It’s a fresh, new year.
Last year was a bit of a journey for me. I moved to California for a new job, leaving behind family, friends, and the best coffee in the country. It was a year of challenges, but also a year of rewards.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it was also a year of working in secret. In 2018, I’m ready to shed some light on my work. Over the coming days I’ll talk about more of my ongoing projects, but I wanted to start with something new.
The first big project of 2018: 52 Stories.
A new story every week of the year. Most of them are experimental micro-stories, or maybe story sketches. This project is my latest attempt to blend writing and design and to experiment with online storytelling. I’m not sure how successful this will be, but it will give me practice. It’s a chance to work on crafting sentences and to try out some wild ideas.
I saw this tweet (via Austin Kleon) the other day. It stung a little.
It’s my theory that “binge-worthy” TV series are intentionally repetitive and boring so as not to be cognitively intrusive as we stay on our phones the whole time they’re in the background.— Clayton Cubitt (@claytoncubitt) December 10, 2017
Seems to be a fair accusation. But isn’t this also an indictment of many of us as consumers? We could choose to put down our phones.
And it’s not as if we’re engaging with those either. The level of disengagement is the same. It’s almost like the flashing of all these devices puts us into some incoherent trance. Maybe that’s our unspoken goal.
Another stinger: this excellent article Liz Pelly wrote for the Baffler. Pelly takes a jab at Spotify and its “ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper.” The article’s main point is that automation is hurting music. The algorithms gnaw away until all that remains is branded Muzak.
I’m guilty here too. I love music, but how am I engaging with it? As a work of art, or as background noise? I like to think I have good taste, but is my recent taste the product of a mindless algorithm? When was the last time I sat down with the sole purpose of listening to a song or album?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days, and there’s more to the problem. But what it all seems to point to is a lack of thoughtful engagement with culture. We’re passive consumers. Is this because we’re unwilling to engage? Are we that busy and overworked?
Or is the situation worse? Are our lives so fragmented we’re unable to engage?
The other day during my lunch break, I walked to a local park to clear out my head. It had grown full of the usual junk: restless doubts and weighty thoughts about the future. As I sat down at a picnic table to eat a sandwich, I watched Saddleback sprawling in the distance.
Since moving to California almost a year ago, Saddleback has been like a new friend. I’ve never lived so close to a mountain before. Seeing its contours lit by the setting sun and its summit grazed by clouds has been a source of joy.
But on Monday, Saddleback sat there like a familiar pet. The problem with familiarity: it breeds smallness. When I walk around the same home, or same office, or same landscape, I start to feel cramped. The world gets smaller as my problems inflate into monsters.
As I took another bite of my sandwich, a plane appeared. It was a small, white, single-prop plane enjoying the skies over Irvine. It looked like a toy compared to Saddleback, as it flew at an altitude far below the summit.
I caught myself smiling as the mountain grew big again. I smiled because I knew the mountain never shrunk. Once again, I over-inflated myself and my problems. Small once again, I was free to wander the world. That plane swooped in to remind me that there is still so much to discover, so much I don’t know. It put me at ease and renewed my sense of awe.
All I needed was a reminder. All I needed was a sense of scale.
When did the word “amateur” become derogatory? It comes from the French word for “lover” and denotes someone who works out of love, without regard to compensation. Seems like a noble word. So why the negative connotation?
I’m not sure. I have some theories. But I suspect the world needs more amateurs.Read More »
Remember Choose Your Own Adventure books? This Atlas Obscura article was a nice throwback for me, and a peek into the creative process of one of the authors. Both the designer and writer in me geeked out over those hand drawn story maps.
My first CYOA book was a gift from my aunt; she bought it at a yard sale. It was this one: Track of the Bear. I remember little of the plot. There were polar bears, and several endings where you died. I loved it.
I don’t know that I read many CYOA books. Maybe they were a couple years before my time. The year the original series ceased publication was the same year my family bought our first PC. My interests shifted. But those books served as a map for the non-linear playground of the Internet.
I’ve been thinking a lot about forking paths during the past few weeks because of my own projects. One is a web app, and the other is another experimental short story. I spent last weekend mapping their stories and watching them grow like trees. I’ll share more about both soon.
Looking at all these maps, I also saw a model of my life. I see it less like a linear story and more like a tree. Forks and branches, most of which trace back to simple choices. A single email becomes a cross-country move to California. A phone call eliminates one career path and sets another in motion. A fateful magazine subscription alters innumerable branches. We are a summation of choices, both the choices we make, and the choices made by others.
But we don’t get to turn back and follow the prompt to a different page. As much as I wonder what those other branches would have looked like, this is my branch now. We can only choose what to do with the next minute given to us.
Choose well. I hear there are polar bears.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
I finished this book a few weeks ago. Postman wrote it 1985, but in the past 32 years it seems to have only grown in relevance.
Fall is my favorite season. Nature shifts from a palette of greens to oranges, yellows, and browns. The air becomes crisp and the wind whispers secrets. The waning light imbues everything with a comfortable mystery. Even the names of the season are lovely. Fall. Autumn. Harvest.
Although we still throw the word around, harvest no longer plays the same role it did for our ancestors. They oriented their lives around their crops, and as a consequence, around the seasons. There was a time to sow, a time to reap, and a time to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They moved to the rhythms of the year.
We operate at a different speed. The clock and its 24-hour cycle dictate our lives.
That may be a good or a bad thing; either way, there’s little we can do about it. But is there any wisdom we can regain from a seasonal way of thinking?
A few weeks ago, Matt Thomas wrote about living with the seasons. His piece inspired this one; you should go read it. He wonders what it would look like to live and work in step with the seasons. What would it look like if our lives revolved around the turning of the year?
As fall deepens, I’ve begun to ask myself that question.
Last year, I created The Gargoyle, an experimental short story website. It was nothing major, but it was a turning point in how I approach my creative work. It may yet prove to be a turning point in my life. In the season since, it would seem that I’ve been quiet.
That’s only because you can’t see what’s happening beneath the soil.
I’ve started several projects on the past year, all in various stages of completion. There are several short stories, a couple new web projects, and some early drafts of a much larger project. They’ve all been growing under the surface. Now, as the season changes, it’s time for me to enter into a new creative season.
I’m ready to get to work on these projects. Some may not see the light of day, but they’ll be good practice. A few may need more time to ripen.
As for the rest, I’m hoping for a bountiful harvest.