Issue 16 | Intimate Writing to Mediate Between Two Worlds
Vulnerable writing, C.S. Lewis, podcast subscriptions, and more.
As we discussed, here’s the mildly revised, more frequent, less lengthy version of my newsletter. What we got:
Talking to Ross Douthat about writing and vulnerability;
Remembering C.S. Lewis;
Reading the new version of Prufrock.
1. Intimate writing to mediate between two worlds.
I know, you don’t have to look far to find press about Ross Douthat’s new book, The Deep Places. You can listen, for example, to Ross talk about living with chronic Lyme disease on the New York Times’s book review podcast. Or you can read his own writing about the intellectual effects of his experience. And you’ll find more than a few thoughtful reviews around culture beats, like these in LARB and the Wall Street Journal.
That’s why I try, in my most recent Writers and Writings conversation, to talk with the Times columnist and social critic about the nature of writing a memoir. The demands of vulnerability. The role of biography in any writing. Like this:
Me: You're operating, as a commentator, on the level of history and national discussion. A book like this is extremely intimate. Occasionally, you give a run of pages that reveal your interior life wondering about your wife’s interior life — about as opposite from some swaft of Western history as you can get. Was that a pivot for you as a writer? Is that instructive for your other work?
Ross: When I started my job at the New York Times, I had lunch with a very famous conservative newspaper columnist, who was a very intimidating figure and probably 30 years older than me at that point. Over food at a Georgetown restaurant, he told me that he stopped reading any newspaper column that used the word “I.” As a young and impressionable writer, I tried to take that to heart. For some period of time, early in my life as a Times columnist, I tried really hard to minimize the personal voice as much as possible.
At a certain point, I gave up on that. I decided that there are a lot of different ways in which to be a newspaper columnist. And sometimes that sort of first-person self-identification is useful for what you’re trying to do as a writer. That doesn’t mean that it’s useful in every context or every situation, but a certain part of what I do at the Times is obviously informed by my somewhat weird background.
I’m someone who grew up, in certain ways, entirely within the liberal meritocracy. I grew up in the Northeast. My mother went to Yale. My father went to Stanford. I went to Harvard. This is a very conventional path for someone who ends up writing a column from the New York Times. But at the same time, I had by those standards a super weird childhood, where we did all kinds of strange religious stuff. We were pentecostalists. We were evangelicals. We ended up as Catholics. We were, for a little while, in some of the same kind of strange holistic health worlds that I ended up — to my shock — back in during my late 30s. We were eating tofu before tofu was cool.
That kind of background is, in the end, a big part of what I try to do at the Times. Kind of mediate between worlds that don’t necessarily come in contact with each other in our political conversations and in our intellectual debates. … And you can’t understand what I’m doing if you don’t have some sense of my own biography.
Then you have a super weird experience like the ones that I write about in this book, where you ultimately can’t talk about them effectively without being fully open. Obviously, there are things that happened in the last seven years that did not make it into the pages of this book; there is still a zone of privacy that remains even after this act of self-exposure. But to some extent, to really get people to understand the strangeness of this experience and what chronic illness is really like, you have to choose a certain level of exposure — or you can just not write about it at all. I thought it was worth doing. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to the highest level you can. That required this kind of exposure.
I edited the above for clarity and length and to make readable the odd cadences that really only make sense audibly.
You can listen on Apple, Spotify, or wherever majestic podcasts are available. Or right here:
🚨🚨 A note for Apple users: You need, if you want to of course, to resubscribe. We changed hosting services, and, by way of some things I don’t understand, we now have a new Apple feed. 🚨🚨
Spotify users, keep living like it’s 2009.
2. The celebrity of JFK fades against the quiet(er) work of C.S. Lewis.
Monday was a curious anniversary, as you probably know. In 1963, John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died on the same day, November 22. So around this time every year, I catch myself pondering the Oxford don. Back on the 50th anniversary, I published an essay about how, despite the splash news of the day, the influence of Lewis outpaces that of the other two. I looked over the piece the other day, and it’s interesting to think about that dynamic against our current backdrop of by-the-second celebritism. Take a look, if you like.
Sidenote: Huxley’s Brave New World doesn’t get near enough attention anymore. It holds up well enough as a story, and I think it’s more prophetic than the George Orwell books people read alongside election cycles.
3. Here’s (some of) what I’ve been reading.
Okay, so, we moved into a new house over the last weekends and I traveled for work during the week between. Basically, I’ve done no real reading. In the meantime, here are my recommended reads by Ross Douthat and a newsletter I’m glad to be reading again.
On Reading Ross: You can read more about and by Ross Douthat at a bazillion places around the internet. And if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or a political independent, odds are you already have a strong opinion about him anyway. Instead of linking to books you already know, here are my favorite writing by Ross from the past few years:
A column: “A Playboy for President”
A Review (of the fascinating and kind of dumb movie, Mother!): “Appetite for Creation”
Prufrock. This “books and arts diary” — read: email — has had a few lives. Then it went away entirely for a while. It’s back, and I’m excited about it. For me, the writer, Micah Mattix, sometimes plays the angry conservative guy bit too much. But his philosophy of art and literature is really compelling, and his highlights from the internet reflect that.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. The greatest holiday of them all. Ponder Martin Luther’s pondering of the Lord’s Prayer:
‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ What is meant by daily bread? Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.