1938 Federal map of neighborhood loan-worthiness. Green, “Best.” Blue, “Still Desirable.” Yellow, “Definitely Declining.” Red, “Hazardous.” In case you wondered where “red-lining” came from…

I talked a few days ago about how much I treasure curiosity, in myself and in others. And diversity is a great tool for curiosity, because it naturally surrounds us with people who might reasonably be expected to have had different life experiences, and thus to have developed different concerns and different values. Diversity isn’t about “tolerance.” Have you ever been tolerated? It’s pretty uncomfortable.

But most of the environments I’ve ever inhabited haven’t been all that racially diverse. Growing up in Michigan, our town was actually two towns, divided by Broadway; white to the south, Black to the north. You could watch the “for sale” signs go up on the lawns in our neighborhood when their oldest kid got to sixth grade; K-6 was in a neighborhood elementary school, but 7th grade was in the city’s one junior high, north of Broadway. I saw white flight in person every year as my friends moved from Muskegon Heights to Norton Shores, a community that was 96% white.

An engineering college in far northern Michigan in the 1970s? Pretty white.

West Texas in the late 70s-early 80s? Pretty white.

Oakland in the mid-80s to early 90s was far more diverse, though still somewhat geographically segregated. And going to college at Berkeley while I was there… awfully white.

Grad school in Milwaukee? White, except for international grad students. While I was there in the mid 1990s, Milwaukee was named as America’s most segregated city, with 95% of the Black population of THE ENTIRE STATE OF WISCONSIN living in a two-mile-by-two-mile square area of the northwest of Milwaukee.

Research on the Northern California redwood coast? Super-white, except for the Native American community.

Professional work with California county governments while I was living in San Luis Obispo? Flat white.

Teaching at Duke? A white fortress in the middle of a Black city. The Black staff of the university called it The Plantation, for clear and enduring reasons.

Teaching in Boston? The school itself was fairly diverse, but the city and its suburbs remain isolated islands, with the mayorship being traded every few years between an Italian and an Irish Catholic.

And now, here I am in Vermont.

Seems like maybe I have some issues to work through, doesn’t it?

And I consider myself fairly progressive, fairly enlightened, but every so often I recognize how little I know. It didn’t occur to me, for instance, that Asian Americans would be physically targeted by stupid people because of COVID, but an Asian American friend saw it coming far in advance. She was right.

So here’s something I didn’t think about until someone smacked me in the head with it. College loan forgiveness sounds like a reasonable issue to discuss, with two whole generations of kids starting adult life over their heads in debt. That’s just bad social policy. But then someone raised the question: Why are we afraid to talk about reparations for slavery, but willing to calmly consider a trillion-and-a-half-dollar benefit that will flow disproportionately to white people? And then I raised a second question: why didn’t it occur to me to ask that first question myself?

I mean, I’ve written a whole novel about the white business and political structure of Michigan conspiring to steal an African American city. I’m no stranger to what it means to have had assets devalued by redlining and having labor unions that resisted Black workers and a city with an invisible but fully understood line right down the fucking center of it. But I haven’t LIVED it. I don’t know the daily desperation of people who are threatened and excluded and barred from entry, who somehow aren’t “a good fit” for our department. I understand that, but I haven’t felt it. I know what social class feels like, because I have lived that. I know what it’s like to be a working class kid trying to move into a white-collar world, and I know what it’s like to be a white-collar professional feeling resentment about my privileges from my blue-collar friends and family. I own that life, in ways that I can’t own some others.

Our physical segregation and our emotional segregation from one another feed our inability to hear and feel. One event may be the ostensible cause of another, but really, the cause was hundreds of years and millions of related experiences that finally have become too much to bear. Just because I might not have seen them all doesn’t make them less real.

The Ecumenical, Evangelical College

NOT a trade school…

So yesterday I laid out a strategy for contingent faculty to work within colleges as they are currently configured. But here’s the dirty secret. I don’t like colleges as they are currently configured. They are the problem.

Let me explain.

College, for a lot of people, is 13th through 16th grade; something to do after high school—but still quite a lot like high school—that holds you out of the labor market for a few years and gets you some kind of a “gumption certificate” on the other end (plus a lot of parties and ballgames in between, and a network of friends you can turn to in later life). It’s a four-year extension of K-12’s necessary but rarely-spoken role as public-subsidy daycare.

College, for a lot of people, is a trade school for indoor jobs. You declare at eighteen or nineteen that you’d like to be a physical therapist or a nurse or an engineer, and we provide you with four years of increasingly focused training that will prepare you to take your professional exams and step into that job. Any time you hear a college president or a state’s legislature (or a parent, too often) talk about “workforce development,” that’s what they mean.

If we took those two motivations of college out of the current mix, we’d see the universe of American colleges drop from about 5000 down to 500. And I think that we could. We could replace college with job training, save everybody a year or two along the way, and serve millions of people, probably better than now. We could replace college with a four-year cruise ship, let everybody just ripen themselves from 18 to 22, and serve millions more.

The strategy I laid out yesterday for the protection of adjunct faculty was the development of a teaching-services corporation that would supply hundreds or thousands of colleges with the anonymous component courses needed to service their degree programs. Composition, languages, calculus, science for non-majors, intro to social sciences, history surveys… the courses that students pack with them when they transfer, and that they rightly expect will bolt directly into the new platform with no loss of serviceability.

And as I laid out the bones of that structure, a nagging little part of me said, “but what about academic freedom?”

Here’s the deal. Trade schools don’t live on academic freedom, because they don’t do anything academic; they provide knowledge, not curiosity. Cruise ships don’t live on academic freedom, because everyone is a concierge engaged in guest satisfaction. Trade schools and resorts are both managerial businesses, with employees that do what they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to, all providing a proscribed and predictable customer experience.

Those two models of college—the two prominent models in most people’s thinking, I’d wager—are exactly why people don’t get up in arms about the adjunct crisis. I mean, too bad for you and all, teaching your class for $2,400, but it’s no skin off my nose as long as it saves some money for me or for my kids. If the decision comes down to fairness or affordability and convenience, the American business landscape has bet on affordability and convenience every time, and never been wrong.

College, when it matters, is something other than trade school or resort. A good college (dare I say, a real college) is where one goes to determine what kind of an adult s/he’s going to become. It is not a place of data, or of information, or of knowledge, or of skill, but rather a place of wisdom, of deliberation, of guided exploration through the many, many ways of adult thought.

In order to do that, we take young people away from their parents, place them together in protected and distant grounds, and surround them with obsessives. With unreasonable adults, fixated on a particular problem, missionary about the practices of their field. But not all in one field, no, never. A dozen different paths, evangelical loonies at every turn, each beckoning their students to follow this path, not the others. This is the one true way! they each shout, and some number of students are convinced by one prophet or another—or better yet, build their own synthesis of the multiple theses and antitheses that flood them every day. And we surround them with other young people on a similarly bewildering journey, so that they can compare field notes along the way, argue themselves into further complexity.

This is the one role of the teaching faculty that deserves academic freedom; the freedom to be a wild-haired lunatic in the pursuit of antebellum American history, or of the power of quantitative pattern, or of the life-changing joy of a novel. The undergraduate faculty requires academic freedom only inasmuch as their freedom allows them to be dangerous. The institution itself must be strictly ecumenical, favoring no branch of the faith; but each individual faculty member must be allowed—no, expected—to be a mad prophet, an unreasonable glint in their eyes when they talk about actinide chemistry or competing models of macroeconomic policy.

At the end of a couple of years of that, we ask students to “declare.” To declare an adult life that is worthy of their endeavor, to declare that one intellectual path is so compelling that they will build the rest of it themselves.

There is no intellectual danger in a trade school. There is no intellectual danger on a cruise ship. Those environments accept contingent faculty exactly because both teachers and schools are meant to be the same as another, interchangeable by design. Academic freedom is anathema to trade schools, which rely on students leaving class A prepared for what awaits them in class B, and at the end of their curriculum, to be able to reliably pass a nationally-normed professional-licensure exam. Academic freedom is anathema to resorts, which need their faculty to be ingratiating and ready to serve, to ensure that each patron has an optimal experience exactly as she or he defines it. Academic freedom cannot exist in any meaningful way in most of American higher education as we have currently defined it.

If we want something worthy of us, we—like our students—will have to build it ourselves.

Component Manufacturers

Sure, we can make you batteries in whatever configuration and dimensions you like. You give us the service specs, we’ll get you the parts you need.

In order to understand the status of the contingent worker in higher education, it’s important to understand what colleges sell. (Our discussion here will focus on the teaching of undergraduates; the work of graduate education and research raise their own questions of contingency, with their own paths forward.)

What exactly do colleges sell? They sell degrees. They sell BAs and BSs and BMs and BFAs and B.Archs and such. That’s what a student steps up to purchase. Not courses. Not experiences. Degrees. The analogue to this is when you step into a Subaru dealer (I’m writing this in Vermont, and so must be patriotic to the state car). What do you want? Do you want brakes? Do you want a transmission? Yes, but only insomuch as what you really want is a car, and the car is outfitted with all of those component parts. What you want is to be able to drive to work in comfort, to be able to carry skis or child seats or potting soil as you see fit, to impress the neighbors with your judgment and your automotive wokeness. The components are largely invisible in the shadow of the greater experience, which is to be the owner of a Subaru.

Subaru does not make brakes. Nor seat belts, nor air conditioners. Subaru does not make batteries nor spark plugs nor tires. Subaru does not make paint nor rear-view mirrors nor windshields. Subaru buys all of those, designed and built to its own specifications, from subcontractors located across several continents. Those subcontractors are chosen on three bases: a) ability to meet the spec, b) reliability of service, and c) low cost.

The batteries that go into a Subaru are more or less the same as those that go into a Honda, just as Calculus I is more or less the same no matter where you take it, because it has to be able to be press-fit into some other institution’s degree. Forty percent of undergrads transfer some time in their process, and all those components need to be fungible enough to fit another car.

A college’s degree, as a whole, is a carefully designed product that only a handful of people (the permanent faculty and the academic administration) get to shape. The permanent faculty get to do the assembly, and to applaud the finished products when they roll off the line. Nobody’s applauding for the tires. The components, by design, are interchangeable across make and model.

This helps to explain why labor practices borrowed from the era of massive, self-contained factories have had such meager results when applied to higher ed. Ford Motor Company once DID make all of those parts, in subsidiary units like Autolite and Motorcraft and Philco. The UAW was able to act as a single massive force in nearly equal opposition to the massive force of the corporation. But now, only a relatively small number of people work for the automotive corporation, with far more employed at hundreds of specialty shops, each with its own labor force and its own labor organization (or lack thereof). Likewise, only a fraction of the teaching force works for the academic corporations, with far more as independent contractors judged on a) meeting the spec, b) reliability of service, and c) low cost.

So perhaps the best protection for contingent faculty, instead of labor organizing, would be the creation of a large national corporation that provides the component parts for the degrees sold by lots of factories. An employer like Sodexo, for instance, that has employees with wages and benefits and everything, that has to offer workplace protections to those it hires, who then sells its services to colleges from Beijing to Baltimore.

So let’s imagine a professional-services corporation with a million or so employees and dozens of regional offices, each of which provides the higher-edinstitutions of that region with reliable (and fully employed) teachers for all of those lower-division courses. If Sacramento State needs teachers, they call ProfCo, and ProfCo enters into a year-long contract to provide exactly the services required, at sufficient mark-up to pay employees a respectable wage and benefits and give them an office and computing.

As long as we’re individual contractors, even if we have a union to negotiate on our behalf, we’re subject to being undercut by individuals from outside. What ProfCo could offer would be one-stop shopping and quality control, so that Central Michigan or Bridgewater State or West Texas A&M could make one phone call, write one contract, and have three hundred teachers on the ground in a month. And ProfCo’s leverage would be the ability to withdraw that contract, and its three hundred teachers, all at once, not as a political or labor struggle but simply as an inability to negotiate a mutually agreed business relationship.

This is the venture capital opportunity for contingent faculty. Especially in our COVID moment where education is increasingly divorced from physical location, this is the time when one or a few providers of educational components could have a gigantic influence, and care reliably for hundreds of thousands of well-protected employees.

We know what the alternative looks like. Another ineffectual statement of concern, another day on the sidewalk with bullhorns, another university that knows it’s creating a vast supply of new isolated adjuncts every day in all of its graduate programs. No, I think we lure schools in with convenience and quality, and then withdraw every single lower-division teacher on the same day if they don’t renew their contract. Imagine the scramble if, one afternoon, Sodexo said to some college, “Sorry, no food or laundry service any more. Bye.” That school wouldn’t be hiring individual food trucks to make up the difference, and students wouldn’t stand for it. Colleges would be drawn back to the negotiating table by the calamity.

Now may be the time for the Sodexo of college instruction. And if this sounds awful, come back tomorrow.

Give ‘Em Enough Trope and They’ll Hang Themselves

So many things didn’t exist when I was a kid. Gluten didn’t exist, just Cap’n Crunch. The only safeword anybody knew was “not tonight, honey.” And there was no such thing as a trope, except hidden away in glass-doored cabinets in a handful of rhetoric departments. But now that we’ve all been to college, everybody and their sister-in-law talks about tropes.

And, as is true of the word irony, they’re almost all using it wrong.

My understanding of the rhetorical idea of tropes is that they’re basically the tools in the writer’s tool box, the literary techniques commonly applied to heighten one’s awareness of the possibilities of a scene or idea. Any time we use words to mean something other than their literal meaning, we’re employing a trope (as I have here, with “employing,” which is a metaphor; or “so many things didn’t exist when I was a kid,” which is an irony). Common tropes include allegory, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, some others less familiar.

A trope is not a series of standard plot devices or genre cliches, which is most often how I read the word in popular media. “Damsel in distress” is not a trope, nor is “It’s coming from inside the house!”, nor is “odd-couple work partners.” In fact, we might say that cliche (or the body of cliches that make up the heart of most genres) do the opposite work of tropes. Tropes heighten our attention, twist our understanding; cliches soothe our attention, ease us out of alertness and into comfort.

And comfort makes money. Three examples from today.

First. A new novel has been sold, to be published next year. Its pitch? “Derry Girls meets Come From Away.” Lazy lazy lazy. But Derry Girls made money, and Come From Away made money, and so if we Frankenstein those together, it’ll make even more money, right? (The novel in question, New Girl in Little Cove, may be wonderful; we won’t know for another year until it comes out. But the work of acquiring it and selling it was lazy.)

Second. In today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed, Robert Kelchen has a discussion of the unlikelihood of fall on-campus college. He notes that colleges have three reasons to declare unwarranted optimism: 1) to keep their new freshmen, 2) to suck up to state politicians who are COVID skeptics, and 3) the hope for a summer miracle: an instant saliva test or a vaccine. But he believes that although the responsible schools—the Cal State system, for instance—have already waved off in-person instruction for this fall, the others will wait for Yale and Stanford and Duke to make their decisions. Kelchen writes that “announcements by elite colleges will provide others with the political cover they need to make the necessary choice. Within one or two weeks, most of them will probably have followed suit.”

And Third. In today’s New York Times, a remarkable article about the charges of literary theft among thieves. Specifically, about two writers who’ve fan-fictioned their way into competing novels of Omegaverse erotica. They’ve both taken a fictional universe in its entirety, the rules about how physiology and sociology and politics work, and written shabby secondhand porn about it. (Internet rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it.) And now these two “authors” are at each other’s throats, the first claiming that the second has stolen HER work, the second claiming that the first has defamed her by calling her a plagiarist. It’s like competing gangs fighting over the suitcase of money that a third party has already stolen from a bank; none of you should have any claim to any of it. One of the authors, seeing herself as aggrieved, says this:

“I couldn’t see how a story I had written using recognized tropes from a shared universe, to tell a story that was quite different than anything else out there commercially, could be targeted in that way,” Ms. Ellis said. “There are moments and scenarios that seem almost identical, but it’s a trope that can be found in hundreds of stories.”

No. No, no, no. You’re using recognized cliches, cliches “that can be found in hundreds of stories.” You’re letting other people do honest, original work, and then stealing the success of that work to make your own work seem more important or more legitimate.

The NYT article speaks of the queen of all trope-theft, E.L. James, with a lovely phrase I hadn’t heard before. Just as a reminder (and I know you’ve almost blessedly forgotten about Fifty Shades, but like a cliche zombie, it reappears just when you think you’re safe), Ms. James was writing fan-porn based on the Twilight books. That online giveaway writing—under the author name of Snowqueen’s Icedragon, if you can imagine—caught the attention of an editor, who said, “change all their names, change the location, and make them not vampires, and I can sell it.” That practice is common enough now that it has a name: “filing off the serial numbers.” We all know theft when we see it.

The most reliable path to wealth is to be second in line. Let someone else take on the hard work and risk of innovation, and then twist it five degrees and get rich. The website “Hot or Not” from 2000 was copied to become Facebook in 2003. The text-messaging practices of SMS became Twitter. Once word got out that Ford was developing the sporty compact Mustang, the Barracuda and Camaro were instantly in production (just as, a decade earlier, the 1948 Porsche 356 spawned the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette spawned the 1955 Ford Thunderbird).

In an oversaturated media world, it’s hard to take a chance on something new. It’s hard to even find it. Spin-offs and franchises are the way to go. Just take your “Real Housewives” series to a new city; you’ll be fine.

Curiosity and Fear

The appreciation of art is, more often than not, a communal experience. It brings us together — when we go to museums, to openings, to concerts, to movies or to the ballet or theater. And we argue, and sometimes we fight, but we certainly don’t wage war over artistic expression. I would contend that art and culture are the most important vehicles by which we come to understand one another. They make us curious about that which is different or unfamiliar, and ultimately allow us to accept it, even embrace it. Isn’t it telling that those societies most afraid of “the other” — the Nazis, Stalin’s Soviet Union, the Chinese under Mao — were not able to bring forth any significant cultural artifacts? 

David Zwirner, “Art is How We Justify Our Existence,” New York Times, May 22, 2020

Nora and I talk a lot about the values we most prize in those we love. And we’ve decided that the foremost among them is curiosity. We love people who see something unfamiliar, and whose first response is “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder where that came from? I wonder why it is the way it is? I wonder how it might have been different?” The alternative is people who encounter everything and everyone with judgment, already believing that they know everything that matters. Knowing is the opposite of learning. Propaganda is the opposite of investigation.

Fear makes us stupid, because we close down and stop paying attention, already knowing that “the other” is untrustworthy. Fear is also easy; our reptilian brain has evolved to instantly respond to environmental threats, and we’re still pretty good at it. We have to consciously overcome the fight-or-flight survivalism that is so much a part of any enduring strand of DNA. The difference is that some people DO make the effort to overcome it, and have made that effort long enough that curiosity has become their prevailing reflex.

Those are the folks we like to spend our time with.

I’m fortunate to have had thirteen people sign up for the free fiction course I talked about last time. Thirteen curious people. I can’t wait for us to get started on Monday. For them, and for all the rest of you, I have a poem about the tension between knowing and learning. It was written by the Northern California poet Jim Dodge about twenty years ago. It’s the poem that opens his 2002 book Rain on the River, and it’s called “Learning to Talk.”

Whenever Jason said "beeber" for "beaver"
or "skirl" for "squirrel"
I secretly loved it.
They're better words.
The busy beeber beebing around;
the gray squirrel's tail
like a skirl of smoke along a maple branch.
I never told him he was saying
their names "wrong,"
though I did pronounce them conventionally.
One time he noticed, and explained,
" 'Beeber' is how I say it."
"Great," I told him, "whatever
moves you."
But within a week
he was pronouncing both "properly."
I did my duty
and I'm sorry.
Farewell Beeber and Skirl.
So much beauty lost to understanding.

A Free Fiction Course

The days do run together, don’t they…

Here in Vermont, governor Phil Scott declared a state of emergency on March 13th, extending to April 15th.

On April 10th, he extended that state of emergency to last through May 15th.

On May 15th, he extended that state of emergency to last through June 15th.

It’s getting pretty repetitive out there, our wariness beginning to grate on us, uncertain sometimes what day of the week it is, going to bed what seems like 45 minutes after we got up in the morning. We need a little more structure than our current lives might provide.

So here’s my offer. What I’m going to do is give you an eight-week course that will teach you to write a short story, from scratch. Each week will have an assignment that comes to you on Monday, due on Thursday. Then on Friday, your second assignment will be to respond in a very specific way to the work that your colleagues have done—that’ll be due on Sunday. We’ll do that for eight weeks straight, and at the end, I guarantee you that you’ll have created a story that you don’t think you could have done when you started.

I know how to make this work safe for writers at all levels; you don’t need to worry about whether you’re the “slow kid in class,” or that the others will look down on you. The assignments I create are, in a way, talent-neutral; being a “good writer” won’t make them easier, and being an early or inexperienced writer won’t make them harder. What they aren’t neutral about is gumption, about your willingness to take a set of specific instructions and do something personally important with them.

You will never see your colleagues, and they will never see you. You will not talk with one another. We will relate to the work only through the work—through words on pages, which is the only thing that writers and readers ever get. You will not know one another’s names or ages or genders or ethnicities; you will only get words.

You also won’t be able to work on something you’ve already started. You’re going to generate a character, a setting, and a dilemma from zero, based on questions I’ll be asking. So don’t do this to pursue a story you’ve already started. Do it if you want to learn the craft of going from blank page and blank head to living, breathing people. It’s a practice that you can then take back to a story that you DO already have in mind, and surprise yourself with how much more it can be.

I’m posting this offer on the evening of Sunday, May 17th, and I’m going to e-mail it to friends and colleagues on Monday, May 18th. If you want to participate (and it’s free, I have nothing to sell), contact me no later than 11:59 PM EDT on Wednesday, May 20th. You can reach me:

  • by e-mail, if you know my e-mail;
  • through the “Keep in Touch” tab on my website; or
  • through a direct message on LinkedIn

In that message, answer this one question: Why do you want to do this?

By Friday afternoon May 22nd, I’ll let you know whether you’re in the class. I’ll be taking not fewer than four participants nor more than eight. I’ll give priority to people familiar with the way I think, but who knows, I may only get six people interested. Costs nothing to send me a message, if you’d like to participate.

If you’re one of those in the course, I’ll send you class materials and your first assignment over that weekend. We’ll begin on Monday, May 25th, and you’ll have a completed and revised story by July 17th. With permission, I’ll publish those stories here on this website, one at a time, when the class is complete. You’ll still own them, of course, and can seek to publish them elsewhere if you’d like.

This experience would cost you hundreds of dollars even at your local community college, thousands in some fancy-ass MFA program. And I’m offering it for free. Why? Because I also want the structure. Because I miss teaching, and I’ve had years of practice teaching online. And because membership in the community of writers obligates one to lend a hand to others.

Let me know if you want in.

Alternate Universe

And if Pearl says that it can be, then that’s enough for me.

Sometimes we do read to escape, or find comfort, or to spend time in a world that is a little more fair and a little more kind than the world we inhabit. 

Jennifer Weiner

Nora and I had a long conversation last night, after she finished reading my manuscript for Trailing Spouse. We both agreed that the end was too abrupt, but disagreed about why.

Let me back up for a second. Trailing Spouse bears some family relations to my other books: a young man who wonders how he got to be who he is, and who has to figure out how to recast his life rather than just dashing himself against the same barricades that have closed him away so many times. But I’d gotten tired of my writer friends telling me that my characters have it too easy, that they were dissatisfied by things that worked out well. So I decided in this book to thwart Kurt’s efforts, to have the randomness of the world and the immense powers of habit and structure be forces too great for him to resist. 

It’s a good book. And I hated writing it.

When I’ve written my other novels, I’ve been drawn forward magnetically, every morning demanding that I tell the next stage of my protagonist’s challenges and growth. I want to sit down at the laptop and learn new ways that Clay actively rebuilds his broken self, to see yet another example of how Robert’s patience helps others recover from disrespect and misfortune, to uncover Tim’s neglected capabilities as they’re reignited by a crisis he’d never expected to face. I didn’t want Kurt to repeat his mistakes, don’t want him to move marginally forward only to be pushed back again by the systematic cruelties of his community. But there it was.

Trailing Spouse was instructive for me because it taught me more about why I write. To paraphrase Jennifer Weiner, I write to create a world that’s a little more fair and a little more kind than the one we feel every day. A world in which confusion can be clarified (albeit not in the ways we had expected), in which earnest effort is rewarded (albeit imperfectly). A world in which the things we already know are sufficient to a task we hadn’t expected to take on. A world in which we have allies who make us smarter and stronger and not alone.

The science fiction and fantasy community has a long tradition of alternate or parallel universes, inhabited by people kind of like us but not quite, where the logic system at hand is sort of familiar and sort of not. The construction of an alternate universe allows exploration of counterfactual narratives. What would everyday life be like if we could change physical forms at will? Or relocate ourselves by dematerializing from place A and reassembling in place B? Or if we could cast spells? It’s a literary form that allows us to imagine new ways of living, and also to compare what we’ve read with what we have every day, maybe questioning some of our perceived limitations.

In my alternate universe, the laws of physics or human physiology haven’t changed. No werewolves, no time travel, no magic. What’s changed is that lonely people can find ways to be not lonely. What’s changed is that people who work hard have that work recognized. What’s changed is that there’s almost no room for irony or cynicism.

And for a lot of readers, that form of alternate reality is harder to believe than vampires and dragons. The same people who happily surrender to the logic of superhero movies will say, “Happy endings? Ehh, come on, that never happens.”

In our culture, irony is sophisticated, and earnestness is naive. As the t-shirt in the Mass MoCA gift shop says, Contemporary Art Does Not Love You. There is no related clothing for sale there that uses words like “heartwarming” or “redemptive” or “uplifting.” Those just sound like the Hallmark Channel, sappy and trivial. But really, where do we want to live? We want to live among people who love us. We want pleasure and belonging and fulfillment. We want our labors to be rewarded, our work to matter, our capabilities to be recognized. And my alternate universe is designed to reliably bring those outcomes, to build a world worthy of our aspirations.

So back to Nora’s and my disagreement. She believes that Kurt, having shown himself to be a good father, has discovered new strengths that will allow him to recover some stability in his life. She wants the story to continue so that she can see how he and his daughter move forward.

But I think that his daughter’s departure is the end of Kurt. He’s already had the rupture of a lost career that he’d deeply deserved; now he’s experiencing the rupture of having been a damn good father and having that taken from him as well. This is not an alternate universe story in which good work is recognized and rewarded; this story is in a world that’s all too close to home, and from which recovery is not reliable. I stopped that story early because I couldn’t bear to watch his final collapse. Trailing Spouse taught me more about why I write, about the kinds of stories that I value. It’s a good story—I’m proud of the work—but it costs too much, and doesn’t take me to a place I want to be.

I write, in part, because I want to discover new ways for people to succeed, to thrive. That’s why I’ve written nonfiction for thirty years: to help us see that kids deserve more from their education, to help us see the ways that buildings can make families and communities stronger, to help a new generation of grad students understand the unspoken culture of higher education so that they can navigate the hazards. My goals for fiction are no different. I aspire not to misery but to redemption. 

Spirit Writing

What writing feels like, once in a while

I was working on the new book yesterday, which has been a lumpy road so far. My lead character Cassie was real to me, a character I understood in a place I understood, but my understanding of her was like reading the psychiatrist’s notes after the session, thin and summarized. I shifted it all about three weeks ago from third person to first person narration, and that helped her speak in ways that she hadn’t been able to when I was acting as her narrative interpreter. Better, but still not fully present.

Yesterday, though… yesterday was the first day that I actually heard her. I heard her frustration at having worked so hard and so well and achieving so little. Heard her embarrassment at going home to yet another family dinner and having her parents and sister treat her as a failure. She told me about her first boyfriend—not the dopey Mike she was with at the beginning of this story, but Tracy, the boy who’d made her feel special for the first three semesters of college and then dumped her as he was about to graduate, for a girl back home who was at his own economic and social level.

There are days when writing feels like a spiritualist exercise. You spend days and days setting the scene, laying out the candles and asking the spirits to arrive. And they don’t. And they don’t. And then, as you’ve just about given it up, they do.

There’s a paranormal tradition in many cultures that is sometimes called fuji or fu chi, planchette writing, or in English most often, spirit writing. As with any other form of seance, one pledges respect to those not present, and makes room for them to speak. In spirit writing, the visitor appears not through voice or through a Ouija board or knocking over a bottle, but through text. The medium, having made himself present, merely takes dictation from the other side. William Burroughs claims to have written Naked Lunch that way, and said that it was a miserable experience, his subconscious taken over by a “hostile entity.”

Psychology researchers have said that spirit writing may be a product of what they call “dissociative states,” in which our perception of the world is unlinked from our identity. But that just strikes me as a pejorative term for perhaps the best experiences of our lives, the moments that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. When we are in a flow state, we are not emotionally present or involved; the work does us, in a way. If we worry about our outcomes or our capability or our status or embarrassment, we can’t reach flow at all; flow only comes in those dissociative moments when we can leave ourselves aside and let the work itself take primacy.

That’s what yesterday was, finally. I stepped aside and let Cassie use my keyboard.

On Privacy

Image of Vaxholm Fortress gate, by “Rhododendrites.” Creative Commons License.

Readers of a certain age will remember the experience of going to a professor’s office after an exam to find their grade, the list of doom or celebration taped to the office door. At best, individuals were identified by their student ID number, but more often, it was just last name-first initial-grade. Childress, H. ………. B+, there for everyone to see in the alphabetical list of forty other kids. We don’t do that any more, and we’d be appalled to see it, but in the 1970s, that was normal.

By the time I was professionally involved in higher ed, our daily work was governed by FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Without a student’s individual and direct permission, we couldn’t say anything about a student at all except that they were or were not enrolled. FERPA can be overridden by a subpoena, of course, or by law enforcement if they declare an immediate public-safety concern, but in general, we didn’t say nothin’ to nobody.

Medical records are governed by a similar law, HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Access Act. The premise is the same: your health is your business and no one else’s. (The Insurance part of that is important, though, because it means you don’t really have privacy control over your medical records at all. Your health insurance providers can read the whole thing.)

The notion of privacy is that our information is an extension of our selves, and that we deserve the same autonomy over that information as we do over our bodies. We decide who knows what about us: we “let someone in” or “shut someone out,” opening and closing doors differentially depending on who’s asking.

Sometimes the door is literal; physical barriers are one of the strategies of privacy protection. Others include distance and isolation; reserve and non-engagement; intimacy with selected others that makes it clear the rest of the world isn’t welcome to our small, shared circle; and anonymity, in which things about us might be known but nobody knows or cares who we are (e.g., what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas).

Privacy has always been less than absolute, just as every individual right is less than absolute. Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter was the 17th-century version of contemporary sex-offender registries, a legal claim that one’s sins should be visible to all. In our “big data” age, we surrender privacy every minute, mostly in ways we haven’t considered. But epidemics raise privacy concerns in different ways, and some people feel that their safety is compromised if the infected aren’t wearing a big red C.

The fact that the virus can be spread without symptoms, and that a quarter of people with COVID never develop symptoms, is a few steps too far for some people to track. Easier to decide that some people are unsafe and call it enough. Let “them” change their behavior; I need a haircut.

Now, as our Town’s emergency management director, I know some things and hear some other things that I don’t share. Unlike my statistics class at Michigan Tech in Winter 1977, I’m not going to be posting people’s grades on the door, or the town website. It’s neither my business nor anyone else’s. Those who are sick—with ANY illness, from measles to cancer—deserve to manage their own information, as would be true in any other circumstance. We aren’t shunning or excommunicating anybody. We’re in this together, as we always are.

On Human Specificity

I was a flask-shaped man in a velour shirt sitting at long lunchroom tables in business schools, cosmetology schools, junior colleges, community colleges. My business was buying used textbooks and crating them off too a distributor.

Gary Lutz, as quoted in Ange Mlinko’s London Review of Books essay, May 7 2020

That’s just a delicious specificity, none of which is descriptive in the usual demographic ways. We don’t know his age or ethnicity, don’t know height or religion. We don’t usually get asked on multiple choice forms to describe ourselves as “flask-shaped,” but what an outstanding portrayal of a body and its freighted life.

We are collective, demographic. We are gender, ethnicity, age. We can all be reduced to some combination of items by the US Census or by Survey Monkey or by a market-research call center. At a questioner’s request, we can eliminate enough of ourselves to climb within one container or another, even though that packaging doesn’t exactly fit.

But we oughtn’t to do that blurring to ourselves or the people around us. We are specific, marked by innumerable choices, made by ourselves and by others. At every moment, we shed many opportunities in order to pursue one, and each of those paths has led further to who we are. There’s no singular branch point that “made all the difference,” because they all do.

I’m putting together a free class to teach short story writing to a small group. It’ll be based almost entirely on discovering the specificity of our protagonists, the ways in which tiny details and insignificant choices lead to whole, unmistakeable, unforgettable people. If you’re interested in being part of this pilot group, get in touch. It won’t be easy work, but you’ll never forget it, and you’ll be amazed at what you can create.