Strange, isn’t it? I keep imagining that somebody is about to knock on my door, waking me up from a deep slumber some time in January of 2018. I’ll briefly puzzle over foggy visions of white confederates chugging water from plastic bottles on the capitol building floor as I shake the fog of sleep from my mind and go about my orderly day in an orderly world, unmarred by Disney-esque villains and battles for the survival of mankind.
But of course, that won’t happen.
I’m Sasha, and at some point you foolishly signed up to receive this, the fourth instalment of The Night Letters muahaha. Read on if you dare (and if not, unsubscribe here).
Robin Sloan recently wrote about the collimation of books. Collimation, as in: “to make (rays of light or particles) accurately parallel,” like, the photons in a laser beam. In Robin’s analogy the writing in a book is like collimated light: materials, imagination, and narrative all pointed in the same direction, rallying around a single objective, while the writing and thinking on the internet is like an uncollimated light… a glowing campfire throwing photons around willy-nilly.
I like this idea, and — just as in books — I think that time and creative energy can be collimated: the various projects, ventures, and other efforts that occupy life can point in a singular direction, or they can scatter haphazardly. In more colloquial terms, this is often referred to as “focus”, but I don’t think focus captures the gestalt of the idea; one can be focused on many divergent efforts and ultimately accomplish very little (I have often been guilty of this). This is not to say that collimation or singular focus begets progress on its own — it is probably possible to be too collimated (i.e.: over-focussing on a short-term objective like, say, perfecting a piece of work — at the expense of the long-term objective like publishing the work), but it seems like a useful tool all the same for thinking about the ways we spend our time.
2020, in hindsight, was a year of deep creative collimation for me as a writer: I committed to a nearly-year-long daily writing practice, began publishing this letter, published The Desk, and for months wrote and published two essays each week. If you had asked me a year ago if this would be likely — or even possible — I would have assumed you had suffered a brain injury. Yet, step by tiny little step, a year passed and all of these things happened.
And then November came along. It began — in the way Novembers often begin — with a crusade to tie up loose ends, finish unfinished projects, and generally button up the year. One such project, a project that I have written about in prior letters, was Saji, a series of small editioned and hand-printed notebooks for creatives.
I launched the project in only a few weeks in early December, a non-small feat that required — for me — what amounted to super-human discipline, and I now have 250 books to sell (minus a few purchased by some amazing and very supportive friends — Thank you!).
Of course, the adage “build it and they will come” has never been more untrue. In fact, reality is precisely the opposite. “Build it, build an online shop for it, then spend many, many hours identifying your audience, connecting with them, and telling them about it, AND THEN if they like it and if your timing is good they might come” feels more accurate.
Indeed, it has become clear that Saji will require far more ongoing effort (marketing, sales, accounting, etc) than I had realized. This probably amounts to — at best — an hour or two a day, and has highlighted a truism that is probably obvious to most but was not obvious to me: a venture needs to be able to achieve a certain (minimal) scale to support its own ongoing costs. In my case, break-even is only a few sales per month — which probably sounds like small fries. However, each month that I pay for such costs eats into my margins for the entire project. Thus, to justify having an online shop at all, I need to be able to generate at least enough monthly profit to pay for it. My hastily considered expectation was that I would sell these books slowly over time as this email list grew, but that expectation didn’t factor in the monthly cost of Shopify, or the glacial growth speed of an early stage email list. So I ran some numbers, and it appears that I am going to have to either: market the bejeezus out of the books (scary, time-consuming) OR produce other, lower-cost notebooks/projects that I can sell more of, more frequently, to keep the shop running (also, scary, time-consuming). Another option would be to franken-stitch together a lower-cost selling platform using something like Gumroad on a Jekyll site, but in that case I’d essentially be re-starting the e-commerce development work from scratch (still time-consuming). My final option would be to simply ignore any sunken costs and plunging profit margins, double-down on writing and publishing, and hope that things work themselves out. This last alternative, although perhaps not the most sound business practice, may actually be the right one as it would allow me to continue to focus on writing and activities that point at writerly objectives.
An interesting corollary to this question [of creative collimation] is that in order to decide to collimate one’s efforts toward a particular objective, one has to first define that objective; a classic case of “you can’t have what you want until you know what you it is.”
All this is to say that — as I begin 2021, I am thoughtful about how many different objectives exist in my life, and how I might prioritize the ones worth prioritizing.
Do Not Hurry, Do Not Rest
I didn’t manage to write or publish much in the latter part December, which I regret. After launching Saji and sending out the third edition of this newsletter in the second week of the month, I had mostly run out of steam and decided to let myself off the hook for any further output during the last few weeks of the year. While taking a few moments to catch my breath was not a bad idea in theory, it destroyed much of the momentum I had so carefully acquired: after nine months of writing almost daily I spent three weeks writing in spastic, occasional bursts, and it has been difficult to slip back into the good habits that bore me through 2020. I’m reminded of a piece of wisdom that seems to be loosely attributed to the 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “do not hurry, do not rest.”
On a similar note, I just finished reading Seth Godin’s latest book The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, which feels topical. I first heard about the book in Debbie Millman’s interview with Seth on Design Matters (as an aside, Debbie is a fantastic interviewer and I highly recommend her podcast).
I appreciated the mantra of the book, which is, à la Goethe: do the work, don’t stop for anything. In other words, be consistent. To this, Seth characteristically adds “do the work without expectation or desire or ego. If it succeeds, don’t stop. If it fails, don’t stop. Find your satisfaction in the work itself.”
I love this idea, as it reframes the effort of producing any kind of cultural contribution as self-sustaining, and reinterprets the relationship between creator and creation as one of mutual symbiosis: the act of creating as energetically feeding the creator, as opposed to creation purely as a servant to ego or a means to some sort of exogenous “success,” defined by fate or other uncontrollable circumstances. It’s a small paradigm shift, but one with large consequences.
In Alexander Chee’s (also great) collection of essays titled How to Write an Autobiographical Novel Chee writes about meeting the late, legendary Frank Conroy in the mid-90’s, then a figurehead and teacher at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. Chee had just been featured in Interview Magazine as an emerging poet, and Conroy congratulated him with these words:
“You succeed, you celebrate, you stop writing. You don’t succeed, you despair, you stop writing. Just keep writing. Don’t let your success or failure stop you. Just keep writing.”
The notion that output is more important than outcome seems diametrically opposed to the “data-driven,” “goal-setting” and “results-focused” manifestos espoused by many popular lifestyle gurus (which themselves are cultural hand-me-downs from capitalism). The central premises of The Practice feel more closely aligned with the buddhist philosophies of, say, Pema Chödrön.
In reality, there is probably space for both approaches. In fact, I think this is one of the best ‘read-between-the-lines’ premises of Seth’s entire book: that it is possible to both pursue outcomes/set goals and at the same time, to let go of the need to control those outcomes.
While I love listening to Seth speak, I find his writing style to be somewhat redundant and certain concepts to be a little oversimplified. This actually makes his books better suited to audio format than to written form. He narrates all of his audiobooks on Audible himself — so listening to one is like listening to an extended interview or talk.
On Being an Asterisk
Despite taking most of December off, I did manage to tie up one soon-to-be-published essay, titled “On Being an Asterisk and Following Through”. What is an asterisk? You might ask. It’s somebody with a large number avocations, rather than just one; an individual who chooses to engage deeply — both professionally and otherwise — with a broad set of interests. In short, it’s me — and the essay muses about what it is like to have too many callings in a society that expects its members to live, and to define themselves, by just one.
From the essay:
We accord significant respect to professional activities and time invested in “career”, even going so far as to allow these occupations to subsume our personal identities, while everything else takes second place (the perennial ice-breaker “what do you do for work?” is particularly revealing). […] Yet, mastery is a product of practice and attention, not a product of one’s ability to make a living off a particular avocation. We lionize specialists, and even exalt the combinatory power of the T-shaped individual. But what of the asterisk?
I had a hard time figuring out how to represent the central subject of the essay; the nearest obvious descriptor being “generalist,” which didn’t feel right (generalist implies basic knowledge of a wide range of subjects rather than deep pursuit). I wanted to describe something more akin to the T-shaped professional, but with more than one stem. The asterisk seemed like a good representation.
I merely tiptoed into this analogy, but the parallels are so rich that I had to, at multiple points, stop myself from cannonballing into the depths of punctuation history and derailing the entire piece. From Keith Houston’s remarkable Shady Characters on the history of the asterisk:
In the third century BCE, at Alexandria in Egypt, a librarian named Zenodotus was struggling to edit the works of Homer into something approaching their original form. I say a librarian, but really Zenodotus was THE librarian, the first in a long line to be employed at Alexandria by the Ptolemaic pharaohs. Many spurious additions, deletions and alterations had been made to the Odyssey and Iliad since the time of their composition, but Zenodotus lacked the tools to deal with them. As such, he started drawing a short dash (—) in the margin beside each line he considered to be superfluous, and, in doing so, inaugurated the field of literary criticism, […], The asterisk, in turn, was created by one of Zenodotus’s successors [and] denoted duplicate lines.
Houston goes on to describe how, in surviving through millennia, the asterisk acquired a cacophony of additional roles and functions, from calling out misplaced sentences, to linking text with marginalia, and calling out footnotes, before finally resting on the symbolic suggestion that “there’s more here than meets the eye.” Then — magnificently, tragically — it developed a spurious reputation that seems to have persisted into aughts in the wake of the 1961 Roger Maris/Babe Ruth baseball controversy. It would seem that the asterisk, in both literal and figurative form, is equal parts hard-working and hard-done-by. It’s enough to make a writer weep.
Plans for 2021 are thin, as much due to the infancy/neediness of the creative projects under my purview right now as to the uncertainty/sketchiness surrounding travel and — well — everything else. But, all else aside, I am looking forward to twelve months of simply — or, to borrow a favourite adverb from Mr. Godin — merely doing the work: the boring, mundane, repetitive, rhythmic work. I am looking forward to putting in the reps and continuing to build good habits. I have some ideas for this newsletter and for some exciting new projects, but am doing my best to be mindful of spreading my efforts in too many directions. So in lieu of anything else, I look forward to — with as much joy and humility as I can muster — enjoying the practice.