How Big Is an Idea?

I have Paul Groth to thank for an awful lot of things. For not throwing me out of his office when I showed up (by mistake, having gotten a note from someone else named “Paul”) to talk about Viking military camps in Jutland. For taking me seriously as an undergraduate, for letting me act as a reader for term papers in one of his courses, for showing me what a somewhat monastic intellectual life could look like. For having a church lectern in his apartment, with a gigantic unabridged dictionary open on it, and regularly used. For introducing me to the cultural landscape scholarship of Joan Didion—to this day, no one writes more compellingly about what places mean and why they matter.

But perhaps more important than any other act was that he took me seriously as a writer. I’d always been a pretty good writer, and I knew it, so by the time I was a senior at Berkeley, I knew that I was better than the other writers in the college, and I was a little (??) smug about it, and sometimes lazy. But when I arrived in Paul’s American Vernacular Landscapes courses (ARCH 169 A and B, and if Paul weren’t now retired, I’d tell you to apply to be admitted to Berkeley just so you could take those two courses), he was just ruthless about marking up papers, and I wasn’t spared. The son of a North Dakota English teacher, Paul combined the Scandinavian traits of precision and truthtelling with a love of language and a great physical pain at its abuse.

One of Paul’s aphorisms that’s stuck with me was a markup in the middle of a paper, in which he’d bracketed four or five consecutive paragraphs and written in the margin, “Ideas aren’t like piano keys. They aren’t all the same size.” I’ve carried that with me for thirty years.

Paul was talking about ideas at the scale of the paragraph, but I’ve often had to consider the size of ideas that could tilt toward article or tilt toward book. In fiction, characters who could tilt toward story or tilt toward novel. Or more than one novel. I have one character who held me for one really compelling episode, two days long. 4,800 words was sufficient to tell it. I had three other characters who held me for a year of writing that covered three years of their lives, 277,000 words and three thematically different books.

When I wrote The Adjunct Underclass, my editor was hoping that I could keep it to 75,000 words. I wasn’t sure when I signed the contract that I could be that concise about a gigantic topic. But in the end, I brought it in at 60,000, and it was plenty.

How big is an idea? How big is a farm? How big is a college? How big is a city? These are nonsense questions. They’re as big as they are, and none of us know until we’re done. (And what does it mean to be “done?” Child, cease your pestering!)

Lucy Ellmann has just released a novel called Ducks, Newburyport that’s a single, thousand-page sentence. That might be the right size for a sentence, or at least for that sentence. (I’ll never know, because I don’t care enough to read it. Bad me.) The Nero Wolfe mystery novels that I so love run about 50,000 words, as do most Harlequin romances. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s life story took him over a million words and six books, and he’s ten years younger than I am! I should get seven or eight books out of my fictionalized autobiography. On the other end of the spectrum, there are no end of “flash fiction” contests, short stories defined specifically by their word count, ranging from a maximum of 1,500 to a minimum of six.

Good writing makes us less willful, more willing. It seems to me that “how long does it have to be?” is just as bad a motivating question for grown-up ideas as it was in tenth grade English, when we were just trying to cut our workload. It’s the wrong variable to start from. If you do the work and pay attention to it, it’ll tell you what size it should be. It might surprise you. One story becomes a bonsai cypress, another an entire redwood grove. You don’t get to decide.