from the republic of newsletters

The more I gravitate away from the social media-based internet, the more I find myself turning to newsletters. I’ve followed a handful on-and-off over the last couple of years, but this year my focus on them has definitely increased. Getting interesting information from interesting individuals is much more effective on me than getting it from algorithms, I guess.

Here are a couple of things from this week’s batch of newsletters that stood out to me.

A quote from Robin Sloan’s Year of the Meteor:

Beware, anytime you hear anybody talking about reading novels as self-improvement – because they “increase empathy” or something like that. A close cousin is when people say you should read science fiction because it “helps you imagine the future.”

Here is my proposed alternative: read novels because there are novels.

It’s like national parks. If someone told you they were visiting these awesome places in order to become a better person, something about that would seem a little… off, wouldn’t it? Maybe even a little sad. You go to national parks because there are national parks.

It’s unfortunately very common in the San Francisco of 2019, this quest for a deeper “because” that finds its foundation in self-improvement. Resist.

Which reminds me of a predilection I’ve noticed in personal growth culture (which I have been slowly — skeptically — getting into) in that they tend to focus on efficiency so much that they begin to view anything that doesn’t contribute to it as frivolous waste, to be discarded from your new, efficacious life immediately. And one of the flighty things the practitioners of these philosophies seem to target — often subtly, sometimes explicitly — is books. Or at least those that deal with fiction. Which obviously, as someone who understands and marvels at the power of stories, I have a problem with.*

But I’m also someone who can take another person’s point of view fairly — sometimes annoyingly — easily, which is how I’ve found myself, at times, questioning the value of the fictional stories I pick up. That in itself, at least on the surface, isn’t all that bad. It’s good to question what you read. It’s good to ask “what value am I getting from this?” But that’s something best left for after a story is done. Potential benefits should not determine what you read. (And I believe you can find value in anything, anyway.)

You read a story because there are stories.

* Also the best personal growth book I’ve read so far is framed as a fairy tale. So, you know. QED.

From Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations:


Matt Fraction’s workspace. I just find workspaces in general interesting. Especially from writers I already like.

Some poignant words from Fraction:

I don’t know how I work or where I work right now. Nothing comes out right and I’m sick of everything. I feel restless and antsy all the time. Something inside my chest keeps itching.

It happens every few years: the desk gets too big or too small. The tools don’t work, the pencils write wrong, my knuckle hits the ink and makes it smudge. The keyboard hurts. The notebook is the wrong size. The chair. The light. The sound of my voice. Nothing fits. I don’t fit.

So all of it has to go: nuke me from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure. I throw everything out and hold very still and get very quiet. I hope for a renewal to come.

I’m working on a project that sounds super-simple, so of course I found the most excruciating and complicated way to do it.

Last week in Los Angeles (where they do not care for the predilections of my delicate process and its magical quasi-lustrumal transmogrification) I took advantage of a conference room table to put down index cards that helped me track it all. There was space. I put my ideas on cards and the cards on the table then I stared and waited as the thing found its shape.

At home we got a new table. I decided to work there today. It too has space. I spread the cards out again. Then I put more things down, everything in my bag, all the things swarming around my head, I put all of it down on the table. Then I stood back and stared and started to wait.

This is the where I work right now: in the place where things look for their shapes. If I am lucky I will find mine.

“The place where things look for their shape. If I am lucky I will find mine.”

Yeah, I can definitely understand that.

I would like to end this with one Warren’s sign off from his latest edition of Orbital Operations. I find them uplifting, in a somber, sobering kind of way. I often share them on my social media at the start of the week, as a morbid motivational thing, and the feedback I get from them is usually something like, “I don’t know how I feel about that.” Which is the appropriate response. And the kind that Ellis looks for, I’m sure.

It’s gonna be a hell of a week. Just remember: you were trained at Orbital Operations. You walk among treetops and the shit of this world does not get to touch if you so choose it.

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