Letter ︎ Falling Toward the Light
My desk sits adjacent to a small window. During the summer, I keep the blinds down to block any additional heat and sound from infiltrating the space (which, I should add, has three computers emitting a quiet hum and their own layer of silent heat). When golden hour approaches, I like to turn my screen brightness down and watch the light stream through the cracks in the blinds, casting abstract shapes on the wall and, at times, darkening parts of my computer screen with heavy shadows. The day's end marks the beginning of a shift in pace that I've come to cherish. Though as fall arrives, and with it, the glaring reminder of the uncertainty that lies ahead, I can't help but notice that the light I've grown accustomed to over the last few months is beginning to change.
When I officially launched Slow Stories a few months ago, it was on the heels of what would kick off a cultural reckoning—and a much-needed dialogue about who we are and what we mean to each other. During this transformational time, we've seen storytelling's ability to shine a light on complex, longstanding issues. It’s also spotlighted the people working tirelessly to change the narrative for the better. Even while so many things have been slow-to-change, there's a case to be made for translating this slow pace into a steady foundation as we enter a season that will be a defining moment.
We must show up for our communities. We must vote. We must keep telling stories that illuminate during this tumultuous time. We must also remember to encourage moments of respite and inspiration to keep us nourished. So to pay homage to this idea (and to welcome fall), I'm honored to launch Slow Stories’ latest offering: Slow Seasons. In the coming weeks, I’ll build on the themes explored in the podcast with dedicated micro-stories that speak to different facets of business, life, and creativity. Much like the podcast, I hope these stories inspire you to slow your scroll and pay attention.
As we collectively find ourselves on the brink of a new chapter, I find myself taking stock of what's around me. Today the air is crisper and cool enough to open the blinds. I shut my laptop and gaze out the window just in time to catch a slow breeze rippling through the trees. I notice the bluish quality of the light. It's dimmer, darker; that much is true. But as long as I keep searching for it, as long as I keep letting it in, as long as I slow down enough to notice it streaming through the window, I can make sure that light—that spark—never goes out.
Laura Mueller-Soppart of Built Interest
Life is a blur, but Laura Mueller-Soppart is focused on making it a little easier to navigate—especially during this time. Her work rests at the intersection of civic engagement, community-building, and storytelling, and most recently, this has culminated in her latest project, Work the Polls.
Below, Mueller-Soppart shares a snapshot of her life's work (so far!), slow storytelling as a mechanism for change, and her required reading for anyone interested in engaging more with these narratives this season—and beyond.
- Rachel Schwartzmann
Who are you outside of your profession, what do you enjoy, and what do you value in life?
I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this question because I don't see somebody different when I'm working or not working. My mission is always to be curious and learn about how people make decisions and how that cumulates into how our cities are built and our society functions within it. I don't feel particularly connected to any title. I really cherish being in a position where I don't have to chameleon too much.
I love going to concerts—a lot. Needless to say, 2020 has not been suitable for it in that regard. The other morning I started watching YouTube videos of live performances, you know, just to feel something… but maskless crowds just seem like such a distant future.
I really value those moments of togetherness, even amongst strangers. I immigrated to the U.S. as a kid, so we don't have a lot of family nearby. My parents are divorced and live in different states, so my "hometown roots" are still fresh. So when crowds—at a concert, at a political rally, at a restaurant, at a workout—all hum as one, I really love it.
The thread in your work is driven by community-building. Give us a brief overview of your career history and how it culminated in Built Interest and Work the Polls.
I went to Northeastern University, where you graduate with 18 months of full-time working experience. I interned at the EU Parliament, the Obama White House, MacArthur Foundation, and the Massachusetts State House. I was always interested in the intersection of public and private realms. I even started as a Poli-Sci major and added Econ to capture that dimension.
After working on the supernational, national, and state levels of government, I figured City Hall was next. But after considering its function, I thought: Why not work on the other side of the table? Who builds the city?
I worked at Two Trees, owners of a good chunk of DUMBO, and most notably, the Domino Sugar Factory sites. Two Trees was in a unique position in that they had no capital partners, the majority of their portfolio was in one neighborhood rather than opportunistically scattered, and they were experts in rezoning and preservation. This meant that they could leverage density and engage the city in public, private projects like building public schools, affordable housing, parks, cultural centers, libraries, upgraded infrastructure, and more. I worked in construction administration and quickly became the firm's first Marketing Director.
When WeWork and other sharing economy operators entered the mix, my thesis was that landlords would soon create their own operating entities rather than sign leases with over-leveraged startups…The CEO of Two Trees disagreed, so I resigned and started my consultancy, Built Interest.
The mission is to build real estate grounded in the power of people and place. Every project starts with research and context. Our projects are not about a canvas for one person's over-budget, out-of-context imagination—rather, we build a foundation of context, goals, and expertise. In most other industries, it's called product development. In real estate, we talk about "purpose-built" developments, so I like to think I bring more depth to that buzzword by implementing user-design strategies.
That orientation around the user experience shapes everything I do, including how we approached Work the Polls. Our mission is certainly recruitment—but it's also to deliver information to people in a way we know is easier to use. For example, we don't ask people to sign up with their zip code and then ask them to also search a database for their county—rather, we send them a direct link to the application. The user experience of one click is just what we're used to now. So when spaces, on and offline, are designed with the user in mind—that lack of friction makes space for community building.
The integration of technology into our built environments is definitely the most important frontier I'm working on now. For the future of Work the Polls and Built Interest, I'd love to work on streamlining the physicality of our polling sites with updated tech systems.
As we're seeing, so much needs to change so quickly, yet we also need to be mindful of how fast we're going to make sure we're making the most informed decisions. What have you learned about the power of slowing down to build something sustainable?
The existential and real-time stress of the pandemic has been daily, and yet, forever feeling.
Most days, I race. Through the news. Through my workouts. Through my emails. But I let it all come to a screeching halt when I'm with my friends or just hanging out. I'm grateful for that, for sure. But ultimately, I haven't quite figured out the key to balancing it all.
What does slow storytelling mean to you?
Slow storytelling is mindful. There are so many words, tones, inflections to choose from, and when I tell stories slowly enough to hear myself, I find I am more mindful.
Right now, there is heightened panic, exacerbated by fast storytelling. Now, I definitely believe in the quick dissemination of information being vital to our times and mitigation of our panic. I think the news, while verified, needs to be quick in real time. But how it affects us on a grander scale? Everybody's response is different, but I think there's more room for slowness in storytelling, at least for me.
At Work the Polls, we try to balance the messaging between urgent calls to action and iterative or slower storytelling. The process to apply to be a poll worker can be a grind in some states. Your application may begin with a phone call or a mail-in application. Then you have to wait to get approved. And then, you may need to kick it back into high gear and call your county every day till you've been assigned a training session. So our storytelling tries to reflect that oscillation.
My favorite part of our storytelling is our portrait series. We feature a new poll workers' photo and a caption about why they are getting involved. It's a reminder that we're all in this together—and not just in words, but in actual faces and mutual connections.
What stories do you find yourself returning to in the fall months? What (slow) stories can you recommend to those looking to connect with narratives around community-building or activism?
Hidden Brain is my favorite slow-down podcast. I turn it on whenever I want to chill out.
The Color of Law pointedly breaks down how our country's racist housing policies affect today's communities. Richard Rothstein expertly narrates connections that truly make one ask new questions when walking around the neighborhood—any neighborhood. Race for Profit is also so important. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But truly, any of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's work is a recommendation from me.
Wall-E! I admit I watched it for the first time recently. But since then, I have watched it two more times. It is eye-opening and galvanizing all at once about the tremendous work to be done.
Other notable mentions include Searching for Sugar Man, I May Destroy You, and honestly, the BBC. These stories are hopeful, human, and diverse, and give so much depth to perspective and empathy.
Art is an incredible tool to mobilize people, and we've seen its impact firsthand during intense political and cultural discord. But at the same time, art can also engage our senses—inviting us to slow down and immerse ourselves further in work created by some of today's brightest minds. Evan Lian is one of these creators, and he has brought humor, delight, and conversation to the digital space through his imaginative cartoons.
Below, Lian shares how pace influences his process, the importance of slow storytelling in the context of visual art, and a few (slow) stories he turns to—no matter the season. (This interview also features a few illustrated responses from Evan!)
- Rachel Schwartzmann
Who are you outside of your profession, what do you enjoy, and what do you value in life?
I'm a cartoonist for The New Yorker, where I've been contributing for about two years now. I also work for a design and engineering studio based in Brooklyn, which is probably more accurately my "profession." Despite those two statements, I live very happily in Michigan with my wife in a suburb outside Detroit. Surrounding myself with people that make me laugh has been my true north in life, and it's worked out pretty well so far. Quarantine has given me a lot of time to explore interests outside of drawing. I'm trying to get marginally better at cooking; I've been picking up my guitar more often and finally got around to making a podcast with my best friend. It's fun to create stuff with no stakes attached to it.
Your cartooning work is so expressive, and many of the vignettes capture a mood and sense of pace. How would you describe your relationship with pace as a visual artist in our digital age? What effect does it have on your process and aesthetic?
Pace is something I've learned to be more conscious of now that I've been cartooning for a while. It's toed the line of being burdensome at times, and social media only compounds that. I definitely burnt myself out at the outset. These days, I try to give myself more than enough space to preserve the sense of joy and play that I get from cartooning. Visually, I'm trying to incorporate that more as well. If I can use fewer words or lines to get the punchline across, I will. As a fan of the medium, I'm drawn to artists with simpler styles. Chon Day, who drew for the magazine from the '30s to the '90s, has been a big influence. Ed Steed, Sue Rynn, and Elisabeth McNair are a few contemporary cartoonists whose work I love.
What is one question you hope people start asking you more often?
Part of the reason I talk about my journey and failures as much as I do is to demystify it for both the reader and aspiring artist. There's virtually no barrier between us. It's not like there's a gaggle of elite cartoonists sitting in a boardroom, smoking cigars and throwing scrunched-up wads of paper over their shoulders. I would love for more people to ask me how they can get started because there's a very simple answer—just draw. The lines between "amateur" and "professional" are blurred now more than ever, and this is true of so many forms of content that we consume online. It's also a volatile time to want to do this sort of thing with the decline of print in general, but with that comes innovation and experimentation. Cartoonists are having to forge not only their own path but figure out what the future of the medium looks like in a digital world.
What does slow content mean to you?
Slow content, to me, is anything that pulls you out of the stampede of daily living. Everything is so bite-sized and fast-paced now that it does take a certain amount of discipline to sit down and focus on one thing at a time. We need things that make us pause and spark our curiosity—that make us look into the people behind the creation. It's like diet in a way—if you're not being cautious about what you're taking in, your mental state will start to reflect that. I try to stay aware of when I'm in a creative vs. consumptive mode, and whichever state it is, I want to be very intentional about it. It's a work in progress though most of the time, I'm drawing while half-watching something on TV and not really getting anything out of either activity.
What (slow) stories do you find yourself returning to during the fall months?
As much as I sincerely intend to watch or listen or read the things my friends recommend, I am notoriously bad at following through. So, I tend to cycle through the same things year after year. Occasionally, something new will enter the rotation via osmosis, but for the most part, I gravitate toward things that are familiar. Community is, by and far, my favorite TV series. It was the first thing that ever made me think about how to construct humor because I was just so mesmerized by its scripting and relentless pace. Fall's a great time to start it because you get to follow the characters through a school year.
“For Emma, Forever Ago” by Bon Iver was a formative record for me in high school. Throwing it on when the leaves change color makes me feel like I'm in a biopic about myself. Wild Child is my wife's favorite band and similarly has a lot of nostalgic warmth I associate with it. We listened to them a lot while we were living in different cities and finally got the chance to see them live when we moved in together. I like to listen to the Doughboys podcast on long drives because they're as much a comfort food as the chain restaurants they review on the show. It's a good reminder that you can make art that is genuinely funny and memorable about something as inconsequential as fast food.
The Authors of Avid Reader Press
What stories have made you slow down recently? This question is often posed to my podcast guests and is one that I've found to be the most compelling. Not only does it serve as a mechanism for discovering new and interesting voices, but it's an exciting moment in each conversation that brings us back to the core of what it means to be human.
As the world evolves at warp speed, I'm reminded of how critical it is to slow down and treat stories of all genres with reverence. I recently thought, who better to speak about the power of words than writers? I asked my friends at Avid Reader Press to tap a few of their authors—Eric Weiner, Stephanie Kent, Logan Smalley, and Katharina Volckmer—to share their thoughts on this idea, along with a few (slow) stories they're returning to this season.
- Rachel Schwartzmann
What passage has made you slow down or reconsider your writing process?
Two passages have resonated with me. One is from Robert Grudin, in the preface to his wonderful book Time and the Art of Living. "The blank spaces between my writings are as important as the writings themselves," he says. For me, that serves as an important reminder that what I don't say matters too. White space conveys meaning too. Good writers, like good musicians, know the value of silence. This sort of silence is more than a pause. It is an invisible girder supporting your work. It says something without saying it.
For a nonfiction writer like myself, there's a tendency to over-share my research. I spent all that time slogging through dry academic tomes, and it feels like shame not to find a home for the information (some of it anyway) in my work. I constantly guard against this tendency. Writers must be willing to waste their time, never the reader's. A nugget or quote must earn its way onto my pages.
The other passage is from the philosopher Jacob Needleman: "Our culture has generally tended to solve its problems without experiencing its questions." His words remind me that writing is not a problem to be solved. It is not part of a to-do list. Yes, there are real deadlines and real pressures, but my best, most honest writing emerges when I sit with the ideas I'm wrestling with and, as Needleman suggests, experience them. Only then will I unearth something meaningful to say.
"The baseline of social creativity is just showing up, gathering people together in places, in conversation." I love this line from Amy Whitaker's smart, useful book Art Thinking. Creating things necessitates loneliness; so many nights and weekends are spent alone, working. But The Call Me Ishmael Phone Book was such a collaboration (with Logan, with our team, with readers, with bookstore owners). I wrote down this line from Amy's book when I first read it a few years back. I think of it often how being in conversation is such an important first step to making something meaningful.
When listening to the stories people leave on Ishmael's answering machine about their most beloved books, especially in those cases where we receive lots of stories from different people about the same book, I often think of this passage from Rachell Sussman's book, The Oldest Living Things in The World:
"All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected—and in turn, inextricably connected to us all."
While Sussman was describing the dynamics that apply to organisms that have been alive for millennia, I like to think about the complementary dynamics that take hold when millions of copies of a book are spread about, read and re-read across time and throughout the world. In a phrase: our books define our lives, and our lives define our books.
There is a passage in Plato's Euthydemus where Socrates says that immortality would be pointless if we did not know how to make use of it. It made me stop in my tracks because I guess that one of the (often unacknowledged and possibly subconscious) ambitions of all writers— and artists in general—is to achieve some form of immortality through their work. To be still remembered for something we have created in one hundred years' time. Apart from the fact that seeming immortality has become so easy to achieve (our Twitter and Facebook accounts are bound to outlive us), this quote has made me think for the first time that there could be such a thing as a useless immortality. That there is a certain responsibility in shaping something that will—even if only on a dusty library shelf—outlive me, that it's important that my writing makes sense beyond the context of my own existence.
What does slow content mean to you?
Attention matters. In the end, it is all we have, and all we have to give. Speed is the enemy of attention. We are so busy connecting (often superficially) with others that we risk losing contact with ourselves. (This is not a new concern, by the way; the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in the 18th century, warned of the dangers of relying on books for answers: "It's a hundred times more valuable if you have arrived at it by thinking for yourself.") Yes, do your research, conduct your interviews, but at some point, you must end the conversation with the world and begin one with yourself. It is from this inner citadel that all good writing emerges.
For our Phone Book, I interviewed one independent bookstore owner from every state and asked each of them why reading matters. John Evans, who's owned Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi for 45 years (!) said, "Books are important [because with them] our minds can get going when we are quiet and alone and can be with other people's thoughts and ideas." I think stories that are told deliberately, with great care and thoughtfulness, are necessary if we want to be really changed by the art and media we consume. One of the best parts of my life has been ingesting works of art that another person has obsessed over. You can tell when someone has considered every word, every comma, and taking in that type of book is the closest thing I've found to time travel or reincarnation.
In an increasingly interconnected world, the pieces of content that are rewarded tend to not be those that engage our reflective selves but rather those that appeal to our most basic instincts. "Enragement = engagement," "if it bleeds it leads," "people don't have an attention span anymore" are just a few of the popular and cynical phrases that betray the sad state of modern mass-scale publishing. Slow content—in my opinion—offers an alternative. Its creators and their audiences work together in quiet protest against advert-driven algorithms, and in celebration of humanity's miraculous capacity for complex communication and thought across time. The ultimate slow content? Books! Writers spend years creating a book, and readers spend months or years pouring over the work. That precious exchange impacts both reader and writer for the rest of their lives and beyond. In our case, it was the opening line of a book written in the 1800s that inspired us to spend six years (2014-2020) collecting content so that we could publish a book of our own. It doesn't get much slower or much better than that!
Slow content, to me, means to find a sustainable way of reading and writing, to decide how to navigate the deluge of available content that we are constantly surrounded by. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the number of books and articles we haven't read (as I do on an almost daily basis) to the point that they become objects of guilt rather than pleasure, I've started to look for ways to treasure and appreciate the ones I have read. To me, this means to grant them the time and space they deserve, to connect the dots and commit to an author/artist beyond their first work. To be a more attentive and equally more forgiving reader. The voice in my novel talks like someone who is high on cocaine, so it's not exactly slow, but I believe that the intensity of the voice might make the reader slow down and re-read. Slow storytelling to me, therefore, also means to sometimes be less smooth and break with the rules of readability, to be brave enough to ask for that little bit more of someone else's attention.
What stories do you find yourself returning to during the fall months?
I find myself returning to a handful of books. Each is slim, contemplative—and peculiar. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman, and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.
Two of these authors—Pessoa and Wiman—are poets writing prose. I find this sort of crossover work inspiring. The musicality of their verse seeps into their prose and reminds me that good writing always sings.
Calvino wasn't officially a poet, but he might as well have been. I adore Invisible Cities. It was the traveler in me that first fell under its spell. The places Calvino describes, though, don't exist on any map. These are fantastical, beguiling places where things are never as they seem. At some point, you realize Calvino isn't talking about cities at all, not in the way we normally think of the word. Calvino's cities are constructed not of steel and concrete but of ideas. Each city represents a thought experiment. For a writer, what could possibly be more inspiring?
This Fall, I've been counting down the days until the election and revisiting a lot of poetry about America. Langston Hughes' "I, Too" and Ada Limon's "A New National Anthem" have been on my mind lately. Read them and vote.
In an attempt to blunt some of the sharper corners of 2020, I've found myself re-reaching for David Sedaris's comedic short stories and Mathew Inman's Oatmeal books. My collection of comedic books is sparse, but I'm feeling very grateful for writers who are capable of making readers laugh out loud.