot swim." // "Then you must steer us through the gale." // "But Captain Jim, I cannot sail." // "Then down with the galley slaves you go." // "But Captain Jim, I cannot row." // "Then you must be the pirate's clerk." // "But Captain Jim, I cannot work." // "Then a pirate captain you must be." // "Thank you, Jim," says Captain Me.
Work Won’t Love You Back. This book has an edge, the kind that you can’t ignore and sort of have to navigate. But if you can, Sara Jaffe’s journalistic work tells a fascinating, if frustrating, story about the rise of jobs and careers as something to love. As something in which to locate your identity, and, thereby, something that requests you worry a little less about compensation and focus on the warm feelings.
Art and Faith. See above.
Thanks for reading.