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Will Buckingham's Wayward Things

Issue 9: August 2020

An Irregular Bulletin of the Curious, Wayward & Intriguing
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Hello again!

Well, it's been quite a while since I sent out a newsletter. The last few months have been astonishingly busy. I've been putting the final touches to the draft of Hello, Stranger: Stories of Connection in a Divided World, and just last week sent the book off to Granta. The book is set to come out in the UK on July 1st, 2021.

Meanwhile, I've been up to my ears in multiple projects here in Sofia, and like almost everyone else, grappling with the changes brought about by COVID-19.

But in this newsletter, I've got a bunch of stuff I hope will be interesting and cheering. There's information on some of the projects I've got in the works, a debate on Confucian cats from medieval China, something on storytelling and agency, thoughts on animal grief, some long-distance butterflies, some stunningly beautiful music from Pakistan, and lots more. I hope you enjoy it!

All the best, Will
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New Writing, and One From the Archive

Here's a short piece I wrote for my students on agency and storytelling. And as I've had my head down working on the book, here's an additional piece form the archive, about the pleasure and difficulty of writing.
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Who is Acting? Tightening Up Agency in Storytelling


I've mainly been working on the beast of a book for the last months. But I took time out to write this short piece for some of my students at the Open College of the Arts, about how to tell stories more convincingly by tightening up agency.

You can read the piece here.

The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing

And I wrote this piece several years ago. It is about the incomparably great Tove Jansson, about pleasure, and about why we really shouldn't suffer for our art.

Read more
The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing

New projects

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Mentoring and writing courses at Wind&Bones


COVID-19 has meant that I've been shifting a lot of what I do online. And as part of this, there have been some big changes with Wind&Bones, the community interest company (social enterprise) that I co-direct. We have a new mentoring scheme up and running, which so far has been a delight: we're working with a bunch of incredibly interesting and talented writers. And we've got a brand new online course on the art of the manifesto ready to go in a few weeks' time (with more courses planned).

You can find out more on the Wind&Bones courses page.

Writing nonfiction on Flatwyse

With the brilliant people at the shiny new startup Flatwyse, along with my Wind&Bones collaborator Hannah Stevens, I'm going to be running an intensive six-week course on writing nonfiction. This course builds on the courses we've taught everywhere from Myanmar to Bulgaria, and will be both interactive and lots of fun. We're really excited to be working on it.

You can find out more on the flatwyse website.
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Elsewhere Online

Here are a few of the things I've been enjoying recently. First up is a fascinating piece about animal grief. Then there's a discussion of Susan Wolf's philosophy paper on moral saints that I've been discussing with my philosophy students (we all know people who are too good to be true...). After that, there's something from the National Geographic on the stupendous migration undertaken by the monarch butterfly. And finally, a piece from the brilliant brainpickings, also about monarch butterflies, and about the wonderful Rachel Carson.
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SCIENCE THINGS

Animal Grief

Here's a fascinating, short article from The Conversation, where Jessica Pierce writes about 'comparative thanatology,' and the mounting evidence for animal grief and mourning.
SAINTS AND MONSTERS

On Moral Saints

For one of my philosophy courses, I've been revisiting Susan Wolf's terrific paper on moral saints. It's an argument about goodness, and about how it is possible to be too good. If you are not familiar with the argument, then Daniel Calcutt's article on Aeon is really worth reading.

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NATURAL HISTORY

Long Live the Monarch!

No, not that monarch... I'm talking about the butterfly. I vaguely knew that monarch butterflies migrate; and the other day I was wondering how they managed it, given the short life-span butterflies have. So I looked it up. And if you don't know about monarch migration already, it is absolutely astonishing. So here's a piece on monarchs and longevity from the National Geographic.
FRIENDSHIP AND MORTALITY

Rachel Carson on Monarchs, Migration and Death

This is a lovely piece from Maria Popova, about Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. The piece is about Carson's long friendship with Dorothy Freeman, about monarch butterflies once again (" living meteors of black and gold"), and about death. Scroll down to page to read it, then buy Maria's book, Figuring.
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Obscure Philosophical Debates #1: Can cats be good Confucians?


Have you ever lived with a cat of unusual virtue? Do you think cats are depraved and without moral fibre? Wherever you stand, you'll be interested in this fascinating debate from medieval China (no. 1 in a new series, if I can remember to come up with any more in future newsletters).

The outlines of the argument go like this... Around the eight century, the Chinese Confucian scholar Han Yu made the claim that cats, in their natural state, have no moral sense. But, he said, if they hang out with morally upright people, they can become good (this argument that goodness — in cats or humans — is acquired and artificial goes back to the ancient philosopher Xunzi).

A few centuries later, in the Song dynasty, the scholar Sima Guang wrote a biography of his house cats, where after long study of his feline companions, he was compelled to disagree with Han Yu. In his biography, he argued that 'Humaneness, righteousness and celestial virtue are not only bestowed amongst humans; all beings have the nature of this consciousness' — including cats. On this basis, he argued that there is ultimately no moral hierarchy between human beings and other living things.

Having previously lived with a cat of considerable integrity, I am fully in agreement that cats can be good Confucians. And being a poor Confucian myself, my suspicions are that in this case, the goodness was more innate than artificial. If you have a cat of distinction in your life, I'd love to know more about your thoughts on the sources of its moral rectitude.
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A Poem from the Chinese


In a break from tradition, this time, the poem in this issue is not about drinking. But when my good friend from Sichuan University, Dr. Chen Xia, recently asked me to translate this poem by the Qing dynasty poet Yuan Mei (袁枚), I couldn't resist the challenge.

The poem is called 'Moss' (苔). It is suprisingly tricky to translate, in part because of its brevity. Here is what turned out to be my fourth attempt.

Moss, by Yuan Mei

In places daylight doesn't reach,
in spring, the green appears —

moss-flowers, small as rice-grains,
learn to open from the peonies.

What I'm Reading

I've been reading a lot of philosophy lately. I've also been enjoying Yi xiang ren (易鄉人) by Wei-Yun Lin-Górecka, a Taiwanese writer who has lived for years in Poland. The title is a play on the homophone 異鄉人, or 'stranger' (which is also the translation of the title of Camus's L'Étranger). With the substituted character 易 (also the yi of the Yijing or I Ching...), it means somebody whose place of origin is always changing. Lin-Górecka's book is a fascinating reflection on place and identity, and sometimes very funny indeed. I don't know if it is available in Polish; but as yet, the book hasn't been translated into English.

But for me, the absolute must-buy book this time round is The Philosopher Queens edited by Lisa Whiting and Rebecca Buxton. Accessible, engaging essays on women philosophers, by women philosophers. It is published in a beautifully-designed edition by Unbound, and is well worth getting your hands on.
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What I'm Listening To

It's been a long, long time since I've listened to Abida Parveen, the queen of Pakistani Qawwali music. But after having an Instagram Live chat with my old friend, the architect/designer/educator Zain Mustafa, for his Cube Edutours project, I was reminded of quite how much I loved her. So I thought I'd share this link to one of my favourites.

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That's about all for this issue! Happy reading, and I look forward to seeing you next time. All the best, Will.
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About Wayward Things

Wayward Things is an occasional newsletter from writer and philosopher Will Buckingham, an irregular bulletin of things I find curious, wayward & intriguing. The newsletter is free, and is free of affiliate links. It's just for stuff I like, and think there's a chance you might like as well.

Get in touch if you want to say hello!
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