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Collecting ingredients - #77
How the newsletter gets made.
I am in a shell state staring into space after what has felt like non-stop calamity and then two weeks of visitors and their puppy in the house. As Sunday loomed on the calendar this week, writing evaded me and I downloaded a game to Switch called Unpacking where, you guessed it, you unpack some girl’s boxes as she moves from place to place. I’m so relaxed that I am one with the couch. But being one with the couch means I am not one with something else: my creativity.
Some week’s, essays just come. I sit down to write and six hours later, there’s a pile of words I feel good about sharing with the world. Every time this happens I do a dance to the word gods and thank them for sheltering me from the seventh circle of hell where the words dissolve as you write them and the keys are hot coals. But not every week is so blessed. Since I am a sloppy, slovenly noodle this week, I wanted to give myself a little break by sharing how this thing gets written on those weeks when the words are courting someone else.
First, I go live life.
Movies, music, TV shows, articles, books, podcasts, etc., they all do a great job with inspiration, but some weeks they just don’t hit. When the well runs dry, I go to town. Or I go to another town. Or I go to the ski area. I do anything out of the norm of hanging out in this valley. The big town is still small enough that you’ll run into someone. You’ll meet someone. You’ll feel the venn diagram of life become concentric circles, everything and everyone knowing someone you know, doing the same hobbies, seeking the same things. We like to relate to one another. So do my essays.
I knew I was in a creative dry spell, so I had several planned trips into town. Here’s how they went.
Thursday night was date night. We went to a nice dinner where the head chef is our neighbor’s ex-husband. I talked to him once outside her house — he was telling me his dogs were friendly and I said I knew, because I did. I love his dogs. At dinner, Ben and I wagered on who was local and who wasn’t. The man who wouldn’t pull his chair in for the waitress and rolled his eyes? Not local. The people who called the popular bar by its real name? Not locals. The two women who leaned over the bar to hug the bartender in their beanies? Ah yes, locals.
Afterward, we went to a comedy show — it was locals’ night in a comedy festival, and some of our favorite comedians from LA were performing. They did an entire set on local issues: the storefronts that are surely cocaine operations, the lifts that never open, how shops and cafes are constantly being forced out or into new locations, and of course the onslaught of Texans, weddings, and enormous fashion hats. We wondered in the car ride home who was their local informant, or did they spend more than one weekend a year here?
On Friday, I went back to town to run a couple errands. I needed to pick up treats for the pets, a Tarot deck, drop off some books at the library, and do some grocery shopping. I brought Cooper with me because he loves the “big city” and off we went.
First, the pet supply store. The owner of the pet store is the head vet in town. He was part of the team that tried to save Snoots, and I was grateful he wasn’t there. I’m not ready for a reminder. But Cooper was eager — Cooper knows he gets treats at this shop, so he pulled on the leash as we went inside. I grabbed Finn’s new favorite treat (freeze-dried chicken), and Cooper was fawned over by everyone in the shop before we checked out.
On the sidewalk, I ran into the realtor who helped us purchase this house, and she and I walked for a bit together, talking about a mutual friend. You know, it’s her birthday tomorrow, she said. And I said I know, I’m going over for dinner. She said she was trying to, but things were so busy. We reached a juncture and parted ways, and I headed off to the library. Outside the library, I was stopped by a woman asking if I knew anyone in town with a dog similar to Cooper — she’d found one with its leash attached, running around the street and put the dog in her car. Sorry, I said, I didn’t know anyone. Good luck. Then off to the bookstore. Do you carry Tarot decks? No, sorry they didn’t, but they knew a kooky store that did. I said I knew that store would, but wanted to support the bookstore first just in case.
Not that I have any problem with kooky stores, I’m just a “books first” person. The woman at the bookstore appreciated this.
What’s your interest in Tarot, she asked. I’m writing a book, I said, and one of the characters practices Tarot. Also, I am curious. The deck itself is not so different from writing prompts, after all. She agreed, and I asked about her interest in Tarot. She shared she was training under a shaman. (Mountain towns.) She asked if I was local, yes I said. She wrote down the shaman’s number on a scrap of paper — maybe one of his students could give me my own reading. We exchanged names, and off I went to the kookier store.
The salesclerk was on the phone, but it was easy to spot the Tarot decks. I went to check out, and she told the person on the phone she would call them back. She apologized, explaining to me that she’s trying to secure a deed-restricted condo — she’s being kicked out of this space. Which, I knew. A friend of mine bought the retail space this woman was in.
I left with my Tarot deck, heading to the park with Cooper. Cooper walks off leash in town because that’s the kind of place this is. He trotted ahead, seeing another small dog sitting with someone on a bench. The dog was a purebred Frenchie, one of the expensive ones — a grey blue with a sleek build and soulful eyes. When I caught up to Cooper, the woman asked me how old he was. Nearing 12, I said. Ah, that explains it, she said. He was old enough to know how to walk off leash. Her own dog had run off that morning on a hike, leash still attached, and she’d finally been reunited with him just 15 minutes ago by a good samaritan who had scooped him up. I laughed. I met that woman!, I said.
Two, I write things down.
Imagine it’s 4pm, and you’re wondering what you might eat for dinner. Let’s say Doordash isn’t an option where you live, so whatever’s in the kitchen is whatever you’re having for dinner. You take a look around. There’s cheese, some yogurt, most of the condiments are full, you know you’ve got pasta and tuna in the cabinet. Oh, these green onions are on their last leg. Do we still have currants? You know what — let’s have tuna noodle with cumin, crisped green onions, and some currants for a pop of sweet.
When I’m not sure what to write, I go to the kitchen of ideas. I keep a single document for this newsletter that’s broken into sections:
Growth strategies, e.g., pitching a column to Outside, collaborations with other Substacks, and podcast concepts
Essay ideas broken into loose categories
Every newsletter I’ve written in order with the title and the topic
In order for this document to be useful though, I need to have ingredients in the kitchen. After a trip to town, or a ski day, or any kind of adventure beyond the norm, I jot down notes on my phone. Some notes are like pasta: they’re broadly useful, weaving in and out of many essays. Others are like fennel, something I hate but I recognize could be useful. Here are the notes I took on Friday:
What is culture like in a small town? Is it more limited, or do people limit themselves to their own interests in a city anyway?
Something about the balance between needing tourists and hating the worst of them
What is up with the huge hats? Am I dressing more “Colorado”? Does wearing a nice dress out make me look like a tourist? Could I do a broader fashion piece? Would anyone care and do I know enough to make it interesting?
RESEARCH: the big hat phenomenon, wear the term “Buckle Bunny” originated, coding to the mountain versus the small towns
How often do stores get moved around here? It seems like a lot in the short time we’ve been here.
Is grief easier in a small town? Would running into the vet help me process?
How do you choose which businesses to support? What if the thing you want to buy isn’t available in your town? Is the internet OK then?
Do I just hear about shamans more now, or are more people trying to be shamans? What is a shaman actually? Is the concept appropriating something? What is it about mountain towns that attracts bell-bottom wearing patchouli punks?
RESEARCH: could I do a piece on deed-restricted housing and weave it into the local politics of affordable housing?
Could there be another essay on dogs? Will writing about dogs off leash in town open a can of worms?
RESEARCH: dog rules in town, history of off leash discussions here
These notes get whittled down into shorter phrases: small town culture, tourists, mountain fashion, retail that serves locals, mountain town mysticism, dogs off leash.
Three, I find the throughline.
Once I’ve got my flimsy ideas, I head to my big ole newsletter document and dive into the “Essay ideas broken into categories” section. Here’s the first half of that list:
Being an inferior athlete, How often can you do extreme sports
The party where someone said “what do you race”
Do people die at a higher rate here? Or are we just more aware of it? (Drugs, avalanches, kayak accident, mountaineering accidents, search and rescue, etc.)
Limited snow fall / what’s normal / Snow pack + fire season
The dust from the desert causing higher melt
How to dig a snow pit
History of climate change action
Mud season as a concept
Desert season (when it’s cool enough to enjoy it)
Should I do a piece on the real seasons here? A la spider season in LA?
What’s been surprising about this home/renos, what went as expected
Installing the hot tub (crane, cost, etc.)
Managing cabin fever
Where we live, how we dress
codeswitching accents at the rodeo
Views: why views matter, the views I’ve had losing the view in a storm (the closing in of your world) BVI vs city vs topanga vs here - are you looking at smoke, clouds, couloirs, lines, etc.
Finding fun in the mtns, stacking logs listening to laurie santos
You can start to see how some things get bucketed. So I go back to my notes from the week and see if any of them slot in. “Small town culture” might work well with “Finding fun in the mountains” — maybe there’s something there. Maybe “mountain town mysticism” actually works in that too, could be related to boredom, big open spaces.
“Mountain fashion” fits firmly under “where we live, how we dress.” Clearly I want to write about that because it’s come up for me multiple times. Dogs off leash might even fit into that because it’s how many locals signify they’re local. And if we’re talking mountain fashion, surely we need to talk about how the tourists approach it — which could weave in the problem with the local retail… stores that cater to tourists are more successful because tourists have more money to spend, and that influences how they dress.
When I start to run on like that, it tells me I have something. The piece may not end up being necessarily about fashion — it’s easy to see how it can become a piece about wealth and inequality and deed-restricted housing and struggling businesses and the general state of America. Or, it might be a delightful Pinterest like piece on the hilarious clothes people choose to wear here. It really depends on my mood when I sit down to write it, and which ideas bloom.
Four, the writing.
For all my best laid plans, the essay I intend to write each week doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, I start to dig my claws in and realize I am out of my depth. I’m not a reporter, I’m an essayist, at least for this newsletter’s purposes. I’m not against doing a reported piece, but it takes planning and time. Do you know how many times I’ve tried to write about housing? Yeesh.
Other times, I’ll sit down to write and there just isn’t much to say. I’ve tried to write about Mud Season before as a concept, and it was, well, muddy. I couldn’t get a feeling to crystallize. But I didn’t remove it from the list. It could happen. This April and May, as the next mud season unfolds, maybe something will happen that brings that idea to life. Mud Season is the candle, and I’m still looking for the match.
I try to start essays on Thursdays, build them out on Fridays, and then edit on Saturday for a Sunday release. Only once in some 77 weeks have I had essays written in advance. There have been at least five weeks where I had to turn down Saturday night plans because I was writing for Sunday morning.
Five, the paid edition.
Every Wednesday, I send a paid edition of Shangrilogs to a few hundred awesome people. It consists of several ongoing sections: Reading, Watching, Listening, Buying, Hoping, Doing, Practicing, Unsolicited Opinion, and Tiny Delight. I collect for this column every day, all day. It has its own google doc where I am constantly link dumping. I pull this piece together on Tuesday nights after two glasses of wine, and then I review it on Wednesday morning before it goes out at 10amMT.
Some of the links that get collected are inspiration for future issues, like this insane property dispute happening in Kittredge, Colorado. Other links are just the things I’m interested in, and I love to hear what everyone else is getting into. It’s easy with our current algorithms to get locked into bubbles if you’re not actively seeking out other sources of inspiration, curiosity, rage, etc.
The paid edition is looser, and probably a better representation of what I’m like to be around on a day to day basis. It’s also where I feel comfortable experimenting.
One of the best things I did with this newsletter is ask people to introduce themselves in the welcome letter. So many of you have! I try to reply to every single one of those emails, and every single comment. One of the reasons I enjoy having a newsletter as opposed to trying to shape these pieces for a publication is because I get such immediate feedback. We’re all hanging out! It’s fun!
Typically I jump into the comments on a Sunday piece on Mondays. I like taking Sundays to myself. No work, no newsletter, no reels, no projects — though maybe a little novel writing. I like spending time with my characters.
And that’s the stuff! When I set out to write this newsletter, the tagline was “Relocation, renovation, and recreation in a town of 180 people (and 51 dogs.)” I’ve written a fair amount about all of those, but obviously I’ve branched out. Here are some of the favorites:
One of the things I hear often from y’all about this newsletter is that you never know what you’re getting. Will the next issue be about making friends? Backcountry skiing? Death? Groceries? Who knows! And as you can now see, neither do I. But the recipe has been revealed. Thanks for being a patron of this particular bakery.
And as always, if there’s anything you’d like to read regarding this life, just let me know. There’s almost 4,000 of you. I know you’ve got ideas.