Hey everyone. It’s mailbag time!
The cynic in me has always thought that writers resort to “mailbags”—answering questions from readers—when they’ve run out of ideas. In my case, I swear: This is not true! I have a zillion ideas. The reason to do a mailbag is to discover what you, the readers and podcast listeners, care about. Believe it or not, that’s the one thing that a writer rarely knows.
For example, when I wrote Outliers, I thought the 10,000 hours chapter was the least interesting part of the book. But then the book came out and for a time that’s all people wanted to talk about. I was wandering off in one direction, my readers were wandering in another. How do you solve that problem? With a mailbag! So here goes.
“If you could redo one of the episodes of Revisionist History, which one would it be and why?” (@hellocarolinita)
Interesting question! I think, in general, that Revisionist History episodes fail when I try to do too much—that is, when I lose faith in the power of the main story I’m telling and feel the need to jazz things up with lots of extraneous digressions.
Case in point, from Season 1: I did an episode called “Generous Orthodoxy” about a Mennonite pastor named Chester Wenger, who chose to perform the marriage ceremony for his gay son and, as a result, was stripped of his position by his church. It’s an incredibly powerful story. Wenger was, at the time, nearly 100 years old and as impressive a person as I have ever met: a true man of God, only built like a linebacker. The episode ends with Wenger in his tiny living room in Lancaster County, PA, weeping. (And all of us in the room weeping alongside him.) The point of the episode was to demonstrate how to disagree gracefully with an institution that you love. The line from the piece that summed it up was: “You must respect the body that you are trying to heal.”
But then, smack in the middle of the episode, I go on a strange, pointless digression about the protests at Princeton University over the fact that their public policy school was named after Woodrow Wilson. I suppose on some level the two stories are linked. But if you listen to that episode, you will ask yourself—why did Malcolm mess up a quiet and beautiful story about a man’s love for his son and his church with a sidebar about students screaming at their dean. And the answer is—Malcolm made a mistake! He didn’t trust his A Story and thought he needed a B Story.
This is, by the way, a criticism that can reliably be made of lots of my writing and podcasts. I get nervous! I think my idea isn’t good enough and needs the bells and whistles of a B Story.
As proof that I’m getting better, though, let me point you to the final episode of last season of Revisionist History: “The Dog Will See You Now.” It’s one of my favorite episodes ever—not because it is the most original or the most brilliant or the most moving, but because I resisted the impulse to add an extraneous B Story. Well done Malcolm! :)
“Is there one event/person/thing that sparked your inquisitive mind and keeps you forever in that sense of wonder?” — (Emily M.)
That’s a super hard question! Several people asked questions similar to this one, so I want to take a stab at it.
My dad has been on my mind a lot recently, since we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of his death, so let me credit him. Here’s a little bit of what I said about him in his obituary:
The key sentences are the first two. My dad had a very clearly delineated sense of his own expertise. And if any conversation wasn’t operating in the areas where he excelled, he preferred to listen and ask questions. Some of my most important memories as a child are of watching him—a man whom I thought was omniscient—admit his ignorance and open himself up to learning something new from someone else. My father had a Ph.D. in Mathematics and our neighbor was a farmer who hadn’t gone beyond the 6th grade, but my father learned a mountain of things from our neighbor. I like to think that when I’m at my best and my happiest, I’m just trying to be more like my Dad. I think about him everyday. He is greatly missed.
Here’s a bit more from the obituary:
“What's your favourite example of rule-breaking in sport?” (@mrianleslie)
The Berkoff blastoff!
Some of you may remember this from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. One of the leading American swimmers that year was the backstroker David Berkoff. That season, he repeatedly broke the world record by doing something almost unheard of: At the start of the 100-meter backstroke, he swam underwater for 35 to 40 meters, using what’s known as a dolphin kick. (I’m no swimmer. All I can say is that the best way to describe a dolphin kick is that it looks like a cross between a tadpole and a belly-dancer. Very elaborate.)
The idea that it might be faster to swim under the water rather than on top of it had been tried, tentatively, before. But the general feeling was that holding your breath for that long would put in such oxygen debt that you would pay dearly for your choice at the end of the race. Berkoff’s big innovation? Proving that wasn’t true!
Why is this rule-breaking? Because Berkoff set the world record on a race held above the water by swimming underwater, and set the world record in the backstroke by not swimming the backstroke. I mean. How can we not love this guy?!
Of course, you know how this ends. The world swimming authority cracked down and limited underwater starts to 15 meters. As we have learned again and again, the world does not love a rule-breaker.
“What would happen with the sea slug's soul when the slug is decapitated but the body still lives with the heart beating for some days while the head regenerates another body? Would the soul be splitted into two parts or would it choose just the head?”
My favorite mailbags ever were the ones that Bill Simmons used to do every Friday when he had his sports column on the ESPN website. (As Bill likes to say, that was back when his “fingers still worked.”) He ended every mailbag the same way. He picked out a particularly hilarious or odd or just plain bonkers question and then said, without further elaboration: “Yes. These are my readers.”
As it turns out, these are my readers.