Getting yourself out of the way

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I really enjoyed hearing the director and writer Adam McKay—who has made not-fiction movies like The Big Short, Vice, and a forthcoming Theranos movie, as well as entirely fictional comedies such as Anchormandiscussing creative process on the Longform podcast. It was a little exhilarating to hear him discuss the complexity of producing work in this moment, the feeling that happens when inspiration hits you, and his belief that there are a million ways to tell a story (and that the right way now might not be the same as the right way in a few years.)

One critical lesson, I think, was that when you make something great, it’s partly from you, but it’s bigger than that—it takes on a life of its own, and your job is often to just get yourself out of its way. Which captures, I think, why any of us make anything.

“Sometimes you do a project and then you look back and you’re like, Ah, shit. I let some of myself get in the way of that. It sucks, but it’s also a part of it. And there are so many times where you’re excited that the story did take off, the wind did catch the sail and it went off on its own. And that just feels so good that it far outweighs the times when you make a mistake, or let something go wrong, or too long, or hit the wrong tone. Which is going to happen. There’s no way around it. But those times when it all just catches perfectly—it’s just so exciting that you keep doing it.”

Revolutionary music

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It’s become a kind of folksy, cheesey number over the years, but did you know that the Cat Stevens (AKA Yusuf) song “Father and Son” is actually about the Russian Revolution?

I was a little bit amazed to hear in a recent episode of Song Exploder how the song had started its life as part of a musical about the overthrow of the Tsar in 1917. It’s intended to be a conversation between a young man who wants to go and fight for the revolution, and his peasant feather who wants to stick with what he has worked for.

This isn’t a secret or anything. Here he is talking to GQ last year:

I was living in the West End and musicals were a big thing in my life. I got together with Nigel Hawthorne and we started writing this musical called Revolussia. Essentially, it was about Nicholas and Alexander, the last tsars of Russia, and against that there’s another story about this family in the farmland, in the country. And the father, of course, basically wants to keep things as they are, while the son is really inspired by the revolution. He wants to join. And so that’s the inspiration for that song. That’s why I’m able to represent both sides – though I feel that my preference, my emphasis, was on the son’s side, and the father’s arguments were not quite as strong as the son’s, which is interesting. Change is basically the theme of the song.

It obviously don’t change the universal nature of the song, but it did change it for me—suddenly music that had felt as warm and familiar as an old coat gained this new and surprising context.

(Also highly recommend the Netflix series if you haven’t already seen it.)

Desolate, playing the piano, and wailing

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Just the sheer joy of Big Boi explaining how much he loves Kate Bush.

“I just always thought of her as like Phantom of the Opera, somewhere living in a big castle with this big piano that was ten times the size of a regular piano, just playing the piano all day with sheer curtains blowing in the window—she’s almost like Rapunzel but on the top of a hill somewhere, just in a castle, desolate, playing the piano and wailing.” (via Austin Kleon)

Five things I thought about when reading that gigantic New Yorker piece on Covid-19

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Beyond “this thing is long.”

Even though things have been shit, we got really, really lucky.
The story doesn’t just detail the many things that went wrong as the virus emerged and various countries struggled to deal with it—including China’s reticence to admit anything was wrong, the WHO’s complete miss, the CDC’s testing debacle, failed leadership from the White House and so on. What came through to me was how there have also been a set of scientific bets going in our favor that could have landed a completely different way. The speedy development of vaccines has been because this virus just happened to fit a set of circumstances we were sort of prepared for. That’s a little bit of judgment, but a lot of luck.

Lawrence Wright has some great lines.
Wright is a master of stories that pitch the reader up against powerful, dark forces that need to be viewed up close to be understood: His famous piece on Scientology wasn’t just great reporting, but really got at the friction and bullying in the cult. I remember how eye-opening I found his profile of Ayman al-Zawahari, which is nearly 20 years old now, for fuck’s sake. This story has a few moments that stuck out to me: describing the covid protein spike as an erection that has to be suppressed, which my mind cannot unsee; his images of Deborah Birx driving cross-country; a metaphor of the pandemic as an unwanted dinner guest.

Telling a story like this is hard.
In journalism, “tick tocks” are stories that recount an event. The giveaway is that they focus on chronology, and lots and lots of New Yorker stories use the form, or tip their hat to it even if they aren’t always true tick tocks. The cliched opening: “On Wednesday 25 July, 2018, Brenda Hubbard, an astrophysicist in Brooklyn, was walking her dog down the street when an accident changed her life.” The New Yorker generally mixes the traditional tick tock style with the explanatory feature formats, and this story does the same—plus mixing in some personal stuff from Lawrence Wright’s own experiences of the pandemic. Working out how to tell this story must have been impossible: Wright says he filed more than twice the final length, and to be honest it feels like it’s been edited down. There are so many individual scenes and characters, and the chronology bounces backwards and forwards, and the personal moments sit a little oddly. It’s just too big a story for even the whole of the NYer feature well.

So perhaps some ideas are just too big for a single article, even a really long one.
Most of the memorable stories from and about the pandemic have done one of two things for me as a reader: they answered a burning question, or they helped me grasp what was coming next (Sometimes they do both.) I think that’s what Ed Yong did so well over at The Atlantic: he started asking questions that people were having and produced . (You can hear Ed talk a little about that in this episode of the Longform podcast.) Wright’s story was comprehensive, but to me it didn’t really do either of those things. If its motivating question was “what went wrong?” then it felt too big for a magazine article, even one that was more than 30,000 words. I could have devoured the whole book, each section expanded into a whole chapter, each character a fully-realized study. I’m not sure that’s anyone’s error, though: the pandemic itself is just a story too big to hold in your hand this way. (Even more so, I think than legendary previous single-issues like Hiroshima.)

It’s easy to get things wrong. This didn’t.
After reading Wright’s piece and feeling only partially satisfied, I then saw Nicholson Baker’s piece in New York on whether SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab—which, by comparison, was wild-eyed and reckless. I was disappointed in that story and its presentation in ways I have yet to fully express. We’ve had such a lot of great journalism in this pandemic, truly, that Baker’s story—a piece of “Big, If True” memealism that cherry-picked its way to a vapid conclusion and pretended its shit didn’t stink along the way—reminded me that it’s hard to make it look easy.

I’ll never complain about somebody filing long again

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Link / Media

“At roughly 31,000 words, the article is as long as a novella, roughly five times the length of a typical major magazine article.”

“Mr. Wright, a staff writer at The New Yorker for nearly three decades, initially turned in 76,000 words. “I have an appetite to go into depth,” he said in an interview. (He added, with a laugh: “I get paid by the word.”)”

From the New York Times’ short note about the Lawrence Wright New Yorker piece on the pandemic.

Books I read in 2020

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A lot of things were hard this year. We had it better than many, better than most. No serious illnesses here, mainly just sadness and loneliness and tedium stitched together with moments of dread and panic. But those are all things that you can cope with. In my head, they were circumstances you could adapt to, even if you didn’t like them. People are capable of a lot.

But the change that probably surprised me the most was reading. At the beginning of the year, I’d promised myself to try reading an average of one book a week. This was a little bit up on the last year, but seemed doable. Then, when the pandemic hit, I just got blocked. I barely even picked up a book for three months, and certainly didn’t finish one. I was overwhelmed, busy as hell, and all my reading energy was going into Right Now. It wasn’t so much a loss as it was a symbol of how little space I had to think or act normally. I laughed at my earlier self, the fool.

When I realized how much this affected me—how much it reflected back my weaknesses—I picked up again and tried quite hard to catch up. Helped by some judicious choices, some demanding work reads, and inspired by John Lanchester’s review to start working through the entire Maigret series, I started making steady progress, and then as my sanity returned that turned into remarkable progress.

As of today, so far, I close read 53 books. It really was stupid to keep trying, and I’ll be kinder to myself in future, but I can say it kept me going.

Here’s my top five.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is riveting and tight. It’s a novel about a boys’ reform school in Jim Crow that took what I thought I knew about boys, about reform schools, about race and cruelty, and turned them into something different.

In a year of loss and grief, there was something almost mystical about The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. In writing about how her life fractures and collapses after the death of her husband, she captures the personal and the universal. But in the context of the pandemic, it took on another voice, too. We all break sometimes.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of a series of books I read this year that took similar forms: uneasy collections of short stories or novellas that verged on horror. It was the one that stuck with me the most, a tale of people who are wrestling with dark things they struggle to understand and control.

I had to read a lot of books about the food system as I researched this recent essay, but the most useful guide was the seven-year-old Feeding Frenzy by Paul McMahon. It walks through everything that works well about food and everything that doesn’t and connects them together.

And finally, I read a few books this year that dealt with modern life, but somewhat clumsily. In a year of reckoning, though, even the most heavy-handed felt appropriate. Suddenly their flaws became obvious when I read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections. The stories in this collection were so sharp and carefully-built that they just left me breathless. I only finished it a few days ago, so maybe it’s recency bias, but I don’t think so.


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A few months ago, in a session to generate ideas for our upcoming Food issue of Technology Review, I asked a question that was troubling me: Why do people still starve?

Starvation, hunger and food insecurity seem to me the most troubling symptom of our inability to actually make societal progress. For 100 years or more we have seen widespread revolutions in almost every part of the food system, and we’re generations into trying to prevent hunger—yet even when levels reduce (and they are not always reducing) it’s desperately far from eliminated.

The World Food Program won a Nobel Peace Prize this year: meanwhile hundreds of millions of people are hungry or starving, and there are kids in even the most developed countries who don’t get enough to eat. (This recent New York Times Magazine photo series by Brenda Ann Keneally was physically painful to read.)

As often happens when you pose a question in an editorial meeting but don’t necessarily have a good answer on the spot, I ended up trying to tackle it myself. Fortunately, there are many very smart people out there and, in the last year or two, there have been a few really, really good books that tackle some of the questions about the past, present, and future of the food system.

The result was this essay on why people starve.

The answer, really, is because the system lets them. It needs some people to be on top of the pyramid, and others lower down.

Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of farming is unevenly distributed. First Western farmers were catapulted into hyper-productivity, then the nations touched by the Green Revolution. But progress stopped there.

Today, a hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces just 1.2 metric tons of grain each year; in the US and Europe the equivalent land yields up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in poorer regions lack the natural resources, necessarily (West Africa has long been a producer of cotton), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.

Jokers de luxe

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Chelsea: Olivier Giroud must start against Newcastle and often afterwards

I learned about them this week: They’re called the the joker de luxe in France, the expensive players brought into a football match as a late substitute to try and change the game. There doesn’t quite seem to be an English language equivalent: they’re a super-sub but they’re costly; your aging star who gets paid a packet but can’t hack the whole game.

We probably have them in workplaces outside football too. Great phrase.

Handmade and hygge

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Things my friends have made

Loved this John Willshire talk about a way of conceptualizing and mapping projects that he uses. The content is interesting to me (planning projects is really something I could get 1000% better) but I enjoyed it most for its presentation. It struck me as a great example of what making an effort can feel like in this era of Zoom presentations and conferences.

So many events really haven’t changed their approach—just ported it online—and those who do alter their style to adapt end up creating something that feels YouTube shiny and over-polished. But John’s presentation really drew me in, without being flashy. A perfect combination of well-told, informative, personal, and cosy.