The Cost of Cost Control

Times are tough… we might have to let go of Andre…

I don’t know what any of this means, so I’m just going to tell you and maybe you can figure it out.

Our region had a pretty substantial rain event on April 15th of this year, which resulted in a lot of road shoulders washed out around our town, a couple of culverts failing, a couple of sinkholes. We have a professional highway crew of two people to serve our ten miles of paved and twenty-six miles of unpaved roads, and they went through a lot of work to bring all of those locations back to pre-storm condition.

After about two months, FEMA finally determined that rain event was an eligible disaster, qualifying us for partial reimbursement. Our road foreman, having worked before with FEMA and on lots of road-improvement grants, had done all of the work of taking before-and-after pictures linked to latitude and longitude coordinates (who knew that cameras were capable of doing geodata? I’m so old…), recording timesheets and equipment logs for eligible Town work, keeping receipts for purchased gravel and crushed stone. So we’re in good shape to apply for reimbursement.

The overall costs we could reasonably apply to this event’s repairs total about $45,000, and FEMA reimburses at a 75% rate, so we’re eligible to receive maybe $34K. That’d be good; it’s about ten percent of our overall highway budget for the year.

But here’s the problem. We had a start-up phone call this morning that included six people, for about forty minutes. The purpose of that call was to set us up for our first face-to-face meeting in a month, three or so hours with eight people coming from as far away as the state capitol, a two-hour drive. And then there are the bookkeepers who will handle all of our receipts and timesheets, and examine them against the Town’s insurance policy and employment policy and procurement policy. Between the personnel costs and the accounting costs and the documentation costs, this project is going to eat almost as much in overhead as it does in cash reimbursement—our $35K is going to cost $70K.

I’ve had this conversation in the past, with someone making about $100K a year whose job is to coordinate legislative advocacy for children’s health care. At some point, isn’t it just cheaper to put a barrel of money and a shovel on the side of the road and let people take what they need?

The problem, it seems, is graft. If we don’t supervise every single detail, then the unscrupulous will take every advantage. See, for instance, the well-to-do parents in Chicago who are helping their children file for emancipation so that they qualify for more financial aid for their expensive colleges. So every rule, every clause, every form, every moment of oversight, is there to keep (mostly wealthy) people from taking more than they should. Most “welfare queens” are in the uppermost tax brackets, and always have been. In fact, I’ll put forth a first principle of governance: it ought to be easy for people without money to get some, and hard for people with money to get more.

Anyway, here’s my challenge, to any economist or forensic accountants out there who want an interesting (and perhaps revolutionary) research project. Does the cost to prevent theft and waste equal as much as might be stolen or wasted in the first place? Would we save money and be more effective by putting (metaphoric) barrels of cash in impoverished neighborhoods so that people just aren’t poor? What if we just drove into Flint with a team of excavators and plumbers, and replaced the city’s water system for free this summer? Wouldn’t that be cheaper than all of the investment in tracking down exactly which household or which street qualified for what kind of repair?

What if your hospital, instead of verifying your insurance and filing a claim for each discrete billing code, just said “Come on in, we’ll fix you up.” I read an article not long ago about an American woman who was staying in Iceland, who was worried about a lump in her breast and called the local clinic. They were confused at her questions about “appointments” and “referrals,” and just told her to come in whenever it was convenient. Three dollars, one lab test, and four days later, she was determined to have a cyst rather than a tumor. Done. Why do we freak out about stuff like this? It’s so easy that every other country has figured out how to do it!

Lest you imagine that this is an anti-big-government screed, you can take any sentence you like and fill it in with Comcast or Blue Cross or the Toyota Motor Company or Stanford University and get the same answer. We have a cultural question, not merely an organizational one.

As the saying goes, haters gonna hate. So too, grifters gonna grift. What if we were able to be brave enough to admit that, to know that we can’t prevent every bit of it, to absorb some level of loss, and by so doing, save a cubic shit-ton by not overseeing everything? Our drive to efficiency and fairness has made us enormously inefficient and unfair.

Where Do They All Come From?

Eleanor Rigby, statue by Tommy Steele, photo by Wikimedia moderator Rodhullandemu

Nora often wakes up with an odd word running through her mind: peripatetic, or calcify, or hematoma. Not connected to anything in particular, just a sound. And we often make that into a game, where she’ll say a word, and I’ll say a word in response, and she’ll reply, and it’ll go on for half an hour. The replies don’t have to make sense, they don’t have to rhyme or start with the same letter or be a similar category. Blackberry could be followed by peach, or by iPhone, or by Chuck Berry, or by pie

Last week, on Wednesday, Nora woke up with a random name in her head: Svetlana Yates. I heard that and replied that she was a Russian mail-order bride running a laundromat in Missouri. Nora laughed, and said “How do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Have these stories come into your head like that!”

Well, I have no idea. But I’ve spent the past five days writing it. And as of this afternoon, Svetlana Yates is a fully fledged person, her story told.

How did I know her husband’s name? How did I know her two daughters, and why they’d choose such different kinds of colleges? How did I know that she drove a three-year-old white Corolla, that she smoked three American Spirits a day and kept a tin of mints in her apron? How did I know that the water line tore on Washer 17? I don’t know how any of that emerged. But I’ve been in coin-op laundries before, felt that uniquely greasy-tacky feel of the lint traps after years of fabric softener sheets. I’ve lived in a place like Granby, Missouri, where everything is exhausted all the time, including everyone’s aspirations. And I’ve met people like Svetlana, who had once been children with dreams and who are now 41 years old and resigned to an endless series of unchanging days. If you look at the world around you, stories are everywhere. I just borrow them and put them together in new ways.

When it works, it’s more real than life, one word that draws forth another and becomes a person, a place, a time.

Just for Fun

One of the occupational hazards of writing is that you get words stuck in your head. You turn them around, examine their construction, imagine small variations. And that’s led me to invent a game I’ll share with you. (I don’t claim to be the very first person to invent this, probably ten thousand other writers have done it as well, but I don’t know any of them, and I never heard of it before. So it’s mine, nyah.)

Take any two or three or four letter word, and exchange the core vowel for the others—AEIOU—and see if you can find one that works as a real word with each of the five vowels. It’s really hard, there aren’t many.

WAN—WAN, WIN, WON, but no WEN or WUN


BORN—BARN, BERN (as in Feel The…), BORN, BURN, but no BIRN

KITE—KATE, KITE, KUTE (if you live in the Midwest and start a craft store, Kate’s Kute Kites), but no KETE or KOTE

RUT—RAT, ROT, RUT, but no RET or RIT (unless you use the brand of grocery-store fabric dye)

SILK—SALK (Jonas), SILK, SULK, but no SELK or SOLK

ED (my cat’s name)—AD, ED, ID, but no OD or UD

I’ll give you a few words that work with all five vowels: B_G, B_D, D_N, L_ST. There are plenty of others, but as specimens in the great lake of English vocabulary, they’re really rare. Go ahead and use proper nouns, everyday words from other languages… it won’t help much.

If you’re anything like me, this will now burrow down into your DNA and interrupt your sleep for weeks. Sorry, not sorry. If you read this on LinkedIn, as many do, go ahead and put your successful words down in the comments to gloat.

Now, for a second game, use one of the non-words you’ve come up with in your search, and make a plausible definition for it. For instance, let’s say I’m working from CART or CURT, and I run into CIRT. That’s now my word, and I can do anything I like with it. So I will now define it:

cirt (n., pronounced with a soft “c”)—the thin space between the back side of a closed drawer and the inside of the cabinet. Hey, honey, I found your grandma’s tea towel. It was down in the cirt.

If the first game is a solitaire, the second game is a party game. Put one of those non-words on the table and give everybody a minute to invent a definition. Winner, chosen by popular acclaim, gets a point or takes a drink or whatever reward fits your group’s larger agenda.

William S. Burroughs once claimed that language is a virus from outer space. This pair of games is one of its symptoms.


I’m writing this from our town’s official Cooling Station, the Middletown Springs Public Library. One of the many things I do here in our village of seven hundred is to act as the emergency management director, coordinating responses to larger-scale crises and doing pre-disaster planning. The State urged local communities to establish cooling stations today, with temperatures expected around 90 and humidity that’ll make it feel like 105. So I called our librarian, she said ‘sure,’ and here we are.

I don’t expect anybody will actually take advantage of it, but it’s one of the things you do, and it costs the town ten bucks. If we had businesses in town, people would go sit at a bar and drink beer in the AC, but for us, it’s the general store and the library and that’s about it.

I love libraries. Anybody can come in and hang out for no particular reason. All of the talk about our library is benefits to kids, but we’ve got a guy who comes in to play online chess most days, some older folks who need someone to talk with, a few people who don’t have internet at home and use the ten-year-old Lenovo ThinkCentre in the corner. The library does book talks with local authors, poetry nights, hosts the knitting group, holds candidate forums before elections. Our librarian pulls interlibrary loans, reads voraciously and makes recommendations, builds and culls the collection. The library just makes us all a little bit smarter and a little more civil, both welcome outcomes.

It’s been nearly sixty years since Roger Barker and Paul Gump did their Kansas studies about specialists and generalists. They looked at high schools with 200 kids and high schools with 2000 kids, and found that the small schools rewarded kids who were pretty good at a lot of things, whereas the big schools rewarded kids for being extremely good at one thing. Makes sense. They both have sports teams, student governments, school papers and yearbooks, fundraisers… in a small place, everybody has to do a little of everything, has to be a second baseman AND class treasurer AND in the chorus AND doing page layout for the yearbook. In that way, the schools create the adults who are most valuable in their particular community, the small-town volunteer who can cover almost anything, the big-city professional specializing in one specific expertise.

I miss being a specialist, sometimes. I miss having the depth of academic conversations that are unique to a small group of similarly-trained disciplinary colleagues. But I’m more often glad to have become a generalist, responsive to the needs of my neighbors, sitting in the library on a hot afternoon to make sure that our friends are all okay.

The Editor as Ally

I went to a talk on Sunday at a nearby writers’ group meeting, given by my friend, the writer and editor Hugh Coyle. Hugh has been working for seven years on an historical novel about Alfred Nobel, Bertha von Suttner, and the tensions between them that ultimately led to a more peaceful Europe. But his talk last weekend was about the multiple roles of the editor, which he had been for decades with a major scholastic publisher. The editor is often cast as an intellectual opponent, constraining the author’s creative impulses. But in Hugh’s experience, and in my own, the role of the editor has been much more positive.

I’ve been blessed for the past two books to work with Elizabeth Branch Dyson, senior editor at the University of Chicago Press. In her role, she has said yes to two projects, thank god for that. But she’s done a ton of other things. She’s represented the books to her colleagues; she’s offered precision diagnosis of the problems that a draft presents, and given me time to rebuild a manuscript; she’s given me a commission to write a book that she’d always wanted to represent; and she periodically drops me a line with something she’s read that she thinks might spur an op-ed. She has made both The PhDictionary and The Adjunct Underclass into far better books than they might have been.

Almost ten years ago, I was approached by an editor for the weekly newspaper North Coast Journal. A friend who wrote for them was talking with her about an article idea, and he said that I’d be the right person to write it. So the editor, Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, worked with me for a month on an article about people who have left the gorgeous and economically tenuous landscape of the northern California coast for other lives, and who look back with really mixed feelings about their decisions. I did half a dozen interviews of other Humboldt County departees who (like me) loved their years there but ultimately made other decisions about their professional lives, and put together a first draft that was pretty good.

But Carrie saw through it. Or rather, saw more deeply into it. She focused on one interview, with a married couple who disagreed with one another about their time in Humboldt County and their satisfactions with their new home in Sacramento. I’d included it as merely one among the others, but she knew that foregrounding the tension within just that one household would amplify the ache within all of us who loved it there but who finally had to go. And the article that resulted was vastly better than the one I’d first submitted.

And then yesterday, I had a late afternoon glass of wine with my dear friends Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, powerful writers and editors who have built their careers around women’s history, particularly of the American West. They had graciously read the first draft of my current novel Trailing Spouse, and they rekindled my own faith in it.

Writers talk all the time about “being too close” to a work and “no longer able to see it,” but those are vague complaints. One of the specific symptoms is in the writer’s understanding of a work’s pace. The pace of a scene is actually three different experiences. One is how long the event would have played out in real time, the thirty-second argument or the thirty-year war. A second is how long it takes to read it: one night in a diner could be an entire book, a decades-long career compressed into a couple of paragraphs. But the third is how long it took the writer to write it. That thirty-second argument might have taken me two weeks to come to grips with, and it now just feels slow, leaden, nearly inert. It takes an external reader to experience it at full trot after I’ve worked on it frame by frame.

Another symptom is that the writer’s work is segmented, and the reader’s work is connected. Part of my experience of working on Trailing Spouse has been the number of times that I’ve set it aside for something other: work on marketing the nonfiction, work on interviews and side articles from that, work on behalf of our tiny town as we volunteer for projects that other larger cities have full-time staff to do. The novel has come in opportunistic hours. And I’ve read parts of it here and there at my writers’ groups, which doubles the emphasis on having ten good pages rather than on how those ten live within two hundred. So the novel has come to feel like a drawer full of shiny beads, all pretty on their own but not strung together into a composition.

For these and other reasons, the writer absolutely cannot make reliable judgment about the quality of the work. And at their kitchen table yesterday, Linda and Ursula saw the book in ways that I could not. They breathed new life into it, not merely cheerleading for it but seeing through it, finding possibilities I hadn’t explored. That’s what editors do.

I’m grateful for all of the editors I’ve worked with for thirty years, from magazine editors to dissertation advisors to journalism teachers. They’ve all sent me back for one last pass when I thought I was exhausted, have seen the work that could be hidden within the work that is.

Set It… And Forget It!

The faculty and the adjunct…

I was at a college a couple of months back that was in the midst of faculty labor negotiations. At a rally for the adjuncts, one of the tenured faculty who was a leader of the full-timers’ union—a union that had just won its contract pretty strongly—was speaking in support of his part-time colleagues. “Why should you be paid so poorly to teach a course that I’m paid so extravagantly for?” he said, with that wink of arrogance to flaunt his privilege under the guise of “solidarity,” reminding everyone pretty loudly that he was a member of a club that would never accept the rest of them, and that he was pretty okay with that.

In all of our talk about contingent college instructors, sometimes we forget that there really are tenured and tenure-line faculty still out there. What role do they play in all this? (Aside from not nearly enough…) Why, for instance, did this particular university have two different faculty unions, one for the important people and an entirely different one for the rabble? And why did the adjunct union have to charge its members 1.3% dues on terrible pay, compared with the permanent faculty union charging its members only 0.7% of their much more “extravagant” pay?

One of my email correspondents said yesterday that she was increasingly aware (and increasingly frustrated) that the tenure-line faculty is still predominantly male, but that the work of teaching introductory courses was overwhelmingly female. We know from some pretty rigorous research that women face extraordinary hiring challenges, that the increasing gender equity in the awarding of PhDs is not matched by gender equity in awarding new assistant professorships.

The permanent professoriate get the upper division courses with the students who’ve already proven their capabilities, as well as all of the graduate students who’ve declared their allegiance to the discipline. The permanent professoriate also get time in their lives to conduct scholarship, and to travel to conferences to present that scholarship. The adjuncts and postdocs get the early career students, who are much more broadly arrayed in capability and dedication. They get to teach, and to teach only, with no support for their larger disciplinary or intellectual lives.

The leaders and the helpers. The professionals and the paraprofessionals. The men and the women.

But it’s even worse than that, really. In a law office, the lawyers work directly with the paralegals. Sometimes they say thank you. In a university department, it’s likely that the permanent faculty won’t know the adjunct faculty, certainly won’t ask their opinion about the curriculum (even though the adjuncts know exactly what students can and can’t do during the first couple of years of that curriculum), won’t invite them to participate in faculty development or faculty governance. They just take it for granted that the house will be cleaned and the children fed before father gets home.

The adjunct faculty are highly trained and highly capable. We can let them run independently, doing a set, constrained task without consultation. They’re like the nannies of the important family, entrusted with the children’s safety and well-being and intellectual enrichment. But according to, nannies earn a national average wage of just under $15 an hour. Your college’s teacher of Calculus 1 or first-year writing or second-semester Spanish probably does not. Nannies are just too damned expensive, and really, who cares if all the kids survive? A quarter of them are going to drop out in the first year, that’s just normal. We need… we need a Roomba! Five hundred bucks, charge it up and let it run. No oversight needed, it won’t take time away from our big important thoughts, and when it breaks down, we can find another one instantly.

If you think that metaphor’s too harsh, do something today to prove it wrong. Work on behalf of all of your colleagues, not just the ones who are members of the club.

Cast Your Vote!

So today’s fun news of the day is that Tantor Media, a twenty-year purveyor of audiobooks, will be publishing an audio version of The Adjunct Underclass in the somewhat near future. It’ll be available as CDs and as downloads through places like

One of the questions I often ask in writing seminars, when someone’s stuck about the tone of their book, is: “Who should read the audiobook?” That voice has everything to do with the tone that the story takes on. So I’ll put that question to you. Having read The Adjunct Underclass, who do you think is the right voice to read it? Is it an Alec Baldwin book, or a Michael Che book? Is it a Morgan Freeman book, or a Benedict Cumberbatch book? Is it a George Clooney book, or a Jim Parsons book? Or should we play against gender, and have it be a Meryl Streep book or an Aisha Tyler book, a Helen Mirren book or a Jennifer Lawrence book?

Should we borrow the artificial authority and wisdom of Patrick Stewart’s English accent, or the working-class Michigander roots of Michael Moore’s Flint-flatness? Should we take on the straight-shooting, no-nonsense Plains voice of Brad Pitt, or the careful Stanford/Oxford/Yale enunciation of Cory Booker?

None of these specific instances will be the case, of course. The publisher will hire affordable talent, a solid but non-recognized voice that you might hear behind a commercial or on a newscast. But your vote might influence how I listen to the clips they send me for review…


Sometimes runnin’ it harder just digs you in deeper…

The past few days of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have been really instructive. I’ve been thinking about writing in response to L. Maren Wood’s article about how doctorates don’t prepare their holders for non-academic lives. Or in response to Matt Reed’s two days of reportback from the “Future of Higher Ed” conference. Or in response to John Warner’s request to think about how to move forward in the face of higher ed changes. Or Kevin Carey’s thinking about how higher ed has become politicized. Or Ray Schroeder’s enthusiasm for adopting the idea of skills rather than degrees.

But rather than respond to any one of those, I think they’re better taken in their entirety. And the entirety suggests that we have no shared, collective idea of what college is, nor of what we want college to be. Not even a little bit. What we’re seeing in all these articles is the thrashing of people who know that they’re stuck, but whose only strategy is to spin their tires further and further down into the morass. (And a conference on the “Future of Higher Ed”—a conference that costs $750 for registration plus another unspoken thousand dollars in travel and lodging for each of its 350 participants—has just consumed over $600,000 in wasted tire churn from its participant colleges. You can get it here for free, without leaving home.)

So let me say a few things. Some of them will be hard to hear. But I think they’re true.

  1. As David Labaree has stated so well (but in a kinder way), we already have the higher ed that we want. One that allows some kids to be rulers (substitute Yale for Eton to get the American version), some to be bohemians, some to be worker bees, and some to be tenuous at best but at least quiet about it. The problem is that we aren’t honest about that, and so individual families aren’t clear on what they’re buying when they choose one school or another.
  2. Expecting colleges to do workforce development is stupid. Nobody is adequately prepared to predict the good jobs of ten years from now, and no individual has enough awareness of the breadth of possible work to be able to choose a career path that they don’t already pretty much know. Workforce development is nothing but confirmation bias with a business-speak label. Real workforce development would be run by employers, as true entry-level jobs for immediate demands that they face in daily operations.
  3. Being a good college teacher does not require a doctorate. Nor a master’s degree. Nor any sort of external credential. Being a good college teacher is a miraculous blend of knowledge and wisdom and kindness, which come together in any number of flavors. What a doctorate does is to develop a commitment to rigorous confusion, a life of being comfortably unsettled in one’s thinking. That’s a great trait for teaching in some kinds of colleges, and completely beside the point for others.

The last thing I want to say deserves its own paragraph. We need to quit asking old white people what the future of higher education ought to be. (I include myself.) The future beneficiaries of higher education will be more predominantly women and people of color, will be of any number of national origins and family histories. They will be eighteen and thirty and forty-six years old, they will be far more genderfluid, and they will inhabit a world in which climate change renders any certainty merely wishful. We need to ask a lot of people to weigh in on the future of higher education who have not yet had their word, rather than continuing to have the same churning conversations among the same people in the same hotel ballrooms.

The Unseen Artists of Joy

You waste enough time on the internet, and you find miracles.

First, spend eight minutes watching this. It’s a segment of the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors awards show, in which the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin are celebrated by a rendition of their most famous song, Stairway to Heaven. If you’re my age, the whole premise of this video is magical. The best band of the early 1970s having their most important song played to them by members of the best band of the late 1970s, Heart (whose members left Seattle for Vancouver during the Vietnam War), while Jason Bonham, the son of the late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, plays drums in this orchestra, in celebration of a British band’s influence on American culture, in front of an audience featuring Michelle and Barack Obama… there’s already just a ton going on here.

Anyway, just watch. I’ll be here when you get back.

… … … …

I’ve seen this, like, ten times, and I get choked up a little every time. And I think the person most responsible for my experience will never be mentioned, certainly isn’t known to me. But the video editor has made us a miracle.

We get used to this and thus don’t notice it, but everything we see in a produced video is mediated by professional editing. (That’s why web-cam videos on YouTube look like crap; it’s a stationary camera and a straight-on face, completely primitive visual thinking in a much more sophisticated environment.) I was once writing about televised baseball, and counted sixty different camera shots in a four-minute half-inning. And each of those is doing something.

So let’s acknowledge the work of the editor here. First off, this eight-minute video contains 147 distinct shots, and the pace of those cuts mirrors both the rhythm and the urgency of the performance. Different shots are used when different players are featured, when measures change… but they come faster as the song becomes more tense in that shift from ballad to rock song.

The editing is doing at least three identifiable things. One is that it’s showing us who’s featured at any given moment—the singer Ann Wilson, guitarist Nancy Wilson, the drummer Jason Bonham, the chorus, the session musicians (including the anonymous guitar player who completely crushes Jimmy Page’s solo). So there’s the technical work of highlighting performers. But as I mentioned, it’s also doing emotional work, with the long calm passages mirrored by long calm shots (long being a relative term here, maybe six or seven seconds), the drive of rock ‘n’ roll mirrored by quick cuts.

But the third thing that the editing is doing is narrative. It’s showing us Barack and Michelle bobbing in their chairs, Michelle doing the rock-star face in full concentration at the two-minute mark. (And look at the mirroring between the pursed lips of Ann Wilson on stage leading into the pursed lips of Michelle in the box!) It’s showing us the appreciation of other musicians in the audience: Yo-Yo Ma with his eyes closed (two seconds, 5:15-5:17), Bonnie Raitt ecstatic with her hands over her head (for a second and a half at 6:10-6:11).

And it’s moving, over and over, between the members of Led Zeppelin in the honorees box and the performers on the stage. Robert Plant, the lead singer, red-eyed and teary the entire time… Jimmy Page watching the guitarist play that solo that he himself had played thousands of times, mouthing along with it at 5:04. You can practically hear him at 5:20: Yeah, THAT’s the way you fuckin’ play that! The whole band falling all over themselves when the scrim rises at 5:50 to reveal the entire 60-voice choir, their own epic song made even more epic, as though that were even possible. And the huge voice of Ann Wilson, confident and full and held steady, sliding at 6:35 into the image of a tearful Robert Plant, his own voice having launched hers. What must he be thinking right then? He looks like a proud father watching his rebellious, disreputable child finally walk across the stage at commencement.

And then Jason Bonham at 7:10—the song nearly over, coming to the recognition once again that this was his father’s work, his father’s band. And once the song IS over, at 7:34, saluting his father’s dear friends, his own bandmates that he’d toured with after his father died and Led Zeppelin carried on fitfully, with Jason filling John’s chair. The band’s long, famously acrimonious break-up now fully behind them.

So much art is brought to us by people we’ll never see, by enormous talents who work without recognition. We see the credits scroll by at waterfall speed at the movie’s end without acknowledging that that movie was made better—was made possible—by each of those names.

So to this unacknowledged video editor, probably working on contract for CBS to produce this show: thank you. I see you back there.

Ethnographic Characters

Warning: well-read but entirely amateur philosophy ahead. Stay alert and proceed with caution.

I said yesterday that I feel a sense of responsibility to my characters, fictional though they may be. Let me work my way toward understanding why I think that.

1. In Z.D. Gurevitch’s discussion of discourse ethics, he claims that discourse entails three obligations: the responsibility to speak, to listen, and to respond. That’s a pretty decent description of how I write. I speak, through imagining a character and a circumstance. But then I listen. I take the character seriously enough to be attentive to how she or he engages that situation and the other people likely to be involved in it. I try to take all of those other people seriously, too, listen to what they want. And then I respond, which doesn’t mean merely speaking again but rather speaking in a way that is responsive, that is modified by what I’ve heard while listening.

Novelist and medical ethicist Alexander McCall Smith has said that he writes fiction from a place of “mild dissociation,” meaning that he has taken leave of his sense of identity; he’s no longer invested in his own thoughts. We think of dissociation as a form of mental illness, but of course, it’s also what happens when we’re fully absorbed in what’s around us, facing entirely outward. It’s a negative term for what Czikszentmihalyi more positively calls “flow,” and what Gurevitch might call dialogue: the setting aside of ego in favor of authentic engagement. We become dissociated from ourselves, attuned entirely to the other.

2. We’re all familiar with real-life conversations that don’t rise to the level of discourse. The arrogant person who lets you talk once in a while, but doesn’t actually change anything about what he was already going to say. The salesman or evangelist whose only interest in “listening” is in moving us closer to his position. The supervisor who just tells an employee how to reach a predetermined outcome, and the employee who only tells his boss what he wants to hear.

Authors can be equally closed-minded, never actually responding to what’s happening in front of them, just tracking the path they’d already determined. Zadie Smith talks about two general camps of writers. The first she describes as Macro Planners, creating the plot and the scenes long before any details arise. “I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for each other, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters, and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.” This is a deductive form of writing, starting from principles and moving to the specific case. Writing as an exercise of will.

The inductive form of writing, starting from the specific and figuring out what it all means, is the mode that Smith calls the Micro Manager. “I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose between three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending is until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.”

3. If we work in the inductive Micro Manager way, in dialogue with our characters, then we enter into what Carol Gilligan has called an ethics of care, in which our primary responsibility is not toward rules or a desired end state but to the needs of the people involved. The core ethical question is not “what is right,” but “how to respond.” It is an ethics grounded in dialogue, in mutuality. We speak. We listen. We respond.

Inasmuch as we choose to be Micro Managers—and I don’t think that I ever made that choice, it’s just how I do my work—we also adopt a particular ethic to guide our work.  Having given my allegiance to an ethnographic method of writing in which I try to understand the unspoken rules behind what I see, I’m then asked to take responsibility for everything I learn, and for those from whom I’ve learned it.

Readers, of course, always take characters as real, if the book is any good. Neal Gaiman has called the book “a little empathy machine. It puts you inside somebody else’s head. You see out at the world through somebody else’s eyes.” I think that alternative life we experience is the life of those characters, not of their author. If readers can so easily and readily welcome the reality of those we read, so can the writer.