Meeting the year ahead
No real resolutions, as usual, but I'm hoping to reframe my perspective with a little help from writers and artists who have echoed my desires.
Hello! I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Happy new year, friends & readers!
I’ve taken a little time to settle back into some semblance of a routine after the festive celebrations, being the sort of person who needs time to recover from any lack of time to myself, no matter how much communing together was enjoyed (and I enjoyed it a lot, despite grappling with a slight undertow of negative emotion entirely of my own making). Anyway, in my moments of introspection since, I thought it would be good to kick off the year with this letter.
As you’ve gathered from my Landmarkings series, I keep a haphazard “commonplace book” on my Notes app, where I can easily search for something when I want to recall it. So, instead of resolutions (I hardly ever make them), I’ve dug back in to remind myself of some words from other writers, documentarians, and creatives that I hope will guide me through living, writing, and embracing the world in the upcoming year.
Many of them express contradictions I have long grappled, and continue to grapple, with—and I hope you find something in here too that serves as a handhold in these challenging, but always interesting, times.
“She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic—be feisty, and bold.” —Mary Oliver1
“If we listen to criticism too much, it inhibits our ability to say anything, which is, after all, why we’re here.” —Ellen Barry
“I’d say one of the biggest contributors to procrastination is having too many options. […] By limiting your options, you are allowing yourself to invest more of your energy to being creative with those options that you have. […] I find that a lot of people, particularly artists, who have a hard time choosing a direction in life are people who take their decisions very seriously. I think that the very fact that you fear making a decision—taking a step in your life, something very definitive in your life—is because you have integrity, isn’t it? That you take your choices, you choose your words, carefully. […] Redefine the word commitment.” —Adam Duff2
“I’m a contrary person, and generally respond badly to being told what I should think, or how I should feel. Some writers are magnificently polemical. I am not good at being so, although the nightmarishness of our current political and environmental situation is spurring me to try harder to do so. What I have sought to do instead is offer readers complication and wonderment, as well as vantage on the issues that burn around us.” —Helen MacDonald3
“I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.” —Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers
“Does affecting one hundred lives turn you on? A thousand? A million? A billion? Why? What does it mean to have a positive impact on a life? How intimate does that connection need to be? Understanding your scale—the scale that moves you—is critical to understanding with whom and how you should work, how you should live.” —Craig Mod
“The inner life is the child who flourishes in a quiet and non-judgmental space. The inner life has very little currency in a social setting but it is precious. It can’t be found in anyone else, and no one else can see it. It’s a secret. To quote Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: ‘But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.’” —Sam Chang4
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting a writing career—just like there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious, or on Twitter—but when it comes at the expense of the thing, the fucking thing you’re here to do, then you’ve gone about it all backwards. At some point, you have to ask where the question of survival ends and the question of ego begins. Are you making decisions to satisfy your craft? Or the part of you that wants to feel good about yourself?” —Carmen Maria Machado
“It depends what you’re trying to do with your life. […] If the goal is just success, then maybe it’s consistency. If the goal is an interesting life, it’s flexibility.” —Alec Soth
“Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us.” —Tim Wu
“‘There is a very human impulse to want to hoard love and affection even on a platonic level—a kind of scarcity mentality,’ Aminatou Sow, a co-author of Big Friendship, told me. Afraid of losing our closeness, we might call someone a ‘best friend’ as a kind of protective incantation, a declaration of our commitment that comforts us but doesn’t leave much room for complexity or change. When a friendship inevitably evolves and best doesn’t fit anymore—at least not in the same way—that feels less like growth and more like loss.” —Jaya Saxena5
“I believe that remaining in a state of comfort—all of the time—is a subtle form of torture. You’re in that sort of gray space of never rising above or below your baseline of stability. To me that’s horrible. It’s the equivalent of spending all day and all night in an air conditioned office. Living like that would slowly drive me mad. I like the highs and I like the lows, I guess. I enjoy both of them.” —Robert Moor6
“To revisit the past from a comfortable distance, this time with a clear moral map—it’s reassuring. It feels good. We practice imagining ourselves on the right side of history. But then we’re practicing being on a side, when we need to practice being lonely.” —Hilary Plum7
“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to live in this place between the two, to try to build a life there, because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the futile self-protection mechanism. But on the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. And I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope.” —Maria Popova
I hope you crossed over into the new year in good health and cheer, hand in hand with your loved ones.
Dear readers, being able to take you with me, every step of the way, means a great deal. So please sign up if you would like to receive more letters like this in your inbox and to support my writing and curiosity. You can also make a paid subscription. Thank you! ❤️
A reminder to self not to be too bogged down by ideas and thoughts, but to come out of one’s head sometimes and, indeed, “frolic”!
W.C., who is a concept artist, very intentionally shared this with me 😆. Not that I didn’t know this about myself before. But it’s a still-needed reminder to dive into projects I feel sufficiently strongly about, instead of worrying whether I’ll lose steam and change directions. Commitment breeds commitment; and if not, I guess I would have done something good for a season. Perhaps I need to think more in seasons.
I have been thinking that so much of the problem with today’s modes of persuasion is the preachiness of the approach, despite backing a sound message. I’m still grappling with how to write effectively about our world today, with all its problems.
To return to the spaces that lie between the “facts”, the meaning we can make of them—to apply a little more creativity, imagination, and experimentation to life and work.
I have been thinking a lot about community and friendship, my changing views and habits on them over the course of my life and how my relationships have evolved, and what kind of daughter and friend I’d like to be going forward.
I’ve also said it before: I’m both a creature of comfort and, for lack a better word, an adventurer—equal sides of the same coin. I enjoy having a season of being a homebody and a season where I go out into the world and test myself against it. And even when I can’t always say I’m enjoying myself every second in the discomfort zones I put myself in, I always, always, find the experience rewarding after.
To be comfortable holding to one’s own principles publicly, even if they are not widely held. To think, really, for oneself—backed by the personal effort of discovery.
A constant project of mine to just be present. I fear I will forever be aspiring to this!