Drew P A Smith

Of David Byrne, opium and serendipity engines


That was the word that appeared in my Readwise summary this morning. The summary’s an email which presents me with passages or — in this case — single words that I’ve highlighted in books, articles, tweets, and that sort of thing.

Up until yesterday, I’d regarded these emails as an annoyance. When I first signed up for Readwise, they’d come in to my inbox around 2pm every day, by which point I’d be too brain dead to really do anything other than give them a cursory glance. Nothing really struck me or stuck with me on a weekday afternoon. A while back, in a bid to try and reduce the electronic noise in my life, I’d even set them to come just once a week on Sunday, thinking that they might give me something to ponder on a supposed day of rest.


But yesterday, I read a newsletter by Steven Jonson in which he reflected on his interview with musician David Byrne. Steven was worried that Byrne’s insights about creativity — the subject of the interview — might be too specific for his more general audience. But then the following conversation opened up between the two:

Steven: Do you have a method for capturing fragments of ideas that you then go back to to expand into a song?

David: Oh yeah, yeah. I have text things; I have things right here on my desk. I have just a few lines; sometimes I have just the title of a song that comes to me and I write it down and I go: “expand on that, I think there’s something there.” And then I also have in my computer here a whole lot of musical ideas that have maybe a melody — a nonsense word melody, awaiting words.

Steven: And do you just sit down in your home studio noodle with the record button on?

David: Sometimes, sometimes I do that. But usually I need something to start with. It might be in some cases a lyric that I’ve written already. Or I might start with just a rhythm. That’ll help. It’s hard to start from nothing. So I’ll accumulate all these very little beginnings, and so that means when I come back, I’ve got something to build on.

Steven went on to imagine Byrne’s little beginnings scattered everywhere, acting as prompts for his creativity, saying “What a lovely practice to maintain”. A lovely practice indeed, I thought.

Mid-way through last year, I made a commitment in front of a group of friends that I would dedicate more of my energy and time to my writing. In fits and starts, I’ve been holding true to that promise. Looking Out keeps going, and I published a pop-up newsletter while I walked the Camino. But there are days, weeks even, in which my well seems to have run dry and I can’t easily find anything to write about.

Back to Steve’s email. He asks:

But what if you made a practice of treating your ideas like Byrne’s musical fragments. Instead of picking up a stray rhythm or chord progression lying around your desk and building on it, what if you made a routine of choosing one old entry in the spark file—some passing “note to self” that you wrote months or years ago—and then devoting 30 minutes to trying to improve on it, flesh it out, or take it in a new direction?

And so it is that you find me here, riffing off that strange, singular Opium that Readwise decided to serve me.

It took me a while to connect the dots to the source. Opium, I soon realised, is a chapter heading in Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind on Plants, one of the most impactful books I’ve read in recent memory and, perhaps, worthy of another post, another time. Of course, Readewise had spelt it out for me if I’d cared to look a little closer at the email, and it also links back to the original book or file or whatever, so that I can easily regain context, should I need it.

I feel like, having paid for Readwise for a few years and never really gelling with it, I’ve landed on a magical serendipity engine. It feels like something that can help keep me writing when the well feels dry even if it never really is. Its magic is that it’s only ever going to serve up stuff that’s interested me enough to read about. Therefore, some of what it serves should be interesting enough to write about, or at the very least get me thinking a la opium.

Here’s to more of that.





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