Bodies of work

At XOXO ’18, Jennifer Lee posed the following question:

“Who do you envy? [Who you envy] is a compass for what you care about.”

The folks I envy all share a common trait: having a body of work I admire greatly. That phrase, “body of work,” has been on my mind since the conference.

It’s thrown around often. “Their writing is an impressive body of work.” “Her body of work is the result of a lifetime of effort.“ What if we took the phrase somewhat…literally? Treating the archive of our work as a sort of body we can nurture, strengthen, groom, or even find comfort with.

Some are tall. Speed of Light by Jason Brennan has an archive page that takes seconds to load. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t meant to ding the site’s performance; but rather, a testament to how rendering the full text of each post he’s written onto a single page causes even modern browsers to hiccup. The blog covers books, cognition, software, and education. Yet, whatever the topic, Jason’s work always skips my reading queue in favor of reading on the spot.

Some have our initials tattooed on them. Above & Beyond’s radio show, Group Therapy (ABGT for short and formerly Trance Around the World), welcomes with open arms. It’s a two-hour weekly music podcast that’s been running for over 770 weeks—almost 15 years—straight, ambitiously counted its shows upwards from 001, 002, 003, …, and is en route to exhaust the possible digits of the numbering scheme. Each week, fan-submitted messages to friends and loved ones are read on the air. The ABGT body of work carries its admirers on its sleeve.

Some are a friend of sorts. Minor Arcana is a newsletter that’s felt more like a friend than a weekly email. It provides a glimpse into Justin Duke’s life in Seattle. Funnily enough, despite reading his work and following him on Twitter for years, we finally met in-person at XOXO ’18 in Portland. Our hour-long conversation packed the density of a catchup between hundreds-of-hours-long friends. We got to questions we’ve been meaning to ask one another—“Do you ever see yourself moving into management?” “What would you work on, if finances weren’t a consideration?”—and looked forward to hanging out during his recent New York trip. In a sense, I met his body of work before, well, meeting him.

Some understand. Anxy has been through it, too. The publication sits at the intersection of mental health, writing, and art, steered by Indhira Rojas. Her team’s body of work, in the form of four issues covering anger, workaholism, boundaries, and masculinity has provided a material empathy. Meeting someone familiar with the series is often met with a confiding silence because they have either struggled or are familiar with the depths of mental health.

My body of work?

I’ve maintained this collection as a way to clarify my thinking and to remind others of our often similar invisible wounds.

My relationship with Distillations’ body has changed over the years. It was previously unnamed and sat under the “” domain. Renaming the site distanced my identity from it—which, in turn, helped me better process critical feedback. The rename also emphasized the ideas and narratives threaded into each piece. I recently dug up some old copy for the site which attempted to capture this:

The subtitle, “forgetting words, remembering ideas,” is a nod to my background in mathematics. During lectures, I was constantly reminded that the details, mechanics, and “words” of math aren’t important. We would forget them in a few years anyway. Instead, the ideas were what mattered—proof techniques such as a contradiction, induction, and correspondences. The goal was to spend time in the trenches of problems sets to develop an intimacy with these concepts. Distillations seeks to mirror this approach. In a sense, by effortfully turning observations into words, I hope to forget those very words—distilling a tangible intuition of the ideas.

Distillations—and my larger body of writing—is almost six years old. As it’s grown taller, like Jason’s Speed of Light, I’ve penciled in notches on the doorway by adding to the homepage’s archive list. As friends and loved ones have supported it, I’ve followed ABGT’s suit and tattooed their names on the Village page. As the body has become a surface for my inner self, it’s been a friend who understands as much as Anxy and is an ambient part of others’ days in the way Justin’s Minor Arcana is in mine.

I hope Distillations’ body lives beyond my own—taking shelter in this little corner of the Internet. Maybe someone—a relative, great grandchild (fingers crossed), an old friend—will revisit it in eighty years time, or maybe not. Until then, I’ll keep nurturing this body of work.