Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

Mass isn’t just “‘stuff’ that things can be made out of,” according to University of Copenhagen particle physicist, Matt von Hippel. Rather, mass is what “a high energy of interaction looks like.” 

Von Hippel has a provocative way with words. His claim that mass is energy you haven’t met yet refers to the surprise that, in particle physics, mass is less “stuff” and more a consequence of energy. A proton’s mass, for example, far exceeds the weight of its component quarks. It’s the energy of interaction, according to Von Hippel, that accounts for the extra weight.

His argument should certainly be isolated to its applied field, but it’s too provocative for detainment. When broadly considered against the relationship between parts and wholes, it offers interesting insights. Take, for instance, a book. Intense interactive energy is required to transmute letters, pixels, papers, and ink, glue, and binding into something as weighty as a story. The book in our hands barely compares to the narrative it provokes in our heads.

As in the relationship between a proton and its quarks, the relationship between words and story is not commensurate. Word count accounts for neither a book’s mass nor a story’s heft. Perhaps this is because a book is less a product of the stuff out of which it’s made than a product of the energetic interactions that result in its story.

Elsewhere, writing about the relationship between synchronization and the speed of light, von Hippel points out that our knowledge of the world depends entirely on the models we build to bridge perceptions and our memories. Another name for these models? Stories. Here again, insights from particle physics are relevant, but we already know how much the mass of such stories matters.

Stars

(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.

For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?

Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.

But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.

Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.

To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.

For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.

After the Locking, instructs Vonnegut, comes winter.

Here in Minnesota, winter has—emphatically—returned. As I marked the occasion with a frigid run, my mind wandered from the slippery but well-worn route, to the inscrutably repetitious new year, to the ominously redundant omicron variant.

It was surprisingly pleasant going, though, because I listened to Slate’s Political Gabfest. There, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson discussed a provocative conundrum: When is it okay to critique a friend’s creative efforts?

The initial, unanimous response? Never! 

But as they talked over variations on the theme, their answers began to shift:

Well, probably never…if you want to retain your relationship.

Perhaps sometimes…if they’re  particularly successful or are particularly solicitous.

Probably yes…if you’re a partner responsible for heading off potential embarrassment.

Definitely yes…in fact, you’re obligated.

The move from “you can’t” to “you must” depended both on the creative effort and on the relationship between creator and critic: Ultimately, critique was deemed necessary when the effort was writing and the critic an editor.

Writing requires a critical reader, argued Plotz, because writing is iterative

Iteration, a kind of repetition, makes iterative a felicitous adjective because writing requires repetition on both abstract and practical levels. When we write, we not only reproduce what we know; we also engage in mechanical reproduction—writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, asking others to read, rewriting, rereading, asking others to reread, then rewriting again.

It’s challenging, sometimes agonizing work, but modern iteration differs from rote repetition by its invocation of forward momentum. Iteration isn’t only repetition; it’s repetition toward refinement, toward a “desired result.”

Iteration is consequently an apt word for the work of writing. It’s also, possibly, an appropriate word for the work ahead.

In 2022, we face the same virus, the same intractable government and community responses, the same political rigidity, the same individual and collective challenges to childcare, school, and work, not to mention healthcare and other basic needs. The repetition itself feels like an inescapable, isolating trap. 

The language of iteration might help us conceive of a way out.

The gentle onomatopoeia in iterative means the word requires repetition for its completion. Like winter, like running, like writing, iterative work is repetitious work. However—and also like winter, like running, like writing—the repetition can reach beyond equivalence. Though 2022 is already a repetitive year, it doesn’t have to be the same as what preceded it.

Have you read A Sick Day for Amos McGee, winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal? The story is gentle and kind, its pictures tender and sincere. It has quieted many a rambunctious child in my own chaotic house.

In celebration of its sequel, Amos McGee Misses the Bus, Philip Stead, author, and Erin Stead, illustrator, spoke on Weekend Edition Saturday (NPR) about writing stories untethered to time.

Aiming for classic status for Amos, the Steads approach their work not in terms of the risks they like to take but of the limitations they like to impose: “‘We didn’t want to necessarily be that rigid,’ says Philip Stead. ‘But…there’s something very beautiful about working with limitations. It kind of sets parameters for your project.'”

He refers to the deliberately defined color palette by which Erin Stead’s images, so delicate and precise, become durable. But he makes a more universal point. Limitations, parameters, and boundaries can be a conduit to creation.

We often perceive limitations as restrictions holding us back or obstacles keeping us from our goals. But limitations–certainly of color, form, and genre, but also of time, desire and will–can stimulate inventive solutions.

We see this at work in haikus, sonnets, villanelles (poetry in general), which raise expressions of limitations, or perhaps limited expressions, to an art form. But it’s a more flexibly applicable technique.

The task of creation is challenging, in part because the galaxy of invention is so vast. When everything is possible, it’s hard to make anything real. If we can choose all things, how can we settle on, much less commit to developing, any one thing?

But of course choices (usually) must be made. Decisions are very often required. In some cases, it can be surprisingly useful to narrow, even artificially, our choices. The Steads chose to limit their story to the subject of kindness and to restrict their color palette to “muted yellows, greens, blues and reds.” Other writers might find the imposition of a genre or a deadline a useful, even necessary, constraint.

It’s true that a limitation can be a hindrance. It’s also true that it can sometimes be a provocation.

Free-Notebook-clipart-png

Sometimes, the most mundane habits are the most useful. So it is with note-taking.

The note-taker spectrum is broad: You might be a distractible doodler, an ambivalent-but-obliged recorder, a hyper-efficient graphomaniac, or a steadfast abstainer. While the devoted declare themselves by proximity to a favorite notebook, the reluctant might log random dates in Notes.

(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, project-oriented note-taking serves important functions.

First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.

Second, and counterintuitively, note-taking forces us further from our subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between our subject and our sense of our subject. The resulting space offers—and sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Although note-taking fosters both intimacy and distance, both close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t the taking but the notes

When we take notes, we accumulate records of the things that mattered enough to us to be retained. Our notebook or app becomes a storehouse of observations to be consulted, used as evidence,  or considered a provocation for current or future work. It doesn’t really matter if the notes are clear or confusing: The simple act of retention invests our fleeting observations with the potential for future meanings.

Consequently, taking and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for those of us working on big or complicated projects. The practice might be an aid to productivity, but it will also provide past evidence for future meanings.  

Asking for feedback isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody, and it’s especially not easy for writers.

In our workaday professional lives, feedback is a necessary efficiency. It offers an opportunity to put in a targeted effort when it’s still useful to do so. We may grit our teeth and assume a protective position, but we ask for feedback anyway. Perhaps we’ll find our efforts have been sufficient and well-placed, but we know to prepare for the possibility that more, better effort is necessary.

In our writing lives, however, soliciting feedback and critique can feel a bit more impossible. Although writing is a professional pursuit, it often requires intensely personal inputs, not just the proverbial blood, sweat, tears, but also hours of time and muscular effort. When you have tried very hard for a very long time to express a very difficult idea that’s very important to you, it can feel almost dangerous to find out if those efforts have been well placed.

In addition, writers, whether part- or fulltime, nonfiction or fiction, often feel a deep sense of intimacy with their work. Passion projects, career capstones, or manuscripts that have been years in the making are frequently imbued with a writer’s hopes, dreams, and desires. Once a manuscript takes shape, you may feel it contains too much of your essential self to be offered up for critique.

Do it anyway.

We all know that feedback (almost) always makes its object stronger. This is particularly the case for writing, where feedback can help writers widen the gap between their experiences and their representation.

As previously discussed, this gap is necessary: We want the gap—we need the gap. Without it, our experiences are too insular and singularly referential to be meaningful to others. Feedback can let us know if our writing offers a real and useful guide through our interiority.  

Feedback’s value is ultimately universal: It’s (almost) always an aid to efficiency, enabling  that targeted, useful, and necessary effort. Writers may need to assume a protective position and armor themselves, but they should take every opportunity to solicit feedback, too.

The phrase, “the map is not the territory,” was coined in 1931 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski. Ninety years on, it’s more relevant than ever, especially for writers, and most especially for writers of creative nonfiction, memoir, autobiography, and biography.

Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent. This gap is necessary, but it’s also useful: A gapless map would reproduce territory in a one-to-one correspondence. It couldn’t provide a picture of relative position necessary for way-finding and would be a useless map.

This gap is also a consequence of selection. Whenever we represent something, we make choices. When, for example, we decide to make a map, we choose a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We choose which of our needs we must meet and which to meet of our fellow wanderers.

In fact, the gap makes the map a product of form and a product of function—maps are representative and operative. Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther makes this point in When Maps Become the World: [Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”

For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating, and comforting, expression. It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book. 

Ultimately, there will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate it: The reader simply requires a bridge—and of course a guide—to this new territory.

Road Running

Brian Stevenson / Getty Images

For most of my life, I’ve found comfort and catharsis in running. The relentlessness of the pace and its imperative to persist (almost) always help quiet my busy brain.

Like many dedicated runners, I’d always assumed that, sooner or later, I’d run a marathon. For years, I waited for inspiration to strike. When it did—usually while clicking through finish-line pics of exhausted-but-elated marathoners—I expected motivation to follow. But the sustained urge never arrived.

Over time, I upped my mileage, hoping that, eventually, I’d need to, I’d just have to run a marathon. But many miles were logged, and still I failed to feel the urgency commensurate with the goal. It wasn’t until these last months of Covid-provoked upheaval and change passed that I remembered that I can change, too.

Among other experiments, I decided to try a training plan. Which I hated. Change is hard, and new learning curves are often very sharp. The plan insisted on showing me, with spreadsheet severity, that what seemed possible in the abstract was impossible in practice: I couldn’t hit my paces; my watch was constantly disappointed in my efforts; and marathon mileage felt totally out of reach.

I decided I wasn’t going to run a marathon after all—clearly, I wouldn’t be able to, anyway. Instead, I’d just have to work on disciplining myself to the plan, and that would have to be enough.

Surprisingly? It was.

Many weeks have now passed, and I’ve made that imperfect plan a part of my every day. This is not to say that I hit my paces (I don’t) or that my watch is happy with me (never). But marathon mileage is in reach, and its proximity has given me the motivation, the drive (if not necessarily the need) I passively sought in the past.

What lessons have I drawn from this experience? A few, but among the most meaningfully applicable: The discipline is the goal.

When a goal is too big, or too diffuse, or maybe even too quiet to command attention, a plan to start and a commitment to continue can bring it into view and therefore in reach. I didn’t have to need to or have to run a marathon. I could simply want to, and start from there.  

Chuck Close famously observed that “inspiration is for amateurs—the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s one way to describe it. But here I think Rilke offers a more philosophical sourcebook: You don’t yet know the answers. That’s okay—you don’t have to. You inhabit your answers by first living your questions.

If it’s difficult to accept vulnerability as a precondition of strength, it’s even more difficult to express this acceptance. Few of us want to reveal our weaknesses, particularly weaknesses that have been (and maybe still are) difficult to overcome. For some, however, revelation is a requirement.

Among writers, memoirists face a singular burden of expression. Though their work frequently illustrates triumph in the face of adversity, their expression of vulnerability is often their most effective tool. 

For lessons in expression, memoirists can look to fiction writers. The best fiction writers are expert at endowing their characters with the kind of vulnerability that solicits readers’ care. That care fosters a connection–offering insight into weakness and strength that extends beyond the page.

Consider Jo March and her initial rejection of and later regret over Laurie, or Estha and the shame he hides after his encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man, or Harry Potter and the loneliness contingent on the private pain of his scar. We connect to these characters through their fragility. Their recognizable vulnerability enables us to examine our own.

Unlike fiction writers, however, memoirists don’t have the luxury of distance. The presumption of truth that defines their work ensures any tenderness expressed is their own. Although this provenance raises the stakes, it also raises vulnerability’s value.

Vulnerability is less Achilles Heel, more Athena’s aegis. Aspirational memoirists can and should coach themselves to embrace vulnerability’s inherent, etymological power. They should remind themselves that the example of their fragility will inform their depiction of strength, inspiring readers’ connections, motivating their reflection, and perhaps moving them to action.

By viewing their vulnerability as a mirror, a conduit, a facilitator, and a tool, memoirists can generate a power from which readers draw significant courage. The work is not easy, but it’s worth it: Like the very best fiction writers, the best memoirists transform vulnerability into a power so stable it can hold up others.