Annotations on how we make sense of the world and tell its stories.
A photographer on the road
Lynsey Addario in her memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War.
But after years of witnessing so much suffering in the world, we find it hard to acknowledge that lucky, free, prosperous people like us might be suffering, too. We feel more comfortable in the darkest places than we do back home, where life seems too simple and too easy. We don’t listen to that inner voice that says it is time to take a break from documenting other people’s lives and start building our own.
Under it all, however, are the things that sustain us and bring us together: the privilege of witnessing things that others do not; an idealistic belief that a photograph might affect people’s souls; the thrill of creating art and contributing to the world’s database of knowledge. When I return home and rationally consider the risks, the choices are difficult. But when I am doing my work, I am alive and I am me. It’s what I do. I am sure there are other versions of happiness, but this one is mine.
How we make sense of the world & tell its stories
Malaysian fantasy writer, Zedeck Siew, on self-marginalizing:
Colonies leapt off the maps and into our heads. Roll a six-sided die:
1: You need to study hard so that you can get a scholarship to study in Australia.
2: You are told that it is an economic necessity to break into the UK-US market.
3: You have called the pontianak a “Malay version of the vampire” in online fora.
4: You grew up proud that your family owned a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
5: You know more about the politics of Baltimore than that of your own hometown.
6: You are told by your editors that your new book might need a Manglish glossary.
For the first twenty-odd years of my life, I was an airplane idling on the tarmac, turbines spinning spinning spinning, head full of exports destined for the metropole, somewhere I could truly matter.
Jack Herrera on the role journalism plays, and doesn’t play, in the art of Minerva Cuevas:
With activists, Cuevas always maintained a sense of reportorial distance, and yet—perhaps precisely because she does not conduct formal interviews—she had a remarkable ability to elicit honesty, information, and good stories. “Especially as an artist, I never have to declare myself the way journalists do,” she told me. “It makes it more natural for people to welcome you.” She’d present no particular agenda, only a desire to develop a mental cartography of global resistance against capitalism, consumerism, and ecological devastation.
Jonathan Nunn on how the late food critic Jonathan Gold wrote to include communities on the margins:
Even more intriguing is the way Gold introduces dishes that he is fairly sure his audience won’t be familiar with. Rotis are called ‘pupusa-sized rounds of bread’; pappadums are ‘taco-sized crackers’, moin moin is a ‘Nigerian tamale’ (try telling that to anyone Nigerian and see how far it gets you). If you’re familiar with these dishes, as many Londoners are, the comparison seems faintly ludicrous and revealing of the pitfalls of describing dishes in comparison to something else. But there’s also something quite sweet about it, as if, knowing he had to make a lazy comparison for his readers, he decides not to liken them to anything European but instead redraws the centre and makes Latin America the universal reference point.
On process: documenting as habit
Longform journalist Ben Mauk illuminates his note-taking process:
The thing you take notes on should not get emails. It should not text. It should not contain any information that did not come from your mind and the physical world around you, because that is what makes it a rare object in your cabinet of cared-for objects, a totem that sees and thinks with you rather than for you. It is a tool that relies on your perception, like a loupe or telescope, rather than an object that regurgitates your and everyone else’s life and already seems to know everything worth knowing—so why write at all? Whenever I have tried to take notes on a phone, I am always urged to do something else: to Google something, to look up a definition or translation, to send a text or take a picture. The phone can do everything except permit me to be bored, or to exist in a prolonged state of unknowing. By contrast, a notebook refuses the urge to look elsewhere at the moment of frustration. In a notebook, you must keep going. You must let the thought after this one arrive. It does not usually feel like writing is happening when it does, but that’s precisely where the writing happens, in the act of what Germans call Sitzfleisch, a kind of sticktoitiveness amounting to the ability to sit and work beyond the urge to be relieved of one’s own thoughts.
Lydia Davis’ recommendations for good note-taking habits, with examples:
As a writer, whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, you must be responsible for accurate factual information about how a thing works, if you’re writing about it. You will have to be well informed about such things as the weather, biology, botany, human nature, history, technology, such matters as color spectrums and the behavior of light waves etc. etc. This means that, over time, you will learn a good deal. Here’s an example of a piece of knowledge acquired while traveling:
Question: can you figure out three reasons why trees were planted along this canal in a French city?
My answer, noted in notebook:
a. trees planted along canal for three reasons: shade for boatmen, help slow evaporation of water, hold earth in banks. Often planted at exactly equal intervals.
Tsh Oxenreider on so-called commonplace books:
More than a scrapbook, these personal journals became safe havens for the ideas that mattered most to people. Seldom tidy, sometimes ephemeral, almost always handwritten, commonplace books serve as beautiful relics of a person’s priorities, questions, doubts, and assurances through the wisdom of others. […] In medieval times, commonplace books had a more flowery name: florilegium. Florilegium is a portmanteau of the Latin words flos (flower) and legere (to gather): literally, a gathering of flowers. A bouquet! […]
I suppose you could say blogging and social media became a form of this, and that’s fair. But I’d wager the motive has changed in the past decade, from something to do for the inherent beauty of the act of collecting truth and goodness to something more… social. Emotional. Often with the motive of making a name for oneself as a tastemaker, an influencer.
Well, I guess I’m making my own commonplace book here.
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. Thank you! ❤️
If you write, or tell stories in any form, please feel free to share something you’ve found particularly helpful in your own practice.
And don’t forget the first part of this letter.
Till the next,