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Only pointless things, please

February 22, 2022

This is an email I sent to my mailing list on February 17th. You can subscribe for updates on things I’m making/trying, plus the occasional essay.

Well then: it’s a pointless task, and that’s exactly why I need to do it. I’m sick of going after things that have points; for too long now I’ve been cut off from my own spirituality, hemmed in by the demands of this world, and only pointless things, only indifferent things, can give me the freedom I need in order to get back in touch with what I honestly believe is the essence of life, its ultimate meaning, its first and last reason for being.

—The Luminous Novel by Mario Devrero

I released the first Post Day on Monday! It felt like a deep exhale after a long season of wondering what it is, exactly, I’m doing here. I still couldn’t explain it to you, but that’s the point.

But now I do want to explain some things. Maybe not why I needed (and need!) to do things that have no explicit “value,” because I don’t think that’s explainable, but it does make sense. It’s a very human thing to want to do. That’s one reason people have hobbies. That’s one reason people practice philosophy and live in monasteries and write poetry and climb mountains and make art.

I want to explain some practical things that helped me get into the headspace of making something that had no monetary or social or good-for-future-me purpose. I want to explain it because I know I’m not the only one who has tried this many times, but who somehow always ends up extracting some measurable good from the thing they’re doing.

One thing I did was grieve. I was confronted with grief in an immediate sense because I lost my brother last year, so maybe it’s not fair to include that. I don’t wish it on anyone. There is something about losing a family member that makes you question what is real and what is valuable.

We’ve all been in a grieving process, I don’t need to tell you that. We hear it all the time. But to intentionally grieve the part of you that wants to be someone, that wants to produce something—that is the real process I’m talking about.

It’s hard. Hard! I keep revisiting it. Even this week after I quietly released my thing to a quietly small number of people, I’ve been wondering, “What else can I do? How can I make this gift go farther? How can I make the next gift go even farther?” And I’ve been telling myself, “No. That is not what is needed right now.” And I just keep doing my thing.

What is my thing? That is another concept I’ve grappled with. I have a day job. I’m helping to bootstrap a small startup. I have commitments! Responsibilities! We have big goals this year, and it’s my job to align everyone so we can reach them. I also have the job of filling in for things that we currently don’t have anyone else to do.

That is clearly important. It is why I’m receiving a paycheck. So every day I am tempted to do that first. Not only that, but I live with one of my business partners! And you can bet he’s doing that first. It is the topic of conversation in our household quite frankly all the time.

And so there is a part of me that says, “I’m going to do just this one thing first, to make sure I’m adding value and doing my job well. Then I will be free to make all kinds of things that I can’t explain to anyone else!” And I keep telling myself, “No! That is not what is needed right now. You must center yourself on what makes you come alive first. Even if what makes you come alive is making this project and making this project is terrifying and you really don’t want to do it. That comes first.”

And you know what? Turns out I’m better at my day job when I do it from a place of centered aliveness rather than from a place of checking off tasks or goal achievement. Even though my job has nothing to do with art or creativity whatsoever. People who write about creativity always tell you that’s the case, and you want to believe it, but it takes trying it for yourself to really know it’s true.

Saying “my weird project comes first” sounds like I’m bludgeoning myself into creativity, and that is the farthest from reality. The act of creating It’s Post Day was the gentlest process I have ever practiced. There was no scrambling, ever. Not even at the end. And I don’t like all the advice that says “Butt in chair.” “Put in your 10,000 hours!” because it doesn’t work for me one bit. The thing that does work for me is setting my bar extremely low.

While the one part of me says, “Here’s your goal for today! Do this and you will be productive and valuable on this earth!,” I have to constantly tell that part, “No! My only requirement is to water my enthusiasm for this project. My only commitment is to see how I can make myself come alive around this thing I’m making. That is all.”

After doing this over and over and over again, I’ve learned I can even make that commitment from a place of exhaustion and not-believing-in-myself and still end up surprised into some form of aliveness more often than not. It’s weird and amazing.

Another thing: I waited quite a while to commit to a release date. I came up with the name for the project in July and I didn’t decide when to publish until December. For me, there is always a point when I want to announce something I’m making, because otherwise it stays nebulous too long and is in danger of fizzling out into the ether. But I didn’t want to announce it too soon because I don’t like being pushed by external pressure to get something done. I wanted to move to my own rhythm until I was confident that my rhythm would take me all the way to a day that I could mention. And then I did.

Two things I’ve learned that make me come alive to my own art—artistic communion and solitude.

Artistic communion and solitude may sound like opposite things, but they go together inseparably. It means surrounding myself with artists who validate the need to be alone, the need to think strange thoughts that you can’t explain to other people, the need to not be interrupted, the need to try and to hate what you make and to immerse yourself in what you love and to try again.

I don’t know many artists in real life, but there are so many I know from my bookshelves! Mary Ruefle and May Sarton and Mary Oliver have been my main artistic companions this time around. They all are/were fiercely protective of their solitude. They all placed their art in a realm of high importance—the highest. They all paid deep attention to what was going on around them and found it marvelous. And yes all of their names start with M but I don’t think that’s a requirement.

Speaking of people whose names start with M (and people whose names do not start with M), another thing I did was up my fiction-reading game. I read so much fiction now. And I learn more somehow than I ever did. (I still read non-fiction, it just has to be something good and zen for me to enjoy it, like The Listening Book or The Chairs Are Where the People Go or The Zen of Seeing or—of course!—The Timeless Way of Building).

The thing that made me subtly move in the direction of a mostly-fiction reading repertoire was following a rabbit trail of authors who love other authors. Alice Hoffman is particularly effusive in the way she weaves other writers and their books into her stories. She led me to E. Nesbitt and Shirley Jackson and Franz Kafka and Henry James. I somehow found Charles Portis and Carson McCullers through reading Ray Bradbury (or was it the other way round?). Kazuo Ishiguro led me to Amy Tan who is leading me across the whole world. I am feasting.

I needed to keep up with my feasting. As I get older, it’s more and more important to me to know and respect my sources. Nothing I make is really me anyway. As W.A. Mathieu says, “All music is village music.”

I use Readwise to automatically pull my Kindle highlights into Roam for me. You can sort of see how it works at roam.sarahavenir.com. It’s wonderful to be able to take notes and not have it be a whole thing. I can elaborate on them if I want to (sometimes that’s fun!), but these days I mostly let all of that stuff simmer and trust that it will surface when I need it.

And finally, one pesky thing I had to deal with to embrace my solitude. It’s so over-talked-about (and I’ve done my share of over-talking-about-it) that I don’t even want to mention it but it must be said. The Internet.

An extremely practical thing I did was join Mailbrew. I use it to make daily digests of tweets, newsletters, and articles from people who I genuinely enjoy hearing from. I have a digest for Books. One for Food. One for Artists. One for Philosophy. I have them set to deliver at 1pm. And that’s all I read from the Internet every day. I actually get excited about my 1pm delivery.

If I want to respond to a tweet, I’ll click the link in Mailbrew, and I respond to that one tweet in Twitter and then I’m gone. I have plenty of fresh sources coming in, but not a glut of them that I end up ignoring. It’s a wonderful life.

I will leave you with this. It is about music, but it is just as true about writing, or about art, or about anything that is somehow both pointless and necessary to you.

The purpose of music is for you to become who you are, to bring what is inside you into play, to spin a vibrating thread through the world, to spark life. Music is everyone’s birthright, and everyone who wants to can claim it. There will always be someone more musical than you; but there is always more music in you to uncover—more pitches, more rhythms, a finer sense of proportion, a clearer perception of your aural world. I have never seen a person who said of their breath, ‘That is someone else’s breath,’ or a person who did not recognize the music in their own soul once it was shown to them. Even if other people have told you the opposite, the day you claim your innate music is a musical day for the whole world.

W.A. Mathieu, The Listening Book

Here’s to pointless things,

Sarah