Musings + Essays

On Tinkering.

By: Jen Shoop

There is a wonderful passage in Madeline Miller’s Circe where the protagonist arrives on Aiaia, the island of her exile, and undertakes gradual self-study in pharmakeia, the art of mixing potions and poisons, elsewhere interpreted as witchcraft. She errs, she grows frustrated, but she learns and even develops the self-awareness to realize that she is particularly adept at transformations. Despite the ominous and idiosyncratic conditions of her isolation, the shape she cuts in this passage reads familiar: she is an artist crafting her skill in solitude. She is beyond the gaze, able to hone through unannotated trial and error, responding only to the materials and her assessment of her own work. Though she tried her hand at a few “spells” previously, it is only when she is profoundly alone that something swells inside of her: “No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea.

The passage left me in thought. Do we produce our best work in isolation or in conversation?

I had to think on this, and specifically what I meant by “my best work.” What is my best work? Instinctually, I thought less about my favorite essays or the ones that have received the most positive feedback and more about the near-physical experience of production, which, as a writer, I can only describe as something akin to “mouthfeel.” When I am at my best, the writing feels “full-bodied.” It is round, textured, tinted such that it is difficult to suss out the exact hue. A designer once said that, in a well-appointed home, you shouldn’t be able to describe the paint colors easily: it should never feel like “a green room” but rather “a greenish-gray-brown room? with a little hint of yellow maybe?” I feel that way about good writing, too — it should evoke and surprise rather than tell. Of course, I rarely achieve such heights. But when I am in a good flow, the shade of the writing suffuses rather than covers uniformly. And when do I find myself in that flow?

I am always physically alone when writing, but my best work nearly invariably arrives on the heels of great conversation with minds greater than my own, and often that conversation transpires on a page of my Kindle. Good reading makes for good writing. But am I therefore still technically “alone”? After all, the “conversation” is metaphorical and imagined, no matter how well the table has been set. Or does the dialectical nature of interacting with the thoughts of others mean I am not alone? Setting the metaphysical aside, is it impudent to consider the works of others as “materials”? They inform and inspire and occasionally I pluck little feathers and twigs and gems from their finery for my own use. Sometimes that bric a brac is refinished, boiled down and alchemized, but sometimes it is simply re-set in my own nest. Recently, I came across the word “ebenezer” (or “stone of aid”) in someone else’s work and I immediately brought it home and cultivated an entire essay around it. It was a stone gathering moss, the entire piece spooling out from that one filched word.

So maybe I am like Circe in exile after all? Maybe the best work is born of low-stakes, isolated tinkering. Whether you consider yourself a creative or not, what do you think? When do you produce your best work, whether that’s cooking, parenting, speaking in public, knitting, rowing, leading a team?


+Do you consider yourself creative?

+A full review of Circe here and some bonus thoughts here.

+On achieving “flow.”

+”I’m over the word hack.” A brief essay on why I don’t believe there are shortcuts in life!

+”Intimacy, in all its savage abandon.”

+This book was a really, really rough go. It was so emotionally trying!

Shopping Break.

+Sperry winter boots on sale in two fab colors: this ivory and this on-trend burgundy!

+My favorite navy suede drivers are on sale for 30% off. I know I’ve talked your ear off about these, but they are so fab with everything. They also just released the shoes in this new tweed material! Honestly, Talbots does really good shoes. I just spotted these fab kitten heels for holiday and I can’t decide if I love these boots more in the black faux fur or the fun shearling!

+Just ordered mini this turtleneck in the blush stripe.

+Is this NOT the chicest office chair you’ve ever seen?! OMG. Can’t believe the price either. I am still adoring my Laura Davidson one, though, which is SUPER comfortable and sleek.

+Micro has been wearing a sherpa vest over his outfits a lot lately and it’s gotten a lot of questions via Instagram — it’s from Uniqlo last year, and they no longer carry it, but this one is very similar (and also under $20).

+Speaking of sherpa, your baby needs this.

+Super random re-assertion that I am obsessed with my Billie razor subscription. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily superior to any other razor I’ve ever used, but I can’t believe how much I LOVE the subscription model for this utility item. I never have to think about buying new blades – they just arrive in the mail, and are reasonably priced. I also really like the little magnetic stand that attaches the razor so it doesn’t get all goopy and stuck on your shelf!

+A good dupe for Stuart Weitzman OTKs, which I still pull out every season for at least a few occasions!

+Really love the color of this fleece. Sophisticated!

+These tall boots are having a MOMENT.

+Love this Ganni dress with the exaggerated collar!

+I can’t believe this adorable sweater is only $35.

+How to get extra mileage out of your summer dresses this fall.

+What to wear to Thanksgiving.

+Adore the color of these placemats for a fall OR holiday table — more picks here.

+This chic sweater reminds me of a much more expensive style from Khaite.

+Adore the tartan from Natalie’s new collaboration with Buru — this mini and this (reversible!) skirt are too cute for fall. Love the way they styled these pieces with fitted navy turtlenecks, too (will also work well beneath the tartan Hill House nap dresses launching tomorrow). And your little ones can match, too!

+This navy blouse is SO good for a slightly festive vibe (25% off!)

+Love this puffer for a little boy — currently 40% off! — especially in that fun red.

+I LOVE this sweater for holiday layering, and it is currently $50 off with code SAVENOW. And this similar one is also on sale!

+OO this ladylike bag is fabulous.

+Recent home finds!

+Love the details on this dress.

+Love to keep little things like this in my closet/bag for when the kids need a distraction.

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