Not My Best Work
On figuring out how to make things.
When I was musing about starting this newsletter a couple of months ago (don’t ask me to corroborate this timeline — COVID has erased all sense of coherent chronology), I noticed that the writer George Saunders had himself just started a Substack, to which I quickly subscribed. But I have to confess: he sends out so many emails, and I never actually read them.
That’s not entirely true. This morning I read the opening three paragraphs to today’s edition, which conveniently relates to what I wanted to talk about here. Saunders opens by saying that “trying to be an honest teacher of writing means continually reminding myself how mysterious this whole deal is… I’ve talked ad nauseam about my method, which involves, supposedly, a ton of revision, done intuitively and iteratively. And that really is my method. Except when it’s not.”
I used to write like it was the only thing I knew how to do. No second guessing, no anxiety about influence or convention. In the sixth grade, I began to develop tendonitis from how aggressively and unrelentingly I was typing out my ‘novel’ at the family computer. Things like this muffle over time; the trance of childhood genius and passion is fleeting. But even throughout university, writing has been the thing that I’ve been most confident in, where I get excited about ideas and how to think them together, where I search obsessively to find a sentence cut to the measure of my mind. Academic writing, however, starts to become habitual, and the capacity for other kinds of genre and audience can fall away, just like the unselfconsciousness of my childhood writing.
When I started this newsletter, I wanted to give myself space to practice writing both non-academically and with more frequency. I wanted to refine my writing practice and hone my voice with more regular effort. But at a certain point, we run into the challenge of quality vs. quantity, and in the age of the Internet, the latter has a tendency to overwhelm the former. In trying to pump out content that was frequent, readable, and relatable, I found myself bound more closely to what I thought a newsletter should sound like, than what I really wanted it to. It felt a little bit like shouting out ideas, rather than rising to the writing challenge that I had originally set myself. I didn’t fix the leaky sentences, I let them sputter and cough. I didn’t indulge in language the way that I love to do, I foregrounded opinion (and trying to have the ‘right’ one). Convention trampled desire and beauty and experimentation.
In the last year or so, it has sometimes felt this way, like perhaps my writing practice is starting to curdle. In particular, I find it challenging to be honest — both in what I say, but also in how I say it. I remember taking a Creative Nonfiction class in 2018 where I asked “what happens if you don’t like your own voice?” This seems like the insurmountable question I run into whenever I try to write something these days — when it doesn’t work, it feels as if it is for one of two reasons: that I’m parroting somebody else and sounding false, or that if this is what I sound like, it’s not good enough to be seen.
A few comforting reminders give me a reason to keep trying, to find another angle, to drive back comparison and apathy. The first is a passage from Annie Dillard:
“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces […] The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph’s role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work’s ends.”
I recommend the entire excerpt, which comes from 1989’s The Writing Life.
Also, later in this edition, I talk about an excellent profile of the filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) that appeared in The New Yorker this week. In it, Sciamma discusses how she militates against the (largely patriarchal, capitalist) demands of conventional narrative art-making by foregrounding what it is about a story that she actually wants to explore:
“What Sciamma has discovered is a serious, disciplined way of doing what you want. The discipline comes from being strong enough to not do what you don’t want. The principle operates even on the level of process. Sciamma begins work on a screenplay by drawing up two lists: a “desired” list, of the images and the lines that made her want to make the movie in the first place, and a “needed” list, of the scenes necessary to advance the plot. She then merges the lists, mapping the desired elements onto the needed scenes. She used to make a point of shooting any leftover needed scenes. Now she just crosses them off. By following this procedure, she says, you can end up “in a position where you have two scenes you want, without the bridge you need.” Confronted by such chasms, in the absence of bridges, Sciamma has discovered new ways of cutting, new rhythms, and new narratives.”
In holding these two examples next to each other, I think about the concept of ‘desire lines,’ which come from urban design. Instead of laying down a path or road where designers think people will want to travel, they instead wait and watch to see how the earth gets trod down where people naturally move, without being guided. The paths then follow their footfall, not the other way around. To see how untutored desire makes new forms — this is the objective, the dream, the practice.
Reading: The aforementioned profile by Elif Batuman (author of one of my favourite novels, The Idiot) of the filmmaker Céline Sciamma for The New Yorker this week. I learned a lot more about Sciamma, who I would argue is one of the few contemporary feminist filmmakers who really lives up to that title. Batuman incisively captures what makes Sciamma’s work so thoughtful on the level of not just narrative but the questions that it asks the ways that life is sculpted by images. Writes Batuman: “Indeed, in a lot of movies, that’s what romance is—a woman enjoying being the object of a potentially offensive ‘drive’—and all you have to do to make it ‘feminist’ is show her leading a professional team first. (A depressing message: you don’t have to question power structures—just put the disempowered person at the top of the hierarchy in another scene.) […] What happens to sex if we get rid of power differentials? […] To put it differently: How do you amp up sexual tension without problematizing consent? […] As it turns out, mutual consent doesn’t preclude risk and mystery. Another person is always a risk and a mystery.” There is so much rich goodness in this profile about the process of making art from a feminist place; for instance, Batuman probes the overlap between ‘gender’ and ‘genre’ (in French, genre covers both, she notes), and asks whether all art (and life) necessarily has to be “based in rivalry and competition” (another passage that I loved: “that’s why Sciamma is an artist. She’s producing the images we haven’t inherited.”) I am so glad that someone is getting the opportunity to work out these kinds of questions and that other people notice and care about them. Sciamma’s new film, Petite Maman, is really tender and subtle, and I will forever be blown away by every frame in 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. / I also recently enjoyed reading Edith Wharton for the first time (the kid’s got potential!), starting with her novel Summer, a text that was written with a somewhat conservative moralising bent but that I think contains an impassioned affective force in excess of whatever closure tries to tamp it down.
Watching: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp! This is one of probably a dozen rewatches that I have done of this completely zany show that, while at times juvenile or gimmicky, is on the whole one of the funniest series that I’ve ever seen. For the uninitiated, this Netflix series is a prequel to the 2001 film, however, it stars the exact same cast — in other words, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, et al. who were in their late-20s playing teenagers when the original film came out, are here playing even younger versions of those same teenage characters, despite now being in their mid-40s. Jason Schwartzman, John Early, and Michael Cera join the cast this time around too. If you went to summer camp, you will recognise a lot of the antics, with many significant exceptions (including a government conspiracy between Ronald Reagan, the US military, and a chemical company to destroy the camp). Episode 6, “Electro-City,” essentially encapsulates my sense of humour.
Listening to: Deep Sea Diver’s album Impossible Weight. For newcomers, their NPR Tiny Desk concert is a charming introduction (there is a dog appearance!)
That’s all for now, BUT…. there may or may not be a bonus edition this week, pending the release of something that has been in the works for a while now and that I am looking forward to sharing. Watch this space (i.e. your inbox).
First Day of Camp is supreme
First all: 100% agree about the frequency and (almost) overwhelming mess of Saunders newsletter! Second of all: really loved this! So excited to read your newsletter every week with its clean, beautiful sentences!