Hello there! Welcome to the first edition of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered. Grab yourself a suitable beverage and enjoy…

Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online

I (like most of you I’m sure), have been thinking a lot about how Covid-19 has altered our realities, and what life “after” might look like. As a result, Glynnis MacNicol’s essay on the Death and Life of the Greatest American City resonated strongly with me.

“Covid-19 has pulled the filter off much of our lives, revealing fault lines that had been there all along…”

She highlights the previously performative nature of NYC life:

“The wealth that flooded into the city during the Bloomberg years… brought with it a rosy lens that allowed a lot of people to “perform” city life.

… social media and delivery apps replaced serendipitous interaction, allowing residents to glide alone in black cars or eat without the mess of ever getting a table.

Increasingly, New York seemed to function less as a lived place than a recognizable backdrop against which people could live otherwise largely suburban lives without having to contend with the unpredictability city life normally involves.”

But she’s nevertheless, (I think), ultimately hopeful for the future:

When New Yorkers are asked how much they want to keep New York alive the answer is always: very, very much. And as we head into a fraught election with an alarmingly uncertain aftermath, there is once again the unshakeable sense the city, despite its weak leadership, is facing forward, fists up, elbows in, ready for what comes.

Moving forward in the midst of all this uncertainty, my thoughts keep turning back to this: Which way does happiness lie?

It’s a massive question, but this week, Maria Popova penned a timely reminder (for me at least), that perhaps, true fulfilment, and a happy life might be found by making what we want to see exist:

“After the glorious accident of having been born at all, there are myriad ways any one life could be lived. The lives we do live are bridges across the immense river of possibility, suspended by two pylons: what we want and what we make. In an ideal life — a life of purpose and deep fulfilment — the gulf of being closes and the pylons converge: We make what we want to see exist.”

Popova shares wisdom from Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Talents (the sequel to her dystopian novel The Parable of the Sower):

“Love quiets fear.
And a sweet and powerful
Positive obsession
Blunts pain…”

Finally, whilst pondering whether or not the world really needed yet another email newsletter (let alone one from me), I rediscovered Neil Gaiman’s advice to aspiring artists:

“Saying that we have enough artists is like saying we have enough scientists, we have enough designers, we have enough politicians — we have enough politicians — but, you know, nobody gets to be you except you.

Nobody has your point of view except you.

Nobody gets to bring to the world the things that you get to bring to the world — uniquely get to bring to the world — except you.

So, saying that there are enough writers out there, enough directors out there, enough people with points of view. Well yeah, there are, but none of them are you.

And none of those people is going to make the art that you are going to make. None of them is going to change people and change the world in the way that you could change it. So if you believe somebody that says, “no, no, we’ve got enough of those,” then all it means is that you are giving up your chance to change the world in the way that only you can change it.”

This is excellent advice for anyone seeking to make or do pretty much anything, I think.

Moar serendipitous finds:

  • Check out Adrian Brandon’s series of incomplete portraits. Brandon is a Brooklyn-based artist is working on a series called Stolen: partially filled-in depictions of Black people murdered by police. Each portrait remains incomplete as Brandon only colours one minute for each year of the subject’s life before it was cut short.
  • Given that I’m increasingly feeling like tech will destroy is, I was heartened to read the story of how care home residents are using static bikes and videos to compete for medals and ‘travel’ to places old and new without leaving their chair.
  • The logophile in me is delighted by Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveller – select a year to see the words which first appeared in print then. What I think is perhaps most interesting are the concepts which we likely consider to be relatively recent, but actually aren’t; examples include – technophobia: 1947, machine language: 1947, artificial intelligence: 1955, and internet of things: 2001.
  • I acted as a mentor in the WTS Mentorship programme earlier this year. My mentee and I talked a lot about content strategy, and, in particular what the future might look like for publishers. So, when I came across this – The Not Failing NY Times it felt like a gift. The deck explores how the NY Times flipped from being ad-supported to subscription-supported, cleaned up their balance sheet and created new revenue streams.

Finally, a little manufactured serendipity from the Worderist.com archives: The Mixed Up Morality of Bluebeard is an old post which explores Angela Carter’s subversive translations of Perrault’s fairy tales:

“Each century tends to create or re-create fairy tales after its own taste.”

~Angela Carter

Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now

I’m currently struggling through Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I’ve read Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through The Mirror and the Light. Whilst these books are doubtlessly accomplished, they’re sadly not really my bag.

If you are in the market for a book recommendation, then seek out a copy of Love & Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward.

It’s a novel which explores the nature of our reality, and our capacity to know and understand it. For me, it’s far and away the best book on the Booker Prize Longlist this year.

“Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things.”

Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching

Dear reader, I’ve been watching Catfish the TV Show (yes, really). It’s the intellectual equivalent of pizza, undeniably exploitative, and frequently problematic – but nevertheless I find myself fascinated by how humans behave both on and offline.

I’ve also binged Truth Seekers (Amazon Prime), enjoyable, but it lacks the Cornetto Trilogy wit I was hoping for. Still, worth a watch.

Hands down the best film I’ve seen for a long time is I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix). Rather than deliver a straight screen adaptation of Iain Reid’s unsettling novel, writer-director Charlie Kaufman instead focusses on the book’s underlying theme – as Rolling Stone’s David Fear notes:

“[Kaufman] has located something at the heart of Reid’s story that he elevates from subtext to primary concern, about the way regrets have a way of eclipsing the bright spots of a life.”

The film is funny, unsettling, and devastating by turn.

It also features a poem called Bonedog by Eva H.D., which I’ve become obsessed with, here’s an excerpt:

The sun goes up and down
like a tired whore,
the weather immobile
like a broken limb
while you just keep getting older.
Nothing moves but
the shifting tides of salt in your body.
Your vision blears.
You carry your weather with you,
the big blue whale,
a skeletal darkness.

You can read the full poem here.

Part IV: Things I’m Doing

The purpose of this section is largely to keep me honest. I’m hoping that by documenting some of the things I’m planning to do, it’ll give me the extra motivation required to actually do them. Essentially, you’re my accountability buddies.

As you might have guessed, setting up this newsletter has been the core thing I’ve been doing over the past few weeks. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but a combination of self-doubt and a case of the mean reds (definition below) meant I just didn’t do anything about it.

The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.

~Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961

However, thanks to a well-timed chat with Areej AbuAli (seriously, one of the best people on the planet), this newsletter is now a reality.

But what’s next?

I think I need to go back to spending more time playing. A few weeks ago I picked up a couple of packs of “inspirational bits” from an independent book shop. They include newspaper cuttings, pages from old books, images, playing cards and other ephemera. I plan to use them as writing prompts, for blackout poetry, possibly even collage (I have even purchased the necessary art supplies), and I promise to share some of whatever I make with you.

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