The Words We Use and Where We Find Them

There is a Lot of Reading to Do

I recently had the opportunity to participate in what was called a mental health “first aid kit” at my day job. The program was designed to help us identify symptoms among university students of a mental health crisis and to direct people to the proper campus resources. It was immensely helpful, and I appreciated the opportunity and especially the last phase of the program, which focused on tracking our own mental health in positive ways, beyond what might be a surface-level understanding of self-care.

I know that mileage varies, but one of the most common things people noted as an easy-to-do form of self-care was to avoid listening to the news on their way to work. This is completely understandable, but it also rankles me for how easy it is for us, here in the imperial core, to avoid thinking about distressing things, often things that our own country openly sponsors. I certainly don’t think doomscrolling is ever helpful, and paying attention to how information about the world shapes our ability to care for others and ourselves is necessary—like I said, mileage varies. But what does this do for literature? What are the implications for the literary community if writers start to see information about the world, let alone the world itself, as an infringement on their productivity? As a threat to our word count?

I think that’s why I consider it an act of self-care to actively seek out information about the world, rather than hide from it, claiming its complexity as an excuse to avoid confrontation. The world is knowable, and if I’m going to write about and in and for the world, it’s my responsibility to know as much as I can. Sometimes this takes the form of Ed Zitron’s righteous indignation against tech scams, sometimes it’s Rashid Khalidi’s crystal clear history of the colonization of Palestine, and sometimes it’s the words of writers explaining how the world informs their work on podcasts like The Write Question.

I’m not just here to plug the chaotic Frankenstein’s monster of history, literature, political science, and Medievalist shitposting that is my media diet. I’m a writer because I’m a reader, and I’m a reader because I’m curious, and I’m curious (these words share the same root) because I care about the world, and that care grows stronger the more I learn about the world through literature, memoir, and poetry, and also through podcasts, newsletters, and documentaries.

I think our latest interview in the Attic, between Mariam Ahmed and poet Brent Ameneyro, provides the clearest explanation for why I think it’s important for writers, especially here in the US, to seek out more, rather than less, knowledge about the world.

As Ameneyro puts it, “I don’t believe writers become politically charged through peer influence or academic indoctrination, at least that wasn’t the case for me. I think writers tend to be inherently sensitive, acutely aware, and can’t help but point out when language is weaponized. When it comes to writing poetry, for me, social and political issues appear organically as a kind of consequence when writing toward beauty.”

Much of the reading I do for rest, for self-care, is also necessarily entangled with the reading I do to make sense of the world, because for me, these two practices are inseparable. The dispatches that I read in the latest issue of Orion are gorgeous, complicated portraits of a changing climate. The words are beautifully constructed and reflective, and the stories they tell are ominous, upsetting, and driven by hope.

Of course, I take breaks from extremes, for the same reason I limit the amount of caffeine I drink. There is no literature, though, without all of this mess we’re in, and I find that the more balanced my media diet is, the better (more complicated, more thoughtful, more compassionate, and more creative) my own writing becomes. It also gives me the words to express, with exactness, what I encounter, and the patience to act more compassionately toward the actual world that I write about and to and for and with.

In the meantime, I hope you keep writing. The world needs it.

Keene Short



"Daydreaming More Than Analyzing and Memorizing": Mariam Ahmed in Conversation With Brent Ameneyro

"I don’t believe writers become politically charged through peer influence or academic indoctrination, at least that wasn’t the case for me. I think writers tend to be inherently sensitive, acutely aware, and can’t help but point out when language is weaponized."


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