#104: On Red Scare, finding writing inspiration, and America’s hero fetish
This week I decided to respond to three reader-supplied prompts instead of writing about one topic. At my old media job, my coworkers and I used to joke that half our story ideas were “tweets, not essays.” But sometimes they’re somewhere in-between. This newsletter is a collection of those, inspired by your topic ideas (which I solicited on I*stagram last week). They cover Red Scare, how to find inspiration as a writer, and the Great Man theory of history.
#1: “The Red Scare-to-far-right pipeline. Totally foreign to me.”
I’m not caught up with Red Scare these days, but I do have a sense for what they represent in the zeitgeist, and have a few ideas about the pipeline. So in the podcast tradition of speaking confidently on things I only know about peripherally, allow me to weigh in.
It makes sense that people who position themselves as unorthodox or anti-establishment, whether they’re on the far right or the far left, will end up wielding some of the same critiques of the mainstream.* In the case of Red Scare and the alt-right, they both dislike liberal orthodoxy. Both think liberals are cowed by the media and blindly believe whatever they’re told to believe—they just don’t have the same solutions in mind. Which is to say I don’t think the Red Scare girls actually agree with alt-right ideas in a deeper way. I think they sometimes pretend they do to scandalize liberals and prove their view that liberals are tribalistic, alarmist, naive, and shallow thinkers. In this way they’re classic provocateurs. Or less generously, contrarian for clout.
I’m pretty Red Scare-agnostic. I don’t think they’re fascists. I think they have good ideas and bad ones. Intellectually, I find them less tiresome than many of their liberal enemies. But I don’t align with their approach on a more humanistic level.
*Political reporter Chris Hedges wrote recently about how figures like Trump and Marjorie Taylor Greene have stumbled into anti-imperialist ideas simply by opposing liberal orthodoxy, which has embraced certain imperialist norms.
#2: “Advice for aspiring, uninspired writers.”
The best (non-industry-related) advice I can offer for lack of inspiration is to pay close attention to your life. For a long time, I thought I needed an extraordinary, tragic, or funny life to have something extraordinary, tragic, or funny to say. But there’s so much to say about ordinary things we take for granted. Even writers with dramatic stories to tell need to locate what makes them relatable, because relation is what makes art moving. Don’t assume that because your life looks like a bunch of other people’s lives that you have nothing interesting to offer. Instead, think of your shared experience as a foundation upon which to build.
Anything is interesting if you’re honest enough. Anything. I cannot stress this enough. You could tell me how you decided what to eat for dinner last night, and if you did it with the right combination of lucidity and fearlessness—unpacking the little idiosyncrasies behind why you think the way you do and the backstories that led you to there— it would be interesting to me. Most quotidian decisions we make every day are loaded with interesting history and neuroses. A lot of them are unspoken. I know sometimes it feels like everything has been written about, but it hasn’t. A thousand little things happen to every single person every single day. There are always new connections and observations to make.
I go back to this advice a lot myself, because I need it. Sometimes I get caught up in thinking I need to make huge, sweeping points to justify my existence as a writer. But my favorite writing lets the little things stand in for the big things. It’s not afraid to zoom in and give the details room to breathe. I’m trying to get better at this all the time. Part of my writing practice is cultivating a curiosity for why small moments make me feel the way they do, paying attention, noting things down. Just today, while using ApplePay on my phone to get into the subway, I was reminded of the heart-racing performance of getting my Metrocard out that defined my first years in New York, which I’ll never feel again. I bet I could write a whole essay about that tiny chaos. To me this is the fun part of being a writer, but it definitely takes practice, and I’m not always in the mood. I guess what I’m saying is, a lack of inspiration doesn’t necessarily point to a lack of stimuli, but a lack of interest.
(On a more practical note, I’ve become obsessed with recording Voice Memos to work out ideas. Oftentimes when I sit down to write, I find that the topic I planned to cover isn’t as firm in my mind as I initially thought it was, so I explain it out loud, into my phone’s recorder, until it coheres. I guess it’s my version of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” I highly recommend it if you, too, struggle to just write what’s in your head with no regard for the quality of thought.)
#3: “Something you recently changed your mind about.”
A few weeks ago, I went to a wedding at The Hendy Ford Museum of Innovation in Detroit. It was a very pretty place to hold a fancy event, and on our way in, Avi and I were reading the plaques along the walls celebrating various “innovators” and “entrepreneurs” throughout history. We saw commemorations for Thomas Edison, Henry Ford himself, Rosa Parks, etc. We made fun of the distinct spirit of American propaganda. I pointed out how simplified the stories were (like the idea that Thomas Edison just came up with the idea for a lightbulb out of nowhere, rather than the fact that he was part of a century of efforts by many people). And then Avi brought up America’s obsession with the Great Man Theory, how we’re always elevating individuals as these exceptional history-makers, completely disregarding the movements surrounding them.
This wasn’t exactly a new idea to me (it reminded me of the real story of Rosa Parks), but for some reason it lodged in my mind with a new urgency. I started noticing examples everywhere—in headlines, in political speeches, in trailers—collecting them like evidence of an invisible sickness. It’s very unsettling, how quick we are to celebrate individuals as heroic and extraordinary, different from the rest of us riff-raff. Obviously some people are uniquely talented, but emphasizing them as beacons of progress is ahistorical. As a social framework, it erodes solidarity, tricking us into believing the path forward is through individual achievement rather than collective action or movements. It’s a pretty nefarious idea when you think of it that way, and it makes sense that the people with the most power are invested in perpetuating it. Usually, they see themselves as extraordinary, too.
I get why it’s fun to hold up (or even vilify) individuals, but lately, I can’t witness this cultural tradition without thinking of its consequences. And I actually think it’s pretty liberating to think differently about how change happens, or what makes a life special, or what makes a moment in history important or great.
My favorite article I read last week was “I Should Be Able to Mute America,” an essay about how America is ruining the internet by (Australian) Patrick Marlborough for Gawker (made me laugh out loud). Last week’s 15 things also included an underrated candy bar, a really funny art review, my favorite new writing tool, and more. The rec of the week was the best summer shoes…really good suggestions!
Okay that’s it for this week. Thoughts on reader-supplied prompts? I thought this format was fun, I might make it a thing…
Hope you have a nice Sunday!