Below are a few things that I felt were worth appending to my February 19 post.
I watched the first one, a talk by the journalist Mónica Guzmán, a few hours after writing that last post, and it seemed to add some shape to my somewhat clumsy thoughts and advance them a few more steps. Also, while the whole of the excerpt below really struck me, the last sentence, I must admit, stung a bit. And that is a good thing.
I've been a journalist for 15 years. And I've only recently realized that most of my thousands of interviews are something many of us crave and few of us encounter: conversations focused on understanding without judgment. People say that listening is about paying attention. Being present. And these things are critical to good listening. But they're not what listening is about. Listening is about showing people they matter. And the way you show people they matter is by aiming your curiosity at them. Ask yourself, "What kinds of people do I talk about, but never with?" Whoever is underrepresented in your life will be overrepresented in your imagination.
Why did it sting? Because it seems both correct and like something I might be guilty of. On the one hand, living as I do in Thailand, there are a lot of people who occupy a lot of space in my imagination that are not very well represented in my life. On the other hand, "What is life?" And I don't mean that in the unanswerable (but still important to ponder) philosophical sense, even though I also don't know that it's possible to separate my question from that deeper inquiry. But I'm asking in more practical terms.
Is reading a book life? Is choosing liberally from the vast ecosystem of things to read online life? Is watching a documentary life? Are podcasts life? If you do your best to allow for the widest possible diversity of thought and experience to reach you through these channels, which are at least presented by life, if not actually life, are those thoughts and experiences and people represented in your life, or is that still just your imagination at work? I don't know. But in any case, I think the greater the array of people and views that we allow entry, the better. So another question we might ask ourselves: Are you doing your best to allow for said entry?
Mónica Guzmán, TEDxSeattle
The second addition comes again from the writer and trusty beacon of warmth and hope George Saunders.
"But you just said diversity something something," you might be saying to yourself. "Are you now saying, very hypocritically, diversity shmiversity something something!?!?!?"
Yes and no. Yes, because this is in fact the same George Saunders whose thoughts I've already shared numerous times at Think List and elsewhere. And no because I can't help whose ideas rise to the top (i.e., come to mind) on any given day. And also no because more people and their views are forthcoming. Remember, this is an addendum.
Like I said earlier, Mónica Guzmán's thoughts gave a little push to the thoughts I'd already put in writing. This happens pretty much every time I commit something to writing. Which probably explains why the urge to write never really goes away. There are always new movements and developments. Or old ones that had been forgotten or overlooked until the new ones came along and said, "Remember?" So here's one of those old ones that Guzmán's talk led me back to. As you'll see, it covers much of the same ground I touched on in my last post. But I think it holds the big idea together better than I was able to.
Once again, Saunders is talking about writing. Or art, more generally. But that’s not to say that any of this is less applicable in “real life.” Isn't life art, too? Don’t think so? Then find me a better poem than life. Name one.
From A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
Imagine you’re on a date. Feeling insecure, you’ve brought along a set of index cards. You know: “7:00 p.m. Inquire re childhood memories”; “7:15 p.m. Praise her outfit.” Now, we can do that, but why would we? Well, anxiety. We really want the date to go well. But every time we glance down at our index cards, this is felt by our date as disengagement. And she’s right: we’re leaving her out of the process.
Our anxiety has made us crave a method, when what the situation demanded was some moment-to-moment responsiveness to what was actually happening (to the true energy of the conversation).
Those index cards are the conversational equivalent of a plan. A plan is nice. With a plan, we get to stop thinking. We can just execute. But a conversation doesn’t work that way, and neither does a work of art. Having an intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme, “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking—then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” And we can add to this my mangling of whatever it was that Einstein actually said, which I rendered earlier as: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”
If we set out to do a thing, and then we (merely) do it, everyone is bummed out. (That’s not a work of art, that’s a lecture, a data dump.) When we start reading a story, we do so with a built-in expectation that it will surprise us by how far it manages to travel from its humble beginnings; that it will outgrow its early understanding of itself. (Our friend says, “Watch this video of a river.” The minute the river starts to overflow its banks, we know why she wanted us to watch it.)
So, why the index cards, on that date? In a word: underconfidence. We prepare those cards and bring them along and keep awkwardly consulting them when we should be looking deeply into our date’s eyes because we don’t believe that, devoid of a plan, we have enough to offer.
Our whole artistic journey might be understood as the process of convincing ourselves that we do, in fact, have enough, figuring out what that is, then refining it.
George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain