Hello there 🙂

Welcome to issue four 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

We’re fast approaching the festive season, and yet I find myself pre-occupied with vampires.

Vampire mythology varies. Certain folkloric traditions hold that a vampire cannot enter your home unless you invite them in. Once invited, they can come and go as they please.

Similar folklore suggests that vampires feed on the blood of the living. Let one in, and they might, quite literally, suck you dry. Alternatively, they won’t quite suck you dry, you’ll survive, but unhappily, you will be transformed into a vampire.

I mention this thanks to a post from Austin Kleon. He advocates the use of the Vampire Test as a means to determine who to let into your life.

He suggests that you consider whether or not the people you let into your life give you energy, or suck every ounce of energy out of you.

He got the idea for the test from a story in John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (Vol 3). Brancusi, who’d had several of his sculptural ideas ripped off from Pablo, “was anything but an admirer of Picasso or his work”:

[He] disapproved of [one of] of Picasso’s fundamental characteristics—one that was all too familiar to the latter’s fellow artists and friends—his habit of making off not so much with their ideas as with their energy. “Picasso is a cannibal,” Brancusi said.

He had a point. After a pleasurable day in Picasso’s company, those present were apt to end up suffering from collective nervous exhaustion. Picasso had made off with their energy and would go off to his studio and spend all night living off it. Brancusi hailed from vampire country and knew about such things, and he was not going to have his energy or the fruits of his energy appropriated by Picasso.

Kleon also notes that Frank Chimero pointed out that this is also #3 on Milton Glaser’s 10 Rules for Life & Work:  “SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM.”

[T]here is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energized or less energized. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.

It begs the question: Are you letting the right people in?

I also think this advice holds not just for people, but for how you spend your time too.

Is how you’re spending your time energising you, or quietly destroying you? Are you letting the right stuff into your life?

Perhaps I’m taking the vampire analogy too far, but I can’t help but feel that how you spend your time (and who you spend it with) might also have the unintended consequence of transforming you into someone you might not want to be.

Dear reader: you too might become a vampire.

I write this as someone who became a metaphorical vampire this week.

I normally steer clear of drama on twitter, but for some reason, this week I engaged. I saw a tweet which I strongly disagreed with and rather than ignore it found myself engaging in a frustrating and largely pointless twitter exchange.

Happily there were no personal attacks or anything of that nature.

Nevertheless, here’s the thing: I don’t like the person who I became on twitter this week. Whilst I think that I still strongly disagree with his original tweet, did I really take the time to understand what the OP was trying to say?

No, on reflection, I’m not so sure that I did.

Conversely, did he understand what I was objecting to? Alas, I suspect the answer is also no.

There I was, (like an absolute idiot), advocating for discourse on a platform which has been built for pithy soundbites. Twitter’s a poor tool for debate. Conversations thread weirdly. Messages cross in the ether. We’re not always able to articulate what we really mean, and we’re also not able to truly understand how others read our messages, or what they take from them.

Two wonderful quotes spring to mind:

The first is from Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead:

“…sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meaning for ourselves…

And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

The second is from The Shape of the Ruins, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez:

“The few bits of self-knowledge we manage to collect never arrive in time…”

What did I really achieve with those responses?

Nothing.

The whole thing just made me feel like crap. To make matters worse, I suspect that I too, made others feel like crap. They are vampires to me, and I am a vampire to them.

Could I have handled this whole thing better? Undoubtedly yes. But I don’t have the benefit of a time machine, and therefore can’t change what’s already happened.

What about the future then?

I still like the vampire test. Trouble is, if I follow it to the letter, that would likely mean that I’d either unfollow everyone who I disagree with, or just get the hell off of twitter altogether.

Whilst the latter option in particular appeals greatly, (it actually sounds delightful), might it not be dangerous? A lack of dissenting voices or differing opinions may be a comfortable way to live, but is it a good way to live?

I don’t have a great answer to this, but I think, perhaps, it’s a question of finding a balance: allowing yourself to be exposed to the views of others, seeking to understand them, and then deciding what you’re going to let in. The vampire test then becomes more about deciding what you’ll embrace and take with you, and what you won’t.

However you choose to interpret it, the notion of being mindful of both who and what you let in still feels like great advice, not just because who and what you choose to let in might affect how you feel, but because it might also affect the type of person you’ll become.


Moar serendipitous finds:

The Great Conjunction will take place on December 21st. It’s been nearly 400 years since Saturn and Jupiter passed this close to each other in the sky, and nearly 800 years since the alignment occurred at night, allowing nearly everyone around the world to witness this “great conjunction.” On the 21st, they will appear so close that a pinkie finger at arm’s length will easily cover both planets in the sky. The planets will be easy to see with the unaided eye by looking toward the southwest just after sunset.I am *very* excited about this – fingers crossed for clear skies on the 21st 🙂


What if instead of calling people out, we called them in? Thoughts from Prof. Loretta J. Ross.


Artist Lakwena Transforms Two Basketball Courts in Arkansas.Tucked into the verdant landscape of Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, are two dramatically altered basketball courts primed for play. Commissioned by the women-led curators of Justkids and OZ Art, the public project was conceived by London-based artist Lakwena, who transformed the outdoor spot into a lively area with her trademark typographic murals:


More from Austin Kleon, this time on the origins of the parable of quantity leading quality. He notes:The frequency of my work  showing up at regular intervals, without worrying about results — has actually lead to better results. Quantity leads to quality.


A Forgotten Pinhole Camera Made from a Beer Can Captures the Longest Exposure Photograph EverRegina Valkenborgh set up the camera in 2012 and subsequently forgot about it. This September, principal technical officer David Campbell discovered it still fastened to one of the observatory’s telescopes…


Artist Amy Jean Porter recounts a walk in spring to see the trout lilies with her family in Spring Ephemeral:The trout lily is a delicate flower that blooms in early spring. Its small yellow petals furl back toward the sky like a popped collar on a nodding face…For most of its life, the trout lily lies quietly under the surface. The colonies can be hundreds of years old, so perhaps their timekeeping is long like trees.


I finally got around to writing up the talk I gave earlier this year: Still No Eye Deer (or things to do when your imaginary friends refuse to talk to you)


And finally, this is the best holiday-themed pun on the internet:

(Dad, if you’re reading this and don’t get it, that image is a still from The Queen’s Gambit, a TV drama about a chess prodigy)


Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now

Dear reader, it has been a fantastic fortnight for books.

I re-read The Bees by Laline Paull. The book popped into my head during a phone call with my Mum – I think I originally read it in 2015 or so. It’s as fantastic as I remembered. The story is told from the perspective of Flora 717, a sanitary worker bee. Through her we come to understand the frequently dystopian world of the bee hive as she struggles to find her place within it. It’s ace.


You might also recall me mentioning Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold. This collection, which originally started out as a podcast features reimagined tales (as well as the originals) from Naomi Booth, Natasha Carthew, Emma Glass, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Daisy Johnson, Liv Little, Kirsty Logan, Eimear McBride, Irenosen Okojie, and Mahsuda Snaith. I spent a wonderful Sunday morning reading the book from cover to cover.


I’m currently about two-thirds of the way through the Mere Wife, Maria Dahvana Headley’s contemporary retelling of Beowulf in novel form, from the perspective of Grendel’s mother. (NB This novel was written prior to Headley’s Beowulf translation I mentioned in the previous edition of this newsletter). The novel begins with a list of translations: the masculine noun aglæca means “fighter, warrior, hero”; the feminine counterpart aglæca-wif means “wretch, monster, hell-bride, hag”, which of course highlights neatly that what is considered heroism in a man becomes horrifying in a woman. It’s another book that I highly recommend.


It was extremely difficult to pick a winner, but recommended read of the fortnight goes to Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri. In her book, Dabiri explores Black hair history relating to her own Nigerian ancestry as well as in the US, the UK and other parts of Africa and Latin America. Her particular concern is the way Black people have been conditioned to think about their hair, as “good” or “bad”. It’s compelling, frequently heartbreaking, and eye-opening.


Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching

I’ve been watching less TV (and reading more), but I really enjoyed re-watching the original 1984 film, The Karate Kid, and then going on to watch two seasons of Cobra Kai (both on Netflix).

The Karate Kid isn’t without its problems – as beloved as Mr Miyagi was as a character, some have since said that they felt stereotyped by him, and were left constantly fending “wax on, wax off” references. It’s a fair criticism, and watching the original film as adult, there were several uncomfortable moments.

Cobra Kai (originally a YouTube reboot, which has since been taken over by Netflix) sees Billy Zabka and Ralph Macchio reprise their original roles. Times have most certainly changed though, and their roles are reversed: Zabka is now the underdog (although not a particular sympathetic one), and Macchio is happily living his best life.

For me, where Cobra Kai triumphs is that it offers nuance, whereas in the Karate Kid there was none: Daniel was good, and Johnny was bad. In this reboot neither character is wholly good, nor wholly bad. You’ll likely find yourself rooting for one, then the other in turn.

The series has been criticised for being corny, but I’d assert that it’s actually a knowing and well-observed homage. That said, I’d acknowledge that at times the dialogue creaks alarmingly, and shoots for cheap laughs which I think the series would be better without.

Trash or treasure? For me it’s the latter and I’ll definitely be binging season 3 of Cobra Kai early next year.


Part IV: Things I’m doing

As mentioned previously, this section is here 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. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Starting the day with a poem

Ordinarily, I get up and start work right away. I don’t check email, social media, slack or any other hellscape – I just get straight to work. My plan for the past two weeks was to be a little kinder to myself, and rather than getting straight to work, I would make coffee, and then spend 15 minutes or so reading a new poem and thinking about it.

I figured this would be both easy to do and nice to do; and on the mornings I remembered to do this, it was indeed a truly lovely way to start the day.

But getting up and getting straight to work was a habit I found really difficult to break. On more than half of the mornings, I found myself having already worked for an hour or so before I’d remember about the poems. On those days I found that I really didn’t want to stop work and read a poem, I wanted to continue working.

It occurred to me that perhaps what might work better, would be to end the day with a poem, rather than beginning the day with one. So that’s what I’ve been doing instead, and that’s been great. The poetry collection I’ve been savouring (one poem at a time) is a new collection from Margaret Atwood called Dearly.


Still No Eye Deer

As promised, I finally got around to writing up a post based on the talk I gave earlier this year: Still No Eye Deer (or things to do when your imaginary friends refuse to talk to you).

Throughout late 2019, and early 2020 (pre-lockdown), I ran a number of creative training sessions for both agencies and inhouse teams, and I noticed a recurrent theme – at every single session I ran someone asked me this:

What do you do when you get stuck?

Creative block is something that’s been written about an awful lot, but I found that I wasn’t wholly satisfied with anything that had previously been written. For example, often the advice was aimed at artists as opposed to those doing commercial creative work – this of course doesn’t make the advice redundant, but commercial creative work is different. Its purpose is different. The pressures involved are often different.

But for me at least, there was actually a bigger problem:

We often talk about creative block as if it’s a specific, singular, concrete problem, however I think that the truth is, creative block is a catch-all term for a whole bunch of very different problems.

With this in mind, I set out to put the talk together. As an added bonus, the write up contains notes on how I put the talk together, plus there’s also some deleted scenes included (further ideas I wanted to explore within the talk, but that I dropped due to time pressure). You can read the full post here.


The Sleep Stealers (an update)

In the last issue of this newsletter, I mentioned that I had submitted a proposal for playwriting competition at Chickenshed, a theatre in North London.

I submitted a piece called The Sleep Stealers, and this week I was told that the piece has been selected(!) and will be performed in February of next year.

I’m chuffed to bits, not least because I very nearly lost my nerve and didn’t submit the piece at all.


So what’s next?

My friend Laura and I will be celebrating the Great Conjunction via Zoom – I may even shave my legs in honour of the occasion.

What else? I often find myself feeling down at this time of year, so to try to combat that, I’m going to write a post about the good things that have happened. It’s not been an easy year, but there have been wonderful moments and it occurs to me that if I’m not careful the I’ll forget the good stuff, and, in my mind at least, write this off as a bad year.

I’m also going to enjoy a bit downtime over the festive period. I will be reading lots of books, doing some cross stitch, and plan to mess around with the various art supplies I have knocking around my flat.


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