Tiny Revolutions №92: Running Up That Hill
+ notes on four years of Tiny Revolutions
Hey friends, we’re celebrating a milestone here. It’s been four years since I started writing this newsletter! I kinda wish I’d make it to a clean 100 issues for the anniversary, but 92 is not bad for a lollygagger like me. Thanks for being here, and for keeping this thing going, meandering stream that it is.
One pop culture phenomenon I’ve enjoyed lately is the resurgence of Kate Bush’s classic “Running Up that Hill.” In the event you’ve been hiding under a rock lately (and who could blame you!?), the 37-year old-song was featured in an episode of “Stranger Things” and subsequently hit the top of the charts. (I was not aware they were still doing those??) Anyway, it’s a great song and it’s been fun to see and hear it everywhere.
It reminded me of another milestone: when I attended the Tin House Workshop ten years ago, in the summer of 2012. At the time I was obsessed with the Chromatics cover of the song:
Attending the workshop was a big deal; the teaching staff was packed with writers I adored, like Dorothy Allison and Anthony Doerr. I’d had to submit work in order to get in, and it was a thrill to be accepted by a well-regarded literary organization. (I’m not sure how competitive the admission process actually was, but I was then getting rejections from literary journals left and right, so I was pretty psyched.)
I’d gravitated to the song at the time because it sounded BIG and daunting and full of momentum, which was reflective of how I was feeling about making my way in the writing world.
I was on my way! I was running up that hill. A hard slog, but necessary. I felt like I had such a long way to go to be good enough to get my stuff out there. And not just get it out there (I started my first blog in 2005, so I already had some confidence that my work had value), but to have other people get it out there, too.
By the time I attended Tin House, I’d already been taking workshops on the craft of nonfiction for a couple of years. I took them consistently for another five years afterward. In 2017, I finished a draft of a collection of personal essays; a few were published, most weren’t. What I’m saying is I put in some damn work! And I definitely did get better. I also made great friends and read so many incredible writers.
But here’s the thing: I was always operating with the conviction that in order to be the writer I wanted to be (and have the life I wanted to have), I needed the validation of the external world. And that meant getting published in literary magazines, getting a book deal, an agent, a Pushcart prize, etc.
I’d still like to do all of those things, to be clear. Just like everyone else on the planet, I like validation.
But something has changed these past 10 years. I keep writing and I keep reading the greats and I keep putting my stuff out there and trying to get better as both a writer and a human, but I don’t feel like I’m running up a hill anymore. It’s more like I’m moving slowly but deliberately toward a purer distillation of my own essence.
I’ll never be Zadie Smith or George Saunders or [insert contemporary legendary writer here]. Outside of the fact that I lack whatever combination of talents and qualities it takes to be a phenom in the literary world, I just have a completely different set of experiences and history to draw upon. The only thing I can be is me — and the only way I can do that is by paying close attention to what moves me and letting the rest wash away.
As a sensation, it’s more like settling down rather than climbing up. So much of the work is letting go of all the ways I think I should be, and that feels sort of like submitting to gravity. Which is a relief.
But it is a form of surrender, and that just isn’t easy. The ego doesn’t like it, even if it does make some things simpler.
This surrender applies to writing, but I think it applies to everything else, too. You get older and your energy changes and life and relationships become infinitely more complex, and, assuming you’re paying attention, you start to ask yourself, “What does this moment require from me?” more often than “What do I want out of this situation?”
Or at least that’s how it’s been for me. Which is not to say that I don’t pursue pleasure and satisfaction — believe me, I do, and I think it’s important — but it’s more that somewhere along the way I’ve learned that there’s no fun in it if it’s not about pleasure and satisfaction for other people, too.
The Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said, “Our central work is to shift — very slowly, usually over a lifetime — from a self-centered view of things to a life-centered view of things.”
I’d never heard it put quite that way, but it tracks. Who the hell would any of us be without each other?
Let’s move on to some poems, quotes, and flotsam I’ve collected over the past few weeks, shall we?
This sign appeared at the Silver Lake Reservoir over this past weekend. 🖤
A poem by Mary Oliver
More silently being drawn, less pushing ourselves to exhaustion
I had this Rumi quote tacked to a cork board above my desk for five years or so. The sun faded it so much that I gave it a new job as a bookmark a couple of years ago. It’s always nice to stumble upon.
Buckminster Fuller’s epiphany 👀
You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.
I don’t know Fuller’s work very well, but loved reading in his Wikipedia entry about “a profound incident which would provide direction and purpose for his life.”
And how about some fuckin’ memes?
A Tiny Assignment
It's truly grim out there, and everyone I know is feeling it. Which has me wondering: How are you using your powers for good? I’d like to hear about gestures large and small.
Thanks for being here for four (!) years! Special shout out to those of you have been around since the early days — you know who you are. It’s truly a compliment when the unsubscribe button is always right. there.
Take care of yourselves and each other and I’ll see you soon.
p.s. Share this with someone who needs it!
p.p.s. Tiny Revolutions is free to read for everyone, but if you’d like to support my work, you can do so by becoming a paid subscriber. You can also just like this post — you know how I love validation. :)