But What’s It About?

Old vaudeville joke: There’s two kinds of people in the world—the ones that believe there’s two kinds of people in the world, and the ones that don’t.

I like binaries. Never to claim that they’re the only way of seeing the world, but as a way of making a decision clear. What does it mean to be T and not R? Do I see myself as more aligned with C, or with J? Do you want what’s behind Door Number One, or Door Number Two? It’s only through sitting patiently with the Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis, through taking those differences seriously, that we can approach synthesis.

Historically, investigative methods have been bifurcated into deductive logic and inductive logic. In deductive research, one begins from a theory to create a hypothesis about some untested situation, and then creates a test that will or will not validate the hypothesis. In inductive research, one immerses oneself into some situation, and examines it without a lot of preconceived ideas until some mode of organization and explanation presents itself.

Throughout research history, different thinkers have stated this same bifurcation in ways that reflected their era and their interests. So Thomas Kuhn, in his Structures of Scientific Revolutions (1962), spoke of “normal science” that crept forward incrementally along knowable paths, and “paradigmatic science,” the revolutionary moments in which some thinker accepted all of the available evidence but created a new and more expansive way of putting it together. Ten years later, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber proposed the idea of “tame problems” that responded to rules, and “wicked problems” that could neither be defined nor solved. In the first half of the 20th century, the phenomenologists asked us to “bracket” all of our definitions and schemes and just look at the thing in itself, the etre-en-soi. And at the beginning of the 21st, Zadie Smith identified writers as “micro-managers” probing forward a line at a time with no sense of the end, or “master planners,” those who build the story’s frame and then fill it in.

I’m an inductive thinker, and I specifically chose to look at American cities through an interdisciplinary program. My research on teenagers in a suburban community could have been done in an urban planning program, or in a sociology program, or in cultural geography or anthropology or folklore or material culture or American studies. I started with the kids and their places, and read whatever material I could get my hands on that helped me frame some of the questions that those kids and places raised for me. My doctoral program was housed in an architecture department, so I have a PhD in architecture, which is a meaningless shelf tag for the things I know and do. My dissertation committee came from architectural history, psychology, art history, geography, and fiction writing. Every one of them helped me see something new in the phenomena I was curious about.

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I write about all this today because I’ve been a little stuck in my fiction writing in the last couple of months. I finished a book-length story back in July, and wrote a short story in August, but for the past five or six weeks, I’ve felt dry. So I’ve come up with probably two dozen different frames for a new piece of work, all of which have failed to launch because they’ve been deductive. “I could write about two women struggling for respect in a traditionally male profession.” “I could write about a teenaged table tennis player and his endless labor to reach the top of a profession that no one cares about.” “I could write about the quartermaster of a military campaign, and the ways that getting materials and food to the troops won a war.” And on, and on, and on. All of them stories about generic ideas, not stories of specific people and their problems.

Hilary Mantel once talked about the experience of starting to write The Giant, O’Brien. She said that she had to wait until O’Brien came to visit her—she writes of him as a fully corporeal person, not a creation—and that when he came into the room, he ducked to get through the door, and then visibly tested the chair to see whether it would bear his weight. And only then did she feel that she knew him well enough to tell his story.

And that’s really it. I’ve been willful in the past few weeks, deductive. I haven’t been patient enough to sit quietly and see who’ll walk through the door. A story isn’t mine to create, any more than I could have imagined in advance how all those kids would use their bedrooms and living rooms, would walk the streets and the vacant lots, would inhabit their cars and beaches. The story belongs to the people I write about; it’s my job to be quiet and attentive, and to tell it on their behalf.