I was on TJ Brearton’s Stories We Tell Podcast to talk about why I have a newsletter and why I think networking is critical in getting an agent and getting published at a traditional publisher.
But writers also use newsletters to promote their books and other projects. Is that still working? What’s up with platforms like Substack? How does it work?
Part two of the conversation: Ever wonder how some books get published? While we tend to hold ourselves accountable for our careers, acting like it’s a meritocracy, things beyond our control —such as nepotism and circumstance — play undeniable roles.
Join Tim and Dave for a deep dive into newsletters and networking on Stories We Tell.
It’s a typical weekday, and I’m trying to get my five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter to keep their masks on before they start licking the floor of the Monroe County YMCA. I’m trying to sign them up for swim lessons. This is the second of two errands I’m running in the hour window we have using our one family car on Christmas Eve. We dropped my wife off at vaccinated-only yoga in Bloomington, Indiana’s Fountain Square. Then we ran to the post office to send Christmas presents to her family members in Michigan that we won’t see this holiday season. And we have no childcare for two weeks as my kids’ pre-school is closed for the holiday season.
I won’t be updating this blog for the foreseeable future because:
One. I’m writing a memoir about how philosophy and comic books helped me get through half of my life with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, anxiety, and depression.
Two. I’m writing a more regular newsletter that will feature what I read. If you liked my content, here, then the newsletter will be to your taste. This will probably happen about once a month, and it’s still free. Though I may do a paid tier in the future, I’m not going to do that yet.
Three. I’m going to be swimming laps.
Four. Playing with my kids.
Stay warm, stay healthy. See you on the other side.
Really, my deep dive into the practice of Stoicism came in the virtue of self-control because, well, I did not feel in control of myself when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, anxiety, and depression. But really it came down to tranquility of mind. That’s what I was looking for because I’ve never had it, mostly because I didn’t understand how I was wired. So, really, Seneca’s letter on tranquility of mind is the whole reason I practice Stoicism—to treat my ADD. Here is what I take from it:
One. On the cult of productivity, and really—don’t be afraid to take a nap.
“Uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigor, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy. Nor would men’s wishes move so much in this direction if sport and play did not involve a sort of natural pleasure; though repeated indulgence in these will destroy all the gravity and force of our mind. Sleep too is is essential as a restorative, but if you prolong it constantly day and night it will be death.”
Two. There’s a critical section where Seneca described—what read to me as ADHD. He talks about people who live with inertia and are dissatisfied with themselves. “This arises from mental instability and from fearful and unfulfilled desires when men do not dare or do not achieve all they long for, and all they grasp at is hope: they are always unbalanced or fickle, an inevitable consequence of living in suspense.” It makes me certain that this is my struggle.
Three. He then goes on to describe SPIN and SLIDE, what happens to folks with ADD who struggle to regulate the co-morbidities of anxiety and depression. We slide into shame, pessimism, isolation, and no productive or creative outlet.
“these afflictions of failure have caused people to retreat into laziness and private studies which are not suitable to a mind aspiring to public service, keen on activity, and restless by nature because of course it is short of inner resources. This leads to isolation and then boredom and self-dissatisfaction.”
Four. Then he lays out the basics of the Stoic idea of productivity: “We must take a careful look first at ourselves, then at the activities which we shall be attempting, and then at those for whose sake and with whom we are attempting them (82).”
“We must appraise the actual things we attempting and match our strength to what we are going to undertake. For the performer must always be stronger than his task: loads that are too heavy for the bearer are bound to overwhelm him. Moreover, certain tasks are not so much great as prolific in producing many other tasks: we must avoid those which give birth in turn to new and manifold activities, and not approach something from which we cannot easily withdraw. You must set your hands to tasks which you can finish or at least hope to finish, and avoid those which get bigger as you proceed and do not cease where you had intended.”
Five.In which Seneca describes the Stoic Test strategy, negative visualization, justice, and a good lesson in weekend personal activities.
“Think your way through difficulties: hardship conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them. Abandoning those things which are impossible or difficult to attain, let us pause what is readily available and entices our hopes, yet recognize that all are equally trivial, outwardly varied in appearance but uniformly futile within. Let us not look envy those who stand higher than we do: what look like towering heights are precipices. On the other hand, those whom an unfair fate has put in a critical condition will be safer lowering their pride in things that are in themselves proud and reducing their fortune as far as they can to a humble level. By justice, gentleness, kindness, and lavish generosity let them prepare many defenses against later disasters to give them hop of hanging on more safely.” (91)
Finally, set advancements at some limit and not allow fortune to decide when they should cease but ourselves to stop far short of that.
Six. One of the last talks I used to give at Paul Smith’s College was on being grateful, dying, and how we’re all just basically compost. It went something like this: that really all the proof that we ever existed is what we create—the children we have, the parents we have, and maybe the work we produce. For even ten minutes a day, that writing, a piece of paper that comes from a tree is one of the most natural things we can do on Earth. When we die, we return to Earth, and writing—whether it’s in published book form or just writing a journal for 10 minutes a day- is a part of the planet’s natural order. It seems like Seneca would agree:
“Should Nature demand back what she previously entrusted to us we shall say to her too: ‘Take back my spirit in better shape than when you gave it. I do not quibble or hang back: I am willing for you to have straightaway what you gave me before I was conscious—take it.’ What is the harm in return to the point whence you came? He will live badly who does not know how to die well. So we must first strip off the value we set on this thing and reckon the breath of life as something cheap.”
Seven. 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman links to this: “The next thing to ensure is that we do not waste our energies pointlessly or in pointless activities: that is, not to long either for what we cannot achieve, or for what, once gained, only makes us realize too late and after much exertion the futility of our desires. In other words, let our labor not be in vain and without result, nor the result unworthy of our labor; for usually bitterness follows if either we do not succeed or we are ashamed of succeeding.”
Burkeman again, and also precisely what I’ve been doing the last four years, so quit it! “They wander around aimlessly looking for employment, and they do not what they intended but what they happen to run across. Their roaming is idle and pointless, like ants crawling over bushes, which purposelessly make their way right up to the topmost branch and then all the way down again. Many people live a life like these creatures, and you could not unjustly call it busy idleness…so let all your activity be directed to some object, let it have some end in view. It is not industry that makes men restless, but false impressions of things drive them made.”
I loved this one, because Seneca is writing to his mother and comforting her to know that her son has been sent into exile. This one meant a lot to me because for a long time, I’ve considered my time in Indiana to be a kind of exile from my home which is New York. But then this past Winter Solstice, I discarded that sense of exile and said that which made New York home is here now. That sense of New York is always within me, and I really understood this in the last six months or so, while I read this essay.
It links with my root phrase that I repeat to myself every morning to sort of activate my Stoic practice. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, and bad attitudes.” This phrase or aphorism is a popular phrase from where I’m from in New York and it’s an exemplar of the Stoicism’s cardinal virtue of self-control, which is exemplified by Epictetus’s dichotomy of control: “there’s some things in my control, and some things not in my control.”
Seneca illustrates this in the letter:
“Whatever is best for a human being lies outside human control: it can be neither given nor taken away. The world you see, nature’s greatest and most glorious creation, and the human mind which gazes and wonders at it, and is the most splendid part of it, these are our own everlasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain…there can be no place of exile within the world since nothing within the world is alien to men.”
There was a major turning point as well when I was getting my COVID booster shot at a Wal-Mart. When I was in line, there was a guy right next to me, with a Glock on his hip. I didn’t know whether he was a cop or not, but he was wearing a bright orange hoody and ripped jeans and work boots so something tells me he was a construction worker. I read this section:
“I know that this is not something which in our power and that no strong feeling is under our control, lesser of all that which arises from sorrow; for it is violent and violently resists every remedy.”
But really, at the end of all things here it is important to recognize that nature and my ability to make a reasoned choice is something that is never gone, illustrated beautifully in the final paragraph of this letter to his mother. And goes back to linking to Burkeman on Cosmic Insignificance Theory.
“…since my mind, without any preoccupation, is free for its own tasks, now delighting more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth—this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling rain, snow and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.”
I know that when I close my eyes, and think about nature, I see the Adirondack Mountain Range and the aphorism pops into my head and i know that can never be taken away from me, because it lives in me.
I’ve been reflecting a lot the last month on this year. And this book keeps coming back up. It’s a collected edition featuring this letter and Consolation to Helvia (Seneca’s mother)and On Tranquility of Mind. I think about this quite a lot in the context of 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman because this essay is a significant source.
Here are the four things I learned from it
One. Don’t treat your life like a job. This echoes Stephen King, “Art is for life, not the other way around.” Really understand that comparison is also the thief of joy, and understand that on the grand cosmic theme of life there are tiny bits of your time that are your own.
people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.” Like compassion is the thief of joy.
Two. Seneca also seems to condone a deep life, not on trivialities like money and position because those are out of control which is the starting point for Stoicism.
“So many of the finest men have put aside all their encumbrances, renouncing riches and business and pleasure and made it their one aim up too the end of their lives to know how to live.” (10) “Mark off, I tell you, and review the days of your life: you will see that very few—the useless remnants—have been left to you. One man who has achieved he badge of office he coveted longs to lay it aside, and keeps repeating, ‘Will this year never end?’ another man thought it a great coup to win the chance of giving games but having given them he says, ‘when shall I be rid of them?’ “You will find to keep your busy more important activities than all those you have performed so energetically up to now.” (29)
Three. Seneca also condones that the midlife crisis is really a perfectly healthy thing, but to put off that crisis is a problem. You should spend the bulk of your time doing enriching stuff for yourself.
“how stupid to forget our mortality and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”? (8)
Four. Finally, we should subvert our expectations of life success in the sense that what we do with our time is really not all that important in the grand scheme of things. So really, it should, like Burkeman says in his chapter on Cosmic Insignificance Therapy that fundamentally speaking, the universe and other people are out of our control. Usually, both of those things don’t give a shit about what we do with our time, so you might as well do something significant to you—that helps other people, that improves your life through doing something complicated, that conveys some knowledge you have to others to help them along on this one-way trip.
“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.” (25) “Now while the blood is hot you should make your way with vigor to better things. In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility.” (31) “Life has left some men struggling at the start of their careers before they could force their way to the height of their ambition…is it really so pleasant to die in harness? That is the feeling of man people: their desire for their work outlasts their ability to do it…Meanwhile, as they rob and are robbed as they disturb each other’s peace as they make each other miserable, their lives pass without satisfaction, without pleasure, without mental improvement…
Many seem to think that the first quote is about finding a mentor. I don’t think I have a specific mentor, but I have many people who have served as a kind of mentor for me. From my swimming coach to the writers, I worked with in college and graduate school, to what I’m reading now to sharing what I’ve learned from what I’ve read on this blog. It’s a good use of my time. And so has this book that I’ve been reading slowly from when the pandemic began to just before my five-year-old son got his first shot of the vaccine. It’s what has helped me become a better father, husband, and writer who practices Stoicism to be physically and mentally healthy. I hope you’ll give it a chance.
After this article at Vulture, we started watching this show, and it has quickly become our family’s favorite show. And probably my favorite show of the year.
It’s a show that makes it clear that mom Chili is the one with the “real” job or career, and dad (Bandit) spends a lot, or most of his time, taking care of Bluey and Bingo—his daughters. They’re 6 and 4-years-old. What makes this show refreshing is it is suburban—it’s about a home life that isn’t repetitive like Peppa Pig or fanciful like Puffin Rock. It combines the best of both worlds: sounding beautiful because the voice acting is Australian and the setting is everyday at-home play. The animation is superb, beautifully rounded corners, and subtle character cues filled with happiness that even silent, their tails wag showing how much Mom and Dad love being with their kids despite those kids Monty Pythonish escapades.
I could do 50 or so blog posts on each episode where there was a particularly vibrant scene in “Trampoline” where Dad has to go to work but is having too much fun playing with Bluey and Bingo on their new trampoline. He tries to break away on multiple occasions, but when he does finally, Bluey asks Bandit why he has to go and Bandit says because he has to work some and puts his laptop in his backpack. Bluey asks him what her work is. “Your work is playing and coming up with games.”
This is something I say to my kids all the time. “Why do I have to go to school, dad?” or “Why do you have to go to work?” which is what they’ll say when I leave later today for some appointments. “Because it’s my job to teach people, and it’s your job to play and be with your friends.”
When the kids come along it’s like: ‘Well, your wants and needs are now completely irrelevant. You’re here to provide’.”
“For me as a dad, that was quite difficult. And we try and show that with Bandit. In an episode like /Fruitbat/, the point was to show all the things he really wants to do, he doesn’t get to do. There’s a few echoes of longing from him, but there’s not a trace of regret. Bandit is happy with the trade he’s made. He’s accepted it. And it’s such a beautiful trade…”
Even though you have household responsibilities like mowing the lawn, doing the laundry, cleaning toilets, and bath time with the kids. Which if you do it in a bathroom like mine, hearing their screams is, as a Brumm says, “a post-graduate degree in pain.”
That’s what I’ve learned, probably more than anything, in the last two years is how important it is to play. Bluey has helped significantly with learning to go with the flow of my kids’ play and basically set aside any agenda I may have.
Finally, your work should be as close to playing as you can get it—or at least not get in the way of your play which if you’re a parent to young kids your job is to be with them. That’s the most essential occupation you have now. That the goal of life—for me anyway—is to make it more like play. That’s what it means to have a good life, and that’s something I look forward to doing in these next two weeks when there is no childcare, just grandparents and uncles coming into town to play as much as they can before they have to go back to the “real” world.
I could talk some more about why it’s a great show, and what it means for me as a dad, but instead, I’ll just say: watch it even if you don’t have kids. I think thirty years from now, my kids will (hopefully) remember when I played with them and showed them that my work is play.
Since it is the last day of November, I thought I would write about…well, you get the idea.
When I started reading this series of graphic novellas—one at a time at release—I was so confused. But I essentially thought this was Matt Fraction’s female-centric take on Criminal and Sin City if you mashed it together with Darwyn Cooke’s Parker series.
The four novellas follow three characters over the same period that sees their city descend into madness. All four books alternate focus on the POV of one of the three characters, and primarily none of them are good people. I like the challenge that it is character-driven and represented in the experimental structure, which indicates Fraction’s voice. It’s like he approaches new books with structural challenges, then grows the story of that structural challenge. So there are 3 characters, and each intersects at particular points. In the first 3 books and then they wrap up in the fourth book.
What is structurally neat is that the page’s alternate panel counts. At a page turn, we get a character page with a massive panel count—usually as little as 8 panels to as many as 12 panels. This is followed by action or a pilot point that grows out of the character pages with fewer panel counts—five or six panels at most. The narration, hand-lettered by Kurt Ankeny, is also character-centric with different handwriting for each of the three characters—like they’re all writing their version of events to process and heal from this extreme situation.
That last part is often jarring. The handwriting can be hard to read, especially the cursive because it’s white lettering on black caption boxes. That always makes my eyes cross.
Since Fraction sticks with each character’s focus, he often retreads whole scenes and set pieces from each character’s POV and then follows each character off to the end of the book or their story. The retread struck me as needless but I understand why it was done that way. The structure demanded it, and this is a character story and is structured as such.
Elsa Charratier is a stellar storyteller. She’s very agile in that she can go from nine pages of 12-panel grids (volume 3) to a plot point of four panels and a cliffhanger before Fraction pulls us away from the plot point to a different point but related part of the character’s story. Her work with Matt Hollingsworth were characters in themselves, channeling Darwyn Cooke’s Parker books giving each character a unique color scheme to show that we’re moving from one POV to the next.
It is an exciting series that doesn’t quite land and I would recommend you read it all in one sitting; otherwise, if you read one volume at a time, as I did with the first two volumes, you may wonder what the point is. The point is the structure to focus on character regardless of the story. The result is a one-of-a-kind character study.
Every weekday, I drive my kids to their pre-school/daycare. And almost every day, I see cars and parents rushing their kids to the door of the school, checking their Apple Watches because they have a meeting at 8:30, and trying to rush their kids to wash their hands, stand on the mat and sanitize their shoes, wait for their temperature to be taken, etc. And every time I see someone like that, I always think to myself—like I’m having a conversation with them— “What’s the rush? We’re all going to the same place.”
In the introduction to this book by Oliver Burkeman writes that “productivity is a trap,” In many ways, this is an anti-productivity book. It’s not filled with tips and tricks to squeeze more time out of your day to do the things that matter. First it starts with the simple fact that you should do the things that matter most to you first and then come with the understanding that you’ll never finish all of the items. That getting things done is actually impossible.
“ Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’ The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do list have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life…let’s start by admitting to defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.”
While you might think that this is the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard, there are many lessons to learn here. I think that’s what we’re seeing with this great resignation, not Sarah Jaffe’s cringingly prominent book Work Won’t Love You Back. Of course, it doesn’t, work couldn’t care less about you, or me. And I think the Great Resignation is that a lot of Americans are realizing this and saying, fuck this.My time is worth more than being “productive.” There, I summarized that book and this whole moment in time to three sentences. Now go do whatever you want.
What captured this perfectly for me was when Burkeman often talks about his four-year-old son. That the kid is pure presence. On page 131, I had a series of Yes notations.
They are linked to watching his son’s fist close around his finger, his head turn in response to a noise, without obsessing over whether this “showed he was meeting his ‘developmental milestones’ or not, or what I ought to be doing to ensure that he did.”
Worse, Burkeman realizes that his obsession with using time well meant using his child as a tool for calming his anxiety by treating him like an employee with some future sense of security and peace of mind. To treat the child as if all childhood is nothing but a training ground for adulthood. He also points out that the baby trainers are wrong that the baby should not fall asleep on your chest, but it’s a beautiful experience in the present moment and that has to be weighed appropriately. The future cannot always take precedence…. Russian Philosopher Alexander Herzen writes that, “because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up, but a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is its flow. Later is too late.” Like a pool, river, or lake. Like Dory said, just keep swimming.
Basically, the entire book is an extensive exercise in Stoicism’s memento mori idea, specifically Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. But probably the most meaningful exercise from this book is actually doing the calculation of how many days you have in life. With four thousand weeks to your 80th birthday I figured out exactly how many days I have left until my 80th birthday, should I be lucky enough to live that long. I have 1,988 weeks until my 80th birthday or 13,917 days. Whatever happens in those days is something I have some control over, but mostly I don’t. Time doesn’t care, the universe doesn’t care, and neither does my work. This culminates in Chapter 13 on Cosmic Insignificance Theory:
“When things all seem too much, what better solace than the reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life—relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries—shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: /The Universe doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You/. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.”
So, like last week, when my two-year-old daughter had a sinus infection, I was on my way to drive her to school and drop her off because she could go to school. She says to me in the back seat, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to school.” Then, as if the universe heard her, I had a meeting canceled and I thought: yeah, why not? I canceled the rest of my commitments. Pushed a few items on my to-do list forward a day or a week (this post was one of them) and said, “Okay.” Then we went to a playground. We played in the leaves in the backyard, I gave her medication. We got a steamer at a local coffee shop and a donut. We took a nap and we watched some Bluey together on the couch. This might not have happened if this pandemic had not happened, and I didn’t read this book.
The last time I saw Anderson, my family and I had just come back from Oregon, the place of my birth, a place I tend to see, still, through the idealized glow of early childhood. After two years stranded on the East Coast, I missed it terribly. But out in the real world, Oregon had changed. Downtown Portland, after months of clashes between protesters and the police, was largely boarded up. People were living in tents on the sidewalks and streets. Early on our first morning, we woke up to the sound of a woman screaming outside, over and over. We walked past human feces on the sidewalk. It was the middle of a deadly heat wave, the hottest temperatures ever recorded, and to the east wildfires were raging out of control — in every direction, the horizon was blurred by smoke. The ragged trees of my youth, up on the hills, looked like ghosts. Finally we drove south, away from the big cities, and the smoke only thickened. Some of the most beautiful places I have ever been, my favorite places on Earth, were nearly unrecognizable. You couldn’t see the scenic mountains right on the edge of town. The air was like barbecue smoke. It felt like an apocalypse, like a failed society.
It’s been a little over a year since the last time I stepped foot in the Adirondacks and the house I grew up in. Here’s what I wrote.
The house is no longer ours, and it was never mine.
It was my parents’ house, but whenever I see a picture of the ski jumps or the 46 High Peaks in fall I can smell the dirt.
I actually have a jar on my desk filled with dirt and pine needles from the small neck of woods behind the house.
Earlier in October, I got a package from a friend in Saranac Lake, a close friend, and a Paul Smith’s College colleague. It was the first edition of William Gibson’s short story collection Burning Chrome. It was sent around the last time I saw him in person, drinking 3 Floyds Alpha King. I fell into deep appreciation with a dash of sorrow.
I miss these people terribly. My fellow Adirondackers.
You want something so badly that any reference to it immediately assaults your senses. That isn’t easy to justify, But I think it is part of the process of mourning. A lot has changed from this global near-death experience. But I think the best way to move past it is with appreciation, which brings some sorrow.
The best word for it, I think, is sublime. My phone screen still features a photo I took last year of my home’s deck and the giant white pine. The leaves changed in peak fall colors.