First, I want to thank you for the lovely reaction to the short story I shared in my previous edition.
Many readers said it made them cry. Good —
Here’s the web edition again, in case you missed it.
The story features a particular music synthesizer —
Alternatively, here’s Suzanne Ciani operating a huge Moog system—very similar to Maisie’s synthesizer, both sonically and ergonomically.
This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.
This will be a short edition. I just devoted all of January to a big revision of my new novel. It was a ton of work, a great success —
I have plenty of weaknesses as a writer; happily, “doing the work” and (eventually) “finishing the work” are no longer among them.
I can remember very clearly a time when this wasn’t the case.
Back in 2004, I heard about an event called 24-Hour Comics Day, the invention of Scott McCloud, whose book Understanding Comics I’d recently found electrifying. The idea was: gather at a comic book shop; stay up all night; write and draw a 24-page comic. That’s it!
At that time, I was very interested in comics and, in my own estimation, not totally without talent.
I had, of course, never drawn more than a page.
I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I discovered that a comic book shop in Sarasota, about an hour’s drive south, was participating in this obscure event. So, I packed up some Bristol board and crossed the Sunshine Skyway. The proceedings were set to begin in the afternoon and continue overnight. The shop ordered pizza. I didn’t know anyone else there. It was fabulous.
24-Hour Comics Day stipulated: no pre-planning! Always a rule-follower, I asked my coterie of college friends to suggest bits of story, which I printed blind and then, in Sarasota, with horror and delight, dutifully integrated.
I finished my improv comic in the allotted time, feeling loopy and exultant. I was pleased with the result, and, more than that, I was incredulous that there was a result. That I had produced a complete comic book.
At age 24, I spent a lot of time thinking about writing and drawing, and significantly less time actually writing and drawing. I had finished exactly one (1) short story, several years prior. This comic expanded my ouvre by a significant percentage. It was a tiny revolution.
When you start a creative project but don’t finish, the experience drags you down. Worst of all is when you never decisively abandon the project, instead allowing it to fade into forgetfulness. The fades gather; they become a gloomy haze that whispers, you’re not the kind of person who DOES things.
When you start and finish, by contrast —
Unfinished work drags and depresses; finished work compounds and accelerates.
(I ought to clarify: sending an edition of a newsletter does not provide this fuel. The internet works against the feeling of starting and finishing, against edges, because those things all imply endings, and the internet never ends. To produce the fuel of completion with a newsletter, you’d have to start one … send some number of editions … and shut it down.)
Here is a PDF scan of my 24-hour comic from 2004, titled Ornithology. This is juvenilia: rushed, truncated, silly bordering on nonsensical. At the same time, it represents one of the earliest chugs of an engine that is, today, running strong and hot. It means a lot to me.
Here is an essay by Nirmal Verma about Jorge Luis Borges, from his 1976 book titled Shabd Aur Smriti, or Word and Memory.
The translator’s note is fascinating:
In this essay, as in all the rest of his work, Verma leaves absolutely no markers to establish that he is a Hindi or an Indian writer. There’s no distance between the author and the subject. Just as Borges could, in Verma’s words, “freely relate to the European tradition”, Verma himself could freely relate to Borges’s Argentine past and Anglophile taste —
enough to claim Borges as part of his own, self-created tradition. It’s rare to come across writing like this in our globalised world, where neither Verma nor Borges would have felt at home.
When I captured this link, I wrote:
Sometimes I think the academy is just a mutual agreement to take each other seriously. A kind of realtime mutual myth-making. A group of people who all want to be in important places, discussing things which will be recalled later. Who wouldn’t!
Here is J. R. R. Tolkien recalling a conversation with C. S. Lewis, and articulating a sentiment that I recognize:
Lewis said to me one day: “[T]here is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”
“Interlace” is a literary term new to me. From the paper Galadriel and Wyrd: Interlace, Exempla, and the Passing of Northern Courage in the History of the Eldar by Richard Z. Gallant:
Interlace is “the device of interweaving of a number of different themes … all distinct and yet inseparable.” The device is thought to have originated with Ovid. Denis Feeny in his introduction to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, notes that the “haphazard chain of association is entertaining, but it also reinforces the Ovidian theme of the very contingency of connectedness.”
Of course I like the view of C. S. Lewis, who is quoted in the paper, writing that “the contingency of connectedness” lends a work
depth, or thickness, or density. Because the (improbable) adventure which we are following is liable at any moment to be interrupted by some quite different (improbable) adventure, there steals upon us unawares the conviction that adventures of this sort are going on all around us, that in this vast forest (we are nearly always in a forest) this is the sort of thing that goes on all the time, that it was going on before we arrived and will continue after we have left.
I think this is the soul of “worldbuilding”—more important than any number of maps or genealogies. Or, to say it another way: you could draw all the maps you wanted and still find your story thin and unconvincing. Conversely, a “worldbuilding” that consisted of three gnomic phrases could feel perfectly thick and capacious, deployed amidst “the contingency of connectedness”.
This is an opportunity to link to M. John Harrison’s notes on worldbuilding, and to quote a post on his blog:
With deftness, economy of line, good design, compression & use of modern materials, you could ram it full of stuff. You could really build a world. But for all the talk, that’s not what that kind of fantasy wants. It wants to get away from a world. This one.
Print that out and pin it to the wall.
THIS, in turn, is an opportunity to mention that M. John Harrison’s “anti-memoir”, Wish I Was Here, will be published later this year. (The real Harrison-heads stand poised to import it from the U.K.)
Adam Roberts is rereading The Lord of the Rings, and his considerations as he goes have been, for me, absolute catnip: the most absorbing and “actionable” (!) literary criticism I’ve read in many years.
Partially this is because I’ve just completed a reread of LOTR myself: a beautiful one-volume edition with Tolkien’s own (slightly wonky) illustrations included, plus some lovely rubrication:
Mostly, though, it’s because Adam is so brilliant —
Adam has published three installments now (part one, part two, part three) and I cannot get enough. They have sent me scrambling back to my illustrated edition, rereading my reread.
This is the good stuff.
Jump button makes Jumpman jump.
—Donkey Kong arcade cabinet instructions (1981)
That’s from I Am Error: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform by Nathan Altice, a “material history” of the NES “focusing on its technical constraints and its expressive affordances.” I found this book totally engrossing and inspiring.
“time to post again the best user interface i’ve ever seen”
Here is a beautiful edition of Herodotus, shared by Andy Matuschak. What a TOOL, for reading and exploring.
Here are some phenomenal blackletter type samples. I want —
Here is Jay Owens on a new strain of “nature writing” that takes non-human intelligence seriously. She connects two books from 2022 that I loved, and speaks to their authors, James Bridle and Ray Nayler; in this way, the piece suggests a virtual cafe-table conversation that you absolutely want to join.
I have been a devoted fan of Jay’s writing and thinking for years; she is one of those people whose presence basically justifies the existence of the internet. It’s no coincidence she is such a canny observer of that same internet and its subtlest games.
Her forthcoming book, titled Dust, expands hugely on a newsletter that I followed avidly during its dust-y run. If you’re wondering to yourself, “was this newsletter really all about dust? Is the book really … ?” the answers are: yes, and YES. The U.S. edition will arrive in September of this year, and I truly cannot wait to read it.
Jay is newly-installed as the Head of Audience for the London Review of Books —
I always leap when a dispatch from Jackie Luo appears. She is a sensitive chronicler of her milieu, diaristic and political in the deep sense —
there’s a running joke (is joke the word?) on twitter that we’re all still stuck in 2020, or that we’re about to begin year eight of 2016. in my own life, at least, that has felt true. 2016 is the last year i can recall feeling deeply optimistic about what the new year would bring, for me and for the world at large. since then, the fragile hopes i bore for each new year have been flattened again and again into the formless sameness of a world where time means nothing and yet somehow everything manages to keep getting worse. the future began to feel less like an unbounded space of potentiality and more like a precious resource that kept diminishing, untouched. eight years is a long time. where did it all go? how did i get here? it’s hard, living in such persistently unprecedented times, to know what is the natural process of aging and what’s the specific peculiarity of aging in this time.
Jackie’s “stuckness” makes me think of Zygmunt Bauman, the sociologist who saw it all with such clarity, way back in 2000:
We feel rather than know (and many of us refuse to acknowledge) that power (that is, the ability to do things) has been separated from politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need to be done and given priority) [ … ]
Read Jackie; read Zygmunt.
The art in this edition is the work of Nikolai Astrup, who was kinda all over the place, not in a bad way. This self-portrait struck me powerfully:
Couldn’t that be, say, a cartoonist in Chicago, circa 2004? Don’t you feel like you already know him? I think I saw that dude at 24-Hour Comics Day! Nikolai Astrup printed this image from a woodcut in the year 1904. Here we are, almost 120 years later, meeting his gaze.
Out of words!
P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on March 7.