Pop-up Newsletters, Great Photo Books, Olympic Level Ennui, Vaxxing
Seasonality and work
It was like waiting for a psychedelic deliverance, like a teenager wondering if the weed was “working” or not. I got my first COVID-19 vaccine shot (Moderna) last week and knew a couple folks who were at the vaccination site with me. We texted after. “Do you feel anything?” “Anything now?” Nothing and then when I got into bed about seven hours later: chills, body aches, distinct sense of an immune system doing something immuney. Woke up in the middle of the night with my t-shirt soaked in sweat. Changed. Back asleep. Slept the sleep of guiltless babies. Woke up some eight hours later feeling … pretty good? Sore arm, a little worn, but otherwise not too bad. Getting work done, writing this thing!
I’m Craig Mod, and this is Vaccination Monthly, a single-issue subset of Roden, the newsletter you theoretically signed up for and can unsubscribe from with a single click.
What a time to be alive. Re-programming the body with magic shots, witnessing what will undoubtably be considered the dumbest, most bungled and misguided and shamelessly selfish Olympics in the history of sport. The whole thing has been like watching that Austin Powers steamroller scene — to anyone with a pulse and understanding of science (and with any experience with project management), it was obvious from the start of this year that having the Olympics in the summer with a largely unvaccinated Japanese population was not going to fly well. I suppose the one positive is we now have more evidence of unbridled commercial sociopathy? Honestly, though, the saddest part is that if Japan/IOC had waited another year (i.e., had stepped up and made a difficult adult decision), the 2022 Summer Olympics could have truly been the most joyous, life-affirming, mega-human-melding-condom-bonanzic, economic, cultural, end-all-be-all of global celebrations of life, human capability, science and sport. Instead, it’s a dead eunuch, a sprained penis at a second century BC bacchanalia. Sure, some athletes will do sporty things, but — gah, all I feel is sadness and sympathy towards them. Working your hardest in an atmosphere of abject unpredictability does not portend great results. Tokyo 2020 — the Olympics most deserving of a mulligan?
I think most newsletters would benefit from being time-boxed or run in a “pop-up” style. That is: Seasonal, or with a hard stop. Over the last two years I’ve now run three of these so-called pop-up newsletters: The SMS Project, Pachinko Road, and Where are all the Nightingales?. Each was daily, all ran for about a month, had thousands of subscribers, had crazy-high open rates, engagement, responses, and when they were done, I just deleted the lists. Poof.
There’s something powerful about knowing an end exists — for both writer and reader. As a writer, having a backstop means being able to push through in ways you normally wouldn’t. On this recent WaatN? newsletter, I think I wrote more in more states of exhausted delirium than ever before in my life. But 30,000 words were produced, and I was mainly able to do so because I knew the production wasn’t infinite, that if I got to day thirty, we’d be done. Eleven p.m., zonked, with miles to walk the next day, I managed to find some reserve of creative energy and get the work done. For a newsletter (or any project, really) that extends into the dark infinitude of the future, it’s so much easier to say — aw, heck, I’ll just do this tomorrow instead. To beat a dead horse: Deadlines are probably the most powerful tool for subverting our inner procrastination dingdongs.
I suspect many readers out there are experiencing newsletter fatigue. There are simply so many, with many being editorless and therefore operating at whoa-hold-on levels of loquaciousness, and frequency (again?!), and on a whole they’re multiplying in ways that can make a dreary inbox an ever darker. So the pop-up newsletter — the very quality of being limited! — subverts this feeling, replaces the sense of endless content doom with … lightness?
For WaatN?, many replies arrived long after the newsletter had finished. Folks saved them, like a little booklet, for later, when they had the time and attention to give to it. They were able to do this because they knew it ended. It’s a much higher ask to save a newsletter that continues forever; the value of a missed issue of an infinite series quickly falls to zero. Whereas, the value of each issue of a time-boxed series maintains (one hopes!) a sustained and meaningful value.
I’ve talked to many writers who have burned out. Usually, the burnout happens from having bitten off too much of an undefined thing. So my usual advice for someone who wants to get into the newsletter game is to set a goal with a clear finish line, and one that isn’t years out. Pick a frequency (daily? weekly? monthly?), slap an end date on it, stick to the schedule like your life depends on it and call it a “season.” If you can’t write a weekly newsletter for three months, then you certainly weren’t going to do it for years.
Anyway, I’m a fervent acolyte of the pop-up newsletter, the newsletter run in “seasons.” My newest seasonal newsletter runs on a 21-week cycle and it’s just about to end. That feels glorious. I’m energized both to have it end and think about what another season might bring. It’s a photography-focused newsletter and the seasonal element brings the further benefit of helping me winnow down which kind or location of photos to focus on for this round.
I assume all my pop-up newsletter are partial drafts for potential future books.
The time-boxed newsletter: an excellent tool. Use it!
A random thought on Substack:
When Medium started 10 years ago (!!!) it was surrounded by mystique and “status” (invite only, looked amazing, minimalist editor, et cetera). But, over time, that’s evaporated and now — personally — I have a lot of trouble getting over my Medium Biases whenever I see a link to something on the platform. Namely, that the experience might be a bit clunky, that the content will be kinda anodyne, of a certain tone I’m not interested in. Obviously (??), Medium has tons of great writers using it, but I’m just relaying my subjective experience as a reader / how the aura of a platform can shift, and by dint of hitching yourself to that platform, perception of your work also shifts.
I’m starting to feel a similar emotional shift with Substack. I’m less inclined to click on a Substack newsletter link. All the essays look identical. The site branding is bland (not necessarily a bad thing), but the per-newsletter branding is beholden to the site (sub-optimal). My mind is starting to re-categorize Substack from “Whoa, maybe a neat new voice to be found??” to “Ugh, another 3,000 unedited words sent too frequently?”
Again: Just my perception. But I suspect there’s a kernel of universal truth out there. I became aware of this when a friend was asking why I didn’t think he should use Substack (he’s not going to charge for his newsletter). And we deduced that maybe? perhaps? the platform is — without major forthcoming radical changes / updates — very much cresting / falling from peak cool (a cool mainly fomented via cash dollars more than ideas?)? How do you all feel about Substack these days? Am I just an oversensitive crank?
The corollary of this is that there can be something inherently advantageous — closing in on “digital superpower” — in the bespoke, in not using what everyone else uses. When I find a newsletter or blog with a strong voice on a custom website, it’s like finding a treasure. thesephist.com, a recent discovery, falls firmly into this category. Hundred Rabbits is another.
It should “respect” the audience via intense iterative processes
In doing so, it should inherently “earn” its editorial / directorial choices
And, by maintaining self-awareness (in the greater historical context, et cetera), those choices should be self-evident or “justifiable” in the end
(I add quotes around so much above because this is not gospel, is malleable.)
From the books I’ve recently read pile:
Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home is one of the best book “experiences” I’ve had in years. Originally published in 1992, then re-published in 2017 by MACK (and now re-republished in 2021 also by MACK), the book is a profile of Larry’s parents (but with a 90% focus on the father). It uses a mix of found home video stills, first person essays, transcribed interviews, and large format (?) photos Larry took over years (with great deliberation) when visiting his parents in California. You’d think this mix might be too much, but — damn — the finished object is a narrative and visual success. It’s beautifully written, the interview edits are superb, and you end up with this very strange and unique profile of the life of A Mid-Century White American Man through the lens of a son attempting to reconcile memory with on-the-ground truths.
Every few months I visit, loaded down with camera gear and ideas for pictures. It takes a day or two for most of these ideas to seem strained or foolish and then I’m left with cases of unexposed film and a feeling of desperation. I bargain with my father, trading him hours of weeding in his garden for minutes of his time posing for me. When I finally begin to photograph him, I feel so anxious that I retake the same pictures I made years ago.
Also embedded within this profile of his father is a profile of the struggle of an artist trying to understand how to capture a subject. On a whole it forms a beautiful mobius-narrative, the images are heartbreaking, delicate, revealing, and the overall effect is one wholly unique to this medium. The combination of mixed media, mixed voice, works, and works well, and I suspect does so because Sultan committed to the process of iterative (re)consideration. He iterated like a madman, and earned the authorial choices we see. In the end the book ends and you go — aw, man, thank you for that.
Sticking with the photo+words book genre, Teju Cole’s latest Golden Apple of the Sun (also via MACK) won me over with tightness of execution.
The beating heart of the book (to me) is the extended epistolatory essay in the back, laid out in one giant paragraph over the course of some thirty pages, generous margins (which you’ll want, for taking notes and responding), very much in the voice of the narrator of Cole’s Open City — associative, academic, reserved, and yet surgically biographically revealing. The essay pivots around still life painting, its history, what is or isn’t revealed in the still life, what the image in that moment knows or doesn’t know and what we — looking back on it — will come to know or see only later. Cole weaves in personal stories of hunger — literal and spiritual, religious conversion and un-conversion, past life in Nigeria. This is a “fast” book, and I like it all the more for that. Photographed in October 2020 at the height of Pandemic Unknowing (will the vaccines work? what will happen with the election? what further sacrifices are to come?), written soon after, published less than a year after starting work on it, there’s a strange immediacy that you normally don’t associate with books — and certainly not photo books like this. It feels of the moment — like a digital thing, though it sits in your hand, beautifully designed by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown, bound in cloth with a golden foil-stamped cover, utilizing two paper types for the body block: white for photos and a kind of thick brown craft paper for text and reproduced 18th century cookbook pages. That dissonance of the extreme nowness of the narrative and the timelessness of the object itself is something I’ve yet to see executed this well. And to tie it back with what we were discussing earlier, I think this book succeeds because of the constraints of how it was produced — pop-up, time-boxed, a work of seasonality — and maybe would have lost its way given more time. It is extremely refined, and very much earns its editorial and photographic choices. I had my initial suspicions, but Golden Apple of the Sun is a superb example of care-filled craft and thoughtful, layered beauty. It’s a wacky book (a good thing), for sure, but it handily earns a place among things known and strange and wondrous.
Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now is a superb non-fiction “take” on Los Angeles. Extremely strong, refined, smart, funny voice coupled with the bizarre and sad histories of the so-dubbed city-state of Los Angeles. I found myself marveling at the litheness of Baldwin’s brain, and how easily he hops between topics — from self-improvement cults to real estate. This ease of movement no doubt a result of intense iteration. In fact, the book felt so iterated upon, refined, considered that within a few pages I was willing to go with Baldwin wherever he wanted to take me. That’s the power of earning your editorial position: Fomenting a willingness on the part of the reader to climb whatever insane mountain you deem worthwhile. When it finished, I was left wanting much more.
Lynne Tillman writing for The Paris Review about the work of photographer Steven Shore, looking closely at some of his photographs, and writing down the stories they seem to induce: “Blue Shores.”
After my series of film reviews last issue, folks sent in a torrent of suggestions. One — new to me — is Kanopy, which feels perhaps like a … modern Criterion for free via libraries? I don’t think I can use it from Japan, but for those of you with access, would be curious to hear about your experiences on the platform.
Another suggestion on the Road to Accepting Chinatown’s Brilliance was a note to watch Chinatown with Robert Towne and David Fincher’s commentary track. You can listen on YouTube and, with a little fiddling, line it up with a viewing of the film. This is a todo for me. One thing I love: Harboring great suspicion for my own cultural / taste predilections and working to bend or challenge them in sensible ways. Like: I respect Fincher and if he loves this thing, I’m delighted to listen to him wax joyfully about Chinatown and help me see it more clearly, beyond whatever lame-brained predilections I might be carrying around.
Similarly, this applies to food. I don’t trust folks who say they dislike certain foods (outside of dietary restrictions, et cetera, of course). Usually, it just means they haven’t had a good version of that food or haven’t learned how to eat it. Teju Cole writes, in the above mentioned book, that in the Yorùbá language you don’t say you can’t eat or “hate” a food, you say something like: I don’t yet know how to eat that food. Natto the fermented soybean staple here in Japan, was categorically inedible for me twenty years ago, felt like eating vomit the first few times I tried it, but because so many people love it, I figured the fault was in my buds. Over years I ordered it again and again and now — BOY DO I LOVE NATTO. Truly.
I don’t expect to ever “love” Chinatown but I suspect there’s a lot more to learn.
Thanks for hanging with this under-edited missive. It’s now six days after my first Moderna shot, and aside from two nights of sweats and being achy, wasn’t too bad. Still, worse than anything else I’ve felt in the last eighteen months. I’m blocking off a few days for shot two for recovery.
Presently: Writing from a train en-route to Matsumoto to do a press check on the third printing of Kissa by Kissa. New printer and binder, using each edition as a chance to iterate and learn more about book production processes. Thanks for all your support along the way.
In random interview news: I was featured on Why Is This Interesting? the other day. (That photo of me is after five days on a mountain, almost dying, grappling down rocks in a freezing typhoon, feeling the om-like calm of knowing a hot bath was mere hours away, down below.)
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Photo up at top: Random shot from my kitchen, August 2020.