If we learned anything from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony this week, it’s the importance of well-written memos.
Comey’s memo to the Senate, spelling out his introductory statement, is clear, crisp, and to the point. It contains a wealth of precise detail that lends credibility to his report. And it is restrained: He doesn’t accuse the President of anything illegal, he merely spells out the circumstances of their various meetings and explains enough of the context so that readers can understand why the President made the FBI Director so uncomfortable.
What’s more, the fact that he wrote memos after every meeting with the President is also credibility-enhancing. There’s no better time to take notes than during a meeting or immediately after it, as every journalist knows. The passage of time erodes memories and changes perceptions.
Of course your experience is your own: It’s not like anyone is going to be recording the Objective Truth in their memos. How much you believe in the veracity of Comey’s memos depends largely on how much credit you give Comey himself for being honest and impartial. However, all other things being equal, a factual statement written at or shortly after the events in question should carry far more weight than a statement written much later.
“It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy Stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”
This is what is meant by objectivity (with a small “o”) in writing: A focus on presenting the facts as plainly as possible.
Note that the facts also include the writer’s reactions and his or her attempts to understand the situation. For example, Comey includes in his memo the fact that the dinner with Trump felt awkward. He mentions that Trump asked for “honest loyalty” but that Comey wasn’t entirely sure if the two of them had the same understanding of what that meant. In situations like this, objectivity includes your own impressions and feelings, and it’s important to include them.
The takeaways, for anyone who writes:
Incorporate salient details, including your thinking about what happened and how it felt.
Don’t overstate your case–an understated presentation of the facts will carry far more weight, in the long run, than a passionate defense of your point of view.
I’m going to attempt to swim down SF Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to AT&T Park, on July 9.
The distance is about 6.5 miles. The water temperature will probably be about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (plus or minus a couple degrees), or about 15C. Depending on how much of an assist I get from the flood current, it could take over 3 hours. In distance and time it’s longer than any swim I’ve done so far.
Can I do it? I’m not sure yet. I’m pretty confident, and I’m training hard. But I was never a swim team member, came to “serious” swimming fairly late in life, and I’m in no sense particularly athletic. In fact I’m an extremely average swimmer.
Most of the time the reaction to learning that I’m a Bay swimmer is something like: That’s crazy. The water is way too cold for me.
It’s true, the water can be chilly. But you get used to it.
I’ve been swimming all my life, from my first swim lessons at age 5 onwards, and I have always enjoyed the water, but it’s only in the past few years that I got really serious about it.
At some point, around 2010, I heard about a coworker who swam in the Bay every morning before coming to work. That’s kind of impressive, I thought! So I decided to try it out myself. I found my way to Coyote Point, a semi-enclosed cove near my home in San Mateo, where there’s a beach. It gets very windy in the afternoons but early in the morning it seemed like a pretty calm place to try swimming in the Bay. It was late summer, and the water was warm-ish, well into the 60s, and I wore a wetsuit. Since I was alone, I stuck very close to shore.
I learned that 60-ish water was warm enough I didn’t need a wetsuit. On the other hand, I also discovered that I could barely swim 50 yards without getting out of breath. Even though I’d been running fairly regularly and considered myself to be in good shape, swimming required a whole different set of muscles and techniques. My stroke was good enough for getting from one side of the pool to the other, and then taking a daiquiri break, but not much more than that.
I returned to Coyote Point a few times, each time swimming a bit longer, and each time marveling as I discovered the watery world, the way the dawn light looked shining through the trees, how the salty water embraced and held me floating at its surface. One morning in particular I remember watching the moon set in the west as the sun was rising in the east, and I was all alone, floating in still, almost mirror-like water, stunned at the beauty of it all.
It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to learn how to swim better, both to enjoy myself more and to keep myself safer. That led me on a journey of improving my stroke, mostly using Total Immersion techniques, off and on over the next few years. (This video showing Shinji Takeuchi’s amazingly smoooooth crawl stroke, is the one that convinced me Total Immersion had something remarkable going for it. The fact that the accompanying music has the refrain “I can see my destiny” might have helped too.) I’m not following all of its techniques any more, but TI caused a major improvement in my ability to swim comfortably over time.
The next step was when I realized that technique alone wasn’t going to transform me into a powerful swimmer: I needed to spend more time training. While I loved the open water, I could never stick to a very serious workout at Coyote Point. I was more like a tourist. So eventually I found my way to a Masters swim group, Burlingame Aquatic Club. “Masters” in this case simply means “old,” not necessarily expert, and “old” means “over 18,” so it’s a really misleading name. In fact, Masters swim groups have adult swimmers of all abilities, from very slow to very fast. And as I found there is no obvious correlation between age or shape and speed. I was in one of the slowest lanes and was regularly getting smoked by older women of a, shall we say, comfortable shape.
But I stuck with it, after awhile, and found that with some moderate training I was getting a little faster and a lot more comfortable in the water. That brought me back into the bay, and in late 2015, I started swimming with my friend Kate at the South End Rowing Club — another perhaps misnamed organization, since in addition to rowing it also supports handball, running, and, yes, swimming. It’s also nowhere near San Francisco’s South End anymore, although it started there; since the 1930s it’s been located on the city’s north shore at Aquatic Park, adjacent to Fisherman’s Wharf.
In Aquatic Park, I discovered an enclosed cove that, while colder than Coyote Point, had stunning views: Ghirardelli Square, Coit Tower, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge. And the historic ships along Hyde Street Pier: The epic masts of century-old sailing ships, and you could swim right past them, like a pirate! I was in heaven.
Throughout 2016, Kate, her friend Chris, and I had a weekly midday swimming date. We explored Aquatic Park and its environs, in the water and out of it, swimming longer distances as we got used to the water and checking out different lunch options almost every week. It became clear to me that Aquatic Park was a jewel in San Francisco’s crown, an under-appreciated treasure, and it was right there for anyone to jump into it and enjoy. Even better, every day we swam there it was different. Water conditions, air conditions, things swimming about with us or flying overhead: Every single swim was like an amazing new voyage. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Of course, I was hooked.
In my next update, I’ll explain why the cold really isn’t so bad. Honest!
If you’d like to follow along from now until July 9, please add your address using the form below, and I’ll send you a message or two each week, as this story develops.
In the aftermath of Paris, the gutting of the EPA, and rolling back of environmental regulations all over the place, we need local environmental advocates like SF BayKeeper more than ever. Please join me in supporting them. (You don’t have to swim with me, unless you want to, I promise.)
And even if you are a Trump-loving Republican, as long as you like clean water, support me anyway! Because local environmental organizations like this are replacing former federal government functions. It’s a win-win either way!
I read that Annie Dillard, when composing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, was living in the suburbs and raising a family. Strange, at first, to think that one could compose such solitude in the midst of bland civilization. Or dive that deep into nature among the streets and cul-de-sacs of a small town and all its busy-ness. But then I remember Thoreau, too, sought his solitude in a cabin but placed it close enough to town that he could still bring his laundry back to the landlady once a week, a fact that goes unmentioned in his book. And the Chinese poet-sages, who cultivated an air of reclusiveness such that one might almost think they were hermits: In fact they were bureaucrats working government jobs, raising families, living in the suburbs, and escaping to the hills whenever possible to contemplate, to drink with their literary friends, and to paint the landscape of their ideal world on rice paper scrolls. All that remains today are the scrolls. We chuckle at this hypocrisy until we realize: This too is a strategy of survival. The city has its own nature; why not the suburbs? To find a place of refuge in the exurban sprawl is no mean feat. We should all be able to concentrate our minds so.
I clicked through, only to see that Medium estimated it as a 14-minute read. Fourteen minutes! You expect me to spend more than half a pomodoro of my precious attention on a wandering first-person narrative about your monthlong off-grid retreat?
While I’m deeply interested in strategies for focusing one’s attention in an era of hyper-distraction, this is really annoying.
Also annoying: The author’s Medium bio is “probably walking on a mountain.” Seriously, that is the entire bio. Craig Mod is clearly not the kind of guy who spends his time poring over 14-minute longreads on Medium. He’s a writer. The kind of important, literary writer who gets invited to rural writing retreats. He’s got more important things to do.
If he spends his time in 28-day retreats in Virginia and the rest of it walking on a mountain somewhere, I don’t care what wisdom he may have about regaining control of his own attention, it’s not likely to apply to me or to anyone I know. Most of us are too busy trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, make sure our kids get to school on time, and have a tiny bit of time and energy left over at the end of the day for ourselves and our partners.
This kind of long-winded, self-important essay is becoming all too common. The reason, I think, is twofold.
One, editing is hard, and good editors are hard to come by. Even good editors are probably too overworked these days to do the difficult work of chopping a good but verbose writer’s work down to a more manageable size. I do think his writing is good, if long. The editors did him a disservice here by not chopping it more.
Two, content platforms like Medium fetishize length. There’s some good evidence that this is because some people use length as a signal of “seriousness,” and they are more likely to share articles that seem serious. As a result, longer articles tend to get shared more, liked more, and clicked on more. That’s why Medium adds the helpful “14-minute read” estimate–it’s an indicator of what you’re in for, but it’s also a proxy for seriousness.
Unfortunately, all this sharing and clicking happens regardless of how much people actually read. It is entirely possible that longer articles get shared, but not fully read: People read the first few paragraphs, notice that it’s extremely long and therefore must be serious, and they click “share” or “like” in order to signal to their social networks that they are the kind of people who read and share serious articles.
Meanwhile, the art of writing concisely gets lost. And the art of reading carefully does, too, since everyone’s too busy skimming through these overly long stories to see what the highlights are.
In this story’s case, I couldn’t make it through two minutes, much less all 14. But I did scroll down to see if there was anything practical and relevant here, or whether it was all just navel-gazing about the state of attention today.
So here, let me extract the takeaway for you, since the editors didn’t:
Turn off your Internet access before bedtime.
Leave it off until lunchtime.
Good advice, actually! You’d probably find yourself even more productive if you kept the Internet off until dinnertime, but even half a day offline is no doubt helpful to your writing.
That is, unless the kind of writing you do requires an Internet connection so you can look up references and read what other people have written. But it’s clear that Craig Mod is not the kind of writer who spends a lot of time reading online. He’s probably on a mountain somewhere.
As a society, we are facing a crisis of understanding.
Fake news is just the latest expression of a deeper problem: We have more and more difficulty thinking about (and talking about) complex topics.
In short, it’s hard to convey nuance and multiplicity with the media we have today.
Social networks are built to facilitate transmission of ideas that can be embodied in a catchy meme or 140 characters and a Twitter card. Anything that requires a few paragraphs or more to explain sufficiently runs the risk of being ignored or (at best) misrepresented under a catchy headline.
Online news sites live and die based on how many monthly visitors they get, which means their headlines and story choices are all geared towards generating clicks and shares, not understanding.
Television “news” focuses, as it always has, on the sensational and the provocative, and it has even started catering to the need for short-attention-span entertainment by adding background music and jokes.
Radio, for the most part, is dominated by those who can shout their opinions the loudest and provoke the strongest listener reactions. The exceptions, like NPR and PRI, are somewhat better, but even public radio has a hard time conveying complexity or nuance in a 4 minute segment (or even an hourlong weekly science show), given the imperative of entertaining and engaging the audience.
And even an ostensibly #longread-friendly environment like Medium suffers from human nature’s tendency to focus on the pithy highlight, the tweetable excerpt, the clickable headline.
Yes, in part this is human nature. We are programmed to notice the new, and to respond quickly and viscerally to stimuli that promise food or sex, or that seem to present a threat.
But as Daniel Kahneman has written in Thinking Fast and Slow, that is not the only mode of human thinking. It is also possible to engage a more logical, deliberative mode of thought. This mode of thinking is not as fast at coming to decisions but it is better suited to problem-solving, especially when the problems have many contributing factors, competing stakeholders, and unpredictable outcomes.
We need this kind of slow thinking, especially now. Because while our media leads us to ever-simpler, ever-more-catchy reflexive ways of intuitive thinking, the world itself is incredibly complex. Some examples:
What happens when the Arctic warms to 50 degrees above its normal December temperature is the result of an incredibly complicated system of interactions. What will happen next is hard to predict. What to do about it is even harder to figure out. And yet discussion online devolves into simplistic binaries: “the climate crisis is real and we’re fucked,” versus “global warming is a Chinese hoax.”
The companies that are working on autonomous vehicles, such as Google and Uber, seem to be getting closer and closer to truly “self-driving cars.” What will this mean for the tens of thousands of people for whom driving a car — or a truck — is their livelihood? How soon will self-driving cars actually be on the road? How autonomous will they be? How should governments respond to ensure the safety of all on the roads? How will insurance companies respond? How do we build a safety net, or alternate employment, for those who may be put out of work? None of these are easy questions to answer, particularly since the technologies themselves are still in development and their future arc is not entirely clear.
Health care in the U.S. seems in some ways incredibly advanced and in other ways the system seems complex and opaque and on the verge of collapse. Efforts to improve its functioning, such as Obamacare, are themselves incredibly complex, and that leads to further misunderstandings, errors, unpredictable outcomes, and, yes, political mischaracterizations. A slogan like “repealing Obamacare” might play well politically but practically speaking it’s far from clear how that might work, and how to proceed in a way that doesn’t lay waste to vast numbers of stakeholders, from those in poverty to those who own stock in insurance companies.
As a writer, a former journalist, and person who currently makes a living helping companies communicate better, I think about this constantly. Those of us in the “content business,” broadly speaking, have a responsibility to find ways of matching what we produce with the complexity of the world around us.
It is not just a matter of raging against the publication platforms and the social media available to us. Likewise I think it is useless to rant about the stupidity of the public (though that is often a satisfying outlet for the frustration of attempting to communicate). And we certainly can’t accomplish this by lecturing to people about how they need to pay closer attention and read that 10,000-word essay by Elizabeth Kolbert more closely.
No, I think we need to use our skills as communicators to engage readers and draw them in to stories that convey complexity and nuance. There is some hope here: As Nicholas Thompson has written, long-form storytelling is a thriving niche. There is demand for longer, more complicated stories, especially those that are well-told.
But length alone is not enough. I’ve read too many #longreads that seemed to be long for the sake of length, as if writing more words conveyed an impression of seriousness and depth. Actually, it does, but that’s just another example of how our intuitive brains can be easily fooled by superficial things. If you take the time to read these long stories closely, you’ll quickly realize which ones are long because they need to be long, and which ones really just need more editing.
So that brings me to the question I’m asking myself — and anyone who cares to join me — in 2017:
How can writers, journalists, designers, filmmakers, and artists work to convey complex, important ideas more accurately, completely, and engagingly?
That’s the question that motivates me this year. What about you? If you have good answers to this question, or — even better — some questions of your own, I’d love to hear from you.
This year I took the kids shopping with me on Christmas Eve. I gave them $60 each: A twenty to buy a present for their mom, a twenty to buy a present for their sibling, and a twenty to buy some stocking stuffers for the other three members of the family. “You’re going to help play Santa this year,” I told them.
The fifteen year old went off and got a single stocking stuffer for each of us, a nice pair of pie pans for her mom, and two big bags of taffy for her brother. Done! And everyone was happy.
The ten year old spent an hour combing Cost Plus for a huge pile of stocking stuffers, and went slightly over his limit. (I bailed him out.) He got some nice mittens for his sister and a Downton Abbey calendar for mom. Also good.
On Christmas, after we’d opened all our presents, the 10 year old started talking about how he learned the truth about Santa. “C told me that Santa isn’t real two years ago. I like to pretend that he is real, but I know he’s not.”
“Whoa, whoa,” I said. “Santa’s not real? What about your mom over there? Do you think she’s not your real mom?”
“No,” he said. He knows that he has a birth mother and an adoptive mother, just like he has a birth father and an adoptive father. But we’re not “unreal” … we actually do the work of taking care of him, feeding him, buying him clothes, driving him to soccer practice. We’re pretty real, I reminded him.
“And guess what,” I added. “Santa is real, too. Who do you think Santa really is?”
“You guys?” he said, pointing at me and KJ.
“And you,” I said, pointing right at him. “You helped buy all those stocking stuffers, and you put them in the stockings. So you were Santa, too.”
His eyes lit up. “Yeah!” he said. Then, in a very deep, Santa voice, while posing like a bodybuilder: “I’m Santa Claus! I’m Santa Claus!”
Photo: One of the not entirely appropriate stocking stuffers the little dude got me.
I’m done with Facebook for now, so I am signing off for awhile.
Partly I am annoyed with the company for not taking a stand against the Trump administration and its elected leader’s comments about making lists of Muslims and immigrants. For the company’s COO to attend a meeting with Trump yesterday and say absolutely nothing about that is not what I would hope for.
But mostly I’m fed up with the addictive design of the service. I don’t like myself when I use Facebook too much. It feeds me too much crap that just reinforces whatever cynical political mood that I’m in. I have had some useful conversations and event debates, but it takes an effort to get past the depressing crap. And it keeps encouraging me to click, and scroll, and click, and scroll, in a way that I dislike.
So for now I’m signing off, and will try to stay off through the end of the year. I may even deactivate my account. For now you can find me on Twitter @dylan20, and of course I’ll always be here on this site.
Keeping a gratitude diary, or less pretentiously, taking some time out of every day to write down the things you’re thankful for, is an effective way to increase happiness.
And I’d like to suggest one small addition.
In addition to writing down things you’re thankful for (rainbows, puppies, burritos) take some time each day to express your gratitude to a specific person.
Send a thank-you note or a postcard. Send an email or text to that person. Pick up the phone. Or simply say “thank you” face to face.
It could be a good friend or family member who you love and who loves you. It could be someone at work you think is overdue for some appreciation. Or it could be the barista serving you a coffee or the bus driver taking you home. Take a minute to let that person know you recognize them as another human, and that you’re grateful for what they’re bringing to you.
I think this will not only spread happiness, but also an understanding of the ways in which we’re all interconnected and interdependent.
As the Buddhist grace goes, “Seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us.” This prayer is meant as a reminder of codependent origination, or what Thich Nhat Hanh calls the inter-being of all things: sunshine, air, water. In fact seventy-two is an understatement; I always remember this prayer as “10,000 things.” Whatever the number, some of those things are specific people: Those who grew the food, who harvested it, who sold it, who shopped for it, who cooked it, and who washed the dishes afterward.
The radio tells me that calls to suicide hotlines are up 30 percent since the election. The news tells me that racists will be in the white house. Friends share stories with me about how bad things are about to get. A writer I respect says we have less than two months at best. People are saying farewell to American democracy. My daughter asks if she will be deported or enslaved.
Enough, I say. To all who have a stake in making you feel awful: Enough. It is time to huddle. It is time to take care of each other, and ourselves. It is time to plan and ready ourselves for resistance. But we know how to do this. We have been countercultural. We have been oppositional and defiant. We have gone to protests and put signs on lamp posts and worn slogans on our shirts and pinned statements to our jackets. We’ve talked to people, and sometimes shouted at them, and we’ve listened to them shout at us. We have grown our hair long as a signal to others, and we have cut it short as a signal to others. We have thrown parties. We have played our music. We have told our jokes, our many, many jokes, and those jokes have brought the bright air back into the rooms we were in, if even for a moment.
And we have sat quietly, breathing, watching how our world is created anew with each breath.
Perhaps it has been a long time–perhaps some of you are young enough that you don’t remember these times. But some of us do, and we’ll show you how it’s done.