Fascinating, but not so fun to drive…

Back when I taught in architecture school, one of my courses was called Year One Seminar. I had all of the incoming students in one space, and gave them an abbreviated heads-up for what they were about to encounter. About how their curriculum would work, and about how Boston worked. About the economic and the spiritual value of professional life, and about the joys and stresses of academic life. One student called them sermons, which is probably about right. (And there’s a whole story behind that, which I’ll tell you someday.)

Anyway, as part of one of my sermons, I said something one normally doesn’t hear in a school of architecture. I made the assertion that no one in human history has ever wanted a building. People wanted to make more money, or to have a happier family. They wanted to have smarter students or more rapidly recovering patients. They wanted a symbol of their power, or of God’s power, or of community cohesion. They wanted to be dry and warm and comfortable. And they bought a building because they thought it would help them have those things. Architecture students, I said, were outliers because we cared about buildings as things; nobody else does. For everybody else, they’re tools or symbols or experiences. (If I’d understood this when I was younger, I would have gone into interior design, where we work with people’s desires at a much finer and more tactile scale.)

George Bernard Shaw once famously said that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity. But to turn that on its head, every profession is also a focus on the invisible work that brings about visible experiences. Most of us just want to drive our cars, and we’re lucky that there are a small number of people for whom cars themselves are interesting technical exercises. We don’t want to go to a hospital, we just want to be healthy; we don’t need to focus on how hospitals work, but we’re fortunate that there are other people who do.

Where professions go astray, when they do, is that they lose track of the fact that they’re working on behalf of a lay audience, that most of us don’t really care about their tricks and their specialized practices. They foreground the technical and theoretical knowledge of their profession in a way that actually distracts from the experiences that the rest of us want. Hospitals, of course, are a great lesson in this, as are airports and high schools. If you’ve ever felt like you were being moved through space and time like a machine part, just an object to be appropriately scheduled and handled, you’ve been in a space that is thought of in its professional terms rather than in experiential terms. Timothy Snyder, in his book Our Malady, says that during his recent hospital stay, he was given three medications, and each was on a six-hour cycle. But the six-hour clock for each started from its first moment of administration, and that first administration didn’t happen all at once for all three… so he was awakened at 10pm for one drug, and then again at 11 for another, and then again at midnight for the third. It wouldn’t have taken much to get all three onto the same cycle, but the hospital didn’t see him as an exhausted human who needed to sleep; they saw him as a technical demand to be precisely scheduled.

Whatever we do, whether chef or engineer, teacher or athlete, we are called upon to inhabit a paradox. We are asked to master the details of our trade, to learn new things every day, to raise our level of skill and precision. And we are simultaneously asked to make all of that invisible, and to focus on what really matters. To not brag about the things we can do, but to downplay our skill in favor of the experience we hope to foster.

Writers live this paradox as well, and are equally subject to its professional failings.

I’ll make the same argument about books that I did about buildings. Readers don’t want books. We want stories. We want the experience of being removed from one world and placed wholly into another. We don’t want technical gimcrackery, we don’t want the flashy flourish that calls attention to itself; we want all of that to fall away so that we can be fully absorbed in other places and lives.

But alas, the poor writer has only gimcrackery to fall back upon. We need decades of practice at working precisely with letters and words and punctuation, with point of view and verb tense, with document layout. None of that should be overt for the reader, but every single bit of it is overt for writers as we do the work.

And when we share our work with other writers, we often forget the lay experience we hope to foster, and focus entirely on the techniques we’re seeing. We talk about theme and metaphor, about the position of the narrator and the manipulation of chronology. We get under the hood, behind the curtain… and we forget that there are readers out there who would be distracted by all of our tricks, who just want to get on the plane and go for a journey.

I think that writers’ groups and MFA programs and literary analyses can lead us astray, because of their inevitable focus on insider issues. We start to admire our own cleverness, start to forget the vast lay audience who just want to read and not think about our authorial ingenuity. Writing awards often go to books that are clever rather than compelling, because they’re juried by people who privilege the craft over the experience. (Architectural awards almost always go to buildings that are clever, because there’s so rarely any discussion in design education or design practice of the experience of going to a library to use a library, of going to a concert hall to hear a concert.)

William Hubbard’s book A Theory for Practice: Architecture in Three Discourses is specific to the practice of architecture, but I think that it has broad applicability across professions. Hubbard describes the design of a building as having three interested parties, who hold three sometimes incommensurate sets of values. In Hubbard’s terms, the three groups use different discourses to describe what a building does.

  • The client describes the building as an instrument, interested in its effects and outcomes
  • The designer describes the building as a problem, interested in its analysis and order
  • The public describes the building as an experience, interested in its contribution to a good way of life

A book is the same as a building. A client (publisher or agent) strives for money, prestige, and industry influence. The writer addresses the problem of the book at hand, the myriad technical decisions that make up the whole. But the reader cares about none of those things. The reader wants to momentarily leave World One and enter World Two, to fully and unreservedly inhabit this other place through these other people.

Writing for readers is just different than writing for other writers, and certainly different than writing for publishers. These discourses frame the uneasy paradox that we’re all called to live within, no matter what path we choose. If professions are to be modes of service, we need to place the service at the center, rather than ourselves.

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