Deez Interviews: Kyle Chayka on his new minimalism book, the publishing process, and his one productivity hack
Happy Friday, Deezers! This week’s interview is with Kyle Chayka, co-founder of the very helpful freelancer network Study Hall and a freelance writer himself. We talked about the process leading up to the publication of his new book on minimalism, The Longing For Less, his one (inarguably solid) productivity hack, as well as how the book promo process is not quiiiite as glamorous as it seems.
The Longing For Less comes out next week, but you've been writing about minimalism and contemporary ~aesthetics~ for years, most famously in this 2016 piece for The Verge, Welcome to AirSpace. What originally got you into this beat?
I think my beat, such as it is, has two aspects to it. One has been the idea of minimalism, which is an art historical movement and a philosophical idea that people have mistaken for a decorating trend — that’s what The Longing for Less is about.
The other is the flatness and homogenization that I think algorithms create in culture, through automated recommendations and optimizing for engagement. (That’s hopefully what my next book will be about lol.) Minimalism is a great style for techno-optimization because it’s cheap, easy to reproduce, and currently seen as good taste, but there’s a deeper history to it that has been ignored.
The first inkling I had was when I profiled Kinfolk magazine for Racked (RIP). That story combined the weird moral aspect of minimalism with its distribution as an aesthetic meme through Instagram. Then I followed one thread after another. Overall, the beat is also kind of a confluence between my background in art criticism and my reporting on technology and media.
When did you realize you wanted to write an entire book about this subject?
I had an epiphany when I was writing a piece on the word “minimalism” for NYT Mag’s First Words column (also RIP). As my agent knows, I already had some vague, bad ideas for books, but when I started researching the history of minimalism and all of the different people who were involved, I realized that it was enough material to actually sustain a book.
There was this central question: What is minimalism if all of the original artists actually denied the label? The book could fill in the history and the connections that I saw were missing. (Having that realization and then doing the proposal and writing the manuscript were ENTIRELY different things.)
One thing I noticed about the actual book was, appropriately so, the look of it. Tell me more about how the design came to be.
It was all thanks to the designer whom Bloomsbury commissioned, Tree Abraham. I had always talked about how I wanted the book itself to be a minimalist object, a visual representation of what the book was about, so I think they totally accomplished that.
A minimalist object doesn’t mean or represent anything. It just is itself. But the ambiguity of the shape on the cover and the white silhouette in the middle to me suggests the ambiguity of minimalism as an idea and how it looks different from every angle. And the cube form is kind of like how there are four chapters of the book. BUT it doesn’t need any interpretation!
The structure of the book, with the four chapters of eight sections each, is kind of formulaic, like a minimalist grid or a Sol LeWitt formula. There’s a line in the first chapter about the book trying not to be linear and instead being like a space you can wander through at will.
As the co-founder and CEO of Study Hall, you've also dedicated a huge part of your work to making the media industry more transparent and manageable for freelancers — you even shared your proposal with other Study Hall-ers when you were first shopping it around. What was your thinking behind being so transparent with your own book?
My feeling with freelancing has always been that it’s lonely as fuck, even though it can be very creatively satisfying and sometimes even lucrative. Sharing info and advice is a way to be less lonely. With Study Hall it’s clearer that freelancers are part of a community, not just typing away on our own. We understand each other’s lifestyles and problems when other people don’t.
I think transparency and creative collaboration can be really good for writing. The fiction community seems to do it well, newsrooms are pretty good, but for freelance journalists it's all harder to find.
How do you balance your writing with running Study Hall?
A work in progress. Before we hired our new managing editor (Erin Schwartz!!!) I generally did a few hours of Study Hall work in the mornings, texting with my co-founder, Enav Moskowitz, and just figuring stuff out. It kind of bled into all hours of the day, though, and made it tough to focus on other writing.
Thankfully Erin is doing a really great job now! That leaves Enav and I free to focus on bigger and more long-term problems, like how to help our members and keep growing. (And launch our new website, which I swear is coming.)
My only productivity hack is that when I’m actually WRITING a piece, it’s the only thing I’m doing, for days or weeks on end. That's the only way I get stuff done.
Finally, now that you’re in the promotional phase of the book publication process, I'm curious about if there are any parts of it that have surprised you. Making the interview rounds and doing the readings sure seem like the height of media "you’ve made it"-ness, but what's it really been like?
It’s my first book, so I feel like I’m barely starting to understand it. The publishing process is mentally and emotionally exhausting even though you’re aware it’s a total luxury and privilege that not many people get to have. There was one tweet that described it as “living without your skin” or something, which I now fully agree with.
It’s a prolonged and total limbo; the “made it” feeling doesn’t exist because there’s no clear end in sight. The only part that you’re fully in control of is the writing process, which, in retrospect, feels almost easier, even though that also seemed impossible at the time. In the moment right before publication, where I am right now, it’s just waiting for reviews, seeing if people buy the book, like it, or understand what I was trying to communicate. It’s excruciating but fun, and I’ll also try to do it all over again, of course.
I’ll hit you with my review of Kyle’s book on Tuesday, but in the meantime, don’t forget to follow him @chaykak, and have yourself a nonlinear weekend!
Deez Links is a dailyish media newsletter from @delia_cai. Come live with or without ur skin with me at deezlinks.substack.com.