The Price of Everything

For a lot of reasons that I won’t go into today, it’s been a rough intellectual week. So I did something that I occasionally do when I’ve run short on self-confidence: I re-read one of my novel manuscripts.

It’s like getting an e-mail or a phone call from out of the blue, from friends you haven’t heard from for a long time. And I realize how much I miss them. In this case, it’s three people that I spent hours every day with for a year. I sat with them and listened to them and did little else from September 4, 2014 through September 1, 2015. I know Clay and Cam and Thanh better than I know the other people in my grad school cohort, better than I know my colleagues on the Selectboard, because they have revealed every secret in their lives to me. The fact that they’re “fictional characters” is irrelevant; they are more real to me than any of the people I encounter at potlucks or professional workshops.

I could get caught up in questions of whether the work is any good, but at least for me, that’s an uninteresting (and unanswerable) question. The more important judgment is that these are good people, actively working to become better people. And that places a burden on me; I have helped them to become real, and thus I bear a responsibility for their well being.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps.

I wrote for a number of years about qualitative research ethics, about the responsibilities we take on with regards to those who’ve allowed us to see and represent their lives. It is not enough to merely not treat them badly, which is what most research ethics is focused on. We have a positive obligation as well: to do things that participants will find valuable, to help them benefit from our presence just as we take intellectual and career benefit from the work they do to help us understand them.

Is it entirely lunatic to imagine that we have similar obligations toward our fictional characters? In principle, of course it is. But Clay and Thanh and Camille are not principles. They have jobs and friends and families. Cam is getting ready for grad school. They live in Indianapolis. I’ve been in their apartment, I’ve seen the Jennifer Bain painting over the mantle, I’ve seen the array of takeout containers down the kitchen counter that night that they were all too tired—and too happy—to cook.

Here’s the deal. When I finished The Adjunct Underclass, it was a thing, an object. I was proud of it, my editor was proud of it, various communities of reviewers approved it, I worked with Renaldo for months to get the copy editing right, tuning sentences and disagreeing over the differences between OK and okay and why those differences mattered. But it was external to me. It became real when I started to hear back from its readers, who told me their stories. Who told me that they felt less alone and less confused.

We spend all this time on the object, but not because of the object. The things we make are only media that convey emotional or intellectual value. We’re like plumbers, in a way; we care deeply about the craft of joining the pipes, but the value comes to the family who, months and years later, can make dinner and clean dishes. Who can shower after a long day, water the garden.

I think that fiction holds the same possibilities, and responsibilities. I want my readers (as imaginary as my characters—far more imaginary, in fact, since I haven’t lived with them for a year) to feel less alone and less confused. And I want Cam and Thanh and Clay to live among others, the way that they deserve to. I want the depth of their experiences to be seen and acknowledged.

Oscar Wilde once described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Writing is a business, and its labor is paid at whatever variable rate is in effect at that moment. But writing is not merely a business. It is a series of obligations that we voluntarily undertake, an expression of value that cannot be quantified. And I believe that some of those obligations are due to the characters who reveal themselves to us, who share their dreams and fears and shames and joys for our consideration.

Composition and Performance

I once wrote a long meditation on the idea of errors. Tennis commentators record unforced errors as part of explaining the status of a close match. A baseball shortstop who misplays one ball out of a hundred might win a Gold Glove, but missing five balls out of a hundred might cost his job. I compared that against a friend who’s a professional clarinetist, playing thousands of notes per hour with maybe one bum note all evening.

I think about this a lot as a writer, engaged in an art form that’s more errors than clean fielding. And I console myself with knowing that’s just part of the nature of composition. We strike through, we delete, we shift order and find alternative words, toss entire scenes. And that’s not just at day’s end; every sentence is subject to continual revision, almost unnoticed, the delete key just another tool on the keyboard. Performance requires that errors be made offstage, in the rehearsal hall; the daily experience of composition is nothing but errors.

People who don’t write often think that good writers are naturally gifted. Well, we kind of are, just because we’ve read so much and practiced so much that the reflexes are baked in. I’ve been listening to people talk since I was tiny. I made a living for a lot of years by listening to people talk. So I got to be pretty good at capturing the specifics of word choice that mark individual speakers. But writers also revise. Endlessly. Constantly. Readers don’t see that.

So I thought maybe today I’d show you just how bad things can be when they’re left alone in draft form. I need to write a three-paragraph description of the novel I just finished. Here’s the first pass:

Kurt Genier had been a star, from grade school through his successful PhD. When his academic career failed to gain hold, he followed his wife Megan to her own faculty job in rural Vermont—a trailing spouse far away from friends, from scholarly life, from the diversity of an urban university—and struggled for the first time to invent an identity aside from the teacher’s pet he’d always been.

But when their closest friends were deported, Kurt and Megan both were called upon to invent new selves, in the service of a child they’d never met. They discovered strengths and allegiances they had never imagined, fought against the weight of bureaucracy and habit, defended an unfamiliar family life from those for whom different meant dangerous.

Trailing Spouse explores the question of whom a child belongs to, and how the interests of individuals, families and cultures collide. It asks us to consider who we are, when who we thought we were has collapsed. And it asks how far we would go to protect the future of another.

So, first, some truth in advertising. Like software, this has already gone through some beta testing. I tried to just write it front to back and leave it alone, but the reflexes of revision are so ingrained that I changed quite a few things on the fly without even noticing . So this is something like version 1.8: still in its first generation, but with an awful lot of patches installed.

And like first-generation software, this writing is pretty bad. I’m glad it exists, because I’ve got something to think about, but every bit of that is terrible, right from the first sentence. “Kurt Genier had been a star, from grade school through his successful PhD.” Yes, I want to introduce the protagonist early, but that sentence ends on the wrong note. PhD is not the point of that sentence; the point of that sentence is that he was a star. And it’s bland, non-specific. So here’s a 2.0 version: From grade-school spelling through his top-tier PhD, Kurt Genier had always been an academic star. (That’s actually version 2.2; I had something in there about twenty years of stardom, but I couldn’t make it rhythmically fit anywhere, and people have a rough sense of how long it would take to go from grade school through doctoral program anyway, so I took it back out. But it still felt like it needed bit more emphasis on the consistency of his success, so I put in always instead.)

Lots of those sentences end wrong. …struggled for the first time to invent an identity aside from the teacher’s pet he’d always been. Teacher’s pet is the best image in there, dude! Close with that! The contrast between different and dangerous may be the only good sentence conclusion out of the seven. And the sentences go on forever. Seven sentences for 176 words, an average of 25 words. Please…

It’s also awful because it sounds like an essay. Look at the verbs! followed… struggled… called upon to invent… discovered… explores… asks… I mean, I know Kurt’s a bookish guy, but geez, can he find some more vigorous verbs? It’s like a literary criticism convention in there! All I’m missing is interrogate, disrupt, and grapple with, and I’d fill the whole MLA bingo card. That whole thing has three good verbs: failed, fought and defended. The rest are cringing apologies. It’s a pitch for people who think that Monterey Jack is just a little too tangy.

Anyway, the book is better than that, because I’ve been working on the book for a year, and I’ve been working on this pitch for three broken-up hours. The book is, like, on version 12. It’s stable, most of the glitches are gone, and it’s got way better functionality without having lost the core of its intentions. By the time I’m ready to share this pitch more broadly, it’ll be on version 4 or 5, and won’t look much like this at all.

So please accept my embarrassment as a gift. As with The PhDictionary, I offer my errors as a platform for you to launch from.