🌻 audience of one
on art, writing, and independence
I remember being a freshman in college and finishing the book “Young Money” by Kevin Roose, which follows eight recent graduates’ journeys into the opulent yet cutthroat world of investment banking. I’d been curious about finance—widely advertised as a reliable career path for the directionless humanities major—until the book turned me off entirely. Memorably, what scared me most wasn’t the accounts of cruel bosses and hundred-hour workweeks—it was the effect on these young people’s minds, the subtle rewiring of their thinking patterns toward the kind of calculated instrumentality their desk job rewarded. At the end of two years of observation, Roose writes:
They were slower to smile and quicker to criticize. Many of them began to talk about the world in a transactional, economized way. Their universes started to look like giant balance sheets, their appetite for adventure waned and they viewed unfamiliar situations through the cautious lens of cost/benefit analysis.
I’m glad I’m not a banker now, but my 18-year-old self missed the broader lesson in the allegory. You are what you eat. You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. It’d be naive to assume that work—any work, not just finance—doesn’t shape you in the same way.
Immersing myself in Silicon Valley over the past few years has certainly made me feel more agentic: I’m much more confident that I can dream big and make shit happen, that the things I want are within my reach. But along with that agency, or perhaps because of it, I’ve noticed myself becoming much more strategically-minded, even pragmatic to a fault. Surrounded by constant talk of narrative change, business metrics, great men, and idea machines; I’ve begun to frame every endeavor in terms of efficiency and “leverage.” Work smart, not hard. The goal, always, is to maximize impact per unit of work.
You can’t have impact without an audience. I abandoned my high school dream of becoming a professor when I realized how niche most academic work was. I didn’t want to live in the ivory tower: products are meant to be used; writing is meant to be read. Yet there’s a reason that the job of truth-seeking is mostly insulated from public pressure. When working on editorial for Reboot, it’s impossible to disentangle the perceived quality of an essay from the number of subscriptions it drives. My intern at Substack proposed a research project the other day, and I told him, “That’s intellectually interesting, but what’s the business case?” I hated myself a bit for saying it, but the thing I fear most these days is shouting into the void: If I create something and no one’s around to hear it, did it really make a sound?
I notice this change most when I try to write. I think working a lot has made me a worse writer. 90 percent of the words I consume and produce in a week are emails, strategy docs, research reports, and documentation—text designed to be as digestible as possible for a busy, distracted end user. My prose has tightened, the excess trimmed. Information efficiency is paramount. I write like the 12 dollar desk salad, the bar that packs 20 grams of protein and plastic into one 200-calorie brick. But good writing, like a good meal, needs fat. It should indulge readers, is meant to be chewed and enjoyed, affording a generous escape from the prosaic and mundane.
A month or so ago, I was talking about writer and theorist Maggie Nelson with a couple coworkers. Her most recent book of criticism, “On Freedom,” is sharp, timely, and possibly the best thing I read this year; but her pseudo-memoir, “The Argonauts,” contained some of the rawest and loveliest sentences about relationships ever written. Just take this in:
I had always presumed that giving birth would make me feel invincible and ample, like fisting. But even now—two years out—my insides feel more quivery than lush. I’ve begun to give myself over to the idea that the sensation might be forever changed, that this sensitivity is now mine, ours, to work with. Can fragility feel as hot as bravado? I think so, but sometimes struggle to find the way. Whenever I think I can’t find it, Harry assures me that we can. And so we go on, our bodies finding each other again and again, even as they—we—have also been right here, all along.
“I wish I could observe life like Maggie Nelson,” I said to my manager.
“You can,” he replied. “I think reading literature makes one much more attentive. I go from ‘writing op-eds about who is good and who is bad’ to ‘writing vignettes about what's amusing, unusual, or thematically resonant’ in my head. It's like, ‘What genre do I want my internal monologue to be in?’ and most of us are default-choosing ‘enraged op-ed.’”
This stuck with me. Enraged op-eds, soulless copy, carefully couched emails to execs. Is this what I want my internal monologue to sound like? Is this why I can’t write creative nonfiction anymore?
I’ve spent the past few months trying to reverse these effects, mostly by thinking about and consuming a lot of art. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly viewed art as enjoyable but auxiliary, secondary to the real work of politics. In high school, I traded in creative writing for debate club; in college, museum docenting for consulting and campaigns. Art seemed too aesthetic, too unserious, too easy to have its radicalism coopted by reputation-washing robber barons or the CIA.
But I have begun to come around on this: art—or at least good art—is defined by its non-instrumentality. Art is not useless, but it is use-agnostic, and that’s what makes it so useful after all.
The first distinction is between being an artist and being a “creator.” In an essay for ARTnews, writer Kyle Chayka notes that most titles for people who make things—painter, DJ, choreographer—“signify a particular craft or practice, a discipline that takes years to develop, an identity that one doesn’t just become overnight.” Meanwhile, the modern “creator” is “generic [and] commodified… defined by the ability to monetize online.” In the same vein, my friend Wendi Yan, a digital artist, writes about her distaste for how NFTs bind artistic to market value: “True art doesn’t care to be appreciated, obsessed over with, or owned. It holds a certain self-respect that knows enough of its own value to not plea for attention.” I feel this tension often with my own publication: How much time should we spend producing great writing, and how much trying to prove it to the world? Or like a Substack writer recently told me about the pain of self-promotion, “I don’t like having to sell myself like a bar of soap, but here I am.”
The second distinction is between art and politics, which, when conflated, can be just as reductive and repressive as commodification can. In the first essay in “On Freedom,” Nelson defends art’s independence from moralism, even when it incites controversy: “Art is characterized by the indeterminacy and plurality of the encounters it generates… We go to art… precisely to get away from the dead-end binaries of like/don’t like, denunciation/coronation—what Sedgwick called the ‘good dog/bad dog rhetoric of puppy obedience school’—all too available elsewhere.” Or in this brutal review of the 2022 Whitney Biennial, which is indelicately political in its curation: “The exhibition could use more secrecy. The secret is a useful metaphor for art in that art's content is always something that resists articulation and remains unstated.” Although art can have political causes and political effects, its primary impact is much more localized to each viewer, and thus hard to predict. Meaning emerges not universally from the artist’s intent, but from the multiplicity of affective and reflective encounters that result.
Business and politics are both based in marketability and maximization. Being obsessed with leverage means being obsessed with power and public opinion and how to steer them—concerning oneself first and foremost with entertainment value, virtue signaling, clarity of meaning—that is, being obsessed with what other people think. But creativity can’t thrive under that kind of self-consciousness. Neither can independence, courage, or truth.
When I imagine the quintessential artist, I think of Hanya Yanagihara as portrayed in D. T. Max’s New Yorker profile “Hanya Yanagihara’s Audience of One.” Yanagihara is author of the 800-page bestseller, tearjerker, and controversy magnet “A Little Life,” a book that follows four close friends in New York City navigating achievement, addiction, love, and abuse. It is an objectively unrealistic story, but so meticulously executed as to keep readers within its reality distortion field. Critics lambast Yanagihara for torturing the gay protagonist, Jude, and his suffering is enormously painful to read, so they’d be right if the plot was documentary, parable, or prescription—but it isn’t.
In the profile, Yanagihara comes off as intense, brilliant, and utterly unconcerned with public perception. She speaks and writes with full ownership of her work; she is upfront about not trying to make the book a pleasant read or a popular one. Max writes:
Yanagihara told me that she wanted the story to feel like a relentless piling on. And she pointed out that, though “A Little Life” may seem unconstrained, it has a precise structure. Each of its seven chapters contains three sections, each subsection of which totals eighteen thousand words. This scaffolding was there to organize, but not dilute, the story’s corrosive emotions. She did not separate the subsections with white space, “to deprive readers of natural resting places.”
The piece goes on to detail how Yanagihara fought her editor and publisher on the book’s length, its odd cover image, its gratuitous violence:
She had been willing to walk away if she could not have the book published her way. She didn’t need Doubleday’s acceptance “for my finances or my sense of identity,” she said. “I knew it was good enough that someone else would buy it.”
And on the anticipated reception of her newest book, “To Paradise,” which is radically different and even stranger in style, Yanagihara responds:
“I write only to please myself.”
At this point, I’ve read this profile at least five times over, feeling more envious each time not only of her literary achievements, but of the capacity and purity of her mental state. She is extreme—uncaring, even—but what an achievement that is.
This struggle, ultimately, is the struggle not to sell out your own mind. I think about Obama, Drake, and every other public figure derided for succumbing to the hivemind, to design by committee, to the tyranny of the majority. The more you expose your work to the world, the more you are vulnerable to its petty infringements and unsolicited opinions, which threaten to destroy the very originality that awarded it popularity in the first place.
Personally, I feel very lucky to have a career doing the things I love: reading, writing, thinking about communities and technologies and the intersection of both. But in noticing the shift of my internal monologue, a budding preoccupation with impact and leverage and metrics and growth, I am reminded of the danger in letting your entire creative practice become professionalized, and of the corresponding importance of carving out space for the non-instrumental.
I will always believe in impact, but I also want to read more novels about people I will never meet or be, and to see more films that must be experienced more than explained. I want to, as Joan Didion describes in “Why I Write,” train a mind for noticing “physical facts,” for conjuring “images that shimmer around the edges.” I want to develop Susan Sontag’s “vocabulary of forms”: to find the precise language for every extraneous emotion, every ineffable vibe; I want to learn to sin and write in purple prose.
I want to become a better artist/writer, and maybe, in that process, I will also become a freer leader and thinker and builder and friend. And if I don’t, at least I’ll have a better understanding of myself. I return to Maggie Nelson:
Art plays a unique and crucial role in working out “what … we might want when we’re not under surveillance.” While we can never be entirely free of surveillance of some kind or another (and not always from the usual suspects), that doesn’t mean we don’t have a real need to create spaces or forms wherein we can temporarily suspend its grip, and practice a certain fugitivity from the “cops in the head.”
I share personal essays, reading recs, and life updates here every few months. Sign up to get them in your email:
🌱 quick life updates
I’m moving to San Francisco in August! I like a lot about New York, but over the past year, found myself heading west every 1-2 months for work/friends/family anyway—and was getting sick of all those cross-country flights. (Also, I miss trees, the ocean, good fruit, and a host of other little things about the West Coast Way of Life™.)
At Substack, I started a new role in product research a few months ago, which means I talk to lots of writers and readers, then write about what I learn. It’s kind of lame to like your corporate job, but I really do.
I still serve as director of Reboot. Right now, the team is working on the second issue of Kernel Magazine, and I spend most of my time on “professionalization”: strategy, fundraising, paperwork, sustainability.
I finally managed to graduate and get my Stanford degree this June.
My number one priority these days is trying not to burn out.
I’d also love if you shared a comment or email reply with an especially moving or memorable or provocative piece of art (music, visual, book, film, etc).