Symbols & Rituals
One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that taking a break from writing really just means finding other, less writerly ways to write. My holiday break was no different. While I was not writing here, I was emailing, commenting, and asking questions elsewhere.
The emails are private exchanges that I will of course keep private. But the comments, which all eventually ended in questions, are public. Since I don’t anticipate getting answers to those questions, I thought I would share a couple of them with you here, along with the things I read that prompted them.
First, a couple points of clarification:
It’s not entirely true to say that the comments and questions below were prompted by things I read. They kind of were. But in both instances, what I think actually happened is this: I read a particular paragraph or sentence that struck a chord with me—mostly because it spoke to one of my deeper and longer-lasting bewilderments—in a great article that was mostly about something else. That struck chord, plus coffee and time to burn, minus a proper writing outlet, is what I think really motivated me to start typing. I saw a tiny opening, and out of something akin to desperation, if not just pure desperation, I entered.
Considering the point above, it may have been poor etiquette on my part to post the somewhat off-topic comments and questions that I did. It’s a pretty insignificant misstep, I know. I’m just pointing it out to demonstrate the necessity of a writing outlet for fools like me who can’t make sense of anything without writing it out. Without such an outlet, I start writing in less appropriate places. I won’t go through my full list of priors. But please just trust me when I say that the offenses below are among the least severe of the bunch.
Chuck Palahniuk recently posted about an excellent UnHerd article, Britain is haunted by Dickensian ghosts. It’s a very interesting and enjoyable piece, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. Here’s what I had to say in response:
Great essay. Re: the "empty rooms filled with nothing but technological phantoms" point (which I realize is not the main point): I work from an empty room at home, spend much of my free time in this same room writing, and have lived as an expat for five years in a country where I don't speak the language. So this resonates with me, on a few levels, actually.
On the one hand, when I look at a platform like Twitter, which I think is largely and detrimentally performative in a country like the US, and from which I jumped ship long ago, I see it as one of the big drivers of the kind of atomization and loneliness the writer described. That is, I see it that way from the outside. On the other hand, I write and post to my Substack pretty regularly. That has become my main communication/expression channel with almost all of the people who are not living in my house with me (i.e., my wife). And I do often wonder if Substack is basically just Twitter without a character limit or a need for threads. Long-form Twitter, if you will. It feels different to me, but I imagine it goes the other way, too, and that Twitter feels different to many of the people who are on it.
What are your thoughts on this? As a writer and novelist who also posts to Substack often, are the platforms really that different in their "technological phantom"-hood? Other than the fact that writing a novel to share with others is significantly harder than writing a Twitter thread, are the two things really that different? Writing (a technology itself) and the printing press and all that caused panic in their times. I do think today's tech seems worse for society, if nothing else just for the instant gratification and immediacy on offer to so many at all times. But is it really worse? Or is it just the latest scapegoat for the real monster in the room: our human nature and behavior playing on loop? And if it's the latter, then what, I wonder, is the way out?
I was a little slow on the jump, but I almost immediately purchased Nick Cave and Seán O'Hagan's Faith, Hope and Carnage after reading this incredibly moving excerpt, titled Grief made me a person. There’s so much to draw from it. But there was one point in particular (again, not the main one) that I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I sent Cave a question about it via his Red Hand Files website. That question is below, with two very minor edits made to add clarity where I misspoke.
UnHerd has just published an excerpt from Faith, Hope and Carnage. In it, you say, "I love this world — with all its joys and its vast goodness, its civility and complete and utter lack of it, its brilliance and its absurdity. I love it all, and the people in it, all of them. I feel nothing but deep gratitude to be a part of this whole cosmic mess. I have no time for negativity, cynicism or blame."
I find this deeply righteous and beautiful. But if I'm being honest with myself, I relate to it more as an aspiration than something I'm able to actually achieve for more than a brief flash here and there. When I'm doing something I love, for example, such as writing, I am able/lucky enough to find my way to the feelings of love and gratitude that you describe. (I say lucky because I know people who don't have a creative outlet and seem to not love doing anything.) I'm now in my mid-forties, though, and have not had any "success" doing the things I love. Like the millions of others sitting in this same weathering boat with me, the money simply did not follow.
I still do the things that I love, and that guide me to my feelings of love and gratitude, of course. But for the 40–50 hours a week or so that I must set them aside to (again, be lucky enough to) work a job that I merely tolerate, and that provides for my family, I find it very difficult to circumvent the negativity and cynicism and various other darknesses that lurk within.
To be clear, my life is good and could have been so much worse. I have been fortunate where so many others have been far less fortunate. None of this is lost on me, and I'm not writing out of self-pity or entitlement, only honesty and exploration. But just as you appear to have had great fortune in your life, so too do you appear to have experienced great grief, loss, "carnage," and so on.
Do you think this balance of light and dark is essential? Do you think it needs/tends to be proportionate? (Lows as low as highs are high. Highs as high as lows are low. Et cetera.) Do you think it's harder to feel "nothing but deep gratitude to be a part of this whole cosmic mess" when one spends a far smaller share of time doing the things they love than the things they merely tolerate or even hate or resent? Do you think it's easier (harder?) to feel it when the weight shifts the other way, when the majority of one's time is spent, say, immersed in the loving act of creating art?
And lastly, do you, as someone who has experienced extremely high highs and low lows, have any advice for those of us who feel a sense of unfulfillment and entrapment here in the middle ground, doing what we don't love because we have to, which is most of the time, and doing what we do love—that which better enables us to feel love and gratitude—only when we can, which is rarely?
So there you have it. The symbols and rituals that I carried on with while pressing pause on my writing here. I welcome your thoughts on any and all of the above. But I get it if you’d rather just read. Part of me envies that desire. Another part is terrified of it.
In any case, just as I don’t expect a response from Palahniuk or Cave, I also don’t expect one from you. Please just know that my eyes and ears are always on offer.
Speaking of symbols and rituals, I’m considering changing the name of this Substack to Symbols & Rituals. The name Think List hasn’t felt right to me for a long time now, at least for a year. And with a new year now beginning, a fresh start here seems fitting. I don’t think much would change writing-wise. I just think Symbols & Rituals more accurately, interestingly, and fundamentally captures my relationship with writing and what I think I’m doing here: returning over and over again to the thoughts and questions I can’t shake, and sorting things out in circles via the best instruments I have available to me—words and my writing practice, or symbols and rituals.
What do you think? Which is the better name for this Substack? Think List or Symbols & Rituals? Is it worth adding those four syllables, or am I losing the plot? Vote below to let me know.