How We See, How We Write

I can’t remember how, but George Packer’s “The Enemies of Writing” piece from The Atlantic (January 2020) came across my path last week.  The essay is a re-write of an acceptance speech given upon Packer’s winning of the Hitchens Prize.  While I don’t know much about Christopher Hitchens, his name has popped up frequently over the last couple of years.  Packer starts the piece with some remembrance of Hitchens, who became his something of a friend and sparring partner to him as they wrote back and forth in disagreement.  He then wonders if the world of January 2020 (which feels like a lifetime ago already) could even handle another career like Hitchens’.  Thus the topic: the enemies of writing.

He starts with belonging, acknowledging that

. . . writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to . . . Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.\

Then he mentions fear he feels “pervading” his professional world:

The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.

The last “move” in the piece involves his recent experience teaching a journalism class at Yale.  He finds their approach to journalism different from his own experience.

My students have come of age during a decade when public discourse means taking a position and sticking with it. The most influential writers are those who create a dazzling moral clarity. Its light is meant to overpower subjects, not illuminate them. The glare is so strong that readers stop seeing the little flaws and contradictions of actual life, and stop wanting to—they have only to bask in the warmth of a blinding glow.

Which, on some level, sounds very attractive.  Until you get to the “overpowering” and “blinding” part.  But maybe that’s because I relate more with another place in the timeline:

Between my generation and that of my students is an entire cohort of writers in their 30s and 40s. I think they’ve suffered most from the climate I’m describing. They prepared for their trade in the traditional way, by reading literature, learning something about history or foreign countries, training as reporters, and developing the habit of thinking in complexity. And now that they’ve reached their prime, these writers must wonder: Who’s the audience for all this? Where did the broad and persuadable public that I always had in mind go? What’s the point of preparation and knowledge and painstaking craft, when what the internet wants is volume and speed and the loudest voices? Who still reads books?

I how true that is in general of these age groups, especially when considering the “middle” segment that avoids extremes in most circumstances.  (Although “avoiding extremes” might be a big part of our current problem, really).  And how do you move forward when groups of people, be they writers or teachers, have such different approaches to something so vital?

There’s a lot more in the piece that makes it worth a good read.  He says a good bit about certainty, which is always an interesting tension for the Christian writing from a place of confident faith.  And that’s also where “settled convictions” come into play.  The piece is also a good reminder of the events that have shaped journalism over the last twenty years, especially in the context of fear and belonging.  You can read the whole thing here.  I like how he ends things, with a clear reminder of what writing should be:

Meanwhile, whatever the vagaries of our moment, the writer’s job will always remain the same: to master the rigors of the craft; to embrace complexity while holding fast to simple principles; to stand alone if need be; to tell the truth.

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Sunday’s Best: Nancy’s Changing Mind

Ever since it’s “reboot” a few years ago, Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy has done an admirable job wrestling with the current moment.  And while it seems like technology has been a big part of Nancy’s narrative, there have been a number of other strands that have been equally potent.  Today’s strip does a great job connecting with our current struggle of how we think about things in general.

Nancy's Changed MindThe question of resistance is an interesting place to land.  A big part of the struggle, for whatever side you might be on, is acknowledging that everyone has presuppositions.  And beyond that, to bring Alan Jacobs’ How to Think into this, everyone has settled convictions, too.  How do we navigate conversations when those things are called into question?  How do we not condescend or patronize?  How do we choose our framework well?

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After a summer of comic strips and television clips, I’m hoping to get back to some more meatier content this week.  Today’s Nancy strip is a nice springboard into tomorrow’s post, which will also be about arguing.  We’ll see where we go from there.  (But if there’s a great clip from this week’s Stargirl or SHIELD episodes, you’ll definitely see a clip or two).

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Thinking Abroad

CountrysideOver the last few days I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the Lake District in England, mostly because I’ve found accounts on Twitter that regularly post pictures of hikes and walks that they’ve been taking.  It’s compounded, of course, by the fact that I won’t be getting to England or Scotland this fall break, which is unfortunate but what the times require.  And now I find myself watching Steve Coogan’s The Trip on Hulu, which is a movie about two friends traveling the restaurants of the Lake District.  It’s mostly about conversation and the scenery, which is of some comfort.

It’s been something of an education, of course.  Turns out that there’s a small community that takes pictures of things like stiles (the entrance into certain fenced-in/gated areas) and snecklifters, the metal devices that open and close the stiles.

It’s easy to get lost in the pictures found on sites like this one, which is a log kept by a Lake District walker since 2013.  Amazing.  I always enjoy going to the Lake District with students, though we never get to the elevations that walkers like the ones I see online.   But it’s something to daydream about and look forward to some day.

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Don’t You Forget about SHIELD

I mentioned earlier in the week that the most recent episode of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD found Mack and Deke trapped in the 1980s.  As with every episode of this season’s time-hopping shenanigans, the show makes good use of the culture of the time . . . maybe a better use than previous episodes.  Two duo quickly split up and stay apart for a good chunk of time.  When Mack finally comes back around and answers a summons from Deke, things really get interesting.

Agent Coulson, seemingly blown to smithereens in the last episode, makes a comeback as a kind of Max Headroom.  And there are some nice nods to a very 80s blend of sci-fi and horror.  It is, perhaps, the least SHIELD-y episode of the season so far, which makes it an interesting contrast.  It will be interesting to see if the humorous aspect of the episode has any long-term repercussions for the show by season’s end.

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Perspective and Timing

A wonderfully-rendered classic Calvin and Hobbes strip, I must say.

Calvin Perspective and Timing(image from gocomics.com)

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Remembering Places and Times

I have to say, as nice as it has been to find a cafe or restaurant to sit and read some, it’s been the return of background music.  Over the last few months, I haven’t listened to music much accept in the apartment, so it’s been nice to revisit songs that have been around for a long time and will most likely still get airtime in restaurants and shops for years to come.  It’s almost allows for a subtle twist in the time stream.  Some songs, of course, do it more than others.  And I find the gap between now and the most recent “then” continues to widen.  But I recently came across an over-a-decade old favorite that was recently performed “live” by the original artist.  It’s a great karaoke song, which is another thing that we won’t be doing anytime soon, I suppose.  Like a comment under the video, it’s nice to go back to 2004-2006, when this song was everywhere.  Almost as if Keane was planting a mindworm for fans with “Somewhere Only We Know” as “anywhere this song gets played.”

I remember it also being a lot of fun to play on the piano.

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Building Brainpower

This premiere season of Stargirl has had an interesting pace storytelling-wise.  Most of the main characters have been at play from the beginning, though some in bits and pieces.  Some things haven’t happened yet (Courtney’s mom works for who?!) while other things have moved quickly (she’s knows Stargirl’s identity and calls her out in her own house?!).  But now we’re turning into the final third of the season, which means some wildcards will be thrown into the mix.  Like the character of Brainwave.  Here’s the preview for next week’s episode, which bears his name.

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The Highs and Lows of Summer

On some level, it seems like summer is over almost as soon as you get used to it.  And yet, while it lasts, it is good.  Not perfect, mind you, as Frazz reminds us this week.  Sure, you’ve got great things like fresh lemonade, but then you’ve also got other things that can really just bug you.  Here’s the good:

Frazz Summer GoodAnd here’s the bad:

Frazz Summer Bad

I’ve got just over two weeks left before reporting back to school officially.  Time has flown by even has it has crawled by an hour at a time.  I find writing here really shouldn’t wait until the end of the day (which is why there are so many comics), but it’s difficulty getting my thoughts together.  But maybe I can get something a little more consistent together before vacation wraps up.

(images from gocomics.com)

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Sunday’s Best: What’s at Steak

Finally got my good burger this morning.  A day late, for sure, but that’s okay.  Today’s Frazz tied America’s passion for the grill with the American Revolution.  An interesting juxtaposition for the day.

Frazz Steaks(image from gocomics.com)

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The Charlie Browniest of July 4ths

I mentioned a few posts ago that the classic Peanuts strip over at gocomics.com had Charlie Brown wearing a bag on his head while at summer camp . . . which worked out to his favor.  Well, a couple of days the bag came off, making the story intersect with the Fourth of July holiday.  No fireworks here.  No burgers and chips.  Just Charlie Brown on a hillside asking the deepest of questions.

Peanuts July 4

Tomorrow’s Sunday strip won’t pick up with the thread, of course.  It’s a “Snoopy fishing” gag.  But hopefully Chuck will get a good conclusion to his summer sometime soon.

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