uncommonplace mind

Just keep swimming.—Dory, Finding Nemo

I prefer to send the Maven Game bright and early at the start of the weekend. In fact, waking up on a Saturday without a newsletter queued up feels excruciating. But this time, Sunday afternoon will have to do. We’re all going to have to relax our standards a bit to get through this thing. (Can you tell I was clenching my teeth while typing those words?)

In dire need of a little mental space, I spent some time doing an audit: clearing out processes, apps, notifications, RSS feeds, newsletter subscriptions, etc., that have been weighing me down. It feels necessary sometimes. Like a mental enema. When the pressure’s on, I start to notice all the stuff that’s sapping my energy, death by a thousand cuts. Eventually, I have to clear the negatives out, all at once. Some things can be useful or interesting and still leave me feeling a little bit crappier. As the Canadians have been saying since they adopted the metric system in 1970, clearing out a hundred centicraps amounts to one full crap. So I guess I do give a crap.

Anyway, the fact that you’re reading this now means that you have yet to flush me out of your own brain, and for that I’m grateful.

One person I would never cull from my inputs is Jane Friedman, my go-to publishing expert. Jane recently posted a comprehensive guide to finding, hiring, and working with an editor. Just as therapists have therapists of their own, Jane and I are both pros and we both work with outside editors on our own writing. It’s really a thing. Jane has yet again delivered the definitive answer to a common publishing question. Share (anonymously) with those acquaintances of yours who need an editor themselves.

Aside from the audit, what else is keeping me on the beam? The coffee shop.

For a while there, we had a little game we’d play with the kids: “The Day Coronavirus Ends.” We’d fantasize about all the fun things we’d do on that special day. The Met. Dim sum. Coney Island. Etc. (Not recommended. It gets depressing fast.) What the game led me to realize is that the part of regular life I miss most is the coffee shop. I can make perfectly good coffee at home; it’s the atmosphere I crave. The ambient people.

This 1958 article in Audio Magazine, which sadly ceased publication in 2000, is about high-fidelity listening cafés in Tokyo. Japan still has them today, and a handful opened in NYC—we’ll see which ones remain when this is all over—but there are wonderful details about the heyday of the phenomenon:

The largest coffee shops, seating hundreds of patrons, feature the highest kind of fidelity—live musicians. In one plush, five-story edifice the musicians play quite unconcernedly while riding an elevator stage from floor to floor. Since this moving stage can only be on one floor at a time, a high fidelity amplification system relays the musician’s performance to other floors during the interim.

I’m a writer. I like sitting, drinking coffee, and, when absolutely necessary, typing. But doing that for hours a day in an empty room grates on my nerves. Somehow, doing the exact same thing in a public space now and then soothes the soul.

So, I pipe coffee shop sounds into my headphones. It’s something. Maybe I’ll buy a bag of ground coffee and leave it open next to my laptop. Or make myself wait ten minutes before I can use the bathroom. But on “the day coronavirus ends,” I’m taking out a small business loan and opening a five-story café in midtown Manhattan with an elevator orchestra so help me god.

For now, I suppose I can look at my current situation as an extended stay at an artist’s colony. I’ve always wanted to try one. Just read this essay by Alexander Chee about his experience and tell me it doesn’t sound idyllic. And yet, here I am in a very colony-esque situation and it doesn’t feel idyllic at all. It feels exhausting. Context is everything.

One more thing. Signs of Life is a newsletter by political scientist Justin Murphy “covering new forms of intellectual life outside of academia.” I heartily approve of this notion. Spiritually, it’s very much in tune with the Maven Game’s aspirations. Academia as an institution feels increasingly irrelevant (one of countless reasons). But thinking and investigating and writing about what interests you remains a noble endeavor.

Writers, fiction or nonfiction, are all “public intellectuals,” a term I greatly prefer to “thought leader.” You don’t have to win any followers as the former. You just have to study and think and write about your area of interest, whether that’s positive psychology or the fictional town where you plan to set your mystery. As long as you’ve got steam coming out of your ears at the end of the day, consider it a job well done.

I’ve shared this quote from A. G. Sertillanges’s wonderful The Intellectual Life before, but it bears repeating at this difficult time:

Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.

Isn’t that invigorating? The intellectual life is beautiful because it’s portable and resilient. You can pursue it anywhere, no matter your situation or the world’s, even if you’re confined to a room or, worse, to a bed. Maybe people read what you write or maybe they one day will. For now, it doesn’t matter, as long as you leave your best substance behind.

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