reading tressie mcmillan cottom and chewing my nails

I’m super enamored at the moment by the work of a writer named Tressie McMillan Cottom whose book of essays Thick bent my head and then straightened it with an interesting curve. She was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship Grant a couple years ago (the famous “genius grant”) that doles out something like $600k over the course of a few years so that a practitioner of the arts can free themselves of the worries inherent to daily life, to day jobs, and devote themselves to their craft.

Which just so happens to be a critical topic in Cottom’s book.

Her colleague Roxane Gay says the same thing. Young writers ask her what they should do as they embark on a life of letters and the first thing she tells em, “Get a day job.”

Now that she’s got some money she’s begun a subscription-based blog (“blog”?), Essayist, to which I’m newly subscribed, at $5 a month, and delighting in what I’ve seen so far.

I happen to have lots of time and energy for reading at the moment, which is part of the reason I came across Cottom’s work, and, while I don’t think she’d appreciate the grouping, her book fell into my hands at the same time I decided to tackle some long-neglected TBR titles.

I’m bingeing Walter Isaacson’s biographies.

I read Steve Jobs last week and, at the moment, I’m reading his Leonardo Da Vinci and Henry Kissinger biographies side by side.

The artful photo comes from a TIME article listing Cottom’s Thick as one of the best books of the year.

What these two Isaacson books illustrate (same as all his other biographies, I think) is what a really ambitious and occasionally monstrous person can accomplish when they devote themselves entirely to their craft. Hermetic and bookish and entirely about their work.

The portraits are seldom flattering, but they’re impressive.

And they’ve got me brooding on a question Cottom was having thrown at her a couple years ago when she got her Macarthur grant:

What’s your next move as a writer?


Cottom has an essay in Thick about needing Black opinion writers in major outlets like The New York Times, a Black voice to rival that of, say, David Brooks, their current conservative editorialist. 

Part of the reason for it, she says, is because it’ll be a new and inherently valuable perspective, different from the sort that fills its pages already, and something reflective of a largely unheard community; but also: we’ll get the regular opinion of a person whose mind doesn’t need to be cluttered by a day job. Or, as is more common among writers, two or three or four other day jobs, gigs, major professional or familial obligations…

“The reality is that for writers, there are few gigs as good as those at publications where they have the freedom and protection to write well. Writing well takes research assistance, editorial expertise, copyeditors, lunch breaks, fresh air, desk space, peers, and LexisNexis subscriptions. Writing is democratic. Writing well is not.”

from Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

I’m only a hundred pages into the thousand-page Kissinger biography and, at this point, we find him wrapping up his PhD in his early 30s and hanging out in these think tanks, basically, with other scholars who sit around from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and discuss their studies without any discernible concern about tending their spouses or children or the needs of anyone else. 

One wonders: how many “geniuses” would our culture have generated if more people got this opportunity?

On the other hand I’m in the last hundred pages of the Da Vinci biography and there’s a wonderful part, toward the middle, when Isaacson gives us a survey of a random page from Da Vinci’s diary. These pages were about the size of a sheet of newsprint, pretty big, and on a given sheet you’d see a network of geographical shapes, underscored with their attendant measurements, plus drawings of a tree whose intricate branches turn seamlessly into the larger and anatomically precise torso and head of a man, before whom the author has etched a small bit of verse, or created a riddle, or sketched a to-do list.

A page from Da Vinci’s diary–he was left-handed and so, to avoid smearing his work, he wrote from right to left. The text can only be read with a mirror, and many maintained that this was a kind of code whereby Da Vinci tried to keep shit private–but nah, it was just convenient. In fact, it seems Da Vinci was one of few queer artists of the era to own his sexuality and basically shrug about it. Not a secretive person at all.

Isaacson celebrates the fact that Da Vinci, though often hard-up for money because he seldom finished the projects he’d been commissioned for, was so intellectually free. He chased whatever thought came to mind and he would focus on it obsessively for a contained stretch of time–and then wander off toward something else, thereby leaving the last project unfinished, sure, but he would take whatever he learned from it into the next one.

And he was pretty adamant about what benefits might be gleaned from this kinda life.

It seems he identified as a scientist more so than an artist (Isaacson begins the book by quoting a letter Da Vinci wrote, at the age of 30, asking for an engineering job; in the letter he gives an exhaustive account of his scientific credentials, his ideas, whatever–and then he concludes it: “I also paint”). Da Vinci’s idea was that, by studying nature, it would inform his art. Then, once completed, the work of art would influence his perception of nature–each one lending a vibrancy to the other that grew and grew.

So he was indiscriminately curious and he followed his imagination wherever it went. 

Kissinger, a bit more dogged, was also of a mind to collect a diverse stack of books into a pile on a desk and read through them from literally sunrise to sunset. His interests were considerably more channeled into foreign affairs and, after a while, warfare.

I’m having deeper personal feelings about these books, about these models who pursued their mind, did what they wanted, and realized their potential in the process (which I realize is a possibly fucked-up thing to say of Henry Kissinger, and it might be the case that, when I reach the book’s end, I’ll feel nothing but contempt for him: at the moment, though, I don’t know very much, and I’m just enjoying the narrative momentum by which Isaacson shows a thinker taking shape). Again, I don’t think she’d dig the grouping, but I’m thinking of Cottom’s work in a similar context–and I’m excited to’ve discovered her now, a couple years into her Fellowship, where she’s kind of already risen to the question people were constantly asking her in 2018:

“What’re you gonna do with all that freedom?”

Which, though I haven’t got a top-dollar grant or a PhD or the creative freedom of a Florentine polymath in the sixteenth century, is a question I’ve been kind of asking myself lately.

What am I gonna do with my freedom?

And paying close attention to how some great thinkers and creators before me have answered that question (yes even Kissinger) is emboldening me to appreciate certain nuances in the process of realizing who you are and what you’re good at and what makes you happy, and then creating a sort of life cocktail that balances those flavors.

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