SURE, YOU HAVE NOTHING IF YOU HAVEN’T YOUR HEALTH
OK, I took a month off to recover fully from Covid. Holy crap, it’s no fun, even when vaccinated. Would not recommend. One star.
Anyway, I finally have my energy back. Big thanks to everyone who said rest, rest, rest – rest more than you think you should, and then rest some more. They were right. In the first couple of weeks after Covid, on the occasions when I pushed myself a little too hard, I would be knocked out for days afterwards. Not worth it.
For those who care about this stuff: it seems to have been a classic case of post-viral fatigue, a mysterious complaint which they don’t really understand, and which you can get after being zonked by any one of a large number of viruses. (Flu, glandular fever, Covid, mononucleosis…) Here – again, only for those interested, I know many of you will not be, you can skip ahead to the next paragraph, after the photo – is the Wikipedia Talk page on the subject of post-viral fatigue syndrome, where the editors argue about what it is, whether it should have its own page or not, whether it is actually just a form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, whether it or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are even real… I think this chaotic behind-the-scenes Wikipedia page in fact gives the most accurate overview of our state of knowledge – it’s a shambles. Anyway, post-viral fatigue (whatever it is) generally, if you are lucky, lasts a few weeks, and then you are OK again.
SUBSTACK, BABY, SUBSTACK…
Note: I switched off paid subscriptions for the month, as it seemed unfair to charge people when I wasn’t posting. ulskie kroll very kindly said, in the comments to my last “I’m sick” post, that she considered
“…a paid subscription - and now I'm putting on my consumer's hat again - as NOT a reward for a post I've read. It is a funding to receive posts in the future. To make it all possible. I don't perceive it to be a virtue to say no to funding in a time where you are not in the condition to provide it yourself. Funding is also not about the present, it's about the future. Like that insurance money we pay for the what-ifs of the future.”
And I get her point – I did lose a month’s income, at a time when I was sick, yet still had to pay all my bills – but I didn’t want the psychological pressure to write and post, when I simply wasn’t physically up for it. (My attempts to write posts were what knocked me out and left me exhausted.)
But that month off gave me time to think about how (and what, and when, and why) I will post, now that I am back, back BACK!!! (as Smash Hits used to put it, when any minor popstar returned after a brief break, usually in rehab).
HOW I WILL POST NOW THAT I AM BACK BACK BACK!!!
There is a great Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, in which Hobbes (the tiger) and Calvin (the little boy), are wading through thick grass. Calvin stops, on the brink of a stream.
Hobbes: Whatcha doin'?
Calvin: Looking for frogs.
Hobbes: How come?
Calvin: I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.
Hobbes: Ah. But of course.
Calvin: My mandate also includes weird bugs.
Yes, like Calvin, I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul. That’s where the good stuff will come from. But I have been having trouble doing that recently. Why? Because (I realised, while recovering), I had fallen into two traps over the past few months. One was my old frenemy, perfectionism…
THE FIRST TRAP: PERFECTIONISM
The big posts, the ambitious posts, weren’t being finished, weren’t being posted, because I was polishing them to death; endlessly tinkering with them. And that meant many of the ideas about the universe that most tremendously excite me (some from my own mind; some from the minds of others) – were not making it through the process, and out into the public sphere.
Why? I think I feared getting things wrong – but mistakes are unavoidable when you are writing a work that spans multiple fields: you cannot possibly be an expert in all of them. As a result, I was over-thinking, over-researching, over-writing, over-editing. But that’s not appropriate for this Substack! Something that perfect would be… the finished book. Not the Substack where I’m writing it.
This is, after all, a book about how evolution drives everything at every level. Well, let me finally learn my own lesson. I need to harness evolution’s powers, in order to improve my book – and that means a more rapid turnover of generations, more iterations; more opportunities for each idea to improve or die…
What I should be posting here are the messy early drafts, the rough ideas, the wild inspired notions that may or may not work out. My hot-take thoughts on recent discoveries by the James Webb Space Telescope. Maybe some transcripts of my conversations with scientists – transcripts with my dumb questions and my brilliant questions all left in. A dramatic, palate-startling, layer-cake of mistakes and breakthroughs. The plan was always to put such rough work up here, and get feedback from you, so that the finished, polished version – the book version – could benefit from your criticism, and suggestions.
Well, perfectionism can be dealt with. I can put stuff up in a slightly rougher state, a little earlier. I can put together posts taken more directly from my notes in Roam (the software tool into which I pour all my first thoughts), without editing and polishing them into something shiny and frictionless. (Some of the sentences in this post, for instance, are real stinkers, and would benefit from a couple of more passes, and all the paragraphs could be tightened up – but that would delay everything, the whole project, for another day or two, and their clumsiness is not a big deal; this is a functional update. Is it understandable? Good, it’s done its job.)
THE SECOND TRAP: AUDIENCE CAPTURE
The other trap, though, was a more subtle one. I fell into it in December, after my subscriber numbers jumped rapidly from a few hundred to a few thousand. (More is different!) The trap was the feeling that I needed to please my audience, rather than please myself. As a result, I’d started to second guess myself – and that path leads to perdition, boys, perdition! I shall quote the great Rick Rubin, who has produced work by everyone from the Beastie Boys through Johnny Cash to Adele.
"It's fine to want to connect with an audience. And, if you want to connect with an audience… you have to ignore them when you are making the work. Because if you're making the work for the audience, it's no longer a genuine work. It's no longer authentic. The authenticity is what makes it good. You putting yourself into it, flaws and all. Ugly and all. Beautiful and all. Weird and all. All of those things are what makes people connect. So when I say "the audience comes last", I do mean it, but the reason the audience comes last is, the audience has to come last – in service to the audience. If you are making it for the audience, you will undershoot the target. If you are making it for yourself, you'll do the best work."
CERTAIN POSTS SEEM TO WANT TO BE BOOKS, DAMN THEM TO HELL
So I am going to do my best work by, um, putting you last for a while. What is that going to look like? Well, I suspect I’ll be more playful (and less perfectionist). More typos, for sure. I will post more often, and you probably won’t like all the posts as much, and that is fine, because the posts you DO like, you’ll like a lot, because they will have been written at full strength.
Overall, there will be more posts; some will be quite short. I have noticed a tendency for my posts to grow and grow AND GROW as I write, until they are covering faaaaar too much territory for one post – certain posts seem to want to be books.
This is partly because there seems to be no set limit on post lengths in Substack. (And partly, of course, because my mind insists on connecting everything to everything else.) As a result, my draft folders in Scrivener (the software tool into which I import my rough notes, and where I actually do the bulk of my writing and rewriting) are now full of multiple drafts of ludicrously long posts that happily hop from subject to subject, and that I can’t seem to finish. So I may have to chop those up into sections, and then impose some arbitrary cutoff length on each part, simply to keep them under control, get them finished, get them out.
AIMING FOR THE OTHER KIND OF PERFECT
But there is another kind of perfectionism, that isn’t about polish. A perfection of the aim, perhaps, where the result can be rough as a tiger’s tongue… and nonetheless perfect. And that, I do want…
To explain, here is Rick Rubin again. He uses that tricky word “God” in this quote; if you aren’t comfortable with that word, no problem, feel free to swap it out, as one would do in an AA meeting, for something that you are more comfortable with, that can hold the same weight and do the same job for you, like “the future” or “the universe” – or even something like “my child” or “my children” (which, come to think of it, are, of course, simply vivid and immediate combinations of “the future” and “the universe”).
I’m going to be steering by this quote for the next while (it’s a continuation of the Rubin quote up top), and seeing where it takes me.
“Something I realised recently, is that... I always, I use the word greatness all the time, in the book I talk about aiming for greatness, aiming for greatness, aiming for greatness – I realised recently that, without knowing it, maybe an easier way of understanding it is: everything we make, we are making as an offering to God. If you are making an offering to God, you are not taking any shortcuts – I want to start crying, saying this – you are not taking any shortcuts. You're not thinking, you know, what the radio station's going to think – it's a different head. It's like, I want to do the best I could do, in a universal way, for something that I don't understand. There are no metrics for what I'm talking about. I've always done that, but didn't know that's what it was. Now I realise, oh that's what it's always been. That's what it's always been."
(Rick has a book out, by the way, called The Creative Act: A Way of Being, published in the US by Penguin Random House, and in the UK by Canongate. So his conversation with Bari Weiss draws on that; if you like those quotes you might like his book.)
OK, feel free to give me advice/suggestions in the comments.
And now I’m going to put on the Beastie Boys real loud, and get back to work. Talk soon.
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Mysterious fatigue, perfectionism, posts that want to be books, everything-connects-to-everything-else syndrome...are you SURE you're not me and I didn't write this in a fit of eloquent delirium? Man, do I envy that Sam Kriss...pulling off those loooong, heavily researched posts with multiple tangents with such style, and somehow making everything hang together...and most importantly, hitting send on the damn things.
Anyway, great to hear you're doing better, and look forward to seeing what these new rough-edged posts look like.
I so relate to the perfectionism part. I’m serializing a utopian novel and with every chapter I feel like “now I have to figure out what the ideal government looks like” before I publish it. But now I’ve realized that I can just publish a rough draft, get comments and feedback from my subscribers, and that will make the final book so much stronger than if I tried to solve the whole world myself while I was writing it 😝 It’s like I’m crowdsourcing the editing of my book in real time!
Anyway, can’t wait to read more rough drafts!!!! And I’m glad you’re feeling better!