Five Favourite Newsletters

Newsletters, Tiny Letters, SubStacks, whatever you want to call them, I love getting these updates from people’s lives in my inbox. I’ve always loved email. I subscribed to so many mailing lists in the pre-social media days of the internet that email was how I first got to know people online. Email is still the first thing I open when I sit down at my computer.

A good newsletter can feel like a great secret and it feels a little bit odd to be talking about my favourites out in public like this. Maybe it’s because they are sent directly to me and that makes them seem private and personal, or maybe because they remind me of the early days of online journals when every newly discovered site felt like it belonged to me alone. But I like sharing the things I love, and I can console myself with the fact that very few people read this blog, so they will remain mostly secret!

These are five (plus one bonus one) of my favourite free newsletters.

1. Patelagrams
Vinay Patel is a screenwriter and playwright who sends out a weekly newsletter that’s mostly about his writing life and a little bit about his cats. I really enjoy reading about how writers write and he also writes well about the things he’s seen on stage and screen. He writes for theatre and tv and I like reading about the differences between the two processes, and about the next stage, after the thing is written and handed over to the directors, designers, actors, etc to become something more than words on the page. The newsletter provides a good insight into the day-to-day life of a busy, working writer who is juggling lots of things – bits of teaching and mentoring, seeing work performed, meetings, writing deadlines – and what that looks like, or more accurately, what it feels like from the inside.

2. The collected ahp
Anne Helen Peterson wrote one of my favourite essays this year – How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation and she also writes this regular newsletter. I really enjoy her writing so I’d probably read it no matter what she was writing about. As it happens, she is currently writing a book on burn-out and her newsletters are often about her own experience/recovery, which is interesting to me. She also includes a great selection of other things worth reading around the internet.

3. Jimsy Jampots
Amy Jones was a writer for The Pool until it folded last year and I subscribed to her Tiny Letter because of her writing there. She used to send out a regular newsletter that I looked forward to every Thursday. I don’t think she ever missed a week! The newsletters are less regular now but they haven’t stopped and I still enjoy them when they appear in my inbox. The style is a personal “what I think” section, some recommended reading from around the internet and also a curated list of things to buy, from dresses to notebooks, novels and necklaces. I have bought things receommended by Amy on more than one occasion but I also just really enjoy her writing.
She has also written a book called To Do Lists and Other Debacles.

4. That’s What She Said
Anne T Donahue’s is one of the first newsletters I subscribed to and still one of my favourites. She has a wonderful, chatty, informal style which reminds me of old-school blog posts. She tells you where she’s writing from and what’s she’s been up to, but also writes a lot about trying to figure out life and is very frank and open about how difficult that can be. She sometimes answers readers’ letters, Agony Aunt style, and every newsletter includes pet peeves and sources of joy provided by subscribers. I often feel like I have a better understanding of the world after I read her newsletters. This feeling is often fleeting, but I enjoy it while it lasts!
Anne also has a book out – Nobody Cares.

5. Can’t complain
Emily Gould is a writer living in New York with her husband and two small boys. I read her novel Friendship a few years ago and signed up for the newsletter because I like her writing. They are occasional treats that give me a glimpse into a life that is very different to my own and that’s why I like them. There was one a few months ago that just gave me such a rush of nostalgia for the descriptive, serious blogs I used to read a lot of in the late 90s/early 00s. She also often includes recipes.

Bonus – Criticism and Love
These were a series of critical essays written with love by Maddy Costa and Andy Field. They were dense, nerdy writing about (mostly) British theatre makers. There are no new essays coming, for now, but the archive is still online.They remind me of things I read in college when we were often taught about theatre practioneers we would never get to see and that we could only experience through someone else’s description. I like reading about theatre and I like seeing how other people write about it. Each essay is an indept look at the work of one company or indivdual. I think it’s a lovely thing to do for theatre makers, to collect their work in this way and share it with others. (The theatre makers might not agree.)

Nine reasons why I haven’t posted anything in months

1. I’ve been writing off-line things.

2. I have big ideas for big things I want to write about but I get intimidated by the subject matter.

3. I’ve been watching television instead.

4. And reading books.

5. And going on holiday.

6. I have a full time job that involves sitting in front of a computer screen all day. Most days I don’t want to do that all evening as well.

7. It’s really easy to get out of the habit of writing, and really hard to get back into it.

8. Writing is hard.

9. I can’t remember how to write or why I even want to.

…but I think I’m slowly remembering again.

I am not a Blogger

I started reading blogs almost 20 years ago, back when they were still called online journals or online diaries. The ones I read were mostly written by girls in high-school or college in the US. They were young women who had taught themselves html coding so they could create webpages and graphic design so they could create banners and logos. But really it was all about the words. In the 90s, the internet was generally more about words; connection speeds were slow and images meant more bandwidth, which was more expensive. Those early blogs were about about real people spilling their guts online, usually anonymously. The writers felt they could be their real selves online. They were kids who had the time and inclination to play around with computers (back when there were one per household) and learn about coding. This is what the internet was to me – online journals, webzines, mailing lists. I studied computers in college because I loved the internet, but I think what I really loved was words. I spent a lot of time online reading those websites. I had a long list of URLs that I would visit daily. I loved finding new blogs and having loads of back issues to read. I discovered the world that way.

html-for-beginner-2

Blogs and bloggers in 2016 are very different to the ones I used to read. It’s no longer all about the words, and you don’t need to know about html anymore. Now bloggers are more likely to know about algorithms and hashtags. There’s a blogger lifestyle, posts tend to be more aspirational than confessional and everyone wants to find a way to earns a living from their blog. Actually, I think writers always dreamt finding a way to make money from their blogs. And writers did get hired or published because of their blog, but the blog wasn’t usually the thing that made money. It’s interesting to see how it’s changed, and also how it’s stayed the same. The most successful blogs still have an honesty to them, and they are the ones where the writers engage with their readers.

However, I am still an old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century blogger. I don’t want my blog to be my job. I just want to write stuff and put it on the internet where people can read it and hopefully find it useful or interesting or entertaining. I have been writing on the internet for almost as long as I’ve been reading the internet. At this stage I can be fairly sure that I will always struggle to update regularly and I will always feel a bit weird when people ask me about my online writing in real life but I still like having a corner of the internet that’s mine. I can’t blog the same way as the hip, young Millennials and that’s ok. They’ll do their thing and I’ll do mine.

This is a long, convoluted way of saying that I’m going to try and write more regularly, but this will not make me a blogger. I’m just a person with a website.

Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert at Liberty Hall

Liz&Roisin
Sorry for the blurriness, I’m not very good at taking photos. I was too busy soaking up the creative wisdom!

“Stop pretending that you are not powerful.”

This is one of my favourite lines from the author Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw her in Liberty Hall last month. It was in response to an a question from the audience about what to do if someone is afraid to show their work to the world. Her response, to the predominately female audience, was that for most of human history, women were not allowed to have a voice. In many parts of the world, women are still silenced in many ways. We are lucky enough to be born in a time and place where we are allowed to express ourselves which means we have a responsibility to all those silenced women. There are enough powerless people in the world, stop pretending that you are not powerful.

Another line (borrowed, I think from Brene Brown) was that courage is contagious; by speaking up, you will encourage others to do the same. I really liked both these sentiments. They made me think about #WakingTheFeminists where the courage to speak up was most definitely contagious, it ran like a virus through the theatre community and made things happen.

The event in Liberty Hall – Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Rosin Ingle – was very enjoyable. As a big fan of Gilbert’s new book Big Magic, Roisin Ingle was an enthusiastic interviewer and Elizabeth Gilbert was a generous interviewee. She was happy to talk about the book, happy to tell stories from it and to make fun of herself a little bit. She seems to be a chatty person in general – she talks to her creativity, she talks to her fears, she talks to her ideas and her characters; it seems to works for her.

The main thrust of the book is that creativity is for everybody; everyone has the ability to be creative. Gilbert’s describes creativity as being close to curiosity and makes the point that asking yourself what are you curious about is a less stressful question than trying to “be creative”. Instead, just follow your curiosity. She stresses that creativity is healthy, it’s natural and it shouldn’t be the domain of a chosen few.

I also like her idea of creativity being a little bit magic. Gilbert personifies ideas as living things looking for the right collaborator. If an idea decides that you are that collaborator and you don’t show up and show the idea that you are serious about bringing it into the world, it will go off and find someone else to work with it. This appeals to me because I am a fan of collaboration and because it injects a sense of urgency to any creative work. You have a responsibility to the idea, you owe it a daily word-count or regular work hours because it picked you.

Other creative tips from the evening that resonated with me:

Take the day job.
When she was 16, Gilbert made a solemn vow to live a creative life; but she didn’t expect creativity to provide for her, part of the vow was that she would provide for both of them. She says that this was because it was something that meant too much to her and something that she enjoyed too much to put under that sort of pressure. As someone who recently started a non-creative job, this pragmatic pledge stuck a cord with me. It also reminded me of Sara Benincasa’s essay Real Artists Have Day Jobs.

Do it even when it’s boring, because that’s when things get interesting. 
There’s a feeling that creation should be all about finding your flow and then it’s all magic and easy. The reality of making something from nothing is not like that. It can be difficult and it can be boring, but you have to get through the dull parts to make it to the fun stuff. Gilbert listed other things that contain a lot of boredom before the pay-off; these included meditation, sex and raising children!

Treat your art like someone you’re having an affair with.
Be excited by it, be in love with it, spend every spare minute with it. Instead of waiting until you have enough time and the right environment to work, do it every chance you get! Something happens when you work on an idea everyday. Gilbert said that this was the idea trusting you to show up, so the creativity shows up as well. When you do this, things start getting serious.

My signed copy of Big Magic is currently sitting in a large pile of books beside my bed and I’m looking forward to reading it in the new year.