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The physicist Carlo Rovelli has a beautiful way of talking about science in terms of ignorance and curiosity.
In Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution, he writes:
I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and to learn better. This has always been the strength of scientific thinking—thinking born of curiosity, revolt, change.
He wrote almost the same thing almost two decades earlier, in his book The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy:
Science, I believe is a passionate search for always newer ways to conceive the world. Its strength lies not in the certainties it reaches but in a radical awareness of the vastness of our ignorance. This awareness allows us to keep questioning our own knowledge, and, thus, to continue learning. Therefore the scientific quest for knowledge is not nourished by certainty, it is nourished by a radical lack of certainty. Its way is fluid, capable of continuous evolution, and has immense strength and a subtle magic. It is able to overthrow the order of things and reconceive the world time and again.
I think he could also be talking about art.
Filed under: not knowing
I drew my friend Rob Walker on Zoom today making the case for curiosity. Do check out his book, The Art of Noticing, and his excellent, excellent newsletter. (I drew in pencil in my notebook, so I had to perform a few photoshop shenanigans to make them legible.)
My favorite part of the talk was Rob’s idea that curiosity is not a luxury or a bonus or an add-on to life — it’s vital tool that makes our life and work richer.
Like creativity, curiosity might be better thought of as a verb, not a noun — not something that some people possess and some people don’t, but something everyone can do and get better at.
Here are some printing experiments with a leftover red onion and blue ink stamp, a la Bruno Munari’s Roses in the Salad.
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) August 2, 2021
I’m also a big fan of using peppers. (Or whatever leftover vegetables happen to be on the cutting board and the mood strikes.)
I’ve started incorporating some of these prints into my collages:
Ryan’s poems will often start by thinking about clichés:
Her poems, she says, don’t begin with a simple image or sound, but instead start “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” An old saw may nudge her repeatedly, such as “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“I think, ‘What about those chickens?’” she says, “and I start an investigation of what that means. Poets rehabilitate clichés.”
Some do, perhaps, but many wouldn’t dare to enter such familiar territory. Ryan, however, adds depth and so many surprises that the silliest clichés become fertile ground.
She expanded on this rehabilitation of clichés in her interview with the Paris Review:
I often find myself thinking in clichés. I’ll urge myself on with various bromides and chasten myself with others. When I want to write they’re one way to start thinking because they’re so metaphorically rich. For instance, take the word limelight, or being in the limelight—not really a cliché but a cherished idiom. Before electric light, they heated lime, or calcium oxide, to create incandescence for stage lights. In my poem, “Lime Light,” the limelight comes from a bowl of limes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not nothing, not just a joke. It’s thinking about how limelight doesn’t work very well. You can’t do anything by limelight.
After I copied out “Lime Light,” I found this clipping of George Clinton talking about recording Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain:
Crimson pepper pod
add two pairs of wings, and look
—Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)
Today I saw the dragonfly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;
Thro’ crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew.
Dyed he is with the
Colour of autumnal days,
O red dragonfly
—Hori Bakusui (1718–1783)
I’d never given dragonflies much thought or attention. They are remarkable to watch. Powerful. They can fly in six directions. “A continuous turning and returning,” wrote H.E. Bates in Down the River, “an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight.”
Like all living things, predator or not, dragonflies are vulnerable. Just a few days ago, I found a dead dragonfly floating in the pool. I fished it out with our net, and laid it on a piece of notebook paper to dry. I decided to memorialize it with a few sun prints, which I later made into the collages you see at the top and bottom of the post.
I wondered what happened to the dragonfly, if it got disoriented or flew too close to the water, or died in the air of some other cause in the air and fell.
I’ve since found out that if you see a dragonfly drowning, you can rescue it and hold it in your hand until it gets its wings dry.
“They do not bite or sting people… They are nothing but good and fair, a sufficient reason for summer to exist.”
When its wings are dry, it will fly off.
* * *
“We have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” When I was reading about how gymnast Simone Biles’ walked away from her Olympic event in order to protect her mental health, I became intrigued with something gymnasts call “The Twisties.”
Here is how Emily Giambalvo described the phenomenon in The Washington Post:
The cute-sounding term, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through, as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
The first two paragraphs from that article were so poetic, I broke them into verse in my notebook:
Suddenly, you lose your basic skills. The familiar becomes strange. Your routines collapse. Muscle memory is lost. Everything is upside down.
Obviously, the dragonfly didn’t have the twisties or the yips.
But I might.
Maybe we all do.
When everything is upside down, it can be very dangerous to continue as usual.
One must take care.
Take care, y’all.
Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown. “I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.
The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.
Which made me think of a line by John Tarrant I quoted in Keep Going: “Attention is the most basic form of love.”
From the Dept. of No Coincidences: I was flipping through John McPhee’s Basin and Range and Stephen Jay Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, two books which inspired passages in Kevin Huizenga’s The River at Night, when I opened up the Sunday NYTimes magazine and found Yohanca Delgado’s letter of recommendation for thinking about geologic time.
Delgado has A.D.H.D. and a kind of “time blindness” that makes it hard for her to keep track of the passing of time. She praises Marcia Bjornerud’s Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World:
[O]ur solar system has a 10-billion-year life span; it will end when the sun enters its red-giant phase and begins engulfing its orbiting planets, including Earth. In that context, Bjornerud writes, mountains are “ephemeral.” Much of what we once believed to be eternal and unchanging about our planet is vital and dynamic, constantly shifting around us. We are still deciphering parts of the planet’s geologic history, in hopes of anticipating future, potentially cataclysmic, events.
“For me,” Delgado writes, “holding time in a much larger perspective eases the day-to-day anxieties of living.”
In The River at Night, the main character, Glenn Ganges, has trouble sleeping and spends most of the book thinking about the nature of time. Comics is a medium well-suited to exploring time, as explained in this interview with Art Spiegelman:
in a comic you have various panels. Those panels are each units of time. You see them simultaneously. So you have various moments in time simultaneously made present in space. And that is what Maus is about. It is about the past and present intertwining irrevocably and permanently.
A great example is R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America.”
Maybe one of the most impressive examples is Richard McGuire’s Here.
In 1989, Mr. McGuire, then an aspiring New York artist better known for playing bass in the postpunk band Liquid Liquid, published a 36-panel comic that hopped backward and forward through millions of years without leaving the confines of a suburban living room, thanks to the use of pop-up frames-within-frames inspired by the relatively new Microsoft Windows… now he has popped up through a wormhole of his own, with a full-color, book-length version of “Here” that once again transforms a corner of his childhood living room in New Jersey into a staging ground for all of earthly history.
Each two-page spread features a fixed view of the room in a certain year, with pop-up windows giving glimpses of what might have been visible in exactly that spot at various moments in the past and future: from the tail of a passing dinosaur to a 1960s children’s birthday party to a quiet late-21st-century fireside chat.
The irony of comics being such a great medium for depicting and thinking about time is that comics take forever to make.
“The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it,” Banksy supposedly once said. For cartoonists, the ratio of time spent drawing to time spent reading is enormously skewed towards the labor of drawing.
I’ve gotten away from myself, here, and lost track of time, as one often does when thinking about time.
But the opposite, of course, is always possible. Thinking of one’s insignificance can spend you spiraling, as it did Sally Draper, a character on Mad Men:
When I think about forever I get upset. Like the Land O’Lakes butter has that Indian girl, sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her holding a box. Have you ever noticed that?
(She’s describing the Droste Effect.)
Presley loved The Prophet, reading it so often that he memorized it; he gave annotated copies to several friends. This particular copy was given to Ed Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate, who became Presley’s close friend, sparring partner and occasional bodyguard after Presley introduced himself during a karate demonstration Parker was leading in 1960.
I am one of the many writers who extol the benefits of reading with a pencil, but rarely do we emphasize the unique opportunity of marginalia as a medium of communication, not just with ourselves or the author, but with another reader, should we pass on the book we’ve made marks in.
A thread went viral on Twitter this week when Melissa Turkington shared marginalia in a used Charles Bukowski book “from a woman who clearly was having none of this shit.” (In a fabulous twist, the original marginalia-ist showed up on TikTok.)
Marginalia is somewhere in between reading and writing, and several writers have realized its creative potential to become a whole new work.
Sam Anderson and David Rees wrote notes to each other in a copy of Dan Brown’s Inferno.
J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst actually used handwritten marginalia as a device in their novel, Ship of Theseus.
The book Platitudes in the Making is probably my favorite example of marginalia becoming a new work:
In 1911, author Holbrook Jackson published a small book of aphorisms under the (mildly pretentious) title Platitudes in the Making: Precepts and Advices for Gentlefolk and gave a copy to his friend G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton, it seems, sat down with the book – and a green pencil – and wrote a response to each saying in the book. Presumably he then set the book down, and somehow, someway, it turned up in a San Francisco book shop in 1955, where it was purchased by a certain Dr. Alfred Kessler, an admirer of Chesterton. Every book collector dreams of such a find. Rather than keep the book to himself, however, Dr. Kessler and Ignatius Press have produced a facsimile edition. Remove the dust jacket, and you have a reproduction, in every particular, of that 1911 volume, together with all of Chesterton’s remarks. It’s a remarkable project, and a real treat for readers of Chesterton.
Filed under: marginalia
“At times while working on my book over the years, I would become resentful of it.” She wrote that she would hit a certain point and think, “Ugh, now I have to write this boring part.”
Then I would realize: this is my book! There are no rules! I can write it however I want! Also, I would think, if I’m bored by something that I believe I need to write, the reader undoubtedly will be too, if not because the subject is inherently boring, then because I myself find it so unbearably tedious to imagine discussing it for five pages. Often as not, I would remember some aspect of the subject that deeply interested me, something a little outside the way it’s usually perceived or written about. Then I would meditate on that, and soon I would be scribbling notes from an increasingly excited place until I found a way forward. A form of beginner’s mind.
As Elmore Leonard told us, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
I try to do this. If there’s a part bogging me down, I try to leap over it, somehow, and see if the piece will work without it. (It usually does.)
* * *
“If you’re stuck,” he says, “stop typing. Go hunt down some new useful facts. Then you’ll come back refreshed.”
You’re having trouble writing not because you can’t find the right words, but because you don’t know what you’re trying to say. You don’t have the right facts at hand.
So the solution is to gather more facts. You need to step away from the keyboard, stop trying to write, and do some more reporting: Make phone calls to some new sources, consult new experts, read a relevant book or article. Once you have the facts at hand, the words will come.
Or to put it another way, when you’re writing nonfiction, the words flow from the research. If the words aren’t flowing, usually the problem is the research isn’t there. To say something, you have to have something to say.
“Block” is a sign that you don’t have what you need and you should probably go somewhere else and do something else until you get what it is that you need.
Your “block” could just be boredom.
You’ve bored yourself.
You’ve become uninterested in writing.
The way to be interested in writing again is to find something interesting to write about.
Time to go out in the world and notice something.
“Is it possible to practice noticing?
I think so.
But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning
And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.”
—Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several short sentences about writing
The “suspension of yearning” is key.
Stop wanting to write long enough to find something worth writing about.
* * *
I love what Carole King said about handling writer’s block in Paul Zollo’s excellent Songwriters on Songwriting:
So, most of all, don’t worry. Go do something else. Come back later.
“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.” ?
—Ursula K. Le Guin
Most of all, skip the boring parts.
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