All I Want

After a couple extremely chaotic late-night email threads at the start of our collaboration on Seacritters, Kate and I quickly agreed that the best thing to do would be a weekly phone check-in where we could talk about story issues, share sketches, and debrief on any notes we’d received from our editor. I’m not used to working in cahoots with this many other people, and I find it overwhelming keeping everyone on the same page, so the ritual of a weekly call seemed both helpful and necessary.

This morning’s was only vaguely concerned with the book, though. We talked about story questions for about thirty minutes and then just…meandered off. We covered a lot of ground (Commonplace Books! Patreon! Gesture drawing equivalents for writers! The Emperor’s New Groove!), but the thing that really stuck with me was the phrase “This was time well spent”.

Kate said it, and it set off that little zing in my brain that registers as truth. This is what I’m looking for, when I draft things or draw things or design things, no matter how tangentially related they might be to my primary aim. And when I’m in a rut, as I am now, it’s often because anything I lay my hands to feels divorced from any context that might make it “worthy”.1

On the good days, everything feels connected—a giant wall of conspiracy string. But on the bad days, every gesture and thought sits in isolation. It’s like I’m looking at the same board, but someone has turned off the layer containing the string. Rather than an electric galaxy of potential I just see…a mess. Disorganized, aimless, futile.

While I would love to be in a position to turn that layer off and on at will, sometimes it’s out of my hands. Those are the moments when I miss the drip-feed of social validation that comes from sharing things on public platforms. It’s a steady piping cry of “Yes! Keep going! This matters!” that can make all the difference between enthusiasm and despair. But I don’t want to rely on it. I don’t want to give away that kind of power.

Talking to Kate got me excited again about ideas that had, only yesterday, seemed dull and lifeless. She made me think that it might not be about the public validation at all. It might just take an enthusiastic co-conspirator to say that it all matters. Everything is new to somebody.

This was time well spent.

1. The whole question of what constitutes worthiness in a creative practice is another matter entirely.

A Cleverist

I’ve been thinking a lot about about cleverness these last few weeks and how central a thing I think it is in the people I’m drawn to, but also how the term is often used in a slightly perjorative sense. And then of course here comes Ali Smith again just wrecking my shit out of nowhere without a care in the world in the last chapter of There but for the:

“Then she asked Mr. Garth did he really think there wasn’t anything wrong with being cleverest. Top of Mount Cleverest, Mr. Garth said. Brooke laughed. Then Mr. Garth said really slowly:

the fact is, that at the top of any mountain you’ll feel a bit dizzy because of the air up there. Cleverness is great. It’s a really good thing, when you have it. But there’s no point in just having it. You have to know how to use it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it’s not that you’re the cleverest anymore, or are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it’s a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.”


Literary Archipelagos

Last week, in a moment of Peak Bellwood Weakness I signed up for an online class/study group called Literature at Sea: A Brief History of Existence. The facilitator shared something in today’s intro call that I can’t believe nobody sent me when it was released back in July. It’s called An Ocean of Books and it looks sort of like this:

A screenshot of the homepage for An Ocean of Books. It shows a pale greenish blue chart with a mass of tiny, tan islands spread across it. They're loosely grouped by subject: History, Science, Novels, Classics, etc.

This “poetic experiment” was made by Gaël Hugo during his time as an Artist-in-Residence at the Google Arts & Culture Lab. It pulls from the entire Google Books library and uses a bunch of (I’m waving my hands vaguely here) technology to generate a chart of Author Islands whose distance from each other is determined by their relationships on the web.

The site’s a little awkward in places, but I find the whole concept delightful. The weird aesthetic mix of pixelated game art and old nautical chart elements!1 The playful mechanism for revealing keyword searches within a bank of fog! There’s also little factoids beside various islands, like this gem about Maurice Sendak:

A screenshot from A Sea of Books showing a drawing of a boy riding a horse. The text beside it says The original title of Sendak's famous book was Where the Wild Horses Are but he couldn't draw horses. So, when his editor asked what he could draw, his reply was Things.

Anyway, I spent a lovely afternoon poking around in here, but what it really got me hungry for was a similarly attractive way to organize one’s own library for others to explore. The trouble is that I’m just not moved by reading lists—even ones curated by subject. I’m a visual thinker, and I need to make a big mess and tack a lot of red string to the wall before I can truly understand how all these ideas are contributing to the electric pinball machine.

I don’t want the map to be dictated by an algorithm; I want to play cartographer.

I rediscovered a piece of technology this week that might hold the key, but I’m saving it for now. You’ll just have to wait.

1. Fun pedantic terminology fact: if it’s to do with the ocean, it’s a chart, not a map. Yes, there will be a quiz on this later.

The Electric Pinball Machine

I finished Ali Smith’s Artful in bed the other night at 12:42am. I didn’t mean to. I’d told myself I wouldn’t. But I did, because every new page contained something that made me yell—actually yell—in the dark of my room and I’d already blunted my pencil with furious underlining and I couldn’t believe one person could weave so many wonderful threads into a cohesive whole.

This is the deep and abiding pleasure of the thing: to be introduced to new secrets—inducted into them, even—while also catching sight of familiar friends. Sometimes you read a book this rich before you’ve encountered enough of the source material and it just feels overwhelming. Other times the author will quote a phalanx of people you’re already familiar with and it’s…tired. The same quotes from the same famous figures. Nothing new.

But Artful…woof. It hit me just right. Just rich enough, just new enough, just familiar enough, just fucking weird enough to wrap me up in a giddy sense of total intoxication.

You know when you meet someone whose brain operates in way you find totally engrossing and energizing and you just want to spend all your time watching them cram things together into new and impossible forms? It’s like that. The mere fact of their existence grabs you by the shoulders and seems to bellow “If you’re not doing everything in your power to live in this electrifying pinball machine all the time then what are you even DOING WITH YOURSELF?”