At the start of a year where we may all need to dig deep, I wanted to dig in a few of the things that nutrified me in 2018. Maybe there will be compost in there for others too.
Last year confirmed that it's now more likely I’ll turn to a podcast than turn on the radio or TV. Among the very best was Michael Pollan’s conversation with Sam Harris on psychedelics, which is a mind-altering experience in itself. Pollan’s been researching the renaissance in academic and medical research into psilocybin and LCD, for the treatment of depression, alcoholism and near-death anxiety, but also its potential for “the betterment of well people”.
I listened to it twice (first on my own, then with a friend), as I know others have, and then moved on to Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. The new territories Pollan describes might just have a role to play that would have been literally unthinkable to many of us.
I’ve also really enjoyed the Refigure podcast on arts, technology and diversity from my friends Rifa and Chris. Their unstoppable appetite for new books, films, art and Netflix documentaries, and their ease in front of the mic and with each other (I think they should get married), makes it a brilliantly informative listen. It’s like having them over for dinner, with less washing up.
Other podcasts that have been required listening: Remainiacs, George Lakoff’s Framelab, Ben Eagle’s Meet the Farmers and, neverendingly, Dr Buckles.
"I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees"
As I get older it seems that woods and trees become more important to me. Rather like the resurgence of research into psychedelics, recent scientific revelations about trees and underground fungal networks are reconnecting people with ideas they may have unduly consigned to a box marked ‘that was nice, but time to grow up now’.
I’m resolved to spend more time in the trees, so in November I joined the team managing Vert Woods Community Woodland, a few hundred acres near Laughton. The idea is to get the woods working again. It’s already bringing the light in, and the people and wildlife with it. Come and have a look sometime (I’ll be running a bird identification walk in the spring if that’s your bag).
The big work-related event of last year was Tamsin & I taking a role with Rewilding Britain. That’s already taking us to some extraordinary places, and a resolution for this year is to document that journey more actively.
In preparation for the role, we read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, which is the story of nature returning to the Knepp estate in West Sussex. I’ve twice visited Knepp since (turtle doves! purple emperors!) and read the book again. Both the on-the-page and on-the-ground experiences are surefire remedies for ecological boredom*.
More trees that became books
I tend to leave a lot of non-fiction unfinished, but I did in the end make it through Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. He makes a thrilling case for the role of transgression (thievery, deception, general mischief) in creating culture (thanks Dougald).
On a more accessible level, the arrival of New Power by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms reconnected me with some of the most important things we're learning about how digital has shifted the dynamics of influence. It's a book that simply couldn't have been written ten or even five years ago, a good counterbalance to some of the naive early flag-waving for 'social good' (guilty as charged). You could pick it up and plan a campaign with it too...
I revisited the The Diet Myth by Tim Spector, another accessible and compelling read that provides grounds for putting more dirt and microbes into your mouth, and led to a recent Christmas present of Sandor Katz’ Art of Fermentation. I’ll never make it as a proper hipster, but I do feel the kombucha coming on.
In fiction, 2018 was the year that Robin Hobb's Fitz / Fool / Farseer saga came to an end for me. I can’t say I enjoyed it, exactly; it was gruelling for all involved. But the series feels like family, and Hobb is a genius storyteller.
Big thanks to Chris for badgering me to try N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth novels. There’s a glut of apocalyptic fiction about, but two books into this trilogy, and it lives a vivid and disturbing life of its own in my imagination.
"Eat, not too much, mainly plants"
After years as a fleeting visitor, veganism made itself at home in our household in 2018. This month Jen is marking an entire year.
The longest she'd managed before was a few days, but the arrival of Oatly Barrista has enabled a decent cup of tea without a cow, and it’s made all the difference.
I lasted five months into 2018, then dropped back to a 90% plant-based diet. But three of our household, including me, are signed up for Veganuary again this month.
Apart from Oatly, some of the things that have made veganism possible for us are:
- industrial quantities of cauliflower, tofu and chickpea curry, dressed green lentils and ribolita
- homemade pizza / calzone (olives, sundried tomatoes, rocket, mushrooms, sweetcorn, basic, thyme, vegan pesto...)
- Coconut Collaborative chocolate pots
- close proximity to Infinity Foods
- homemade cannellini bean hummous
- Jus-Rol ready-to-bake pain au chocolat and cinnamon swirls
- Co-op 'custard' doughnuts
Still none of us can make much sense of vegan cheese.
Meanwhile it’s weird to see the backlash against plastic sweeping away some norms (e.g. plastic straws in cafes) while having apparently no impact on craziness elsewhere.
I experienced a sudden moment of despair in the veg aisle at Tesco earlier this autumn - can we not even manage without a plastic bag on a fucking cauliflower?
But when I got home I signed up for an organic veg box from Riverford, for the first time in years. The packaging’s minimal, the veg beautiful. And now we’re focused on eating more plants we’re letting less rot away in the back of the fridge.
Last but emphatically not least: 2018 was the year that Tamsin and I partnered up, doing the work we love to do. Alongside our communications role with Rewilding Britain, we’ve worked on user research, brand projects and content planning, for clients such as Care Without Carbon, South East Wood Fuels, Diversity and Ability and Streamr, and with our friends at agencies Clearleft and Unfold Stories. I can't remember working on such a string of interesting and satisfying projects, it’s been phenomenal, and I'm grateful to be working with Tamsin every day.
I’ll stop there, before it gets cheesy (remember the vegans). If you’d like to hear more about we're working on, you can sign up for updates here.
Happy New Year. Whatever 2019 brings, make the most of it.
*as coined by George Monbiot in Feral. That book is also back by the bed, a repeat Christmas present and replacement for the original I passed on in a fit of enthusiasm. Isabella Tree describes rewilding as “rocket fuel for biodiversity”; arguably Feral has been rocket fuel for rewilding itself. First published five years ago, it really kickstarted the calls for rewilding in this country, and led to the creation of Rewilding Britain.
I recently ran a storytelling workshop for a group of senior managers in Denmark, using the classic Hero’s Journey as a way of developing narrative structure. None of them were professional communicators. They wanted to explore how storytelling skills might help them communicate and manage big changes in their business.
The Hero’s Journey is problematic (transmedia guru and ‘Collective Journey’ proponent Jeff Gomez sets out some good reasons why) but it remains a potent way to explore storytelling, especially for those with an adventurous tale to tell.
As is often the case in these sessions, one question kept resurfacing — how do we know what’s enough?
To some extent, structure can help guide us. The Hero’s Journey stages remind us to honour the psychological transitions that bring a story alive.
These include the Refusal of the Call — the moment of doubt and fear we might experience as we stand on the cusp of the unknown. The Meeting with the Mentor — where we receive a gift (wisdom, truth, belief) that spurs us on. The Road Back — where our pride at having faced down a great challenge can easily turn to dangerous complacency.
These moments are sometimes awkward to recall and easy to skip over, but so often they are where the story really connects with its audience. Considering 12 or more stages can feel overwhelming at first. But, again and again, it pays to spend time with them, and see what they can bring to the whole.
Back to the question of ‘what’s enough?’ There’s a dance here, and it runs through the heart of what it is to tell a good story. It strikes a path between the light and shade in which the story might get lost, between:
So without the recognisable setting or circumstances (The Ordinary World) there’s no connection. The one made by Harry Potter’s suburban existence with the Dursleys, or Dorothy’s frustrations with farm life in Kansas. The one you might establish with your own recollection of feeling stuck.
And without the unknown (the Call to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold), there’s no surprise or shift in perspective (no change - no story). Whether that’s a change that happens to you, uninvited, or one you create out of a need to do something.
So narrative structure gets us some of the way to achieving that sense of ‘enough’. But throughout that structure, it’s a Goldilocks amount of detail that holds our attention. Too few specifics (names, places, actions, dialogue) and we have nothing concrete to hold on to. It becomes abstract. Too many facts, figures or descriptions of the sunset and we will lose the plot, and the listener’s interest.
How do we hold these dimensions of the story in balance? At the risk of offering a meta-answer, maybe it’s only through telling the story that we can know.
Stories need listeners, they don’t exist without an audience. To tell better stories we must cross the threshold ourselves, and tell them, however imperfectly, with our own eyes open. Ready to read the landscape we find ourselves moving through, and adjust our course where necessary.
updated 15 November, for clarity
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams
Some time ago, I came to realise I was becoming reliant on an unsustainable source of energy. Not the subject of progressive government taxation, or of pressure from environmental groups. Or coffee, though I run on that too.
The fuel in question is the stomach-churning, bum-clenching urgency of the imminent deadline.
There’s a phrase in the film Boyhood that captures it: voluptuous panic. It’s the pure, self-inflicted drama of a rapidly approaching precipice, following an indeterminate period of procrastination.
And it can conjour Amazing Things.
It can Produce Work Miracles At Short Notice. It can Get Me Up When It’s Still Dark Outside (Even In Summer). It can also readily Spoil Appetites. Result In Missed Appointments. And Ruin A Sunday (Or Any Day).
And crucially it can Release Me From The Burden of Deciding When Something’s Good Enough. That last one’s where it gets juicy.
Because in creative work, there’s no objective measure of when something’s finished. And as the creator, immersed in the doing, it’s often a challenge to make that decision.
What better than an artificial constraint to make the judgement for you? “It’s finished, because it’s time it has to be finished.”
There are some attractive story opportunities in this too, for the ego to exploit.
Did the result of adrenaline-fuelled labour go down well? Well, then that’s a heroic effort. Damn, I’m good.
Did it not go down so well? Maybe not my fault. After all, I didn’t really have enough time.
Either way, it’s a rush when you finish with moments to spare. Having been up most of the night, maybe several nights. Having traversed the valleys of Blank Despair, into the sunny uplands of Something To Show. Nothing much beats that feeling.
But it’s brief. And what goes up… Once the adrenaline’s drained away and the body’s suppressed demands assert themselves, euphoria’s forgotten fast.
In my experience, what’s produced by this cycle of procrastination, panic, relief and regret isn’t good work, not enough of the time to justify it as a process. It discourages collaboration. It generates excuses that get in the way of receiving useful feedback. And it’s sometimes painful for those around me.
Disrupting the habit
I now have a few trusty ways to disrupt this pattern.
To avoid procrastinating ahead of solo work, there’s the one-hour rule — tell yourself you only have to spend an hour tackling something and then you can stop if you want (I almost always go on, quite happily, into hour two).
To get over the tyranny of coming up with good ideas, there’s the worst ideas exercise- articulating the worst ways you might think to approach a project or piece of copy (it ‘breaks the seal’, and something interesting often surfaces anyway).
And there’s the simple, prescient act of breaking work into a series of milestones, and making a point of sharing progress, rather than allowing the schedule to build to a single, dramatic win / lose reveal.
But the foundation is just noticing. Noticing the cycle, the drama, and the ego. Talking about it. Breaking the spell of it.
It’s work in progress. The pattern’s habitual to me — I can get sucked back in, just like that.
But the more aware of it I become, the less power it has. It’s not so voluptuous now.
Slightly adapted from an original article written for The Human in the Machine on superyesmore September 2017
Image by tictac on Flickr, reproduced under CC BY 2.0