MWD 19 - On Curiosity and Focus

How to write when I can't stop reading. How to read when I can't stop writing.

Welcome to Midweek Dinner, the mental equivalent of scrounging in the fridge to pull together a meal. Except this is a meal of ideas, thoughts, unexpected joys, and yes, sometimes there's food. Subscribe to receive this assortment of goodness in your inbox every Wednesday.

Curiosity. It drives me, fueling my writing with an infinite well of interesting topics, fascinating information, and stories — so many stories. There is a sea of unrelated discourse rolling through my brain, and I get a thrill when the waves push unpredictable connections into place. I scroll through Twitter, hating the time-suck of it but loving the unexpected brilliance it daily throws my way. There is seemingly no end to the things I will wonder about, no limit to the number of shiny things I can be tempted to explore. I have long claimed the crow as my spirit animal, and we are curious creatures.

But this insatiable curiosity is also the albatross around my neck, keeping me from chasing one of those shiny bits long enough to produce meaningful thinking and writing on it. Sometimes, the path I wander down has clear stepping stones, and the items collected here coalesce into something forming a theme. But then three more days of idea-chasing occurs, and last week’s thoughts get pushed to the back of this cluttered cabinet of curiosities. And though this meandering path has given me so much to think on, it has often left me despairing, wondering if I will ever manage enough discipline to create something of substance, or if, instead, I will remain entranced by the transient, fixated on the fleeting. What if I’m unable to stop long enough to write something of worth in the world?

Let’s dig around in here and see what’s edible.

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This Quanta piece on “Why Sleep Deprivation Kills” by Veronique Greenwood is simply excellent science writing, a model of the form. Besides the fact that the article details some fascinating discoveries regarding why the body needs sleep, it also provides a gorgeous example of student engagement. When envisioning an educational ideal, this is the kind of outcome we should be aiming for: the Ph.D. students connected to this research are so excited by the possibilities of the project that, “no one wanted to get their Ph.D. . . . They all thought that tomorrow, they’d discover the function of sleep,” and they wanted to be there when they did. The best possible teaching-learning environment is one where the student foregoes the “reward” to stick around for the answers.

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In this NYTimes Magazine piece by Claudia Rankine about asking white men about their privilege, Rankine simultaneously recognizes the conversations she wants to have and acknowledges her reluctance to have them. She equally calls out the defensive with the woke, noting the problems surrounding those “agreed-upon terms” that too often “prevent us from stumbling into moment of real recognition.”

“These phrases — white fragility, white defensiveness, white appropriation — have a habit of standing in for the complicated mess of a true conversation.”

She’s right, of course. But she’s still trying to have the conversation.

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“I have rape-colored skin.” Not sure that I’ve ever read an opening line that hit with more truth and force as this one by Caroline Randall Williams. If you only have one more Times article to burn this month, make it this one.

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Leo Tolstoy vs. The Police by Jennifer Wilson helps make sense of why I’ve been so appreciative of my time in Tolstoy’s work (after War and Peace, I moved on to a reread of Anna Karenina). She writes that “Tolstoy was drawn to seekers, to characters perpetually in the throes of spiritual crisis; George Orwell described them as figures ‘struggling to make their souls.” Indeed, Tolstoy saw emergencies, personal and social, as necessary ruptures that could spark a deeper questioning of society and the beliefs that supported it.”

Struggling to make their souls. Perhaps that is what I am doing.

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If you haven’t yet read this 2009 acceptance speech from Haruki Murakami, please do so. It isn’t long, but it is profound.

Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.

I pray I always stand on the side of the egg.


Unexpected Joy Department

Speaking of eggs, these little lovelies have been my favorite distraction of late.

They grew so fast and flew away a few days ago, and I may never stop looking up at that empty nest as I walk by.


Published This Week

Tolstoy led me to Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and my love for it is not quite adequately conveyed in this review, but close. It is a top-five read of the year for me.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Review

I finally joined the rest of the world in its lovefest for Jericho Brown’s The Tradition

On Sundays We Read Poetry

Not about books, but on the cognitive dissonance of living in a place with significant spread of Covid-19 coupled with a seeming disregard of that reality.

Traffic Lights and Gaslighting

(PS: I’m not sure I prefer these links as buttons, but I’m giving them a try. Do let me know if you find them helpful or horrendous or somewhere in between.)


Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.