This week, we’re sharing stories from Steve Kolowich; Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg; Taffy Brodesser-Akner; Carolyn Murnick; and Jamie Lauren Keiles.
Four days before the 1947 Broadway opening of A Streetcar Named Desire, the New York Times published an essay by Tennessee Williams on the depression he’d experienced after the success of The Glass Menagerie summarily ended life as he’d known it.
Fame had turned Williams into a “public Somebody” overnight, a crisis that ultimately landed him in the hospital, “mainly because of the excuses it gave me to withdraw from the world behind a gauze mask.”
The sort of life that I had had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last.
I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.
After spending three months witnessing inequities that felt wrong in a luxury hotel, let alone in a functioning democracy, Williams sought salvation from fame’s spiritually-bankrupt life of leisure, hoping to distance himself from a toxic setup he believed hurt everyone it touched:
The sight of an ancient woman, gasping and wheezing as she drags a heavy pail of water down a hotel corridor to mop up the mess of some drunken overprivileged guest, is one that sickens and weighs upon the heart and withers it with shame for this world in which it is not only tolerated but regarded as proof positive that the wheels of Democracy are functioning as they should without interference from above or below. Nobody should have to clean up anybody else’s mess in this world. It is terribly bad for both parties, but probably worse for the one receiving the service.
Williams suggests we should let machines take up some of humanity’s unwanted tasks, then takes a poetic detour into the consequences of that automation. Removing work from the equation of living, he observes, creates a void of paranoid inertia. Just as he concludes that outsourcing this work to fellow humans breeds depression, he notes that advances in technology designed to lighten the load often render the average person fearful of struggle itself.
We are like a man who has bought up a great amount of equipment for a camping trip, who has the canoe and the tent and the fishing lines and the axe and the guns, the mackinaw and the blankets, but who now, when all the preparations and the provisions are piled expertly together, is suddenly too timid to set out on the journey but remains where he was yesterday and the day before and the day before that, looking suspiciously through white lace curtains at the clear sky he distrusts. Our great technology is a God-given chance for adventure and for progress which we are afraid to attempt.
The essay is available online as part of The New School History Project, a site where students curate a trove of recovered archival material to provoke critical and informed discussion.
In creating a routine “entirely alien to his normal life,” Alexander Chee attempted a real vacation from his work as a writer on a recent trip to Greece. For the New York Times, he sketches his way around Sifnos, capturing both the “least famous” Greek island and his memories of it in a Moleskine notebook. In rediscovering the pure pleasure of art, he draws fresh strength to fuel his writing. (You can read the first chapter, The Queen of the Night, Chee’s latest novel, here.)
Drawing is an excellent way to remember a place. In my mind I can still see clearly the towns I drew and the mornings I spent there.
When I left on the ferry home, I could feel I had in fact relaxed, deep down, in some way that was entirely new to me. But also, drawing had opened that new door to the old place. It had brought me back to the pleasure of the art you make just for yourself, where all art begins, easy to lose track of when you become a professional writer. Your own private conversation about ideas and aesthetics.
Vacation is so often cast as a luxury now in America, a bourgeois game of Instagram tagging and food photos. But for me, in Sifnos, I came to know it as the time in the year when you find not only rest, but also the strength you need to meet your work and your life when you return to them. In the years since, it’s been hard to be an American writer and take vacations like this. But I would never want to live the other way — without them — again.
The New York Times has an essay by Searching for John Hughes author Jason Diamond that’s equal parts memoir and travel writing. Diamond, who’s also an editor at Rolling Stone, takes a drive through Florida from top to bottom, getting to know the state most of his family eventually settled in, but which he has only flirted with for months at a time here and there, mostly when he was much younger. Traveling from one region to the next, he comes to realize that there is no one single Florida. It’s a collection of disparate cultures.
Florida represents so much that’s good, bad and bizarre about the United States, all rolled into one long state. It’s where all of our sins go to be washed away by the ocean: drugs, shady real estate developers, and the Palm Beach County man who, in 2012, ate so many cockroaches and worms in a bug-eating contest (the prize was an ivory-ball python) that he vomited, collapsed and died.
It’s filled with beauty and contradictions. Legend tells us Ponce de León ended up sailing to somewhere near Melbourne Beach in his search for the Fountain of Youth, and grandparents go there to live out their golden years. It’s the setting for movies like “Moonlight,” and fiction by Elmore Leonard and Karen Russell and Laura van den Berg. It’s mysterious and beautiful, spooky and exciting. And yes, it’s weird.
In an interview with The New York Times, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams admits to David Streitfeld that he thinks the internet is broken — and apologizes for the role Twitter played in the ascendency of Donald Trump.
President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.
“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”
Trump’s campaign slogan may as well have been Extremity First, a strategy his supporters considered the conscious technique of a mastermind playing 4D chess with the media. What the internet is missing, Williams argues, is an ethical framework, a new business model that will introduce a market correction to what the internet perceives as user demand for extremism:
The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”
But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.
Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.
Williams has been attempting to course-correct with Medium, a publishing platform conceived to intervene on this vicious cycle of misinterpreted rubbernecking with an ad-free, subscription-based business model. Medium’s successes have been tempered and debatable, while its missteps, like so many of the internet’s favorite car wrecks, have been more memorable. (Williams announced layoffs in a blog post before all the sunsetting employees were informed, shocking investors and publishing partners alike; when Williams introduced the $5 subscription model, Bryan Clark published an op-ed titled Ev Williams has lost his goddamn mind.)
While the need for an intervention is readily apparent, the question of how to make publishing sustainable — in spite of, or by somehow newly leveraging, the internet’s existing mosaic of incentives — continues to pose considerable challenges to the viability of new approaches to funding. As fellow Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has said in response to Williams’ statement that he wants to make publishing profitable: “Yeah, so does everyone else.”
This week, we’re sharing stories from Renee Montagne, Nina Martin, Alex Tizon, Mary Mann, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and Andy Newman.
This week we’re sharing stories by Caity Weaver, Matthew Desmond, Chris J. Rice, Kent Russell, and Rafe Bartholomew.
I dream often. Every night, actually. Sometimes my dreams are sexy or scary. Mostly, I dream about school. It’s the first day, and I don’t have my schedule. It’s the last day, and I didn’t take a math class and now I won’t graduate. I’m lost. I’m running late. I skipped too many English classes, didn’t do the reading, and won’t pass the final. I can walk in my commencement ceremony, but I have to return to campus in the summer to finish my degree. Everything looks familiar but wrong somehow, like it does in all of our dreams. I look at numbers or words and realize they’re jumbled, unintelligible symbols. Sometimes, I know I’m dreaming, but I can’t control what’s happening; I’m not a lucid dreamer. Occasionally, I throw myself into the dream-ground and fall into bed. The dreams where I don’t want to wake up are the best ones, of course, and the next night I won’t fear sleep.
1. “A New Vision for Dreams of the Dying.” (Jan Hoffman, The New York Times, February 2016)
Hospice Buffalo is integrating their patients’ dreams and visions into their treatment and comfort routines, breaking with old-school care traditions.
2. “Loose But Lucid: A Dreamer in Paradise.” (Bucky McMahon, Esquire, February 2002)
Bucky McMahon travels to Hawaii to learn how to lucid dream (successfully!) from expert Stephen LeBarge.
3. “Can You Die From a Nightmare?” (Doree Shafrir, BuzzFeed, September 2012)
In 2012, after two years of writing and almost a decade of night terrors, Doree Shafrir published this essay about her violent, unpredictable sleep behaviors. Investigating potential causes and cures for her parasomnia led Shafrir to check in at the New York Sleep Institute, phone up comedian Mike Birbiglia, and sit down with Tim Dubitsky, the boyfriend of the late artist Tobias Wong, who killed himself in the midst of a night terror.
4. “Angry Signatures.” (Ursula Villarreal-Moura, Nashville Review, December 2016)
Short fiction from a Texan author about a mother-daughter pair and the manifestation of their prophetic dreams.
5. “Why We Dream About Our Childhood Homes.” (Janet Allon, The New York Times, July 1998)
What do New Yorkers dream about? Subways, manholes, expanding apartments, and flying over Central Park. Janel Allen includes each dreamer’s profession, and I enjoyed trying to make connections between their dream and waking lives.
6. “What Escapes the Total Archive.” (Rebecca Lemov, Limn, March 2016)
Pursuing the twentieth-century dream of capturing all sociological data in a single clearinghouse, a group of American social scientists in the mid-1950s attempted a bold, if not completely unprecedented, experiment. They would test the limits not only of content (what was collected) but also of format (how it was collected, saved, circulated, and distributed). The resulting data set of data sets, which I call the “database of dreams,” but which its creators referred to by the somewhat less evocative Microcard Publications of Primary Records in Culture and Personality, took shape between 1955 and 1963. Meanwhile, its more extensive vision—the total archive it portended and evoked containing all ephemeral data from the domain of subjectivity collected from peoples around the world, and available in turn across the globe—never did come about. Yet its would-be creators spoke of it as if to invoke it into existence.
When the New York Times asked authors to share stories of love intersecting with travel, Alexander Chee recalls a summer in Granada, Spain, with M. — his boyfriend at the time — who betrayed Chee at a local hammam. “He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.”
I liked M. I was having my first summer in Spain and he was good in bed, funny at dinner, smart about books. Enjoying that was not a mistake. Hiding himself from me was. When I eventually discovered the truth, I was more offended that he wouldn’t tell me. He thought I wanted monogamy more than him, and I didn’t. And I couldn’t forgive that I didn’t get to choose.
Some things I remember very clearly from that summer: learning to love the feel of cold red wine in my mouth on a hot day. The beautiful boy on the bus the whole way to the beach at Carboneras from Granada, burning the back of the rubber and vinyl seat with a lighter, but slowly, never enough to catch fire, who stopped only to take pictures of himself on his phone. The man putting saccharin in his fresh orange juice. And the streets paved with stones taken from the river, smooth and shining in the dark, like the backs of fish.
M. can keep his secrets, I told myself then. I have this. That was my bargain. I still think it is a good one.
Columbia Journalism Review has an as-told-to account of New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s experience reporting a page-one story that ran in March of 2016, which bore the headline “To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control.” Callimachi talks to CJR‘s Elon Green about various aspects of getting the story, spending time with the victims, and earning their trust.
Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.
Callimachi also discusses her process as a writer.
I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love — moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment — it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.
I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.