You hear a lot about the need to vary your sentence lengths. Yes, of course. But my No. 1 piece of advice to fellow writers is simply to shorten the fucking things first. Shorten those sentences! We’re drowning in run-ons and clunky junk-drawer punctuation. Stop!
One thing I started doing this year was to focus on a single author’s books for an extended period of time. This began with Richard Ford in June and July; his four Frank Bascombe novels were what I was reading when Louisa was born. It was a top-tier reading experience for me, and Ford’s wry voice on the page will forever be attached to the early, bleary-eyed days of life with Lou. Not for nothing, I think at least two of those books rank among the “Great American Novel” echelon.
Now, it’s onto Denis Johnson to close the year. Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams, Already Dead and, currently, Tree of Smoke. What I like so far about his stuff is that he doesn’t sit in the sentimental or the transcendent for too long. Instead, he merely grazes the veil before pulling back into the dark, malfunctioning American reality we all know so well. You learn pretty quickly as a writer that all the meaningful schlock about life has already been said before, that the deftest move is to reinvent those familiar melodies in a voice that might connect with someone else’s mind. This is, after all, largely what love is: the syncopation of rhythms. Two melodies linking arms in verse. And this is what makes reading such a joy.
So, I’ve loved the madness in Johnson’s work. Reading his voice is good for the winter, I think, like throwing logs on a fire. And I dig his attitude, his posthumous mystique.
“Writing. It’s easy work,” he wrote. “You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape . . . Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”
I’ve noticed in the past week or so, I’ve lost a number of followers on Twitter. This isn’t all that surprising; in the wake of Elon Musk’s acquisition and ascent, people are leaving the platform in droves. That’s fine. I have no plans to leave in some showy, pompous exit. I just… don’t give a shit about the corporate direction of the company. It’s just another fucking company making increasingly self-interested decisions. Social media is a cesspool, and, yes, Musk’s influence and management decisions will probably dial up the more vile aspects of Twitter, but it’s always been, at any given point, a variation on that same cesspool you find anywhere else “on social” these days, where, N.B., most readers are still finding the journalists they end up following. At any rate, Twitter is where I’ve built my most engaged following. (I almost typed “folly” there.)
My more immediate reasoning for not getting the hell out of Dodge is that, whether the users are the product or not (and they are), my approach to Twitter has always been to cultivate my account as a) my own news wire service (inbound media) and b) my own publishing platform (outbound media). Twitter is very effective for those needs.
I look at each of my own tweets the same way I look at any feature I’m submitting to an editor. Twitter, to me, is an act of publishing. It’s very simple. Not to sit atop a high horse here, but I gather that this view isn’t shared across the platform (and maybe that’s the start of the problem). Twitter’s worst tendencies aren’t simply due to its corporate structure or its CEO’s whims; you see the most negative elements of Twitter come out in how other users themselves grasp the platform, in how human nature manifests in 280 characters or less. It’s easy to laugh at the idea of a journalism degree, but those four years gave me a nuanced, detail-rich foundation for how to approach publishing, for how to approach the concept of “audience.” This is not small potatoes, but now everyone and their uncle fancies themselves a publisher with an audience (though they wouldn’t say as much). Disregarding the ethics of journalism or even the emerging field of the ethics of goofball shitposting on an individual level can certainly end up harming the group. Musk has nothing to do with it.
To me, Twitter is a laboratory for the writerly voice. You’ve got constraints in character count, and you’ve got what tends to be a limited but engaged audience. You can really hone your skills as a writer! My stuff has mostly been a mix of earnest journalism, self-promotion (duh) and a stew of irony, satire, non sequitur and tongue-in-cheek schadenfreude with a chip on my shoulder for good measure (hey, I live in Northeast Ohio). This laboratory function is important and helpful and creatively freeing for a writer (or a designer or whatever).
Above all, I’ve written my 20,661 tweets because it’s been fun. It’s a creative outlet, and there are plenty of ways to disregard the more sinister corners of Twitter. This is the same rubric that guides most of my writerly ambitions and career choices: It has to be fun.
Maybe it won’t be fun at all, and very soon, if everyone bails. If, as some have predicted, the trolls multiply and jam up the wire for good. Who knows? (I mean, that will probably happen, at which point Twitter will cease to be fun, and I’ll have my own answer. Maybe even as I write this, I feel the tug toward more direct-publishing platforms, like this here blog I’ve nurtured.)
But, of course, all that aside, the incoming rule of Musk should give any self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” pause. I consider myself in that crowd, and, these days, it’s a quickly shrinking crowd. I tend to associate myself with (egads) the ideas in the infamous Harper’s letter. This is… not a popular thing, especially on Twitter as it stands today. But I think the ideas shared in that letter are critical to understanding broader shifts in mainstream media, Twitter included.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” according to the signatories. “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
What Musk is suggesting is more of a technocratic approach to freedom of speech, some sort of flatlining of content moderation. The principal worry is that hate speech will proliferate. You see this worry manifest among the liberal wings of the audience, those users fearing far-right rhetoric and calls for violence, and, yes, those trolls will probably be let back onto the farm if they’re not there already (I see “The Jews” is trending on Twitter this morning). But what this worry/argument against Musk does in the short-term is redefine “free speech” as “right-wing savagery,” something along those lines. With such a large audience and such a visible position of power, Musk’s free-speech rhetoric is being recast by that very large audience as a paean to MAGA World. Seen through that lens, free speech is bad! Very bad!
You see how this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for those generally on the left, those most vocal journalists/users on Twitter The more we wring our hands over this concept, the more we fall into the trap decried by the Harper’s letter—the trap that suggests a narrowing of public debate and a freewheeling shame-fest over even the most mildly dissenting opinions.
Again, it helps to remember that Twitter—and social media as a hyperobject—is a cesspool of the worst human tendencies already. The problems with Twitter are already hardwired into the platform. Leaving Twitter for apparently greener pastures isn’t the solution to the problem, as inevitable as it may be.
Even as I type this admittedly brief overview of my thoughts on Twitter’s corporate directives du jour, I realize how completely out of my hands these arguments will remain. The train has left the station! Musk’s takeover of Twitter is the very zeitgeist of the early 2020s. And the exodus that follows? It’s all of a piece, all an example of the vanishing marketplace of ideas and of the great homogenization of American media.
This happens all the time: Someone asks for something (“Can you toss me the remote?”) and you gently, swiftly, accurately throw it across the room to him or her. More often than not, the item lands precisely in the other person’s hand, right?
It works the other way around: You tend to catch, with ease, any sort of small object that another person throws toward you.
Those things happen even when neither person possesses any natural throwing/catching skills. This isn’t a pair of professional infielders here. This is you and another person we’re talking about.
Now, maybe it sounds like I’m making a lot out of a little, but the point is that this natural no-thought action is a helpful way of looking at the things you’re actually skilled enough to spend time doing. If you sweated over the physics of throwing that remote across the room (beneath the ceiling fan, hitting just the right angle), well, you’d probably fuck it up and break a window. If you don’t think at all and rely solely on the present moment’s will, I bet you’ll hit the target and move on readily with the next thing the day has in store for you.
“Perfectionism” gets you nowhere. Executing a sense of self-trust and self-confidence, however, will deliver you exactly where you want to be.
In what is mostly a melody-driven tune fingerpicked by Oliver Wood on a 1930s Stella parlor guitar, the listener of “Little Bit Sweet” is rewarded with Jano Rix’s cymbal work on the bridge (2:52 – 3:01, with Oliver singing “Then she blinks / the moment’s gone”). That’s the release, the point at which the song lifts off the precipice and floats wingsuitedly toward denouement. The point is that the cymbals make the song.
The cymbals can be anything in your story.
It’s not difficult to see that much of the modern experience of life, at least in Western societies, has been gamified to some extent. With the rise of self-conscious digital avatars and social media platforms, most of life’s duties are now filtered through some sort of “account,” one which often involves numbers and an audience. The better your performance (whatever the game may be), the higher your number (friends, U.S. dollars, deadlift weight, etc.), and the greater your audience’s level of engagement.
These are status games, similar to any other competitive game like chess or baseball. The goal is to win, somehow, and the game must be played within a set of constraints. In these games, human freedom is not a meaningful attribute. Justin E.H. Smith writes about this, distinguishing these games from the more abstract and creative sorts of games like peek-a-book or charades.
What games are you playing today?
It’s worth thinking about. Smith writes/warns that machines are only capable of playing the competitive status game, the game with prescribed rules and guardrails. That makes sense on face value, and it’s something to keep in mind as “machine learning,” that vast and vague term, seems to accelerate. As machine learning accelerates, my guess is that competitive status games will proliferate further. Trends we’re seeing with digital avatars and social media platforms will ramp up: Soon, life will be dominated by those games (as if it doesn’t yet feel that way).
But the other type of game is deeply important. James Carse calls them “infinite games,” as opposed to the “finite games” of competition and status. Infinite games are not meant to be won; they are meant to be played forever, meant “for the purpose of continuing the play.”
The complicated experience of life is an infinite game, even in the shadow of death. A machine, I think, cannot understand this. But what do I know?
“Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries,” Carse writes. I read this as two ways of conducting yourself across that apparently finite/infinite experience of life. “Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”
I don’t think that the two ways of conducting oneself are incompatible; finite and infinite players can get along, and probably must in the course of a workday or in line at the bank. But these are very different visions of an unspooling reality. It’s worth thinking about the distinction of these many games before we get too far along in this century. Finite games may swarm across the land, but infinite players can still find ways of playing their game: The game, after all, is everything.
“Only that which can change can continue: this is the principle by which infinite players live,” Carse writes.
I like taking stock of the things in motion around me. In traffic, this is good and vital. In the rest of life, this amounts to frequent “reality checks” (am I awake? am I dreaming?) and an awareness of the new stuff generated by my ongoing interests. If all that glurge about life being a journey rather than a destination is at all true, then this is one example of the engine propelling me forward on the journey.
What does that mean?
Today, I’m spending the morning catching up on last night’s Phish show in Mansfield, Mass. I’m also watching the third round of the Open. I didn’t watch last night’s Guardians game (and probably won’t rewatch it or anything today), but I’m reading up on highlights from the 6-5 win over the Tigers. They play again at 4:10 p.m., so maybe I’ll catch the first few innings and see how Cal Quantrill is looking. Those are just three examples from the past 24 hours.
On the surface, those things (and more) are very important to me. Phish, golf, Cleveland sports. Sure. But what I’m trying to say is that it’s helpful to use objects in motion as a way of staying grounded in the present. As Phish tour rolls on this summer, I can follow along and stay rooted to the moment. It’s July 16; there’s a show in Bangor, Maine, tonight, and there’s last night’s show to check out. Separately, of course, there are decades of Phish shows to experience, but it’s the present moment that interests me most.
The Open, one of four majors in professional golf, is not only fascinating this year but places me in a richer summertime context. I feel part of something.
And it’s baseball season. The passage of the Guardians from one game to the next is just an echo of my own day-tight compartment transformation. Following the narrative keeps me tagged playfully to my own story.
That story including, naturally, the first six weeks of Louisa’s life. Having a child, I’m finding, is the ultimate story and a perfect illustration of what I think I’m saying here. Each day is different, even if the journey is a singular object in motion.
I’m setting up a new Macbook Air (always a joy, this process, though I’ve only been through the “new laptop” phase a few times) and transferring bits of data from one computer to the next. Along the way, I’m logging into old apps or sifting through old folders, stumbling over all sorts of long-lost files of writing. Lots of this stuff is just note-taking, pure ephemera, and while I have no problem quickly deleting the whole of it and moving on, it’s fun to pause for a minute and read through clips of my voice ca. 2013 or so.
What’s striking is how little the form of this work has changed. I tend to think the writing itself has only gotten better, and this much I can tell from the snippets of poetry or odd novelistic sentences that I’m finding. There’s a sense in this old business of mine that I was reaching for something beyond my grasp, reaching for a voice that hadn’t yet been chiseled into life. It’s nice to read what I wrote years ago, the forgotten words of a restless younger writer. It’s nice to know, too, that I’ve improved (maybe).
The bulk of this writing, however, is the classic list-making that I still do, and that’s where the similarities really shine. What I was tracking and noting and reminding myself back in 2013 is, in many ways, the same sort of thing I’m observing in myself now. These are largely my stray thoughts on meditation, alcohol, diet, music, travel, journalism, etc.: goals, on some level, but also merely fleeting notions about how to approach certain parts of my day-to-day existence.
Even now, in 2022, I’m dialing in my approach to casual note-taking. I use a hardcover 5×8.25 Moleskine (dotted) for most of my needs, although I’m switching to an A5 LEUCHTTURM1917 with this next notebook (also dotted). The LEUCHTTURM is a bit larger, but the paper stock seems commensurately stronger. It came recommended by none other than Neil Giaman.
For day-tight compartments, I like a simple legal pad. The day’s list of tasks comes and goes. Better to keep it to a throwaway-type medium.
I use digital stuff, too, mostly the Notes app on my iPhone or emails to myself. The email thing is clunky but efficient for more immediate reminders. The Notes app is nice for tracking certain trends over a longer period (books I’m reading in a given year, repeatable grocery lists, etc.). I suppose that’s largely what this website is, too.
Of course, this is all subject to change. I found some of my old notes in Evernote, which I may bring back into my routine now that I’m in set-up-the-new-laptop mode.
I’ve had “write roe v wade blog post” in my notebook for the past few, what, days or weeks at this point, and I just haven’t found a spare moment to get it done. Partly that’s because we’re four weeks into little Louisa Shea Sandy’s life and she is quite a handful (more on that in a moment). Partly, too, that’s because I’m routinely distracted by more engaging, more immediate, more joy-propelling topics. Maybe that sounds self-centered, and I suppose it is. But writing about the U.S. Supreme Court’s enactment of theocratic and fascist goals is… not my favorite idea in the world right now. I’ve been writing about the American turn toward this movement for the past five years or so. A lot of what I’ve written about has come to pass. I don’t think that makes me much of a seer. It’s just so painfully obvious that this country is sliding in one damnable direction.
At any rate, Jia Tolentino has that angle covered well.
What I figured I might do is take a page from Andrew Samtoy’s notes and write a “June” post. (It’s “July” now, but so be it.) Plenty of wonderful events took place last month, and this simple frame is just the thing I need to get a few thoughts down on paper.
First things first: Louisa was born at 12:20 a.m. ET on June 5. She’s now about five weeks old and having a grand old time. Our days are mostly structured around her gentle approach to life, her nascent yearnings, her attempts at understanding what, precisely, the hell is going on here. “Where am I?” she asks with her eyes before giving up a subtle, perhaps involuntary smile and acceding the point. She’s right where she’s supposed to be, and aren’t we all?
What is life like with Lou? She moves between the waking world and the dreaming world with ease. Thankfully, she’s sleeping much better than we could have hoped. We’re getting a good eight hours of sleep most nights, typically split into two segments by a 3 a.m. wake-up. And we’re all sleeping in the living room together still, kind of camped out on couches around the basinet, giving each night a fun, communal feeling. That phase will probably come to an end soon, and we’ll move Lou into the crib, and already I can sense that parenthood is as much about endings as it is about beginnings.
I felt for a long time like my life was leading up to this (first to college, then to my career, then to marriage, then, finally, to this experience of being a parent, all while knowing that there’s no such thing as a plateau in life). Now that I’m here, each moment and each day feels amorphous. We move from one interaction to the next, like waves on the surface of the sea. In that way, everything I feel and know and see and touch is beginning and ending at once. There is no way to capture the present moment. You are the present moment. A child somehow knows this, I think, although I also believe that part of a parent’s job is to then teach that lesson back to their child (after their child has first taught it to the parent).
Just now, we had her on the colorful alphabet mat for “tummy time,” and she gave it her all: lifting herself off the little rainbow pillow as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” played overhead, building her neck muscles and taking stock of the living room (and the overbearing hounds roaming around her). It’s astounding to watch her do something that she hasn’t done before, to see her smile in new ways or react to something in her line of sight. These are the early days, and the engagement level is overall pretty low, but it’s exciting beyond belief. She is making herself up as she goes. Even just the feeling that there’s another human living in our home is a depth of awareness that’s startling in its novelty and meaning. I find it rejuvenating just to look over her, or to come up from a few hours of work and hold her.
In other news, I read three books in June, and then went on to finish two more in early July. It’s been a good run of books lately, as I find time in between spells with Little Lou (or, thanks to the convenience of a dust-collecting Kindle, while I’m holding her) to plow through a few chapters. Here’s what I’ve read so far:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford.
On Writing by Stephen King.
Independence Day by Richard Ford, the second Frank Bascombe novel that follows The Sportswriter, and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Naturally, as of this morning, I’m about 50 pages into The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford, the third book in that series. There’s a fourth Bascombe book, and a fifth one in progress, allegedly, and I kind of enjoy getting caught up in this multi-generational series.
I could see how an avid reader might leap at comparisons to John Updike’s Rabbit series, although Ford is quick to point out in interviews that his wide-lens profile view of America is written in first-person, but nonetheless I see this as a distinct masterpiece in its own class entirely. And it’s fucking terrific writing! This first book covers the question of “dreaminess” and “living within one’s own self.” I’m sure I’ve read other books that navigate such matters, but nothing so clear as this one.
Independence Day covers what Bascombe calls the “Existence Period” of his life, a phase defined by a willed acceptance of life’s curveballs. At a certain point in life (and, here, Bascombe is in his mid-40s, though it could arrive at anytime), the younger man’s dreaminess no longer holds any meaningful value. It is no longer helpful to wish for what-life-might-be or for what life might seem like. We have good days and bad days, and they hold about equal weight in the long run. One must exist actively through them, come what may. In doing so, life transforms the individual completely. The individual gives himself entirely over to the hazards of life. Consider this, in Bascombe’s telling, the divorced man’s Stoicism. After everything else has come to an end, what else is there to do but live?
As a happily married man with a one-month-old daughter, Bascombe isn’t super relatable, per se. But the way he sees the world meshes quite well with how I’ve looked at my past, present and future, to say nothing of everyone else out there. Bascombe is a good, somewhat unreliable narrator (though he’s at least upfront about it), with a knack for cultural critique and sardonic observations about the human condition. To anyone wiling away the summer in need of good fiction, I recommend Ford’s stuff.
Prior to his tragic exit from this plane, Matt Kuhns set a few pieces of writing to publish after his death. One is an extensive catalogue of citations, each one underscoring the responsibility of certain “climate wreckers” in the vast public understanding of our planetary crisis. This is not a short list of links; rather, it is a damning indictment, and it should be read as such. “A little over 16 years ago,” he wrote. “I started keeping a list of people and organizations to blame for the ruin of a favorable climate, and all the pain and misery which will accompany that.” It’s a fascinating piece, one that could only come together through sheer commitment to craft.
Matt was a staunch supporter (and ardent, whip-smart critic) of independent journalism. In his writing, I saw a fellow traveler. He wrote about American delusion and about the merits of working together for a better future. Over at his blog, he frequently linked back to my own writing on those subjects, and we traded ideas about societal collapse via Twitter. He had a keen ability to communicate his ideas on several levels at once: the immediate, the long-term, the internal, the external. This is rare in digital media, especially in the small-pond feedback loop of local leftist political voices, such as he swam here in the Cleveland area. My sense is that Matt was mostly well known for his local political activism and his astute commentary on, e.g., the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s rhythmic missteps. I tended to see in his work a set of deeper, more global concerns.
I first met Matt when I was a beat reporter in Lakewood, covering City Hall and the school board. His coverage ran circles around my own, and he struck me as a fine example of how one might approach political reporting. When I worked at Scene, he provided regular comments on my work and my colleagues’ work. He was honest in his assessments, especially when we missed the mark, and he always held up the paper as a beacon of truth in Northeast Ohio. That meant a lot to me.
Really, though, I’m writing this to highlight the writing he did at mattkuhns.com. I saw tendencies that reflected my own stuff here at ericsandy.com. (I don’t mean to purport to speak for him, but) I saw a drive to get thoughts down in writing, to commit lofty ideals to paper, if only for his own sake. He was a good writer. I admired that drive. He was curious about how the world worked, and how his own life intersected with those strange machinations. As I dug into his own writing, I felt the tug of a voice further down the rabbit hole of hope and eudaimonic aspiration.
The last piece I wrote here, a few months back (!), was about discipline. From what I could tell, Matt brought that to his writing. His voice should remain an inspiration to anyone toiling away on the difficult struggle of ideas and words and the grand sweep of history.
And to anyone feeling the burdensome weight of that struggle: please drop me a line. Know that you are not alone, however small of a consolation that seems. I’d like to assure you (and myself) in my own fringe way that, yes, joy is present.