Lauren Berlant’s labor of being

“Things are usually in my way but that’s the thing about writing.”

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: David Salle, Janet Malcolm, and feeling like you’re doing everything wrong.

Lauren Berlant (1957–2021)

Shortly after the sad news of Janet Malcolm’s passing in mid-June, there was another piece of bummer news for lovers of superior nonfiction writing: the University of Chicago professor Lauren Berlant had died at 63. I was a latecomer to Berlant’s work—I only found out about it thanks to a 2019 New Yorker piece by Hua Hsu, which I will always remember for the following line:

We dream of swimming toward a beautiful horizon, but in truth, Berlant evocatively observed, we are constantly “dogpaddling around a space whose contours remain obscure.”

Holy shit, yes! I immediately ordered Berlant’s celebrated 2011 book Cruel Optimism—which Hsu describes as “a meditation on our attachment to dreams that we know are destined to be dashed”—but, truthfully, since then I’ve only had time to dip in and out of it.

After the news of Berlant’s passing, however, I decided to spend some time with her most recent book, co-authored with Kathleen Stewart: The Hundreds, which they describe as “exercises in following out the impact of things (words, thoughts, people, objects, ideas, worlds) in hundred-word units or units of hundred multiples.”

Where Cruel Optimism is dense and academic, The Hundreds is loose, fast-moving, and experimental (the authors call it “an experiment in keeping up with what’s going on”). Each chapter is a sort of prose poem, and though these can be fairly opaque, they are studded with brilliantly spot-on observations and just brilliant sentences. Some of my favorites:

Collaboration is a meeting of minds that don’t match.

Memories come at you like space junk.

Most people seem to be in the middle of something they somehow ended up in.

Sometimes the resonance of a thing builds your strength even though nothing appears to be changing.

Writing is a labor of being; it needs materials to work with.

That last line is hardly the only observation about the writing process in The Hundreds; in fact, there is an entire chapter on the writing life—titled “Writing, Life”1—that feels perfectly suited to this newsletter, and that I would love to quote in its entirety . . . but I think that would probably be copyright infringement, so instead here are the first few paragraphs:

Once, I needed the perfect time and place to write. I stood in my way like a poison-pen letter to myself. But slowly, under the velocities of worldy reals that came and went, I learned to write in my own skin, like it or not.

Making money, making dinner, taking care of people and stupid shit, getting sick or getting well, getting into and out of what presented, I ended up with a writer’s life. I learned to write in thirty-minute episodes on my frail mother’s dining room table with a three-year-old playing with old plastic toys underfoot. I took notes on my phone at a doctor’s office. I started the day writing in bed even though I had only ten minutes. Over time, I became allergic to the long-winded and roundabout, cutting words down to size. But then I’d become attached to a word fern shooting up in the space between words or I’d be surprised by something energetic already somehow taking off.

Some people have long, lean writing muscles; mine are shortened and taut like a repetitive stress injury turned into a personal tendency. I can write anywhere now but not for long, and it’s only in the morning that I have that kind of energy and interest.

The next line is: “Things are usually in my way but that’s the thing about writing.” A good note to end on. See you next week.

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Since The Hundreds is a work of joint authorship, there is no way to know if this is a description of Berlant’s or Stewart’s writing life, or a combination of the two. No matter—it’s great in any case.