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A Short Note on Notes
On Brevity and Blaise Pascal
I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still. —Sylvia Plath
If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter —Blaise Pascal
French mathematician Blaise Pascal died before collecting his thoughts. I mean this both literally and figuratively.
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His magnum opus—Pensées—remained unfinished before he drew his last breath. From the French word for “Thoughts,” Pascal’s Pensées is a collection of disparate fragments that—when wholly considered—showcase his deep thought, profound faith, and radical conversion to Christianity.
As published, the work resembles incomplete things beginning to take form: the frame of a house standing amidst its scattered materials; the puzzle’s border outlining the frame into which its pieces will fit; the cozy winter cap emerging from the soft spool of wool.
Put simply, Pascal’s Pensées is more silhouette than portrait.
Nevertheless, it is both striking and brilliant. Much like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, it stands tall, remains incomplete, and inspires awe. All in all, it’s quite a metaphor for that brief flash we call life, no?
I mention all the above because Substack—the platform upon which I write and send this newsletter—has launched something of a digital pensées in the form of its Notes app.
Substack Notes is a new Twitter-like service for Substack’s writers and readers to “share links, short posts, quotes, photos, and more.” Its stated purpose is “[to create] a space where every reader … can share thoughts, ideas, and interesting quotes from the things [they are] reading on Substack and beyond.”2
It represents another front in Substack’s noble war to pry social media from the cold dead hands of advertisers and into the warm embrace of artists the world over. Indeed the launch of Notes further solidifies Substack’s pivot from newsletter network to a new “economic engine for culture.” I, for one, am cheering loudly from the peanut gallery (yet I may already be in Teddy Roosevelt’s arena given my three years writing White Noise).
Though I have yet to make Notes a regular part of my writing repertoire, I’m giving it the old college try.
The notes I share below are an intellectual grab bag, a contemplative bricolage of thoughts without rhyme or reason, context or theme.
I aim for the below to be short, punchy, and informationally dense. Not dense like a physics textbook, but rather a pudgy grandmother’s poundcake.
My notes capture the list of things I’m wondering about, those ideas or tensions that I have not yet resolved.
Some are original, others are not.
Some are complex, others obvious.
Some are siloed, others a hodgepodge derived from various sources.
If derivative, I blame Picasso and his alleged axiom: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
Like mile markers or points of interest on the road of life, each depicts a strand of thought from a particular moment in time.3
Though shorter and simpler, such tidbits frustratingly remain the hardest to write. As they say, brevity is the soul of wit.4
If every sentence is a structure, its pieces are either cornerstone or arch, each one bearing weight in its own unique way.
The placement of every verb, adjective, and noun means that much more; each constituent element—whether word, beat, comma, space, period—makes up a larger part of the whole.
Speaking of parts, what follows are some inchoate swatches taken from the surface of my frenetic brain.
I hope this becomes a space where all can share pure thoughts, unfiltered ideas, and interesting tidbits.
I hope this leads to less monologue and more dialogue.
I hope this inspires many more people to unshackle their thoughts from furtive email threads and segregated text messages, to expose them to the two best disinfectants of all: sunlight and thoughtful people.
Make note of your notes and share them widely.
I, for one, look forward to reading each and every one of them.
An Invitation to Join the Conversation
Above: The “Notes” icon circled in the Substack App’s interface.
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email or following me on Twitter.
With sincere gratitude,
Literally and figuratively.
This is why poetry is so damned difficult.