It's almost March. How did that happen? Lockdown and restrictions continue to render time almost meaningless here yet it marches on regardless. Well, it actually seems to sneak quietly by in the hope that we don't notice.
I'm going to mix things up a bit with this letter and jump straight into talking about Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs. I mentioned last time that I had just started it, once I got used to his style (quote academic when compared to the likes of Atomic Habits) I found it quite an easy book to read despite my initial fears.
Jacobs argues that society is increasingly presentist, obsessed with the thoughts and ideals of the current age. The notion of using the past to inform the present, of using it as source of knowledge, is widely derided and dismissed because our ancestors were not enlightened in the say way we are (yeah right!) and uneducated, unrefined, almost an insult to our current mode of thought. When we do look back it is usually through 'present-coloured' spectacles and only interpreted with respect of modern values and concepts.
The comparisons to cancel culture and the #metoo movement were striking — how can we like or enjoy someone's work if we resent the person or their beliefs even, or especially, if those beliefs we find abhorrent are only a small aspect of the person? How do we reconcile the good with the bad? As Jacobs discusses we default to negative selection, instantly dismissing something because of its flaws rather than seek to acknowledge its strengths. It's just easier that way, we don't have to expend any energy arguing the toss. But how much are we missing out on if this becomes our de facto behaviour?
We cannot instantly forgive something because it was "of its time" or was the norm — if something is wrong now the likelihood is that is has always been wrong — but, equally, dismissing something or someone purely based on our current values does us a disservice because we do not properly explore why this was the mode du jour. Ignoring the past because we don't like or agree with it denies us the opportunity to truly understand it and learn the lessons that it teaches.
I'm not entirely convinced that is lives up to the sales pitch that "engaging with the strange and wonderful writings of the past might help us live less anxiously in the present" but it certainly gives us food for thought.
My next dalliance is with No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin — a series of her blog posts, gathered here and categorised for ease of consumption. I wonder if such curation might lessen the joy of discovery — blogs aren't meant to be organised in this way, they are a natural, organic growth of thought but I can see why this would be done from a literary perspective. Regardless, I am eager to dive into the meat of this.
I wrote last time out that I was going to delve into a little more detail on the writing project — It's Only Words... — I'm still strangely reluctant to call it a book. Maybe it's because of the anticipated length (only 20 - 25 thousand words) or that calling it a book seems a little over-ambitious for what its actually is.
Perhaps it's just that little nagging voice in my head that I still need to silence.
Back in ML10 I mentioned my blog post from a couple of years ago about my "Lessons Learnt from a Year of Writing." The last letter saw me detail how I've been getting down to some genuine writing (by the time I send this it will have been 19 days in row) and expanding on the content by including blog posts. This definitely goes beyond just a single year of writing but the threads begun backing 2014 really set the scene and much of it is extracts from a number of the daily posts.
To give you a better idea of what it's all about let me give you the provisional/current chapter list to show how it's all mapped out:
- What is writing?
- Like any other habit
- Our own inspiration
- Big ideas, little ideas
- Everything is derivative
- Identity is fluid
- What is authenticity?
- Trigger and therapy
- Writing and the truth
- Balance and burnout
- Writing changes people
- We should all write
I keep calling them chapters, and I suppose they are, but they are really lessons — my own personal takeaways from throwing words on the page/screen over an extended period of time. Some things were reasonably obvious but others have only come to light in the years since, most noticeably the causes of and my reaction to mental health issues. The two chapters primarily dealing with this — "Trigger and therapy" and "Writing and the truth" — will likely cover very similar ground so may be merged if I don't feel there is enough to sustain both.
At the time of writing this I am working my way through "Everything is derivative" which, along with the obvious, discusses our mental block on originality. Is it pride or vanity, or is it a realisation that nothing is truly ours? Maybe that scares us.
Here's the start of the chapter:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
There is nothing new under the sun so why do we bother? That quote, if you didn't already know, is from the Bible and if there was nothing new then what chance do we have now with millennia of recorded history behind us? Well, we bother because it is in our nature to seek the new, the alternative, to find ideas and stories that better reflect our world view. Times change and so do we.
We yearn to create, to have big ideas and for those ideas to be truly original but this very yearning for originality causes so many problems, stops us dead in our tracks. It goes hand in hand with the quest for perfection — something else that is almost impossible to achieve yet we hold ourselves to such standards. We wait for original, we wait for perfect and so never get started; it's as though we would rather do nothing than demean ourselves with something derivative.
As that develops I will cover the dichotomy of seeking to isolate ourselves from external influence versus acknowledging and embracing what has come before.
Over the coming weeks I intend to share more snippets from various chapters and discuss some of the points I make to give a better insight into where I'm going with all of this. Obviously, any input or feedback as we go along would be welcome and appreciated.
It feels good to finally be doing this after 6 years of inaction and doubt. It may not be a masterpiece but that's not the point.
And that's it...
In closing, I wanted to link to Ryan Holiday's 100 (Short) Rules for a Better Life. On the whole they are sound snippets of wisdom but I don't agree with them all, particularly the following:
- The present is enough
- Have kids
- Don’t talk about projects until you’re finished
In mentioning the present he is talking about being in there hear and now — we can't change the past and the future hasn't happened yet — but, considering the discussion about "Breaking Bread" above, we can benefit from looking at the past and learning from it to shape the present and, hopefully, guide us towards a better future.
While my wife and I love being parents (albeit with the usual trials and tribulations) I'll freely admit that it's not for everyone. Holiday says being a parent is your most important job. While that's certainly true for those with who have kids maybe not everyone should — some just aren't parentally disposed.
As for not talking about projects — well, d'uh! I'm a firm believer that you should Show Your Work, maybe not everything but enough.
And that's really it, apart from mentioning this being posted on a Saturday rather than Friday but I don't think it makes any difference.
Until next time,
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