A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Well, I guess I’d better fix it… (Rabbit, from Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh)

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Zadie Smith, “That Crafty Feeling”

Revision is a funny thing. I revise at every second at the desk. Sometimes that’s sitting silently for thirty seconds while the next word arrives. Sometimes it’s going backward to the beginning of that paragraph and thinking about a better way to merge into the traffic stream I’m in. And sometimes it’s just leaning on the delete key for ten or twenty characters, digging out the decay until I get back to bone.

I’m one of the class of writers that Zadie Smith has identified as a Micro Manager. I wait for weeks at a time until someone shows up and makes a compelling enough case that his or her story needs to be heard. And then I tell it.

The most fundamental decision is to figure out where to start. Everyone’s story extends back to that first slap on the butt in the delivery room, but my interest in their story inevitably begins somewhat later than that. Mostly, I want to start with a scene that shows a character simultaneously successful and stuck, doing well enough but not at all well. That’s the tension I most often want to explore in my stories, so I listen for that point of weakness, where the grain is starting to separate, where the crotch in the wood will inevitably fail.

Once I have that, I don’t need to stop—except for meals, sleep, and email—until I get to “The End,” a few months later. The story just falls onto me like a giant wave, and I count myself lucky to not be lost in the curl.

When the wave spits me out, I rarely conduct major structural revisions. It would be like trying to find the same wave over again so that I could experiment with a new route. That ride is done, and all I can do is paddle out and wait my turn in the lineup until a new wave makes itself evident.


There are almost always one or two spots in a story that are false. Many come from me being willful, from having some version of “Oh, I’ve got a terrific idea!” instead of just shutting up, paying attention, and letting my characters drive. And because they’re good ideas—MY good ideas—I don’t want to let them go, but I have an awful time fitting them into the organic story. They aren’t part of the story at all, they’re my cleverness intruding like some boorish drunk who wants to tell his tale to all his newfound pals, each of whom is scouting around for an exit.

Those are relatively easy to fix, because they’re so lightly attached to the whole. I can pluck them off after a few months of admiring them, and only the finest scar remains to be healed.

The more difficult ones come from having been tired, and just wanting some scene or another to end so I can go to bed, or get on to the next scene that’s already making itself evident. A five-page scene that takes three minutes to read takes two days to write. And after two days, I’m sometimes not patient enough to stick with it, and I’m enthused about what’s so obviously coming next, and so I come to some clumsy, “good enough” resolution or transition and move on.

I dealt with one of those today. I’d written a story some months ago, and the end of the story came too fast. The major, though quiet, drama had already gone by, and we just fell into the denouement. I wanted the resolution of her crisis to occur off-stage, because so much of what had mattered in her life had gone unseen and un-noted. But the move from her decision to the story’s off-ramp was just too abrupt, since the easy answer of the resolving action wasn’t there to provide its natural buffer.

I was about to send this story out to my writing group, and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by it. It was an obvious error, though its solution was anything but. And as I was reading it again, almost ready to send it out to my friends even with its misshapen joint, I saw a solution. Svetlana’s resolving action didn’t need to be seen, but her decision to do it needed to be more fully tied back into decisions we’ve already seen her make. If, as David Mamet has it, character is merely habitual action, then I needed to show this surprising decision as not surprising at all. So by slightly building up scene n–1, scene n didn’t need to change at all to feel far more natural, inevitable, true.

These are the things you can’t see when you work, the momentary lapse of reason that feels okay when you do it and subsequently just nags and worries and pesters. A solution is always possible. Just wait it out, and the answer will emerge.

In the Zone

We talked a little yesterday about the three common levels of professional development: apprentice, journeyman, and master. The apprentice has skills, but requires supervision; the journeyman has enough breadth of professional experience to operate independently; and the master sets the strategic direction for others.

I feel like that’s been my path as a writer as well. For a long time, I had plenty of skill. In high school and college, and then as a freelance architecture and planning writer for local news magazines, I was given writing tasks, completed them, and turned them in. It’s an outstanding way to learn the trade: tons of work with tons of feedback.

Most writers stay there, because most writers write under the guise of some other job title. As a professional in higher education. I wrote accreditation reports and annual assessment reports, policy proposals and grant proposals. My president or provost would ask for something, and I’d deliver it. And of course, I probably wrote a million words a year just in e-mail. I got my hours in.

My shift to journeyman came in grad school, with the dissertation. “This is what I want to do,” I said, “and this is how I’d like to do it.” And my committee approved, and I went off on my own for two years, and came back with a book. And then I found a publisher and the book entered the world.

I did that twice more. I wrote another book and sold it to the University of Chicago Press. Then my UCP editor, the miraculous Elizabeth Branch Dyson, came to me with what she now calls “a vague hand-wavy idea” that I again went off for two years and made manifest. I have the demonstrated capability of writing book-length nonfiction without oversight.

The first steps toward mastery came when I decided to leave the industry of writing about academia and shift my work toward fiction. That was a strategic decision, not merely a craft decision. I wanted something different: different stories, different voice, different readers. And I made that shift. I already knew how to write a book; I just had to figure out how to write different kinds of books.

That started seven years ago, when I left my job in the summer of 2013. Since then, I’ve written ten books: eight novels, one collection of short stories, and one non-fiction book about fiction. There’s another one on the bench right now. That’s kind of the easy part, the independent making of books. I’ve done that for a long time, that’s now just normal work.

It’s also the safe work.

The less safe work is the next step on the mastery trail: making all of that work public. To go back to the example of a law firm, a principal in the firm has full autonomy to work with clients, manage a case, supervise other lawyers and paralegals. But all of that independent work is facilitated by the protective shell of the law firm: the senior partners who make the deals, set the strategy, grease the gears of commerce.

The University of Chicago Press has been that protective shell for my past two nonfiction books. They have a marketing department. They have a graphic design department. They manage fulfillment of orders, from Amazon to a tiny neighborhood bookshop. They take books to book fairs and conferences and set up tables and talk with passers-by. I have none of those things. But if I want to set my own strategic direction, then those are all tasks that I need to take on.

The graphic up at the top is a visual representation of the work of child psychologist Lev Vygotsky, and what he termed the Zone of Proximal Development. Basically, there are tasks we can take on for which their challenges are equal to our capabilities. If we try to do something that’s miles above us, not only can’t we do it, we freak out while we’re trying. It’s the zone of high anxiety, of frustration, of stress. On the other end, there are tasks that are way below our capabilities, things we can do with almost no effort or attention. That way lies boredom.

The goal, according to Zygotsky, is to give people tasks that are just a little above their current competency, and help people do them. That increases competency in a safe way, cements a new learning and a higher level of capability for future tasks that are even more demanding.

So that’s where I’m at. I have to reach a little above my comfort, into the mysterious lands of marketing and distribution, and try to find help in learning those new skills. The Zone of Proximal Development isn’t a safe place. But it’s a necessary part of the trip.


Emile Adan, Apprentice (1914). Library of Congress.

There seems to be some kind of magic around the number three. Learning is often structured in three phases, roughly related to beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

  • For K-12 education, we have elementary school, middle school, and high school.
  • For higher education, we have bachelor’s, masters, and doctoral degrees.
  • For college faculty, we have assistant, associate, and full professors.
  • In lots of professions, we have associate, principal, and partner.
  • In culinary work, we have cook, sous-chef, and chef de cuisine.
  • And in traditional trades, we have apprentice, journeyman, and master.

The interesting level to me in all of these cases is the middle one, at least in part because it’s the only one with an accomplishment on both ends. For the apprenticeship, we come in knowing nothing whatsoever. At the end of mastery comes either retirement or death. But we have to test out of apprenticeship to become a journeyman, and then test out of that to become a master.

The term journeyman comes from an era in which the skilled trades were exclusively practiced by men. So, of course, does master, from magistrate, or the guy in charge. Gender-neutral alternatives for journeyman have been proposed: journey-level, or journeyperson (ick), or trade worker. But let’s think about what the three levels entail with regards to working life before we start to mess with the language.

At the lowest level—cook, or apprentice, or associate—we’re talking about someone who works under supervision, someone with a senior eye on their efforts. We trust that they can get the job done (they won’t work here long if they can’t), but their agendas are set by others. As an associate at Jay Farbstein and Associates 20 years ago, I was given specific tasks to do by my superiors, and checked in on a regular basis about how things were going and what I ought to be doing next. I was 40 years old and had a PhD, I wasn’t a total beginner, but I wasn’t at a position where I was leading my own projects; I was fulfilling project components for others.

The middle level connotes a position of trust and independence. A principal in a big architecture or law firm has project-level authority. They work directly with clients, supervise other workers, run day-to-day contact with subcontractors. They know enough to coordinate a pretty good sized project, and are entrusted by their business as managers. In the kitchen, the sous-chef drives the daily operation, manages inventory and ordering, does some training, steps in whenever one of the line or prep cooks (or even sometimes the dishwasher) is in the weeds. Whether lawyer or electrician or restaurateur, that middle level is crucially important, and a person at that point is a fully vetted professional.

The “journey” of journeyman has three competing meanings. The term originally seems to be a bastardization of the french journee, or day, and it meant an employee paid by the day (as opposed to the apprentice, who got paid with a bowl of gruel and a straw mat in the corner). But once the word became anglicized, it took on the connotation of the independent professional able to journey out onto a work site by himself to get things done. The journey was often more literal: the journeyman was an apprentice ready to leave the nest, deemed worthy by another shop of being employed (and paid). In some guilds, the journeyman was expected to really journey, to go on a grand tour for a few years and work as an employee for multiple masters of the same guild, so as to learn different approaches to the work.

Entry to the master level was a matter of professional consensus, in which the other masters of the guild approved the new member, often after the journeyman had produced a master piece (a material version of a qualifying exam). Here’s one, from France in the mid-19th Century:

From the collection of the Cooper Hewett, Smithsonian Design Museum. Photographer: Ali Elai

Once anointed, a master could own his (or her) own shop. Could make decisions about the kinds of projects and clients to take on, the kinds of equipment and facilities to invest in, the kinds and numbers of apprentices to accept. Law and architecture firms use partner to denote the same level, someone with a financial and strategic interest in the business as a whole rather than merely managerial responsibility for a project. The chef de cuisine or executive chef is most often the restaurant’s owner as well, making decisions about exactly what goes on the menu, about the culinary and hospitality principles of the whole endeavor.

All of this meandering is my way of thinking through what it would mean for me to move from journeyman to master writer. What does it mean to demonstrate mastery? And the historical answer is the shift from capability to strategy.

Hmm… more soon.

Invisible Shame

Don’t ever for a moment think that men don’t receive crazy body-image messages… and that both men and women don’t reinforce them.

Women watch a 15-minute show featuring elite entertainers and, in some cases, end up feeling bad about ourselves. Men, meanwhile, watch a three-hour game, played by elite athletes with single-digit body fat, and most won’t feel a single twinge of self-doubt, or miss a single chip from the nacho platter… I don’t even think it would occur to them to feel bad, or try to emulate what they saw.

Jennifer Weiner, New York Times, February 4 2020

You think? Really, you imagine that “most” of us won’t have even “a single twinge” of self-doubt? Well, that’s because we won’t show you. It’s because we don’t trust you to not use our weaknesses against us.

And our weaknesses have always been used against us.

Remember “tall, dark and handsome?” We all know who is and isn’t. And we all know which is and is not acceptable. We know the lack-of-height penalty in men’s wages and career advancement. We know who goes on the cover. We know why George Costanza was a buffoon—it’s because he had the hubris to imagine that he mattered. If he’d been six feet tall with those same mannerisms, he’d be Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock: a boor, not a buffoon.

We know the appropriate roles for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball; we know the appropriate roles for Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito in Batman Returns; we know the appropriate roles for Mark Wahlberg and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights. We know what it means when the audience on Ellen all scream when she persuades Chris Hemsworth to take his shirt off. You think those things don’t hurt. You think we’re oblivious. And you’re wrong.

We were in gym class or neighborhood hockey with ten thousand Donald Trumps. “Liddle Adam Schiff.” “Crazy Bernie.” “Get Mikey a footstool.” And the other boys in the Senate, on the sidelines, laughing along with their alpha. We know we won’t be alphas. We pick a different field upon which to perform, because that one’s already been claimed.

We were raised by men who told us to get up and stop whining, who told us that visible weakness was the unforgivable flaw, who taught us to be stoic and silent, to “man up.” To doubt oneself is merely to fail a second time. To reveal fear is to have already lost. And to lose, for whatever reason, is unforgivable.

If you believe that a lot of men aren’t hurt, it’s because we’ve done our jobs right, at least as those jobs were explained to us. If you believe that we don’t see hipster guys in skinny jeans, or underwear models, or elite athletes as a dagger in the ribs, it’s because we don’t trust anyone enough to tell you.

I want to come back to a line from the book I mentioned a few days ago:

Shame is psychic extortion… Shame lies. Shame a woman and she will believe she is fundamentally wrong, organically delinquent. The only confidence she will have will be in her failures. You will never convince her otherwise.

Jill Alexander Essbaum

There is no reason to have any reference to gender in that passage. Shame does what shame does. We take our revenge on ourselves, in the dark, and you’ll never know.

And I will never write about this again.