Weekend reads: The joy of discovery
On the spirit of surprise, complicating narratives - and practising pro-human journalism
By the time you read this newsletter, I’ll be in New York City drinking eggnog lattes, listening to loud hip-hop and eating biscuits and pickles, communing with crowds in the Comedy Cellar, admiring the lights at Rockefeller Center, and soaking up the festive spirit on the city’s streets.
Lean Out is on hiatus now for ten days. We’ll be back with a new podcast episode on December 28, continuing our series on the independent press. Thank you to everyone who has commented, tweeted, emailed, and texted me about these conversations. The response has been incredibly heartening. I’m grateful that the topic resonates.
If you missed any of these episodes, please do take some time in coming days to check out the interviews with Freddie deBoer, Leighton Woodhouse, Bridget Phetasy, and Holly Doan. Stayed tuned for Rupa Subramanya and Meghan Daum. And if there are independent journalists that you’d like to hear me interview in the new year, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments section.
Before I go fully, completely, blissfully offline, I did want to leave you with some thoughts on an essay that I absolutely loved this week.
Over the past 20-plus years that I have worked in media, I have learned time and time again that things are often not as they seem. That the world we inhabit is both utterly unpredictable and endlessly exciting. And that our neighbours, when given the opportunity, almost always surprise us.
It was in this spirit that I read Amanda Fortini’s exquisite piece at The Free Press, “Real Life Does Not Fit the Narrative.”
Fortini perfectly captures the flattened mood of modern mass media, with its paint-by-numbers narratives. Such stories are not just overly simplistic, and pessimistic, and deeply dispiriting — but also mind-numbingly boring:
My root objection to these fictions isn’t about politics or even ethics, purely; it’s one of aesthetics. Not only are these narratives untrue, they’re also uninspired and formulaic. They feel engineered with a takeaway in mind, assembled from a kit—with a moral, a villain, and a hero. They lack the pleasing strangeness of reality and the uncanny rightness of mimesis. As you consume them, there’s no sense of discovery or revelation. I find them pat, predictable, deadening. They bore me.
One would be hard-pressed, too, to find a better encapsulation of ethos that drives this newsletter than Fortini’s words below:
When I teach college journalism classes, I tell my students to go out and report on events as they unfold, letting their stories arise from whatever they find, while ignoring the expectations or preconceived notions they had at the start. The real world, I tell these impressionable young writers, is always more fascinating than the ideas we hold about it. Reality, truth, the bizarre behavior of people in the wild — they will always surprise you.
In our current media climate, where facts are subordinated to various master narratives, and everything is viewed through an ideological lens, my advice might seem obsolete, I realize. For a while now, on broadcast news, in magazines and newspapers — and certainly in “content” that goes viral on social media — there is a conspicuously growing lack of stories that are complex, surprising, and seemingly told for their own sake.
But if the rise of Substack is any indication, the public still hungers for such stories — stories that surprise, that evoke wonder, that provoke thought, and that are told for no other reason than a sincere attempt to understand the world around us, and to relay that reality to curious readers.
The question for me this past year, then, has been: How does one reject the pat narratives, and get back to the difficult but invigorating work of seeking out, and describing, the richness and diversity of human experience?
How does one begin to do this?
Fortini, for her part, has a suggestion:
What’s the antidote? It’s a renewed focus on the real, the concrete, and the specific. This past summer, I decided to stop immersing myself in all the “narratives” and put my cell phone in a drawer. I actually did this, but it’s also a metaphor. Meanwhile, my husband and I began to spend time at my late father-in-law’s airy old cabin in rural Montana. Out there, beyond cell service and without neighbors as far as you could see, I dragged a plastic lawn chair from the garage onto the deck and sat reading for hours at a time in the blazing sun.
Such a return to the real, the visceral, the tangible, led to an epiphany for Fortini:
I once again realized what I already knew — that no one I encountered in person ever fit into a prefabricated narrative.
It is almost as though the purpose of the stories we are told is to obscure reality, not to reveal it. Because to observe reality is to trust your own perceptions. You might even start to notice that most stories are not tidy parables with morals. “The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright,” Dillard writes. A satisfying true story tends to be complicated and irreducible.
As it turns out, this is the *exact* mental state that drives good journalism.
It must, I firmly believe, be continuously cultivated through in-person, real-world experiences — and through the quest to understand the living, breathing beings all around us.
And with that, I log off.
I wish each and every one of you the very best for the holiday season. And I wish you the pure, unfiltered joy of discovering your fellow humans, in all their messy splendour.
Thank you for giving me back this feeling.
Lean Out with Tara Henley is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.