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July 20, 2020

Kio Stark on getting things done and learning

Kio Stark is the author of When Strangers Meet, the novel Follow Me Down and the independent learning handbook Don’t Go Back to School. She is also the co-author of the Cult of Done Manifesto, and I am so thankful that she agreed to answer a few questions.

What’s the back-story of the Cult of Done manifesto?

It was long ago enough ago that I don’t completely remember, but it was a conversation that I was having with my then partner, Bre Pettis, who is the co-author of the manifesto. It was some sort of playful conversation about iteration and finishing things. I’m a writer, and to some degree, a perfectionist, and Bre is a kind of maker and not a perfectionist. I was talking about the process of revising and also letting things go, and it turned into this. I am a fan of the manifesto format (I’ve also written a manifesto of manifestos) and we were sitting around trading off these sloganey items in the manifesto.

One of the things that I noted in my manifesto of manifestoes is that a good manifesto is often internally contradictory. So some of those things in the Cult of  Done manifesto contradict each other. Some of them, I would also not totally stand by, but a manifesto is meant to be provocative.

Can you tell me more about these internal contradictions?

One reason that any manifesto may have some kind of internal contradictions is because it is provocative, and also a visionary form: You are trying to get people’s brains to work. You’re trying to get people’s brains to sign on with something, to interrogate something, to believe in something. I think that was highlighted for us because we came from different approaches to creative work. It was important to think about letting things go. The catchphrase with writers is “killing your darlings.” What can go here? What doesn’t need to be here?

Then what does it mean to call something finished? But also, what does it mean to call something started? For a writer, it is: When did I start? Did I start when I imagined this in my head? Did I start when I started scribbling something in my notebook? Did I start when I had a file of notes? Did I start when I wrote Chapter One at the top of the page? What constitutes starting and what constitutes finishing something that doesn’t ever go anywhere? (The “ghost of done” idea from the manifesto.)

“Any book that you’ve ever admired, the writer, or their editor, or somebody on that project was a perfectionist. But perfectionism will stop you.” —Kio Stark

Do you think that the manifesto was kind of a composite of both of your working ethoses at the time?

I think so, but you have to understand that this was not heavily thought out. It took 20 minutes to write, and that is not an exaggeration. It was like: And… publish! That was very new to me. Even when I blog, it’s very slow and considered and takes me a long time. No blog I’ve ever had actually qualifies as a blog because of the intense labor that goes into each piece and revisions. I’ve never let anything off into the public that wasn’t revised ten times.

At this point in your career, if you had something to add to the manifesto, what would it be?

That’s a good question. I think I would want to add something about learning how to tango with your perfectionism. The manifesto, to me, applied to short projects. There is no way in which I would advocate just sending a novel off to anyone without revisions and thoughtful consideration. But there is always this question of “when do I say that this novel that I’ve been working on for a year or two is done?” It’s important to be a perfectionist because that’s part of where quality and brilliance come in. Any book that you’ve ever admired, the writer, or their editor, or somebody on that project was a perfectionist. But perfectionism will stop you. So how do you dance with it where you can twirl around each other and come to the point where you spin the book out and release it from the twirl? How’s that for an extended metaphor?

Fantastic.

As a writer, I have a lot of tricks for getting to that point where you’re racing through, and you’re getting to the first draft. You can’t think of the right word, the right adjective? Just put TK or other and keep going. Some of those I’ve picked up in journalism and some are sort of homespun. But most of the writers I know who can write a book in less than 15 years have tricks like that.

In the many, many conversations you had with strangers in the past few years, has anyone randomly shared a Cult of Done story with you?

I do get emails from time to time. Even if this thing is 10 years old, still, people tweet at me about it. But I’ve never talked to anyone in the street who said: “oh, my God, you’re the Cult of Done person!”

You’ve literally written the book about talking to strangers. Human interactions have been very complicated, potentially dangerous for the past few months. How have you been coping with this pandemic?

It’s been very difficult for me. I have become more and more aware of how much of my energy—and creative energy—comes from those little interactions in the street. That’s not news to me, but I think the depth of it (because I’ve never been deprived of it before) was really, really startling.

I hear a lot of introverts talking about deeply missing the ability to be around strangers without interacting with them, like in a cafe or a bar or restaurant. Some introverts get all this energy from being around strangers; They just don’t want to talk to them, but want to still be in the presence of other people. I think the amount of fear that has been added to street interactions and to the idea of strangers, in general, is so devastating culturally and emotionally. There are a lot of things going on that are devastating culturally and emotionally, and in some ways, this is low on the list, but I do observe that it’s very hard on people’s mental health to lose all of that.

I also think that we’re not used to reading each other without facial expressions. The immediate few blocks around where I live is a Muslim shopping area. There are a lot of women who are covered, more than just the hijab. After years of living here, I don’t have any trouble reading what’s going on based on their eyes. But I wonder if you’re learning different ways of communicating your affect and your openness if you are used to not having your face seen. It just occurs to me that most of us don’t have any practice at that, and we don’t have any practice having our bodies speak more in the absence of the ability to see (what we think of as) the expressive parts of our face.

Do you spend a lot of time on Zoom?

Not as much as many people I know. I usually have a couple of meetings a day and during the school year, there was some time that my daughter was on that I had to be on with her. But I’m not spending eight hours a day on Zoom, thankfully.

Do you have any advice for people who have a hard time connecting due to this lack of embodied rapport?

I attended some conference sessions on Zoom recently. It was this kind of high-level international health genetics thing with people presenting their work. I found it very charming and humanizing that these speakers still had their children in the background having to say, like: “I’m sorry, honey, I’m speaking to ten thousand people right now.” Just the fact of seeing into each other’s lives the way that we do on Zoom is humanizing in a different way than seeing each other in person.

One thing I would actually advise, and I don’t know if this is good professional advice or not, but I think when your background is not simply a white wall, when it’s your bookcase or your living room, people realize that they are seeing where you live your life. As opposed to in-person, the visual connection we can make with people isn’t seeing their body language as much as it is seeing their environment.

I’d like to pivot to talking about learning. There’s a lot of authors who write books that they wish they could give to their younger selves. Was that the case for Don’t Go Back to School?

The project came into being because of people asking me for advice in their decisions about school. Although I went to graduate school, dropped out, and I was there for many of the wrong reasons, I was young enough that it wasn’t a huge deal to waste a few years. And I got a lot out of it, even though it took me a while to understand that I didn’t want to be a professor.

When I started talking to people who were in their late twenties, they had all these questions about whether or not to go back to school. . Those are years you don’t want to do the wrong thing. It’s one thing to be 21, 22, or 23 and be on this sort of side adventure at grad school, but when somebody is 28 and they’re saying: “should I go to graduate school?” it’s really a question of what are you going to get out of it? And what’s the thing you want from this? And can you get it any other way?

There’s a sentence that’s really struck me in your book, when you talk about how MOOCs put teaching online versus putting learning online. Do you think that what we’re going through is an opportunity for education to do better, to do something different?

I do. The thing that happened to teachers in March where overnight they needed to figure out how to do both learning and teaching online, the vast majority of them were totally unprepared for that. My daughter goes to school and her teachers are fantastic: they’re trained in teaching dyslexic kids to read, but they’re not tech-savvy, and it was very difficult for them to figure out how to even teach online, let alone how to help the kids learn. We’re going to have a chance over the next year to figure out how to do that better at the primary school level and the high school level. Colleges, I think it’s really interesting. Suddenly, every college is a skunkworks, experimental project where we thought that we were going to be pulling in more and more online education over a decade, and now it’s like: “well, we’re going to figure this out between now and May!” What will that do to university education and what will be the new have and have-not divisions in that situation? Can we see those coming and do anything about them? A lot of things won’t go well, and that will take a long time to notice and remedy because things get codified into structure really quickly.

Do you think that more people will consider becoming independent learners under these conditions?

Well, that triggers a whole really interesting set of questions about what do people think that their tuition is for. What do they think it pays for? And what do they think they’re buying with it? In a way being in the classroom versus online is not inherently less valuable. It becomes less valuable if it’s less exclusive–to some degree, in some people’s minds.

Everybody wants to be in a classroom and look at each other in the eye and hang out with their fellow students. If we can manage to do learning online, that’s going to require us to still have small groups. Even a lecture class can only have so many people in it. What’s the limit of that? And why is there a limit to the teacher’s ability to engage as a teacher versus as a public speaker?

Before I let you go, what are you excited about these days?

I’m working on a novel in which some of the characters are theater people. Live theater is something that I really love and currently miss. But I’m really excited about being in the heads of those people and imagining those spaces and thoughts and reading a lot of work by writer-directors about how they work. It’s such an intense way of understanding and human behavior, to think from that perspective, and to be an actor. That’s a sort of esoteric thing that I’m really excited about.

I also have a project right now that involves interviewing a lot of people, and if there’s one good substitute for talking to people on the street, it’s interviewing people for a living! So those are two things that I’m really excited about.

 

Photo credit: Bre Pettis

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