I’ve always been prone to enthusiasms, but if I ever tried to press them onto others I can’t remember. I can remember measuring people on how well their enthusiasms matched mine—but that only vaguely.
Life got better once I switched from grading others on the content of their enthusiasms to grading them on the quality. Even if what turns them on does nothing for me, or turns me off, I can relate to their passion for the thing—enjoy it, even learn from it.
Pro tip: a surefire technique for meaningful conversation is to zero in on a person’s passions, ask a leading question or two, then stand back and watch the excitement pour out. It’s usually easy (and often delightful) engaging with what they say and how they say it, even if the subject leaves me cold. I’ll take this approach with people I don’t know well, and especially with kids.
I like this drawing by Austin Kleon on how to deal with enthusiasm mismatches:
(He offers some other conversational shortcuts here.)
People think of a role model as one to be emulated, but I think a neutral definition is more useful—an example worth studying of someone who embraces a behavior, letting me see what it is like to live it out without having to experience it first hand. I might like what I see and decide to emulate. I might not like what I see and decide to move on—but with gratitude and without judgment. I can stop at not for me without moving on to that’s wrong.
I’ll repeat this bit from Brian Eno, describing his assessment of fellow avant-garde musician Frank Zappa:
Zappa was important to me because I realised I didn’t have to make music like he did. I might have made a lot of music like he did if he had not done it first and made me realise that I did not want to go there. I did not like his music but I am grateful that he did it. Sometimes you learn as much from the things you don’t like as from the things you do like. The rejection side is as important as the endorsement part. You define who you are and where you are by the things that you know you are not. Sometimes that’s all the information you have to go on. I’m not that kind of person. You don’t quite know where you are but you find yourself in the space left behind by the things you’ve rejected.[Emphasis added]
I remembered this when reading yet another criticism of the blogging platform Medium, whose model looked so promising when Evan Williams launched it seven years ago but is now disparaged widely by people trying to figure out how to publish on the internet. These criticisms are often leveled not just at the model but at the company behind it, and at Williams himself, questioning their motives for perpetrating an approach that looks now to be more damaging than beneficial.
That may be correct, but I don’t find it helpful. All I need to know is the good and bad effects of the approach, something I can see without looking into the hearts of the builders. And regardless of what lurks in those hearts, I’m grateful they took the trouble to translate their ideas into a reality I can now evaluate.
I’m hooked on these, mostly limited-run TV shows although an occasional movie fits the pattern. Most are set in greater Scandinavia, but the Brits have embraced the genre and produced some of the best of the bunch, e.g. Broadchurch with David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.
What appeals to me? Well, partly the hardboiled flavor of the stories—I’m a big fan of American noir as well, written and filmed, from The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain novels through Chinatown and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Blade Runner, up to latter-day efforts like Twin Peaks and L.A. Confidential and True Detective. The dialog in nordic noir is nowhere near as cynical and wisecracking, but it shares a bleak view of events and I like that.
I also love the alien (to me) settings for these stories, whether urban London or Stockholm or Copenhagen or rural Britain or Iceland or Finland. These shows spend a lot of time creating and exploring the setting, and I get a lot of pleasure seeing a bit of what it’s like to live in the backwaters of Norway or the near-moonscape of Iceland.
But I think what I like most is that the procedural aspects are almost incidental, while characters and their interactions are central. Maybe it’s a mismatched pair of investigators, or a rural police force in over their heads, or a detective with severe physical or emotional problems or a shocking backstory, but the interest for me is to see how such people confront difficult situations—and one another.
Right now I’m watching the second series of Trapped, which I was eagerly awaiting after bingeing the first series a few months back. The story is worthy but not central, and I appreciate that it’s nowhere near as gruesome as some of the others (I don’t know where that particular quality comes from, it seems irrelevant to the genre but is very common). The photography is excellent (I’m watching in HD) and the landscapes are spectacular.
But maybe my favorite part is that the actors are not beautiful. No one is ugly, but their attractiveness lies in looking distinctive, not conventionally pretty. I’d love to be friends with either of these two folks, kind and warm and decent, but very surprising sorts to see as the two leads in a TV show.
By contrast, in Fortitude (also filmed in Iceland, though set in a fictionalized Svalbard) all the men are strong and handsome, and the women — cops, mayor, doctor, waitress — are beautiful.
Trapped is the superior series in many ways — the storyline of Fortitude is staggeringly weird — but they are both fun to watch, which is what I like about these and the other shows in this genre.
This review of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (a topic which resonates with me, though I haven’t read the book and probably won’t) is critical of the of-the-moment writing style Odell uses when speaking out against our current of-the-momentness. ‘Tis a fair cop.
Yet as I read this earnest blend of activism, nature writing, art criticism, and self-help, I began to have the discomfiting feeling that I’d encountered something like it before. Not between the covers of a book, but late at night, browsing Twitter, scrolling and skimming. For Odell’s method of presentation is recognizably lifted from the very medium she criticizes: the online world of circulating content, ripe with bromides, targeted less toward the curious reader than toward the algorithms that coordinate literary distribution in what now passes for our public sphere.
Odell masterfully deploys one of the reigning genres of digital content: the parable-like anecdote, offered not for narrative pleasure but didactic instruction. (I owe this point about the ubiquity of sentimental anecdotes online—see, for example, the website Upworthy—to Tess McNulty.) To illustrate our reliance on strangers, she tells how she called 911 on the way to the grocery store after seeing a woman collapse in a seizure in front of a church. Ten pages later, to decry the blandness of living inside a filtered bubble, she relates how her ex-boyfriend’s brother ate only at chain restaurants when he traveled. She weaves together a fashionable range of references—from Deleuze to David Foster Wallace—with the Carrie Bradshaw–esque formulations so typical of the early-2000s blogosphere: “As I looked at X, I couldn’t help but think of Y.”
But the writer is fair, and goes on to say this:
One perennial challenge of progressive thought is confronting the culture in which you are embedded while using terms and values that are comprehensible to that culture.
This has been on my mind, as seen in my previous post. Most of my writing is crafted for an idealized reader, one who is interested in what I have to say and has a background that makes it easy to follow me as I say it. I invest a lot of effort in writing clearly and directly for that reader. But my idealized reader is by no means the ideal reader—if there is such a thing at all—and lately I’ve been thinking I should invest more time writing for the people who are actually here and listening, rather than as if my readers will self-select into some idealized audience.
Note: I have always taken the sensibilities of my readers into account, as far as I’m aware of them, and steered away from certain topics just because what I had to say didn’t seem worth the discomfort it might cause. A couple of those topics have reached the point in my life where I probably should put them out there just for the sake of honesty and transparency. Perhaps I’ll turn to those.
But I still have a clear memory of the one time I did that, regarding something innocuous, just to see what would happen. A friend had started a discussion thread about books (and maybe other creative works) one was embarrassed to admit they didn’t like. My contribution was to say that I didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia—I had read the first book, it left me cold, and I hadn’t continued. The reaction, as I thought it might be, was pure shock—not even “How can you say that?”, but the internet equivalent of gaping in astonishment. I didn’t press the matter.
My admiration for Alan Jacobs, both as a writer and a thinker, continues to grow. Today he published an … allegory? … which reimagines the Scouring of the Shire. Not only is it a fine piece of writing, but the outlook it suggests is very much one I’ve come to adopt.
I’ve been wondering what it will take to get me back to writing regularly. I’ve mentioned that I’ve become sick of the sound of my own voice … which makes me think I need to adopt another one, at least for awhile.
I not only admire Derek Sivers as a writer and thinker, I find him inspiring. He doesn’t write often anymore, but when he does he sends an email to everyone on his list with a heads-up. Here’s the piece he published today. It’s really good — spare, insightful, from the heart — like all his pieces.
After reading it I pulled out an index card and a sharpie, wrote “Write like Derek Sivers”, and put the card at the base of my monitor. Perhaps it’ll inspire me to write like Derek Sivers. Or at least to write.