If I were to make a family tree with apples for this blog, one of the apple ancestors would be the blog Austin Kleon.
Wait, did you ever make one of those family trees for school? I have a vague memory of doing so, but I’m not sure if it’s real or if I made it up. After getting the impression from books that the family tree project is the elementary school project, my brain might’ve just assumed I did it too.
His blog is a compilation of different things: black out poems, zines, collages, snapshots of his notebooks. But my favorite is when he writes posts that pull thoughts from multiple different people that all coalesce around one idea. They’re compilation posts inside of a compilation blog, and I love them.
For example, a recent one he wrote was called “We love because we care.” It’s about how when we actively care for something, it increases how much we emotionally care about it. In it, he pieces together quotes from 6 places — one is about mending clothes while another is about parenting.
They’re like these beautiful arguments, way more persuasive and interesting than any literature essay I’ve written. I think I’ve always wanted to write posts like these at some point, but this will be my first time really attempting it. As I’m writing this sentence, I just have my quotes typed below — besides that structure, I’m not sure how this is going to go. How this ends will be as much of a mystery to me as it is to you right now.
I’ve never thought about what my ideal obituary headline would be, but I feel like being described as a “Nobel Laureate” should be a strong contender for anyone. That’s how John Hume was defined in the New York Times’ obit for him: John Hume, Nobel Laureate for Work in Northern Ireland, Dies at 83.
When I read that article, a lot of it went over my head because I lacked all the context about Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but the quote at the very end just made me stop.
“I am a teacher,” he said. “You keep saying the same things over and over. Then you know you’re getting through when someone in a pub gives you back your own words.”
It’s something about how he sees teachers and the power of teaching. It’s not about making someone listen the first time around or changing their mind immediately. It’s about persistent repetition. And then over time, maybe people will take on those words so easily as their own that they won’t even realize they’re yours.
In The Atlantic’s magazine for this month, there’s a piece called “Make America Again,” and the essay talks about how the ideas of a philosopher named Richard Rorty are started to be repeated like crazy. (Dang, I would say they’re being repeated back to him, but he passed away in 2007.)
When Rorty wrote his book [Achieving Our Country], in the ’90s, the cultural left was confined to university departments. Today its ideas reflect the prevailing worldview of well-educated, middle-class progressives, especially those under 40. Its vocabulary—white fragility, intersectionality, decolonize, BIPOC—confounds the uninitiated and antagonizes the skeptical. The cultural left dominates media, the arts, and philanthropy as well as academia; it influences elementary-school classrooms and corporate boardrooms; and it’s beginning to reach into national politics.
Richard Rorty and everybody who were already using these words are probably being described as “ahead of the game” right now, but what if it’s more like what John Hume was talking about? Maybe they weren’t really ahead of the game — maybe their repeated words just influenced the game in front of them, and now we’re living in it.
We also have the phrase of “catching up” to people and ideas. But maybe that’s not the right way to put it either. Whenever we “catch up” to someone or some value, it feels like it’s kind of a surprise that it happened. It doesn’t really seem intentional on our part. It sounds more like the words are catching us.
Okay, so sometimes people’s words don’t get repeated until years afterwards. But sometimes, it happens a lot faster. From Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives by Robert Draper:
[He] had discovered that if you go on TV often enough and say something catchy, two things will happen. First, your point of view, through repetition across each network, can actually become the conventional wisdom. During the health care debate in August 2009, [he] had predicted on CNBC that a health care bill without a public option would lose the support of one hundred Democrats. That number had just popped into his head. He’d uttered it without any reason to believe it was accurate. And yet it soon became a widely quoted number.
First of all, a brief tangent. This is a reflection after reading this book: Just because somebody’s been elected into government, it really doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.
Second of all, I thought I knew where I had figured out where I was going with this, but I’m losing the thread again.
Some people, like House representatives, have titles and positions that make their words move super fast. But just because they move fast doesn’t mean they won’t disappear fast as well — who talks about that 100 Democrats number anymore? Some people, like John Hume and Richard Rorty, say slow words that stay for much longer.
But 900 hundred words in, I’m not sure what my argument is. Because words that move fast can impact just as deeply (hello Marshall Plan speech), and words that move slow might never surface.
(Oh my, where am I going??)
The idea that pulls at me most from these quotes is not really slow vs. fast, what’s better or worse. It’s the idea of people’s words having an impact on the world.
On her podcast That Sounds Fun, Annie F. Downs talks about how no matter who we are, we have people that hear us, that listen to us, that are influenced by us. (That’s one of the things she says over and over again.)
And as I’m writing this, it’s not the question of how to make the biggest impact possible with my words that’s circling around my brain. The question I’m thinking about, the question(s) I think I’ve been trying to pinpoint this entire post, are these: What do I want to be saying? What words do I want to be saying over and over again? What are the people around me hearing? What do I hope they are hearing me say?
Well, I guess this is where this post went to. Thinking about what I want to say. Emphasis on the thinking part. Still working on the “what.”
Ahh, what to ask? Hm.
Do you know what I mean by the family tree project??
If you have a blog, what would be its ancestors?
Do you read any magazines? (I subscribed to The Atlantic three or so months ago, and I love it.)
What words do people around you repeat?
Do you know what you want to be saying?
At what point do you usually come up with your post title — beginning, middle, end?