TAoN No. 65: Honor Your Obsessions
Plus: A Missing Word, a New Icebreaker, & More
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 that have come along since the book.
Honor Your Obsessions
I’ve repeatedly mentioned my admiration of artist Nina Katchadourian, both in The Art of Noticing book and since the early days of this newsletter. So it’s surprising I was slow to take an interest in her latest project, even after friends recommended it. But eventually I came around — and learned something important from Katchadourian once again.
“To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World,” is a gallery show that was inspired by the artist’s obsession with a book called Survive The Savage Sea, an account of a family that survived 38 days in small lifeboat on the Pacific, after their vessel was destroyed by Orcas. This book was read to her as a child in the 1970s, and evidently she never got over it, re-reading the text year after year. You can see a short “orientation” video here.
The thing is, a story about a shipwrecked family stranded at sea is … not interesting to me. I mean I get why it’s extraordinary, and why other people might be fascinated. But it’s just not my kind of thing: In fact it sounded like the sort of subject that everyone is supposed to be amazed by (the book was a best-seller in its day; there was a movie), which for me is a turn-off.
But eventually I took a friend’s advice and watched a video of a Zoom-event gallery walk-through, in which Katchadourian showed and talked about the work she’d made about the book. To create the show, she spent 38 straight days making visual, audio, and video responses to and explorations of the family’s harrowing experience and ultimate survival. In the process, she spoke daily to Douglas Robertson, one of the family members (he was 18 at the time of the incident) who later wrote his own account. You can see the whole walk-through, and Katchadourian and Robertson in conversation, here.
I loved the whole thing! As one might expect given her other work, Katchadourian was clearly drawn to the creativity and ingenuity and doing-your-best-with-what’s-at-hand that the family displayed. It’s a cliché to say that limitations can be good for creativity, but these were some very extreme limitations. (More details about the show and project in this New York Times article.)
But, impressive as all that is, that’s not what turned me around on the project. What turned me around was Katchadourian’s own enthusiasm, dedication, maybe obsession. This was very clearly a personal mission, and that showed. Her interest is so obviously intense and sincere, that’s what becomes interesting.
To consider a scaled-down example of what I mean, this is why the best (in my opinion!) installments of The New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation series are the weirdest ones — I’m not particularly interested in semicolons, or collecting old issues of Sassy, or Arby’s. But I’m interested in hearing from someone who is genuinely passionate about those subjects. Again, their interest is what’s interesting.
One of my recurring themes with students or creative types or professionals or whoever is: We’re all being trained to pay attention to what’s hot, what’s now, what’s trending. But don’t worry if the thing you’ve noticed, or what you’re interested in, doesn’t fit those categories. That’s exactly the stuff that will make you different, what will make you stand out, what makes you … you.
But somehow that’s a lesson I still manage to forget sometimes, and “To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World” was a timely and useful reminder.
Give yourself some time to think about your most unusual (least popular?) obsessions — from childhood to the present. Consider how you might make the case for why these things matter; imagine writing your own Letter of Recommendation, and what it would say. Or maybe there’s another method you prefer to writing. Or maybe persuading someone else isn’t important to you. Point is: forget what’s trending. Honor your obsession(s).
First: I’m a day late with this issue. Sorry!
Second: The last few issues have gotten overwhelmingly long (seems to me) so I tried to dial this one back. I’m also toying with the idea of other changes, including shifting to a weekly schedule, but with shorter issues. We’ll see.
Finally, it has occurred to me that recent installments have been more inward-looking, which is largely a reflection of where we are in the arc of the pandemic. I’m also thinking a lot about how that can/should change, and at what cadence, as we move into whatever is waiting for us on the other side of this thing.
Your thoughts, feedback or suggestions about the future of TAoN are of course welcome. (I would be particularly interested in those of you (educators, etc.) who have used ideas from the book or newsletter that you’ve found useful, either for students, work teams, families, or yourself.) Contact info & comments button below.
Dictionary of Missing Words
Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s submission is from Jamie, via the comments.
We need a word for mourning the loss of something you never had. For example, the career you didn't choose or the person you didn't marry.
Thank you Jamie!
What else should add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion (or respond to this one) in the comments.
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 Tammy Hunter:
What was your favorite activity as a 10-year-old?
“I have always had great responses to this when I have led meetings,” Tammy says. It’s a fun one! Thanks so much, Tammy!
As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:
Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to email@example.com
In Other News
Tangentially related to the Missing Words project: “Refresh this webpage for an endless stream of words that were invented by a machine learning algorithm,” reports Claudia Dawson in the indispensable Recommendo newsletter. Some are quite fun.
Adrienne Brown David. Painting one 5x7 painting every day of 2021. Beautiful. (Thanks, Cynthia!)
An appreciation of “the visual glory of blank VHS tapes.” Impressive. (Thanks, Kaushik!)
& finally: this video is a few years old, but often when I feel overwhelmed by confusing stories about cryptocurrency and the blockchain and all that, I’ll watch it again, and feel much better:
Please follow me on Medium at rwalker.medium.com, and check out Marker, the Medium business publication I work for. For Marker, I have recently written about H-E-B, voting machines, and a work-from-home playset for kids, among other subjects.
Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks. Or thirteen days. Or maybe in one week. We’ll see!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments!
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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