Creating with less

April 18. We’ve had magnetic poetry stuck to the microwave for several years, but I’ve purged piles of magnets the last few times we’ve moved, so the selection of words is very limited—but this restriction has been freeing. And overall, during this period of isolation, I’ve surprisingly found productivity and efficiency with less. Even as I work shorter shifts each day, I seem to focus and get stuff done (and when we get to the other side of this, I will be a big proponent of shorter work weeks). I’m reminded of Emilia’s newborn months, when she slept on my chest in between breastfeeding sessions—all day, all night—and the writer in me came alive in short spurts yet long Instagram captions, often in the middle of the night, in between the moments of my new life as a mother and milk machine. I have not typed furiously like that since, but over the past month as we stay home, I’ve experienced wee moments of creativity from these silly word magnets and other unexpected ways, like Emilia’s coloring books and other random things around our house. I’ve also reached a point where I can now stare at the wall as she falls asleep on my arm and the circular imperfections of wood on our doors look like faces in Dr. Seuss books. So thank you for the little bits of inspiration, Day 41.

The internet

Patricia Lockwood travels through the internet in “The Communal Mind,” first read aloud at an LRB lecture at the British Museum. I’m not sure how to describe this piece, and you may really love it or really hate it. But it’s really something.

SHOOT IT IN MY VEINS, we said, whenever the headline was too perfect, the juxtaposition too good to be true. SHOOT IT IN MY VEINS, we said, when the Flat Earth Society announced it had members all over the globe.

Horizontal reading in our digital age

While the ideas in it aren’t really new, I still enjoyed Mairead Small Staid’s essay in the Paris Review on reading in the digital age of distractions.

On the “heightened state brought on by a book”:

This state is threatened by the ever-sprawling internet—can the book’s promise of deeper presence entice us away from the instant gratification of likes and shares?

On the horizontal reading (surface skimming) of the internet, which is the opposite of diving into a book:

What I do when I look at Twitter is less akin to reading a book than to the encounter I have with a recipe’s instructions or the fine print of a receipt: I’m taking in information, not enlightenment. It’s a way to pass the time, not to live in it.

We know perfectly well—we remember, even if dimly, the inward state that satisfies more than our itching, clicking fingers—and we know it isn’t here. Here, on the internet, is a nowhere space, a shallow time. It is a flat and impenetrable surface. But with a book, we dive in; we are sucked in; we are immersed, body and soul.

Yelping Oakland’s underground past

Found this post on “Yelping Oakland’s past” via the “I raved in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’90s” Facebook group (which is one of the only reasons I still have a Facebook account, tbh). I love this, thinking about the history of the warehouse rave scene in Oakland scattered about the internet in the form of Yelp reviews and whatnot. I immediately recall the sfraves list and other resources from back in the day… If I had any sort of motivation, I’d write more about this, but we all know I don’t!

Even before the post-Ghost Ship crackdown, sharing information online about underground party venues was generally frowned upon (don’t blow up the spot), so there’s a confounding irony in these faux pas surviving as the only bits of accessible information about these spaces. And while Yelp currently does not remove pages of “businesses” that have closed, it’s easy to imagine this policy changing. If it does, a whole slice of Oakland history would fade even further into obscurity.

Writing anonymously

Read a lovely essay by Stacey D’Erasmo at Literary Hub about the freedom of writing with no byline, no fear, no ego. I love this bit:

Again and again, I found that when students wrote without their names, much that was awkward, dull, strained, and frankly boring fell away. It was like watching people who thought they couldn’t dance dancing beautifully in the dark.

Cruising the Antarctic

Stumbled on Gluten Free Antarctica on Idle Words this morning. Best thing I’ve read all week. I was going to add it to Longreads, but it doesn’t quite fit as a story pick. (But I don’t know, maybe it does?) Can’t decide what to excerpt, but here’s a snippet. You just have to read the whole thing.

The accusation hangs in the air, unanswerable, and Mary starts to cry. These are angry tears, tears that demand gluten-free justice. The single piece of corn toast she has been allotted for breakfast lies mute on her plate, an affront to God and man.

Rodney convenes a summit in the ship’s auditorium to address the gluten crisis. Only passengers with dietary restrictions are invited. The rest of us must huddle around the open hatch one deck above, straining to hear. We are deep in the Ross Sea, five hundred miles from the nearest human being, and this is the most exciting thing that has happened on the ship in weeks.

There are tears of laughter on the bridge when I tell the Russian crew about the Great Antarctic Glutiny.

“You mean if this woman eats bread, she will die?“

“Not really. She just gets sick.“

“Yuri, come here! You have to hear this. If she eats bread, the woman will die.”

“She won’t die. Gluten causes digestive problems for some people. But it’s also become a sort of health fad.”

“What is ‘gluten’? Is that even a Russian word?”

Underwhelming

I recently returned from a work trip. And I was reminded, once again, that I’m not a conversationalist. Those who know me well, and even those who have met me once, know this. Compared to other kids, I was quiet when I was little, but as I grew up, I came out of my shell — a cheerleader in junior high, student body secretary in high school, constant partier and socializer in college. I’ve wondered, though, if all the drugs I’d done through my late-teens, 20s, and early 30s ultimately mellowed me out, or even rewired my brain. But there was always a reservedness there, an observant nature, and a belief that I didn’t think it was necessary to speak unless I had something meaningful to say. Small talk has never been my thing.

Meeting me in person is underwhelming. A handful may not agree, as over the years I have clicked with some people on this earth. But for the majority of people I meet, especially over the past decade, I leave no real impression, except maybe for the fact that I seem more interesting on my blog or Instagram or something, and in person am incredibly disappointing. Sometimes I want to apologize to people, or warn them in advance the moment I meet them — I just want to let you know, this is all there is to me, just this moment right now, as I smile or shake your hand or give you a hug. Nothing more. I’m not witty, lovely, outgoing. So please, let’s get that out of the way so you’re not disappointed later.

I might be quiet, and it’s not that I’m shy, or bored, or angry. Oftentimes, the more articulate and affable people around me — like my husband, for one — say things that I might have said, so I don’t have to say them. And sometimes, I think my thoughts are uninteresting, so why bother saying them and calling attention to myself?

Most often, however, I’m quiet because it takes me a while to absorb information. I have a hard time shaping and articulating responses during conversation, and I think it’s gotten worse with age. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve formed a response to a question or discussion days later. My thoughts flow better on paper, but telling stories in person? I can’t. I don’t retain information and remember things I’ve read — I can’t for the life of me tell you the key points about an article I read yesterday, or the essay I edited for work recently, or share details of events or stories that have happened to me in an engaging way.

I’ve mentioned some of these challenges to my husband, but I’ve never written about them, nor admitted them to anyone, really. I’m not sure why, but I suppose it’s because I’ve succeeded so far in many aspects of my life — school, friendships, work — that these deficits haven’t seemed to hold me back or impinge on my success.

My current job allows me to work remotely full time. Teams communicate primarily via text-based communication like Slack channels and asynchronous discussions on private group blogs — and now increasingly through Zoom video meetings, which mostly make me anxious, and remind me of all the meetings I used to attend at my past jobs. But our general approach to distributed work and text-heavy communication is one of the reasons I applied to the company over five years ago — it seemed like a work environment that allowed people to communicate in different ways, and as I reflect on some of my bigger career and academic decisions — like proofreading marketing materials in solitude at a college campus, or enrolling in a low-residency writing MFA program that I completed mostly at home — I have unconsciously gravitated toward roles and settings that have made it easier for me to communicate, and thrive, in my own way.

I’m glad to have had these options. But as I get older — and the grooves in pieces of wood get smoother and deeper — it’s quite easy to stay cozy in my shell.

Patricia Lockwood on writing now

Snippets from “How Do We Write Now?” by poet and essayist Patricia Lockwood, on writing in our age of online toxicity and distractions:

The first necessity is to claim the morning, which is mine. If I look at a phone first thing the phone becomes my brain for the day. If I don’t look out a window right away the day will be windowless, it will be like one of those dreams where you crawl into a series of smaller and smaller boxes, or like an escape room that contains everyone and that you’ll pay twelve hours of your life for.

The feeling you get after hours of scrolling that all your thoughts have been replaced with cotton candy — or something even nastier, like Runts or circus peanuts — as opposed to the feeling of being open to poetry, to being inside the poem, which is the feeling of being honey in the hive.

That the line in you will one day be memorized by other people, even repeated by them silently as they brush their healthy teeth.