Field Notes

Field Notes In Action:

Field Notes Are Good At Things

April 24th, 2012 by Bryan Bedell


Andy Selsberg dropped us a line a couple of weeks ago to let us know he had a new book out, and that the whole thing had been written in Field Notes. He thought that might be a first in our history and he couldn’t have been more right. Overwhelmed with amazement and aww-shucks pride, we chatted with Andy for a bit about his new book, You Are Good At Things, and how he used Field Notes to put it all together.



You have a new book out, You Are Good at Things. What’s it about?

It’s a checklist of thousands of unsung talents, those things on the down-low that make humanity worth celebrating. Stuff like: spotting two-way mirrors, getting people to move over a seat in theaters, and knowing when you can and can’t call people “dear.”

How are the lists organized?

It’s mostly one giant list, not divided into chapters or types of talents. Though there are a few specialty sections scattered throughout, like: “You Are Good at High School Coach Things” (e.g. humiliating people on the sidelines one day and teaching them government the next), and “You Are Good at Attending Wedding Things” (e.g. helping bridesmaids feel better about the dresses they’ve been forced to wear).

Favorites among the hundreds of entries?

So many! Different ones strike me each time I look at it. Here are a few:

  • Borrowing hand trucks
  • Using hotel lobbies of hotels where you aren’t staying
  • Complaining about while contributing to a lack of diversity
  • Claiming to have solved various secret sauce mysteries
  • Living with regret
  • Hiding behind trees
  • Having an appropriately apologetic expression when paying with dollar coins
  • Being able to dismiss or exalt cites after having spent a single night in them
  • Deciphering cryptic restroom signage
  • Knowing the appropriate level of participation and enthusiasm when at a worship service not of your religion
  • Seeing the wonder of all creation in a single blade of grass
  • Stacking creamers

In coming up with the concept and then writing all of it, what was the appeal of the list?

I like lists! Good ones can convey an essence, tell a kind of story. I love the ones in the back of Field Notes, which are a cool example of how you can evoke seasons and places with just a few well-chosen items: Snowball Fight Attack Formations, Stories from The Old Man, Silo Painting Ideas…

You’d dropped us a line originally because you’d written all the lists inside of dozens of Field Notes. What was that process?

I always have a notebook in my back pocket. To write the book, I’d take it out and fill it while riding the subway or sitting on a good park bench. Being around people inspired things.

How many notebooks did you end up going through?

I went through 40 or so. I have pretty big, sloppy handwriting, so if I was “on” I could fill up a book in less than a week. A good friend introduced me to Field Notes back when you could only get them at one or two stores in New York, in only one color (like the Model T), and he has really small, meticulous penmanship. I feel kinda bad for him, because it takes him many months to fill a notebook and move on to a new edition. Fresh colors are important for the spirit — look at how fashion moves.

Any word back from readers on how they’ve done, section-wise, or what the book has helped them learn about what they’re good at?

I haven’t heard too much directly from readers, but there have been good responses on various blogs (“I am good at guessing what switch goes for what even in a new room”). I started a tumblr at youaregoodatthings.tumblr.com, where people can boast about their own unsung abilities, like being good at saving fortune cookie fortunes or announcing it when the mustard is spicy.

What’s next for you? New books, projects, etc.?

I am working on something, but I’m not sure what, exactly, it will be. It is, like You Are Good at Things and Dear Old Love (previous blog/book), a list that I hope will contain a lot in an appealing way.

Finally, what are you particularly good at?

Oh, I’ve got a few unsung skills. I am particularly proud of my ability to note when things are unexpectedly moving, as in: “That ad for Sour Patch Kids was genuinely poignant, wasn’t it?”

Andy Selsberg is a former staff writer for the Onion and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, the Village Voice, Salon, the Oxford American, and the Believer, among many others.