Sleight of Hand

From Noel Qualter, close-up magician

One of my very favorite ways to spend a few minutes is to watch clips from the tv show Penn and Teller’s Fool Us, a show in which professional magicians get to perform a trick on stage to see if Penn and Teller can figure out how it was done. And that’s basically the way most people think about magic… they want to see if they can figure it out.

But when magic is done beautifully, we lose that ego-sense and just give ourselves over to the fact that we’ve seen something amazing. I give you four quick examples, in four very different modes:

There are innumerable others. Some are funny, some are mystical, some are conversational and some are gigantic and stagey. But they all rely on the magician’s ability to make one action seem like another.

The magician Noel Qualter differentiates between what he calls sleight of hand and flourishes. In sleight of hand, the viewer/participant sees nothing at all of the underlying mechanism. The act can seem simple, even skill-less. And yet, the outcome is never as we expect. With flourishes, the magician does all kinds of showy mechanical manipulation—fancy cuts, the coin rolling across the back of the knuckles, all acting as a kind of misdirection for the real work going on unseen.

Sleight of hand is pure craft, the endless practice that allows a manipulation to be not merely obscured but convincingly unseen. The magician has to not merely master the props and the hands, but also the face and the patter. No hesitation or furrowed brow at the moment of truth, just fluid movement, seamless across the before and the after.

Writing is a form of sleight of hand. When it works, the viewer/participant stops thinking about letters and words and sentences, and just falls completely into the world of ideas and characters and problems and opportunities. Every decision a writer makes is in service to sleight of hand, the invitation to let the reader feel as though something else is happening. Something larger that can’t be predicted by the mechanical facts of spelling and syntax.

I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and most of my tricks are now just native. I can employ them in different forms, but my readers are pretty reliably lost to the illusion rather than just watching my hands. And that’s no accident, just practice. Lots and lots of practice. And I keep trying to learn new tricks, to expand my repertoire. There’s always more craft to take on, and to respect.

The reason I raise this question today is because I’m working on two different stories at once, and in both cases, I haven’t manufactured the next step of the illusion. I’m watching my hands in the mirror as I do the next part of the trick, and in both cases, I can see the mechanical move. I can spot the drop or the pass or the force that ought to go unseen. And if I leave it that way, it’s going to be visible to you, too, and the magic will at that moment crumble entirely. The illusion will disappear and we’ll just be left watching a shuffle. So I have to push past “good enough” to “exactly right.” Good enough is rarely good enough.

I think that’s a lot of what people talk about when they use the term “writer’s block.” Sometimes it’s that we’re sick of the craft, that we don’t feel like we’re learning. Sometimes it’s that we haven’t heard the idea or the character speaking to us yet who’s worth days or months or years of our time. But often, I think it’s those long periods of watching our hands in the mirror and saying, over and over, “Nope. Nope. Close… Nope.”

It’s super frustrating, that time before the right sequence of motions makes itself evident. I’ve gotten used to it, and I have confidence that I will be able to manufacture the illusion again. But it always feels clumsy, until it doesn’t.

Keeping Up with the News

She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, speaking of Mrs. Bennet

Isn’t this the best, most polite description of gossip ever? “Visiting and news.”

I once read a line by a retired urban reporter who’d moved to a rural place, who said that one of the very first things he had to learn in his new home was how to lean. Most of the conversations between men in his community took place while leaning on a truck fender at the store, or leaning on a fence post while taking a break from field work. A friend and I catch up on conversation every hour or so while we’re splitting wood, in the few minutes that we’re refueling and getting something to drink. A lot of it has to do with our neighbors, as casual conversation often does. A study by researchers at UC Riverside showed an average of 52 minutes a day spent in workplace gossip, with no meaningful difference between men and women.

There are a few people in any town who act as large-capacity gossip conduits. They’re extroverted and like to talk, and they interact with lots of people and thus have lots of source material to draw from. These informal information networks can become something like the small town version of a think-tank: when you have a problem or an issue that’s troubling, you turn to the people you’ve leaned against the truck with for forty years, the people you’ve had church-fellowship coffee with since your grandma was the head of the altar guild. That’s both natural and problematic. It closes us off to new ways of thinking, and deepens the channels already dug.

Our sources of social information are just as much sorting mechanisms as our sources of professional media information. It’s been almost fifty years since Jim Duncan’s famous study of the two communities of Bedford, in which he found that the long-time WASPy residents and the recent Italian-American arrivals kept to themselves in every way. They lived in different parts of town, belonged to different clubs, sent their kids to different schools, and had entirely different values for the appearance and messaging of their homes and landscapes. Our little town is much like that. The people who used to go to Nan’s potlucks and the people who are members of the volunteer fire department are a Venn diagram with nearly no intersection. The people who buy lunch at Grant’s General Store and the people who buy lunch at Sissy’s Kitchen are similarly dissimilar.

The Old Vermonters and the Flatlanders. The pickup and the Prius. The people who shower before they go to work, and the people who shower after work. We have so many ways to divide ourselves into tribes, invisible to the rest of the world but clearly spoken among those who matter, like a twin language, bonding us forever in opposition.

Over the decades, these harden into feuds and grudges. The origins are no longer precisely recalled, but every interaction offers the opportunity for reinforcement, an opportunity to teach our own biases to our kids who will carry them on in perpetuity.

And trust me, I know fully that I’m not innocent of this. I talk smack about people far too often. I make the inside joke, the cutting remark; and it makes me laugh when other people do it, too. As Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local, a wisdom born of Boston and its perpetual—often bloody—battles between the WASP academic-finance old guard, the Catholic Italians and the Catholic Irish.

And let’s go back to our originating quote from Jane Austen, its own model of demeaning the morally-inferior other. “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temperament.” You can imagine Jane over tea with her friends, chatting and smiling about the poor Mrs. Bennet and her limited world.

We need to belong. But we often do it through the mechanism of naming those who don’t belong.

Sorting Mechanisms

Not perfectly grouped, but far from random.

I’ve often thought about opening a pool room, but I know the likelihood that I’d attract the crowd that comes to pool rooms. (The American Poolplayers’ Association guide for league operators literally has pages of instructions on how to handle match outcomes if they’re interrupted by a brawl. I don’t think the Royal and Ancient Rules of Golf, for instance, laid that out in such detail.) But I think I could forestall most problems by instituting four basic business practices:

  1. No coin-operated tables
  2. No domestic beer.
  3. No televisions.
  4. No jukebox, and the sound system playing chamber music.

The kinds of people who cause problems in poolrooms wouldn’t stay more than five minutes in this one, and it would leave the place for the grown-ups.

I was put in mind of this on Sunday, when I went to the political meet-up I described a few days ago. They had a trio performing there—guitar, mandolin, upright bass. All three were good technicians on their instruments, all good singers… and I had no more interest in listening to that music than I would in watching football. Music is a remarkable sorting mechanism, dividing us not by talent but by culture.

And music isn’t alone. Every art and every craft attracts a body of people committed to that mode of work, even as others find it incomprehensible or dull. All of writing is a sorting mechanism, with readers bumping off the gates until we find the slot that fits us. Contemporary Christianity is a blizzard of incompatible readings of the same book, with literally thousands of denominations each believing that they have the direct track to divine truth (not to mention those billions of other people who are adherents of their own books of wisdom, each of those communities also subdivided into incompatible sects). Auto racing is just as sectarian as religion: Nascar, Indy car, rallies, off-road, dirt track, drag racing, F1, CanAm, monster trucks—each with committed fans who wouldn’t spend a dollar to see the others.

I just read a term yesterday that’s undoubtedly been around for a decade or more: the splinternet. We can now tune our cultural consumption to only those things that please us. I grew up with what were called “variety shows” on television, the most famous of which was hosted by Ed Sullivan on CBS on Sunday nights. An hour-long episode of the Ed Sullivan Show had eleven or twelve acts, almost always including a crooner, a pop music act, a rock music act, a stand-up comic, a comedy sketch, a big choreographed dance number, and a juggling or tumbling act. The Muppets were an early and frequent part of the show. My mother and I both watched it together every week.

The variety show fell victim to the more sophisticated demands of advertisers in the 1970s. Mere size of audience was no guarantee of advertisers’ happiness; they wanted demographics, wanted shows that would subdivide a mass audience in order to more directly target the likely buyers of their cars or foods. TV shows were the first data-harvesting tools of the modern era, allowing us to be micro-targeted with pop-up advertising (then, of course, just called commercials.) A show that a junior-high kid could watch with his 50-year-old mother did not suit the demands of the marketeers.

There are no right answers to this, just as there are no right answers to any social question. I miss the idea of the variety show, the common knowledge on Monday morning of what every kid would have seen the night before. And yet, I’m as guilty as anybody of watching TV almost exclusively now on YouTube, consuming only eight-minute bits of an hour-long show already pretty tightly targeted. I’ve never watched an entire episode at its scheduled time of the things I seek out in scraps: Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Graham Norton, Penn & Teller’s Fool Us. We microdose on our culture.

The question, I think, is whether we can encounter variety without needing to demean it or brush past it. And that’s hard, even for those of us who try to be well-meaning. I too often recoil from or just ignore the unfamiliar, and I have to challenge myself often to find the beauty in something that isn’t immediately apparent to me. It’s usually there, if I can slow down and look.

American Divorce

I was listening to NPR this morning, about the vast increase in violent and illegal gangs militias across the nation, and their common language of “prepare for civil war on November 4.” And I had the thought I’ve had dozens of times in the past twenty years: Why a war? Why not a divorce?

There’s no particular reason why the United States has to take the same form in perpetuity; it’s already changed lots of times already. The geographer Joel Garreau wrote thirty years ago about the “nine nations of America,” from the Ecotopia of the Pacific Northwest to the Caribbean cultures of the Gulf Coast. Let’s acknowledge that we have fundamentally different beliefs about a good life and about our responsibilities to one another, and go our own ways without being beleaguered by the other any longer. Cultures matter, and different cultures would benefit from their own values being more broadly enacted.

Even though there are red swaths in blue states (California’s Central Valley, Oregon’s eastern rangelands) and blue dots in red states (Austin, Atlanta, Raleigh/Durham), we would have to come to terms with geography. It’s not possible to have a political government without adjacency; we can’t be members of a different nation with a different constitution and different laws than our the other people on our street. This isn’t as simple as Ford trucks and Chevy trucks, where I can park whatever I want in my driveway. So I’d propose some version of Washington/Oregon/California out west, and some version of New England and the Mid-Atlantic on the west. That might be two different blue nations, or it might be one, but the big red one in the middle is clearly different. And that’s fine. “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” We’ve done that before. No need for shooting this time; just call it a day.

And Canada’s not an option. The population of Canada is just shy of 40 million; Blue America, the larger of the two, is about 200 million. It wouldn’t be fair to impose ourselves, like an outsized houseguest who decided to just stay. The Canadians are lovely people and all, but we can’t look to them for rescue. We’re responsible for taking on our own future.

Lots of folks will have to move from one place to another to fit their social and political choices. That’s fine, we can allow two years for migration before we establish border protocols.

I mean, this sounds snide and snarky, but I really do think that it might be time to establish an American Dissolution Commission. Divorce is never pretty, but it’s a lot better than domestic violence. There’s no reason to continue to make each other miserable.

Departure and Arrival

This is how stories work

I had an interesting day on Sunday. Part of it was catching up with friends at a masked-and-distanced meet-up for a local State House candidate who’s done a terrific job for us for the past six years. As part of that, I was able to chat with two friends we haven’t seen for eight months, and talk about writing and writers. One of them said that the thing that has always captured him in fiction, and the thing that he so often finds missing in modern fiction, is an arc of motion. That completely mirrors a metaphor I’ve used before, which is that any story is a form of travel, taking us from one place and delivering us safely to another.

The rest of Sunday was taken up with writing a story myself. All morning, most of the afternoon, and an hour or so after dinner, and I’d taken an idea that came to me on a country drive on Saturday afternoon and developed it into a solid draft of a 2,700-word story. I’m proud of it, but that’s not the point. The point is what it does. Does it do the job of being story-ish?

That’s the question, isn’t it. What is the job of being story-ish? I’m enormously weary of those stories that lead us right into the heart of an emotional morass and then end. These stories follow a “choose-your-own-adventure” theory of literature that basically says that, since the reader is doing most of the work anyway, we should leave it to the reader to imagine what they would do if their lives sucked as badly as the one’s portrayed in the story. So we quit while the father is running down the side of the freeway during a schizophrenic episode. We quit while the adult brother and sister are just learning that the same man abused them both. These stories always feel as though they’re missing the last third or so. Climax and denouement are seen not merely as old-fashioned, they’re somehow intellectually dishonest, a summing-up that is unavailable in life and thus must be withheld in fiction as well. The crisis is all that we have.

Nope. Nope nope nope. I still feel that it’s the author’s responsibility to land the plane, to pull up to the gate and lower the ramp. The author can surprise us endlessly with delights along the journey, and the destination itself might be something other than we imagined, but a story is fundamentally a trip from A to B—for the characters, and for us.

The story that stops in mid-stream is, for me, the very definition of a chapter. It is the cliffhanger that invites us to come back tomorrow, the tension suspended across reader-time until we pick the book back up again after dinner. A story—whether flash or short or novel-length or epic—is a journey that can reasonably be said to have been completed.

The twentieth century modernists and their post-y offspring were just as unkind in music and architecture and visual arts as they have been in literature. We are mocked for wanting, for carrying expectations, for having hopes. Emotion is suspect; we are just brains in jars, logical sequences, information processors, data clouds. (The human mind used to be a watch, with intricate connections and levers. Now it’s a computer, with memory storage and processing capacity. Metaphors are insidious if we leave them to be invisible.)

One of the great losses brought about by recorded music and radio was songs that ended. Magnetic tape and mixing boards allowed the sliders to gradually descend at the end of the record, and the necessity of the DJ to talk over the space between records led to songs that didn’t have to end at all except at the demand of networks and advertisers. (Now that the role of the DJ has changed, songs can end again, except in various modes of electronica and dance music, where the DJ continues to be responsible for continuous sound and songs still needn’t be composed to a conclusion.)

[If I were David Foster Wallace and this were paper text instead of a website, each of the parenthetical remarks closing the last two paragraphs would have been footnotes. The medium remains at least part of the message.]

Songs and stories are similarly linear. The composer places us onto time’s arrow and fires us off in the direction they’d aimed. Einstein supposedly said (actually, it was science fiction writer Ray Cummings, in 1919), “Time is so everything doesn’t happen at once.” But time also allows emotion, because it allows anticipation. We know what happened, and we know where we are now. “And then what happened?” we say, unable to go to sleep until we know.

If we told stories at the campfire the ways that some of our contemporary writers told them, we’d be pelted with marshmallows until we finished the damned thing. You took us up here—it’s your job to get us back down.

So that, for me, is the job of being story-ish. It begins from one whole and entire place and brings us, moment by choreographed moment, to another whole and entire place. It is, as David Littlejohn once said about teaching, an opportunity to create an experience more shapely than our daily lives.

Same Time, Same Channel

Come back again next week for another thrilling episode!

Let’s revisit an idea we started a few days ago, about the chapter and the work of being chapterish. I’ll begin by quoting the novelist Peter Ho Davies (who has a new book coming in the first week of January, hooray!), from his essay “Only Collect:”

Novels, in the most basic sense, whether we’re talking about Jane Austen or John Grisham, are machines to make us keep reading. If we love a novel, again irrespective of genre, we’re apt to say things like “I couldn’t put it down,” “I stayed up all night to finish it,” “I couldn’t stop turning the pages.” The most fundamental novelistic skill, one might argue, is the ability to keep us reading, which perhaps explains why novelists – even gifted ones – aren’t great at endings, at stopping us reading.

And yet, most novels DO stop us reading, several times. Every time we reach the end of a chapter, we are not merely permitted, but indeed encouraged to at least go to the fridge for a refill; maybe to close the book and lay it on the nightstand in the trust that we can rejoin it again tomorrow.

Why would a writer do that? As has often been said, we can lose a reader at an almost infinite number of moments in a book; why would we voluntarily give them an off-ramp? Why wouldn’t we just make a single giant chapter, like the world’s biggest bag of Doritos, and ask our readers to rip it open and gorge themselves in a single sitting? (I have no idea, for instance, how to read a book like Ducks, Newburyport. A single continuous thousand-page sentence? Any moment of cessation would seem arbitrary if the author isn’t controlling it, a sort of no mas surrender to exhaustion as we drop the book from our weary hands.)

Generosity isn’t about quantity, and it isn’t about demanding the reader’s unending attention, like the boorish party guest who just won’t shut up about the five primary varieties of beard oil. We’re inviting a conversation of sorts with our reader, and we need to encourage their active participation.

The conclusion of a chapter consolidates its ideas or its arc of action. It doesn’t necessarily resolve it; in fact, usually not. We almost always know we’re going to come back to that same problem again, that our characters aren’t done with that concern yet (or that concern hasn’t finished with our characters). But it closes a scene or a moment of a relationship by asking the reader to consider a question.

Sometimes, as in the cliffhangers of old, that question is both overt and simple. Will Dudley DoRight arrive before Nell is run over by the train? Will Batman and Robin save themselves from the evils of Mr. Freeze, or will they be turned into human Frosty Freezies? “Has the diabolical Mr. Freeze outwitted the Dynamic Duo after all? Hope for a miracle, and stay frozen in your seats until tomorrow…”

But more often, the question is implied.

  • It might be an open-ended question: how will this turn out? (knowing that there are any number of answers to that, not just two.) Ideally, if we care about the characters, an implied second question would be how do I hope this will turn out?
  • It might be a larger, broader question: will things get better for our protagonist, or will they get worse? Are we engaged in a tragedy of declining circumstances, or a comedy of rising circumstances?
  • It might be a question of how the two or three or six threads that we’ve launched will ultimately come together and reveal themselves to be one. Of how Chekhov’s gun, introduced in the first act, will be ultimately fired in the third.
  • It might be a question about ourselves as readers. How would I feel at that point? What would I do in a circumstance like this? Have I ever been as dumb as that, and been as oblivious about it?

I think that a chapter leaves us considering what’s been and what’s to come. It’s a place designed for the reader to get out their figurative (or literal) journal and do some work themselves.

Beta Testing

Women’s fiction is an umbrella term for women centered books that focus on women’s life experience that are marketed to female readers… There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to men.


My brother-in-law is retired from a high-powered executive career, and with new time on his hands but the continued need for full strategic investment, he’s been forwarding news bits from the New York Times and the Washington Post and and Politico and HuffPost. Mostly, I let the rain fall without comment, but I occasionally click on a link.

The good news is that, like browsing in a library, I almost always see something in the adjacent sidebar that’s much more interesting than what I came to find.

A couple of days ago, that was this article by Andrew Reiner, called “It’s Not Only Women who Want More Intimacy in Relationships.” In this article (a preview of a coming book) he talks about the ways in which all of us, men and women alike, are trained to understand what men should do, and should want, and should merely endure. The cultural fetish for competition and stoicism and command are taught to us, repeatedly: by entertainment media, for sure, but more importantly by teachers and parents who themselves learned it as simply right and true.

Reiner talks about a common moment in a relationship:

it goes well for these men the first time they make themselves vulnerable. After that, though, the warm reception cools. They’re often met with such responses as ‘You’re much needier than I thought you were’… Another common reaction from female partners is one they have long endured from men: “They’re told that they shouldn’t get so worked up and emotional about things.”

I once described my body of fiction to a thirty-year agent who’d made much of her career and her livelihood representing women’s book-club fiction. As I talked about the goal of writing books in which men could experience the construction of a more satisfying self, she said, “You’re asking men to think about their emotions. They don’t want to do that.”

She has no empirical evidence for that statement. It’s merely learned mythology, just as masculinity itself is a learned mythology. And just as encompassing.

Real alphas don’t let women tell them what to do, whether those women are women’s libbers or debate moderators or the governor of a major state. Real alphas see the world only in competitive terms: attack and defend. They’re governed by a binary switch, their responses toggled between two positions.

I already know, if the Reddit-bro community ever read my novels, what they’d call them. They’d be cuckbooks. A clever wordplay that indicated how unsuitable they were for real alphas. (Sorry, boys, I already made this one up. Find your own.)

Real alphas know what women should do with their bodies, what they should do in the workplace, what they should do at home. We’ve always known that alpha-ness is threatening to women’s autonomy. But it’s threatening to men’s autonomy as well, and the only acceptable way to resolve that threat is to adhere to the rules of the game as played. As Susan Faludi wrote over twenty years ago, the level of cultural messaging about appropriate manhood aimed directly at men is profound. “And men respond profoundly—with acquiescence.”

Beta life is unacceptable. To men and to women. And that’s why it’s brave.

You know why the first public semi-release of new software is called a beta test? Because the alpha test was shoddy and misshapen and not worth showing anyone. The alpha test is the first draft, the sketch, the things we’d be embarrassed to have out in the world. Let’s create a beta masculinity. As our lead Alpha has often said, “What do you have to lose?”

But damn, it’s gonna be an uphill trek. It’s like clearing out the house in an estate sale, there’s just a LOT of debris to go through. Some of it can be reclaimed, but a lot of it will have to be discarded. Like this. And this. And this. We breathe this air every single minute, men and women both.

And like anyone on the forward edge of a cultural change, we’ll be labeled. We’ll be deviants. We’ll be unnatural, working against inherent traits of sexual evolution. We’ll certainly be opposed by masculinist constructions of religions in which women are to be subordinate “protected,” and men are to be assholes “leaders.” We’ll be repellent to readers of fiction in which men take charge, and women are swept into the whirlwind of romance. Or fiction in which men take command, and women are protected from evil.

We’ll have to clean ourselves of the debris as well. It’ll be too easy, too comfortable, too right to just fall back into the rules we’ve learned so thoroughly. And we will, sometimes. We’ll lose our vigilance, drop back into the channels that have been dug for us. They’re deep and pervasive, awaiting every weary moment. They invite us back to the reassurance of understanding our place.

Real strength isn’t compliance. Real strength is embarking on a path that we consciously choose, knowing that we might never reach a destination but that the trip itself is worthy, and that others might follow the rough trail we’ve begun. (Or not. Autonomy is no guarantee of success; it’s merely the opportunity to live as we see fit.) We have the right—and the responsibility—to define ourselves as we see best. We only get one self, right? We should make it ours, not a shadow of someone else’s.

The Scroll and the Click

Writers were so far ahead of this…

So yesterday, we talked briefly about paragraphs and chapters. They can’t be defined very well outside their contexts; they’re tools that do the work of being paragraphish, or chapterish. So what is that work?

A paragraph is like a course in a chef’s tasting menu. It gives us a moment to pause and to think about what we’ve just encountered before the next dish comes to the table and reorients our experience. (Each sentence is its own fork-full of the dish… and if the dish or paragraph is well-crafted, each bite is its own small revelation about the components and interactions that make up that larger experience.)

A chapter is the evening at the table. A sequence of dishes, nicely timed and well-thought-together, that make up an experience that comes to full closure. For instance, here’s the traditional order of service at Downton Abbey.

We begin with hors d’ouvres and cocktails in the library. Perhaps the simple colonial Gin and Tonic, its brightness and herbal notes contrasting nicely with a roast beef and horseradish tart, or a tiny croque monseur. The drink in one hand and the canape between thumb and forefinger of the other, we please ourselves with our cleverness.

We are called to the table, where a light broth soup will ease us from liquid toward solid pleasures. But we’ll remain light with our third course, a poached salmon with a light hollandaise to remind us that we are adjacent to the ocean and its related blessings of colonial exploitation.

The fourth course is a turn from sea to land, to the estate itself: roast grouse, perhaps, brought down that morning by your gamekeeper—or, if you’re feeling familial, brought down by your visiting nephew on the morning’s hunt. (Your sister’s son is a disappointment, but family concerns are kept quiet in broader company.) A small accompaniment of rice steamed with parsley and chives.

The fifth course is known as the removes. It is an episode of its own, in which the service staff clears scraps and sides in preparation for the second movement. In typographical terms, we might think of it as a section break, a moment of nothing that signifies quite a lot.

Ah, the attendants begin our seconds with the sorbet course, doing work akin to that of the earlier clear soup; a light, bright reframing of our attention. That little introductory phrase is followed by the largest and most elaborate of the courses, the roast platter. The rack of lamb, the sirloin roast glistening with duck fat… the big carnivorous mass surrounded by roast cauliflower and potatoes and carrots, each guest pointing to her or his preferences as the cart rolls by.

Good lord, that was a lot of food. Time for a bit of roughage to help digestion. A salad course, lightly dressed, a touch of pepper, thank you.

And a sweet. A small pudding or pot de creme, or a glorious scalloped tart, presented whole before being cut into tiny wedges. Sublime.

We remove to the library once again, to be met with a small platter of sliced camembert and pears and a bit of Champagne. After a few moments of collective chat, the gentlemen retreat to the smoking lounge for cigars and cognac and discussion of politics and empire, while the ladies withdraw to the parlor for tea (or perhaps a small tipple of some lovely aperitif, a new Kina Lillet just in from Harold’s visit to Nouvelle Aquitaine), a game of bridge. Perhaps we can persuade young Ella to sing one of her nice pieces that she’s learned for the coming social season.

Bring the cars around. Farewell to our visiting guests, and preparation for bed for those members of the family staying with us for tomorrow’s excursion to the Chelsea Flower Show.

Now, let’s think typographically about what just happened over dinner. Each paragraph, in doing the work of being paragraphish, was about the multiple components of an individual course. It was a fully contained service, with individual sentences and clauses revealing its different components. And it came to a brief close, during which we consolidated that experience before encountering the next.

And because you’re reading this on a computer, what physical action did you take? You used that opportunity to scroll slightly, centering the coming paragraph on the screen for ease of comprehension. You don’t scroll mid-paragraph, unless the paragraphs are long and ungainly. You scroll where the white space tells you to scroll.

The section breaks were the markers of the different acts of the play. The moments where we moved from one room to another, one way of thinking to another, one large subdivision of time to another. Just as a comma and period both do different kinds of the same work of momentary hesitation, the section break is simply an emphasized paragraph break, alerting you that some larger new experience is soon to arrive.

And now that we’ve reached the end—of the chapter, of the post, of the evening—you are permitted to take your leave. You will click rather than scroll, the episode retreating to memory. Tomorrow, or the next URL, will bring its own pleasures.

Lovely to see you. We look forward to your return. Be well.

The Things We Know, but Don’t, Not Quite

In which the seemingly defined becomes blurry…

Nora’s been listening to a lunatic spinning guru, sort of a Yoda of yarn, named Abby Franquemont, who goes on these long conversational journeys about what is fiber? and what is spinning? And as part of one talk, she defined yarn as fiber that has taken on yarn-ness.

How do I know when it’s yarn? At our most basic…I know it’s yarn when it does the job of being yarnish, when it does what yarn should do, when it holds together, when it’s structurally sound.

We spend endless time worrying about what something is, but maybe the better question is what something does. When it does the job of being yarnish.

My friend Aimee says that the paper-arts community is occasionally riven by the definition of paper. Good scholarship is often difficult to place disciplinarily; the boundary between sociology and social psychology and anthropology determines faculty hiring and course catalogs far more than it influences ideas. When I was teaching academic writing at Duke, we had long conversations about the definition of a paragraph, which ultimately fell to simply being a typographic device that does the job of being paragraphish.

Every genre of the arts falls into this question. What is a movement? In the peak of prog rock, side 2 of a record was occasionally a single song, 25 or 30 minutes long. But it had subdivisions within it, sometimes marked as movements but sometimes just understood to be there wherever the pace or the instrumentation or the basic theme changed. The shift from one movement to another was the moment of rest and reconsideration between major thematic ideas.

What is a paragraph? What is a chapter? I think they’re the length of time the writer wants to hold your attention on a particular idea or action, concluding with carefully choreographed moments of reflection and internalization. When we end a paragraph, it’s because we think you’ll need a second to take in what just happened before you embark again. When we end a chapter, it’s because some larger theme has played itself out, and you can safely set the book down and think about what you’ve just seen for a few minutes.

All of the rules of typography, rigid though they may have seemed when learned from Sister Toni Marie in 9th grade, are just tools that the writer uses to guide your experience. A period at the end of a sentence seems like a straightforward, rigid moment of conclusion. But that period could be replaced by an exclamation mark! Or maybe a question mark? Or could trail away into ellipses, as though there might have been more to say…

Does a parenthetical remark (like this one) always get parentheses? I don’t know. It might feel different—in some undefinable but real way—if we separated it by em-dashes.

There are serious writers who say that any typographic emphasis within a line of dialogue is a marker of a miswritten dialogue. That if a word is bolded or italicized or CAPPED, to reflect how the speaker might have sounded, we haven’t cast the sentence right; those emphases should just fall from the reader’s lips as though inevitable. To which I say bullshit. Look at a musical score sometime. It doesn’t just tell you the right notes at the right times, it gives you thousands of other instructions about each note’s connections with its neighbors, about volume, about little Italian states of mind that we should inhabit while we play. And that’s what we do as writers, right? We offer instructions for reading. We slow you down and speed you up, we hit a note hard or let it almost slide past, its effects unnoticed until later.

A blog post is a chapter. It’s a typographic structure that demands a certain length of engagement, and fills that length with a coherent sequence of ideas. It’s designed to be set aside at its conclusion; sure, we can binge-watch twenty episodes in a row, keep hitting “previous post” on the blog, but in the writer’s head, each one is an idea that is designed to be set aside from other ideas by a mouse click. A chapter is an idea that is designed to be set aside from other ideas by the reader going to sleep… or by putting the book down and doing some chores. A chapter holds you for its time, and then gives you permission to leave.

Another chapter will come tomorrow.

~A, but A

I love sudoku. I loved tenth-grade geometry. I loved my GRE section on Analytical Ability. And I loved freshman year Philosophy 250: Symbolic Logic. You give me any kind of logic problem, lay out the postulates, and stand back.

I mean, it’s really interesting that I went into qualitative rather than quantitative research, because I love logical pattern. Card games, board games, probabilities… I was in a graduate statistics course of about 30 students, and finished the semester with a z-score of 2.4. (Look it up. I dare you.) Given a different upbringing—or set of postulates, if you will—I could totally have become a mathematician, or an engineer, or a card counter at blackjack.

Here’s an example. Given a perfectly circular disc of any size, a compass and a straightedge, how would you find the center of the circle? And how would you prove that your answer was correct? I love that shit.

Anyway, I completely remember how much fun I had grinding my way through these gigantic logic proofs, using the logical forms of modus ponens and modus tollens, a hundred or more steps to get to the . (I am, as you can tell, just geeking out all over again just thinking about it.)

I worked at the town dump today on our bi-annual Large Waste Day, during which people can discard ranges and sofas and garage doors and barbecue grills. I worked at our regular transfer station, handling household trash and recycling and electronics, while our regular attendant worked the large waste site, because he loves to scavenge things. Once we closed at noon, I drove down to the other site to hand over the cash box. And as we were chatting about the news of the world, one of my friends said “I don’t want to wish anybody ill, but I hope he gets sick enough to really know how much harm he’s caused.” (Oh, come on, you know what I’m talking about.) And that led me to think about a common rhetorical structure that I’ll call ~A, but A —>~~A. (or, in English, I will assert that A is not true; but then I will assert that A is true; that implies that you should understand the double negative, that I really do not believe that A is not true.) In other words, starting a conditional statement with something you don’t really believe, and are about to prove false. You’ve seen this a million times, but just haven’t thought about it in terms of logical operations. Here’s maybe the most common example:

[I’m not a racist], but [some stupidly racist thing] implies [yes, I really am racist]

That’s the form that my friend used at the dump. [I don’t want to wish anybody ill] but [I hope he gets sick enough to really know how much harm he’s caused] implies [I really do wish him ill].

You know this form. You’ve probably used it yourself.

  • I wish it weren’t true, but… (meaning It IS true, and I’m going to gloat about it)
  • I probably shouldn’t say this, but… (meaning I’m perfectly justified in saying this)
  • I know I’m not all that smart, but… (meaning I’m smarter than you…)
  • I’m just a simple guy, but… (meaning I’m more sophisticated than you give me credit for)

This is such a common rhetorical trope that I’m sure my friends who really are rhetoricians can tell me the proper term for it. It’s kind of like bug spray that we coat ourselves with before we go into the field: we hose ourselves down with “I’m not a racist” so that we can go out and say racist things with impunity. And like bug spray, it doesn’t work, but it makes us feel better.

So save us all some time, and leave that first clause off there. We can hear you just fine without it.