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In today’s newsletter, my summer reading assignment for y’all:
- Visit your local library and apply for a library card. (Or pay your fines and renew.)
- Ask a librarian for a tour of the library building, the online catalog, and the digital holdings. Ask the librarian to show you how to put materials on hold, how to request materials for purchase, and how to use interlibrary loan.
- Check out at least one item. (So you have to return.)
Read the rest here.
In this week’s list of 10 newsletter:
And more! Read it here.
“We talk of poetry in such an abstract way because most of us are bad poets.” —Nietzsche
I loved this note from Ethan Hein about the final day of his songwriting course, which ended with “a spontaneous singalong” of “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.
“I consider it to be the best American song recorded in the past hundred or so years,” Hein writes. “I made the case that it would make a better national anthem than our current terrible one.”
Here is a video of Withers singing it on the BBC in 1974:
Bill Withers talked to SongFacts.com about writing the tune:
This was my second album, so I could afford to buy myself a little Wurlitzer electric piano. So I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. That’s often the first song that children learn to play because they don’t have to change fingers – you just put your fingers in one position and go up and down the keyboard. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, “OK, I like the way this phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.” So you go back and say, “How do I arrive at this as a conclusion to a statement? What would I say that would cause me to say Lean On Me?”
Withers maintained that the song came from where he came from: West Virginia, “a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid” than the people he noticed in big cities. Withers called it “a rural song that translates,” and he told a story about having a blow-out on an Alabama back road and somebody helping him.
I spent some time yesterday listening to “Lean on Me” and transcribing the lyrics on my typewriter.
When Withers died, I shared a few lines from the song and noted how incredible it was that he spun songs out of such simple, everyday language.
In the same SongFacts interview from above, Withers said that he was “a snob” about lyrics.
It’s very difficult to make things simple and understandable… To me, the biggest challenge in the world is to take anything that’s complicated and make it simple so it can be understood by the masses…. When I say I’m a snob lyrically, I mean I’m a snob in the sense that I’m a stickler for saying something the simplest possible way with some elements of poetry. Because simple is memorable. If something’s too complicated, you’re not going to walk around humming it to yourself because it’s too hard to remember.
He said his music was enduring because it was “re-accessible,” people could recall it. He said, “I don’t walk around with a piece of paper in my hand all the time, so if I don’t remember it, it means it wasn’t very memorable so it’s probably in the wind somewhere.”
But he also said that you have to be careful, because the process can’t be totally explained:
There’s an X-factor that we all function under. And that has nothing to do with you, it’s an accident of birth. That’s the gift that you have. That’s why it’s called a gift, it means you can’t go out and buy it, you can’t go out and get it from anybody, it has to be given to you. I’m doing the best I can trying to explain this stuff, but I don’t have any explanation as to what separates me from anybody else, except certain things were given to me. The real and most profound answer to anything you’ve asked me – why did you say this or why did you that – is because it crossed my mind. Why did it cross my mind versus crossing your mind or anybody else’s mind?
He then joked about the irony that when he first wrote the song, nobody would shut up long enough to listen to it, and now everybody wants to know about it!
The whole interview is worth reading.
Related reading: “Heading out for Wonderful”
Here are some recent additions to my inspiration corner beside my desk.
Here’s a bit from Raymond Carver’s essay, “On Writing”:
Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing.” Ezra Pound. It is not everything by any means, but if a writer has “fundamental accuracy of statement” going for him, he’s at least on the right track.
I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: “. . . and suddenly everything became clear to him.” I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What’s happened? Most of all–what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense of relief–and anticipation.
I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say “No cheap tricks” to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I’d amend it a little to “No tricks.” Period.
In Tuesday’s newsletter, we’re sharing words we’ve pinned on the wall.
In today’s list of 10 newsletter:
…and more. Read it for free here.
Some advice on the art of imperfection, courtesy of Joan Baez:
If I really don’t like what’s happening, I drop the drawing in the swimming pool. If I’ve gotten too precise about it, the imperfection brings it to life. One of my friends said, “Tell me just one thing that will last. Make as many mistakes as you can.” When you’re trying to make it perfect, trying to make it exactly what you want it to be, then it’s time to drop it into the pool.
That comes from Amanda Petrusich’s recent interview with the singer-songwriter about her new book, Am I Pretty When I Fly? An Album of Upside Down Drawings.
In the introduction to the book Baez writes about her life of drawing, how she “hated school” and “drew my way through the torture.”
In her seventies, Baez started painting more and making collages. Decades ago, she says, she arrived “by chance” at making drawings upside down.
Somewhere in my teenage years, probably out of boredom, I taught myself how to write backwards, starting with EINAOJ ZEAB, my new name. I worked my way through the Greek alphabet: AHPLA ATEB, AMMAG, ATLED, and so on. I still write backwards as a form of therapy when I need to get to the root of a blockage or calm the buzzing heat of a panic attack. It’s as though the appropriate wires cross my brain when I write backwards, which allows information otherwise unavailable to surface.
Later, I began drawing with my left hand instead of my right. Like writing backwards, using my nondominant hand opened a different compartment in my brain. I discovered the results were less restrained and more fluid, and therefore more interesting to me.
She then writes about discovering the “tightrope-walk thrill” of blind contour drawing.
Here’s how she describes her upside-down process:
I start moving my pen or pencil around upside down on the paper — napkin, tablecloth, scrap — as thought the drawing is being made for someone sitting opposite me at the table. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to draw, but often I just let the pen or pencil start swooping around the page. Once I start to see what’s developing, I begin embellishing, often adding randomly the human form, a floating fish, a flower.
Eventually, I turn the drawing right-side up and see if it needs anything to make it feel complete, in which case I reverse it again and add bits and pieces.
Back right-side up again and the real magic happens: I listen for what the drawing says to me. When a phrase (usually a pun) comes to my mind and resonates, I turn the paper one more time and write the phrase upside down.
Reading all this, I began thinking about Leonardo’s Brain, how he was left-handed, but also ambidextrous, and practiced mirror writing — and how for right-handed people, the left hemisphere controls the right hand, but the right hemisphere controls the left hand.
Baez says she knows there is a neurological explanation for her method, but she says she’s not interested in that. “We don’t need an explanation for every damn thing,” she writes. “There’s a lot to be said for letting go and doing something simply because it feels right… Why tamper with magic?”
Related reading: “Turn it upside down”
Now is one of my favorite times of year, the time of new growth.
I mentioned in a recent newsletter how the prickly pear let you see exponential growth in slow motion, and a reader alerted me to the gardening rule of thumb for perennial plants, “Sleep, Creep, Leap.”
In the first year, a perennial will focus on its foundation, anchoring its roots, so it can survive dormancy in the winter.
The second year, the plant comes out of dormancy and starts to grow, both up and down — “you can expect to see blooms, though the plant hasn’t quite reached its full size or full flowering potential.”
In the third year, the plant takes off and comes into full form.
Another gardening metaphor we can use for creative work!
So many of my projects tend to follow this sleep, creep, leap structure.
At first, there’s some idea taking root, but you don’t know anything about it, it’s growing underground, without your knowledge.
Then, you find an idea creeping, blossoming and growing, so you nurture it.
Finally, the idea bursts forth into full life.
I lot of my work is about the freedom of artistic constraint, so it’s fun to think about constraint in mediums I’m not as familiar with.
In his new book, Avidly Reads Screen Time, Philip Maciak writes about television as a medium of constraint, particularly in regards to time:
Its various genres are often defined by their temporal boundaries: the half-hour sitcom, the hour-long drama, the limited miniseries, the live broadcast. They’re defined by the hour they’re designed to air: daytime, prime time, late night. More dramatically than even the theater or the Victorian serial, and just as much as radio drama, the most instantly recognizable modes of TV, even today, were shaped in their infancy by the simple question of how much time is available to show them, when, and over how long a period…. And that’s only thinking about questions of length and duration. These forms also evolved historically in relation to time slots, commercial breaks, or even seasons of the year.
“The history of television,” he writes, “is a history of how those constraints became generative, rather than limiting.”
Maciak points out that Twin Peaks, for example, was a genuinely weird show that “improvised, unnervingly, self-consciously, with the genre conventions of the daytime soap and the cop show.” But it was also conventionally structured to air on network, “a prime time soap. Its shape was recognizable despite the uncanniness of its contents. And while that shape itself got stranger over the course of the series, its innovations were smuggled in initially through a form that was ultimately familiar to viewers.”
We’re now in the era of streaming, in which any time constraints on television are like “vestigial tails,” remnants of their ancestral forms.
Sitcoms on streamers often run around a half hour, and they often look like sitcoms from decades earlier. Same with prime time serials. But they don’t have to. Freed from time slots and commercial breaks, they don’t need to adhere to specific runtimes. They don’t air at specific times. Any adherence they have to the old forms is merely a matter of tradition…. These are the new constraints. There are no constraints.
Watching TV right now, you can start to see the varied results of “there are no constraints.”
I have been mildly dissatisfied with the final seasons of many shows recently, and I realized that all of them are screwing around with time in different ways. (Tiny spoilers ahead.)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is using flash-forwards to show us what happens to the characters several decades after the show’s main action.
Barry took a big leap in the middle of season 4 — episode 5 starts off 8 years after the end of episode 4.
Succession in season 4 is paced (as far as I can tell) one day per episode.
I wondered how the last season of Ted Lasso — by far the most disappointing show in the batch — fits into the picture here, if it does at all.
In “‘Ted Lasso’ Has Lost Its Way,” critic David Sims says the show is “is a pure example of the excesses that can flourish on streaming television. The show has no time slot to worry about, and none of the formal or thematic constraints of network television.”
The question any workplace sitcom faces is how much to stray from the status quo; audiences need some sense that things can change, but not so much that the show’s formula is threatened…. Ted Lasso might have debuted as a sitcom, but it now obeys the freewheeling standards of premium dramas, pushing its episode lengths to make grand social statements about depression, workplace dynamics, and the changing standards of 21st-century masculinity.
(I personally thought the hour-long “Sunflowers” episode was the most decent thing they’ve done this season, so I’m not so sure the problem is ballooning runtimes.)
Sims’ take on Ted Lasso made me think about this bit from an interview with Abbott Elementary creator and showrunner Quinta Brunson:
Are you already thinking about ways to avoid your show getting stuck in ruts? I am, but the difference is, with the 22-minute sitcom, the basics are “situation” and “comedy.” It’s in the name. We don’t have to do much. I was tuning into “The Fresh Prince” to see Will do something that Uncle Phil yells at him for and to see Jazz get thrown out of the house. Whereas with most of the streaming comedies, you’re expecting a certain amount of development from these characters. If you don’t get it, you feel a little let down, because you’re expecting this high art. I simply want to make people laugh. That’s all I’m here for. Which is the beauty of the 22-minute sitcom: It can only do so much.
There’s a clarity there that I really admire. Brunson knows she’s working within a form, and the game is to do as much as you can within it. In her words, the “beauty” of the form is that “it can only do so much.”
Which brings me to my favorite show: HBO’s Somebody Somewhere. A half-hour comedy that is weird, and tender, and bawdy, and shows you things you’re not used to seeing on the screen. It gets away with a lot, and part of that has to do with the fact that it doesn’t take up a lot of time.
As Mark Duplass recently tweeted, “Every now and then the companies say ‘fuck it’ to their mandates and let us make one like this.”
Enjoy it while it lasts…
Today’s newsletter is a zine about Aristotle’s “Doctrine of the Mean”:
When I was hanging out with Ryan Holiday last Monday, I asked him about the Stoic virtues he’s currently writing about. I admitted that in the abstract, I didn’t find virtues all that helpful to me in my work! It often feels like vices — like envy or anger — are more motivating and bring about better ideas. (My books, even though they’re fairly positive, are often written out of a negative approach that’s fueled by my disgust with the world.)
Ryan brought up Aristotle’s “Doctrine of the Mean,” the idea that virtue is located in the middle of two vices. Each virtue is “a golden mean” between deficiency and excess. A path between two extremes. (Confucius and others wrote about this, too.)
You can read the rest of the newsletter and download the zine here.
This picket sign reminded me of one of my favorite cartoons by Alex Gregory and Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners:
The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.
Some vegetarians say they won’t eat anything with a face — maybe I’ll say I won’t read anything that didn’t have a childhood.
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