TAoN No. 58: Toward A Dictionary of Missing Words
PLUS: My pet container ship, a new icebreaker, and more
|Rob Walker||Dec 1, 2020||5|
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since I finished the book. ****Subscribe or unsubscribe at: robwalker.substack.com.****
Hunting for Words We Need
When we learn the name for something, we become more aware of it. There’s an item about this in The Art of Noticing book. It begins:
I’ve been thinking about this lately because of things we don’t seem to have a name for. Definitions without terms. It’s a theme that keeps coming up.
A couple of issues back, for instance, I shared a reader’s suggestion for “Something To Notice” — the lone shoe, a category of object that somehow implies a hidden story. Another reader, Jet Dominic, endorsed the idea of noticing things that “appeared/arrived off the back of an interesting story.” Jet continued:
“I collect these sightings. I once saw a dozen peach pits lined up neatly on the sidewalk. Did someone eat 12 peaches in one sitting!? I need to know! Is there a name for these mystical items? I think we need one.”
Totally separately, but around the same time, I sent friend & hero of TAoN Austin Kleon a note thanking him for a kind reference he’d made to this newsletter that led to a flood of new subscribers. I joked that there would be surely be a flood of unsubscribes after my next issue. Austin joked back that anyone with a newsletter knows the feeling, adding:
“They should make up a term for how you feel when a bunch of people unsubscribe every time you send out a newsletter.”
Ruminating on these examples of things we need a word for reminded me that for a while now, I’ve felt we need a word for this:
A group of three or more people are talking, and in the course of conversation the need for an elusive fact comes up, and nobody can quite remember it. It’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue. After at least 30 seconds of stalemate, somebody gives in and reaches for their phone. And the second the phone comes out of their pocket, someone else remembers the fact.
And then, as I was ruminating, I got a note from writer and super-friend of TAoN Anne Gisleson who has been using The Art of Noticing book with her students at NOCCA. One had zeroed in on the idea of the “infrathin" — Duchamp’s poetic notion of sensations or qualities that fall outside the traditional five senses, or “states between states,” as Kenneth Goldsmith has put it. (More here, and more still in the book.)
“I hunted down an example of infrathin or a ‘state between states,’” the student wrote, “and decided that the windup right before a sneeze is infrathin.”
Somehow up to this point I had never quite drawn the connection between the infrathin and the the idea of the “named phenomenon.” Or maybe I should say: phenomena that could be named.
So to connect those dots, here’s what to think about, and look out for, in the weeks ahead:
What are the other phenomena we encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be?
For what else do we seem to need a word?
To be clear: I’m not suggesting you spend time inventing words, per se. Simply search for and identify what lacks a word.
Imagine, in short, a dictionary with just definitions.
By all means please tell me what you come up with! firstname.lastname@example.org
PS There are perhaps other examples in this video that I linked to last issue.
Random Endorsement: VesselFinder.Com
As I’ve mentioned more than once, I live near the Mississippi River, and my bike rides often involve the levee. I enjoy looking out for ducks and pelicans — but I really love checking out the ships and boats and tugs and barges and other commercial vessels.
These sightings remind me of something most people overlook: New Orleans is known as a city of leisure, escapism and hedonism (which is all true) but it’s also a significant hub in the global economy. The Port of New Orleans is one of the busiest in the country. Thus NOLA is, in its way, actually a city defined by business.
Anyway, I am most excited when I happen to spot a container ship, like this one the other day:
It happens that in the course of researching something for work not long ago, I came across a site called VesselFinder.com, which publishes arrival and departure times for ships from any given port. I bookmarked it to explore later, and returned to it to type in the name of that container ship (visible on its hull), Gulf Bridge.
To my delight, it turned out I could learn not only learn the ship’s basics (built in 2011, 336 meters in length, flying under the flag of the Marshall Islands) but where it’s headed and even where it is right now.
When I encountered the Gulf Bridge IRL, chugging along the Mississippi, it was bound for Miami. In the screen shot above, it’s out in the Gulf, where that red box right in the center indicates. On the actual site you can zoom in on the map for a clearer look, but I screenshot the wide version because … look at all all the other vessels! Much that you take for granted — the food you eat, your everyday household objects — almost certainly depends in part on this astonishing web. It is a classic example of something vital that nobody particularly wants you to notice.
So if you live near a port or a river (or even if you don’t!) give VesselFinder a look to see what’s coming and going near you.
(A final aside: At the height of my dorky excitement about this stuff, I had a sudden flashback to being bored by dad’s endless fascination with maps — and realizing just how much I am his son after all.)
Contemplate Things As They Are
“The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.”
— Francis Bacon
(Dorothea Lange kept a note with this quotation pinned up in her darkroom. Via.)
Icebreaker Of The Week
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Clare Robinson, in Belfast:
What random stranger from your life do you think about or (even talk about) regularly?
“Mine is a guy on a street in Tokyo who grimaced with his entire face and did the most dramatic, overblown sneeze I've ever heard, and then two more after it,” Clare says. “Whatever you are imagining, I promise it was even more ridiculous. He was walking with his partner (I guess?) and she didn't even blink.”
There are several prompts in the book that have to do with strangers, so naturally I’m very into this one. And as Clare added in subsequent correspondence: “I always wonder if I've ended up the stranger in someone else's story!” Indeed; we are all someone else’s random stranger, are we not? Thank you, Clare!
I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I still want more:
Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to email@example.com
In Other News
I had a really great conversation with Jonathan Small on his podcast, Write About Now. He’s interviewed a slew of talented writers, and he’s quite good at it, and charming to boot, so I was flattered to have a chat — naturally with a heavy focus on noticing and attention. Check it out here.
“Marginalia,” read by Billy Collins. (Big thanks to reader Meg Griffiths!)
Mason Curry, in his terrific newsletter Subtle Maneuvers, interviews Austin Kleon on “being creative when your kids are home allll day.” Recommended. (Speaking again of Austin: His Steal Like An Artist Audio Trilogy is just out!)
I enthusiastically endorse The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Vol. 1.
The Sweetest Hangover, by friend, collaborator, and LinkedIn connection of TAoN Joshua Glenn. (This was the inspiration for the “enjoy a hangover” entry in the Art of Noticing book.) From Josh’s excellent Semiovox site.
Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!
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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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