A Dish of Material Culture

Go on, have some more.

A friend sent me a link this morning to the Cook Political Report, and their 36 interesting statistics about the recent election. One of them was striking, a perfect example of what has been called “a blinding glimpse of the obvious:”

Biden carried 85 percent of counties with a Whole Foods Market and 32 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Back in the 1970s, the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky was trying to firmly identify American “culture regions,” and was looking for ways to know when you were in the North and when you were in the South. He examined speech patterns, religious memberships… and decided that the most reliable indicator was to go into a grocery store and look for lard. In the North, it would be in one-pound blocks; in the South, it was in ten-pound tubs.

Likewise, in 2001 after the heat of Bush/Gore, when the whole red-and-blue Americas trope took off, the writer David Brooks spent some time driving back and forth between a blue county in Maryland and a red county in Pennsylvania that were about an hour apart (writing for the Atlantic). He said that no matter how hard he tried, it was impossible to buy a restaurant entree in a red county that cost more than $20. In that article, he wrote that Cracker Barrel was “Red America condensed into chain-restaurant form.”

Food matters. Food had ethnicity and social class and regional history baked right in. Here, just have a look at these two restaurant home pages.

The first is from Atalier Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s award-winning restaurant in San Francisco. The home page video is ballerinas, the oceanscape, a genderfluid couple walking down the beach. The message here isn’t about how wonderful the food is, the message is about how elegant and sophisticated your experience will be. And at one thousand two hundred dollars for two with wine, one expects sophistication, doesn’t one. The Michelin Guide has awarded Crenn three stars, meaning “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey!”

The second is from the New England favorite, Ninety-Nine Restaurant and Pub. No stars, no ballerinas, no scenery, and everybody is clearly cisgender-conformative. The corporate history page says “Charlie wanted to give locals a place where they’d always feel at home. A place where they could get no-nonsense food at down-to-earth prices, and where they’d be treated right by people who had a passion to serve.” Two people could get out for forty bucks, if they’d had a beer with dinner.

Let’s dig into Charlie’s statement a little further. He wanted to serve “locals,” because real people don’t travel for dinner no matter how many stars somebody got. A place where they’d “feel at home,” be “treated right,” not some uppity bullshit with French words and too much silverware, where every interaction brings the risk that you could do something wrong. A place with “no-nonsense food at down-to-earth prices,” not a place where there’s one fussy little thing on a giant plate wearing stripes and a hat.

Food is culture is economics is politics. Spending more money for less food = sophistication. Spending less money for more food = common sense. And when we don’t even share a vocabulary, how can it surprise anyone when we don’t share politics?

My parents had come from different kinds of social class backgrounds. When they argued, which they did, the worst thing she could call him was a hillbilly, and the worst thing he could call her was a snob. Which they did.

This class warfare played out in every possible aspect of their decision making. She drove an AMC Matador with the Oleg Cassini interior. He drove a succession of used pickup trucks. She drank—when she rarely did—a Grasshopper. He drank—when he did, frequently—Pabst Blue Ribbon. She bought a French Provincial living room furniture suite, and had a mural of some vaguely classical landscape painted on the living room wall. He stopped coming home, because it didn’t feel like his home any more.

If someone gave you a gift, say $60,000 to buy a new vehicle, your choice would be related to your social class. I might, for instance, buy a Porsche 718 Cayman, but most of my neighbors would prefer a Ram 3500 Laramie. If someone gave you a $1500 restaurant budget, you could go for a lovely evening at Crenn (using the extra to fund some of your Michelin-approved travel to San Francisco), or you could go to Ninety-Nine… every week for a year.

Scholars talk about material culture, about the ways in which our things tell stories about our values. But really, we’ve always known that even without the term. Everything we buy, everything we eat, everything we wear, is a message about “the good life,” however we define that to be.

Now, let’s broaden that some more. When you think of “comfort food,” what comes to mind? Mac ‘n’ Cheese? Mashed potatoes? Or sweet tea and barbecue? Or kimchi and japchae? Or enchiladas and rellenos? Or Tim Horton crullers and poutine?

Food is a language with which we speak. And like any language, it will feel easy and familiar to some, entirely alien and opaque to others. Go to Dunkin Donuts and ask for a medium regular. Everybody in New England knows what that means, but no one anywhere else will have a clue. I went into a neighborhood coffee shop in New York one day, one of those beloved holes in walls, and I asked for a tea, reflexively giving the size as “grande.” I was nearly bodily removed.

Another blinding glimpse of the obvious: thirty years ago, I was in a doctoral classroom where the topic of long-term housing for seniors was on the agenda. Our guest for the day said that we were used to bad, mushy food in trays being called “comfort food” because the seniors in homes had all been white Americans born in the 1910s and ’20s. We won’t provide real comfort through food, she said, until we learn to broaden our definition of comfort.

If we could all agree on whether we wanted to eat at Crenn or at 99, life would be a lot easier. But we don’t. Much less would we agree when our choices are expanded to also include a crab shack, a tandoori, a taqueria and a chips shop. And that’s part of the fear of “globalism,” a world in which our own choices and values aren’t taken for granted, aren’t seen as native and unquestioned, are seen as merely one option among many. For some people, that’s exhilarating; for others, disorienting.

Our choices are choices. They aren’t native, and the others aren’t wrong. We come from a long line of language and objects and foods, and other people will have come from their own equally long histories which lead them to make different decisions. When we dismiss or demean something even as simple as someone’s dinner, we do damage to the ideas of free will and democracy. All of us need to do better at being curious, to turn less easily toward judgment. That’s one of my resolutions for this pending year.

Be safe, be generous, and be curious in 2021.

The Subject and the Object

The design firm Pop Chart Lab has taken the first lines of famous novels and diagrammed those sentences. This one shows the opening of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (from National Public Radio)

For about ten years, I did an annual summer coaching event for faculty members at a mid-sized private college. For a week, the participants had the permission to do nothing but write, while I and a friend led discussions about writing strategies, and read and reviewed and commented and cheer-led their work every day.

At the beginning, this writing retreat was sponsored by their academic division in the natural sciences, and so all of the participants were biologists and chemists and nursing faculty. Having been academically trained first in architecture and then in the social sciences, I had comfortably passed courses in calculus, statistics, physics, and building energy analysis, but I have never taken even ten minutes of chemistry, and remember nothing from my biology survey course aside from the slaughter of fruit flies as we tried to do rudimentary genetics. I am, when it comes to most areas of science, a half-intelligent layperson. And at different iterations of this retreat, I’ve been faced with a lab paper on the nutritional influences on folate uptake and production in drosophila melanogaster, a grant proposal for the acquisition of a Shimadzu QP2010 Ultra High-End Gas Chromatograph Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer, and instructions for classroom experiments in undergraduate physical chemistry (a field universally known by its rapper name: it’s P-Chem, yo…). I used to tell them that when I read their work, I was just praying for a verb, because I didn’t understand any of the nouns.

Verbs do the work of argument. Phenomenon X exists, or causes, or amends, or inhibits, or enables. You don’t really need any of the nouns to understand the basic claim of an argument. You just need to know that something does something, usually to something else.

Nora and I have recently started watching Season One of The Crown on Netflix, so we’re only four years out of date. The show is a sumptuous portrayal of unimaginable wealth and rigidity, a world in which mighty power can be exercised only when it’s kept squarely on the rails of convention. “The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, break the spell,” Churchill warned the willful Princess Margaret. The role is greater than its holder, and convention is privileged above individual desires.

Writing has its own conventions, built to support different illusions. The illusion of objectivity in science is upheld by the rigid conventions of scientific writing, in which there is no subject, no unique consciousness allowed to intrude. The premise of objectivity is that facts exist in the world, equally observable to all, equally defined and described by all, and that our individual role as observer is irrelevant. You would never see a scientific procedure described in this way: “Then I chose to use a dilute form of the compound, because I wanted to see whether the material would react at that lower level of concentration.” No, it simply isn’t done. One mustn’t insert oneself into it. The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, break the spell.

That level of subjectivity is all over real science, of course, and talked about easily and comfortably in the lunchroom and over drinks at the conference. Scientists talk about their work as though they were humans, about the decisions they made and the hunches they played and the guesses they called hypotheses and only discussed after they panned out. Science is filled with informed intuition, that we might try some action and we expect it might turn out a particular way. In fact, describing science as something people do is a standard practice for the recruitment of young proto-scientists. Science is fun. It’s a human activity with particular satisfactions for particular kinds of people.

But once we put on the robe, or the lab coat, we take on a legacy that simultaneously empowers and constrains. We inherit the mantle of Science, and in so doing set ourselves aside.

One hesitates to compare one’s own condition with that of the Monarch, but I find myself about to enter that same dilemma: to adopt the form, or to express a subjective consciousness. Specifically, I have contracted to write a handbook on academic assessment. But as I’ve led the online workshops that have culminated in this commission, the most common bit of praise I’ve heard is some form of “You make it seem possible. Not so scary.” And I’ve accomplished that through speaking as a person who has conducted assessments, as a warm and comforting and colloquial guide to the practices—and more importantly, the attitudes—of informal but productive research. I mean, if I can do it…

My goal for this handbook is that it carries that sense of reassurance, that sense that perfection isn’t necessary, that small steps can be immensely powerful. But that’s not how academic handbooks are. They carry not only their own work and their own intentions, they embody a lineage of handbook-ness, of matters settled and sealed. Their procedures are exportable to any setting. Readers turn to handbooks for “best practices,” hoping to be resolved of individual responsibility. The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, you break the spell.

So, like a young member of the royal family, I will embody this tension as I carry this project forward: how to express a voice that’s welcoming and reassuring and enthusiastic, to actually make human contact with a reader… while simultaneously carrying the authority that I (and my client) hope will foster confidence. Will there be a subject doing the verbs of guidance? Or will the guidance simply exist?

It’s remarkable how much social power our words carry. Grammar relies on tradition and community every bit as much as it conveys meaning. When someone uses the term “wordsmith,” I know that person hasn’t thought carefully about writing, imagines that words are simply poured from the vat and hammered into useful form, a horseshoe or a hinge. But writers consider every single decision about sequence and synonym, about the presence or absence of the writerly subject, about the difference between a strong verb that conveys emotion and a meager verb that requires an adverb to prop it up. With every decision, we place ourselves somewhere on that spectrum between individual and role. We choose which traditions to uphold, which to amend, which to cast aside. And we seek out the guidance of the elders to keep our willful selves in check.

The Homebuilder

I don’t have a credit for this compelling, albeit perhaps creepy, image…

We talked a bit yesterday about how wonderful it is to write, and how fraught it can be to have written. Today, I want to go back into that immersive space of writing, and talk more about how and why it matters.

Last week, I picked up Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a small collection of essays she’d already published as individual pieces (most in the London Review of Books). The essays are all dispatches from the early months of the pandemic times, and collectively, they do a marvelous job of reminding us just how emotionally dense this time is, and that it oughtn’t to be a surprise to any of us if we feel lost now and then.

Every so often, a piece of writing hits me so strongly that I feel compelled to type it out myself in order to understand it, to embody it, to have those ideas come through my own hands. One of Smith’s essays, “Something to Do,” meets that standard. Although I have the full text as a .docx file because I typed it, I’m not going to reproduce it in its entirety: she’s donating the proceeds of the book to COVID-related charities, so just go spend twelve bucks and buy the thing. But this essay really drives home the relationship I laid out yesterday… do we write a novel or make brownies?

If you make things, if you are an “artist” of whatever stripe, at some point you will be asked—or may ask yourself—“why” you act, sculpt, paint, whatever… the surest motivation I know, the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away—as it is at the moment—seems to be at the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit: it’s something to do… Now I am gratified to find this most honest of phrases in everybody’s mouths all of a sudden, and in answer to almost every question. Why did you bake banana bread? It was something to do. Why did you make a fort in your living room? Well, it’s something to do. Why dress the dog as a cat? It’s something to do, isn’t it? Fills the time.

This sounds enormously nihilistic, laid out cold in the first paragraph of an essay, this notion that writing a novel is no different than dressing up the dog for an Instagram photo, that it’s merely a neutral choice of how to fill the empty minutes.

But then she works her way into an idea borrowed from another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, who wrote “Without [love], life is just ‘doing time.” Smith then talks about the ways in which empty time takes on meaning when it is used to express and receive love, and the ways in which any of those choices we make about time can be made powerful and meaningful if they are used to indirectly create love.

Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through—that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world— and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand—than by those surrounded by “loved ones.”

When Nora and I spent three full days making cookies, and then another day driving them around town and dropping them off, it was clear that this was an act of love. That it was a way to say, to the 15 or so families who received them, that they were valued and recognized, and that we were grateful to have them in our lives. The cookies were a statement, a speech act, clear and fully recognized.

What about the novel?

I read an interview today with Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor and Park is one of the most fully realized books I’ve read in ten years. And she talks about the experience of being an “overnight success,” but also how difficult it is for her that Eleanor and Park has become slotted as a YA novel. She’s delighted to have a teen audience, and yet…

But it still feels weird because sometimes I feel like people expect me to be thinking of my teen audience at every step, like I came to town and said, “I’m here to serve you, teenagers. What do you want?” I didn’t do that. I didn’t write Eleanor & Park thinking, What’s the best book I can write for a teenager? I just wrote it thinking, What book do I want to write?

What love does writing embody? To whom does it offer itself? Not to readers, that anonymous mass the writer will almost never meet nor hear from. No, I know my answer, and it won’t be popular, or broadly understood. But I’m committed to it.

Writing is, for me, an enactment of love for my characters. Those absolutely real, absolutely whole people who let me see their lives (and their obsessions and their shames and fears, too). I may not start there. I may start with an interesting intellectual question, an idea to explore, a setting that has come to mind. But before long—if I’m doing it right—I come to know, to understand, and to love the people I’m writing about. I write their lives because I admire their lives, because I believe that their lives deserve recognition. I feel the duty to bear witness to them, because I love them. They ought to be known. Ought to be seen.

In my writing book Slush, I liken my role as a writer to that of a designer creating a home for clients.

As a writer, I play the same role as the designer or builder of a home. I am not a member of the family who lives there, and cannot be. What I do is to facilitate the pleasures and the growth of that family, and to help them welcome friends to their table. I want them to be not merely comfortable, but to be loved, to be successful, to discover strengths they weren’t sure they could muster. I bear the same responsibility to my characters that I always imagined I would bear to the residents of the homes I might design. And what of the friends who visit? That would be the body of readers, unimaginable and ever changing, people invited and people who drop by. My goal, as a writer and as a designer, has been to allow the written family and their home to be so engaging that people want to stop by.

I have a whole philosophical thing about how fictional characters are real people, albeit within their own contexts, but that’s just me trying to understand my own complete conviction that Clay and Thanh and Camille deserve to be seen and loved. That Robert and Charles and Bess and Luther deserve to be seen and loved. That Svetlana deserves, after two decades of a safe and hollow marriage, to be seen and loved—if not by Dicky, then at least by us.

By me.

That’s all I have control over, in the end. I cannot manufacture readers. I cannot ensure that Svetlana’s life will be acknowledged by anyone beyond myself. But I owe it to her to make her such a full character that if she were introduced around, others would find her engaging. Would respect her, would enjoy their time with her. I have built homes for Svetlana and all the rest because I love them.

And there’s why the having written is such a challenge. I don’t care if you love me. But I want you to love Svetlana, and David and Gwen, and Tim and Nik, and so many others. And I have not fulfilled that responsibility once the book is over and the Word file is closed. I want them to be able to invite you over and tell you their stories. My work as the homebuilder is completed but not fully manifested until you sit at their kitchen table. Maybe with a brownie.

The Doing, and the Having Done

Well… here it is. Anyone? Anyone?

I don’t like to write, but I like having written

Frank Norris ~1905

One hates to take issue with an idea that has been quoted (and reinvented) for more than a century by writers as substantial as Dorothy Parker, Larry Gelbart, Gloria Steinem, and George R. R. Martin—but they’re all wrong.

I love writing. And I hate having written.

I love almost everything about writing. I love to type, and to feel the pressure of the keys through the six fingers I use to do almost everything on a keyboard. I love the arch of my hands over the keys, the bend of my elbows, the way that my left thumb rests against the side of my right hand while I’m thinking about the right next word.

I love hitting the return key, a momentary marker of a finished paragraph. “There, that’s done,” my right hand says, and the cursor jumps down a line, prancing at the start of that open blank field like a dog that just can’t believe it gets to chase the ball all over again.

I love coming back to the surface every few minutes like a snorkeler, leaving the immersion to conduct a quick review of the last work before diving back down.

I love it when my characters tell me I haven’t looked closely enough at them yet, when they tell me that I’ve had them say something artificial, something imposed rather than received. “Yeah, well… it’s sorta like that, but…” When they trust me enough to tell me I’m wrong, then they trust me, and it won’t be long before they let me in further, when they’ll forget that I’m there and just go on about their lives. (Or not. The ethnographer always changes the scene. Maybe they’re modifying themselves ever so slightly, curating the parts of their lives they’re willing to share with me and withholding the rest. Likely so.)

I love setting up the style sheet in Word. For a few books, I let Word choose Cambria as my default serif typeface. (Always serif. I don’t write sans-serif books.) But for the last two books, I’ve grown tired of Cambria, and have written in Garamond, a face that automatically makes the books three percent better. I love setting up what the chapter headings will look like, what the section dividers look like, how the table of contents auto-populates and how it refreshes itself when I start a new chapter. I love changing the file name to reflect today’s date in the morning before I open the story again to carry it forward.

There is absolutely nothing about writing that I don’t like. It is, for me, an ideal mode of being.

Having written, on the other hand… It’s a marker of futility, a reminder of the weight of the world after having spent joyful months in the zero gravity of immersion. I can look back at the book with pride, see the surprising ways in which themes emerge in the reading that I hadn’t consciously planted there while writing. I can take pleasure in revisiting my friends, like going back to see old college classmates at the lake every summer, to remember why I loved them so.

But what else will that story, that book, do in the world?

Will my work make me money? Almost certainly not, and I don’t really care. I don’t have to make my living from fiction, and writing fiction provides almost no one a living anyway. (Teaching fiction, on the other hand, can be a decent gig, and supports the vast majority of writers working today.) That’s not why I do it. The whole process of trying to sell the thing is agonizing and shame-filled. To describe it in terms that are alien to it, to someone who’s trawling in the muddy water for only the trophy bass and who screens out everything else that comes through the dredge net, is demeaning to everyone involved. As I’ve written before, agents and publishers want money, so offering them something that I don’t have a strong financial interest in is just going into the wrong kind of market. They want a Chuck Palahniuk or a Maya Banks, someone ruthless whom they can ride just as ruthlessly to their mutual financial advantage.

Will my work make me famous? Well, probably not, and I don’t really care about that, either. Like many kids of the 1960s and 70s, I can imagine my ten-minute turn on Johnny’s couch (now Graham Norton would be the pinnacle moment), but that would just mean that I’d have to wear something nice and have my picture taken, not a great prospect. I’d do better to be on Terry Gross—radio is more my medium of publicity. But I’ve never thought of fame as a goal, have no desire to be a Kardashian of any variety. What good are three million likes? Likes are just another unit of currency, converted to dollars at some unknown rate of exchange. So are ratings stars on Amazon (4.5, with 47 reviews) and Goodreads (4.02, with 127 ratings… I mean, not that I look or anything.)

Really, what do I get from having written? What do I want to have gotten from having written? Look at that gallery in the photo at the top of the page. Years of labor mounted on the wall, and for what? For whom? And how would we ever know? What’s the return cycle of communication there?

When The Adjunct Underclass came out, I got maybe two dozen very kind letters saying that I’d given someone hope, or that I’d at least made them feel not alone. Those were remarkable, and I’ve held those close to my heart. A couple of those folks have become personal friends, and that’s enriched my life as well. But Nora and I delivered a dozen plates of assorted handmade cookies to friends around town today, for a far greater ratio of joy and appreciation to effort. Maybe cookies are my pinnacle contribution to the world.

Brownies are a far more reliable gift than a novel, it seems. We hear in detail about which of the dozen types of cookies grabbed someone’s affection, rarely hear how the passage on pp119-120 was the one that grabbed someone’s heart. When our friends tell us they liked our work, they say it was really engaging and wonderful; when they tell us they liked our cookies, they say “Oh my god, those raspberry rugelach! I’ve never had anything like that in my life. My husband and I had a fight over the last one; he’s in the bathroom bandaging his hand right now from where I stabbed him with the fork.” As with fiction itself, the specificity is convincing.

It doesn’t make any sense to write for money, because there isn’t any. And it doesn’t make much sense to write for the love of your readers, because that’s pretty scarce as well. If that’s what you need, make brownies.

Or go back to the work. If we love to write, we will write. If we merely love to have written, we will endure writing, for a while, more or less, until something more immediate captures our attention. We will find another more reliable, more effusive means of getting that larger thing that we need, if writing itself isn’t it.

More tomorrow.

Genetic Markers

From Crocopotamus, by Mary Murphy

I feel like I am the product of other writers. Their influence on me is scary to think about. It’s an honor, but also it interrupts your sense of self to know how much of you is Alice Walker. How much of you is June Jordan, who’s dead. You feel like she’s alive in you. How much of me is Durga? I didn’t really know much about film before I started reading Durga on Cassavetes. How much of my instruments of observation have been influenced by her? I like thinking that every writer is just an amalgamation of other writers, because it is a little scary and disorienting. What is writing if not grotesque?

—Doreen St. Felix

I’ve had several writing teachers, the sort of overt coach-editors who look over your shoulder and wonder aloud along with you about how something is working and what you might try differently. Some have been marvelous, and I’ll name the most important ones here in chronological order: Paul Groth, David Littlejohn, Judith Kenny, Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, Elizabeth Branch Dyson, Peter Ho Davies.

But they didn’t teach me how to write. Or why.

That came, as it always does, just from reading. From reading and reading and reading, and knowing what parts of the bestiary of language are somehow most compelling, and reading those again, and drawing in through osmosis what it is that those writers have done to create that impact that they’re having on you.

Our writing selves are an unnameable assembly of influences—both admirable and disreputable—that somehow become commingled, and then expressed through us.

Unlike the kids’ make-an-animal flipbooks, though, it’s not always easy to know which part of our writing anatomy can be linked back to which origin. The Crocopotamus can be identified as the head and shoulders of a crocodile, the torso and back legs of a hippopotamus. But DNA doesn’t really work that way. Our writing history coils and connects with our own desires in unique and unpredictable ways.

I look at my own writing life, the artifacts that have been left behind as books and newsprint, inkjet pages and .docx files. And every so often, I’ll see traces of Joan Didion in a sentence, like looking in the mirror while shaving and suddenly noticing that I do look a little like my brother. I have a character who arrived last week, pretty clearly influenced by an unseen character in the Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr: the disembodied advisor over the phone who says the things that the characters within the story can’t say. I haven’t read an Anna Pigeon book in three years, it wasn’t on my mind at that moment. But that person lives in some protein connection somewhere within me, and was bound to be expressed.

We can’t help who we’re influenced by, just as we can’t help that our father’s family were Scots-Irish Confederates and our mother’s family were English Puritan New Englanders. That’s all beyond our influence. But I remember going around the table at Bread Loaf three years ago, as we talked about influential writers by way of introducing ourselves, and knowing that my choices were clearly marking me as lowbrow. I mean, that was clearly NOT the room in which to talk about how much I loved the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. No, that was a place for one-upmanship, a place to talk about how much you adore the work of some obscure novelist while the rest of us murmured pretend-approving noises even as we’d never once heard of this person you named. (I have to say, though, that Netflix has made me a hero. I’ve been touting the work of Walter Tevis for twenty years, and The Queen’s Gambit makes me look prescient. That book was 37 years between publication and TV adaptation, but now it’s back in the bookstores again. As is true for children, sometimes it takes a long time for our gifts to be acknowledged. But I can’t go back in time to that conference table and say told ya so…)

Somewhere in my DNA twist are tiny genetic scraps of Tevis and Stout, of Didion and Barr. Of Gia Tolentino and Emily Nussbaum, of Jon Carroll and Alain de Botton. But those are only the nameable ones, the genetic markers that have been studied most closely. I’m also made up of thousands and thousands of anonymous writers who produced scripts for TV shows and cartoons, who wrote articles for Hot Rod magazine and Reader’s Digest and little jokes on those risqué bar napkins. I’m descended from stand-up comics, Lutheran pastors, adult-bookstore paperbacks, cereal boxes. I can occasionally catch a glimpse of Hannah Arendt from 1958, but I’m just as likely to see a Hamm’s Beer ad from 1962. Just as we all have distant, half-Neanderthal origins somewhere in our genetic line, all writers have other writers we could never name but who appear in some trait we’re scarcely aware of ourselves. We have genetic predispositions that will only be known after the fact.

Obsession and the Writer

You probably don’t need to know the history of how rubber bowling balls were supplanted by polyester were supplanted by polyurethane, and how that mirrored the change in lane surfacing from shellac to lacquer to water-based finishes. You don’t need to know why the warranty of the Columbia Sur-D bowling ball of 1974 was voided by the mere fact of drilling its finger holes, what a Yellow Dot serial number beginning with 8R represents, what the Brunswick LT-48 stands for. But I do.

You probably don’t need to know the difference in staple length between the fleeces of a Polwarth and a Blue Faced Leicester and a Romney, the difference between clockwise twist and counterclockwise twist (and which one is called S-twist and which is called Z-twist). You don’t need to know the appropriate fibers used on a treadle wheel and on a great wheel, the implications for household domestic production when the bat’s head was supplanted by the Amos Minor accelerating head. But Nora does.

These are the practices that mark us, the bodies of knowledge that come from a life of attentive focus, the things that we just know, the things that don’t matter outside our small universe.

Our fictional characters are no different. They are imprinted by their obsessions, the knowledge that they have sought out in the pursuit of that one great thing. Robert and his billiards, Tim and his choral music, David and his table tennis, Gwen and her mathematics, Clay and his focus on receptivity and hosting. Samuel and his wood tools, Rebecca and her flax. In order for readers to truly see these people whole—not merely see what they do but the spiritual force that drives them—readers need to be introduced to those obsessions. We’ve all played pool, and so we fall back on our kindergarten-level understanding of what pool is and what it means until we’re guided into a deeper understanding of its precision and its variety, its risks and its pleasures. You cannot understand Robert until you understand the galaxy of possibilities that are contained within those rails, and the ways that he considers them. You have to see the table through his eyes, and through his thirty years of history with the games that can be played on—and around—that cloth.

The danger, the delicate balance that writers walk, is between showing too little of the obsession, and having readers say, “yeah, he plays darts, so what?” — and showing too much, introducing the detail between knurled and smooth dart barrels, between oval and fan-tailed dart flights, between the thick round wires that separated scoring zones of your parents’ generation of dartboards and the thin oval wires that separate the scoring zones of contemporary tournament boards. We’re always searching for that precise recipe of showing enough detail that you’re carried into the secret world, but not so much that you’re either overwhelmed or bored with it all.

And a character’s obsession is a vastly powerful tool for the writer, because it shows you character like nothing else can. Show me the thing that she’s learned for decades, that she’s drawn back to endlessly, and I can tell you everything else I need to know about her. It’s not merely action, it’s why that action matters so much.

There’s been lots of articles about the Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit, and Nora and I both enjoyed the show enormously. But if you really want to understand Beth Harmon, you have to read the 1983 novel. Walter Tevis gave us a character who didn’t really want to be the best chess player in the world, not really. What she wanted was a life in which everything was as pure and clear as the chess board, in which strategy and analysis were the water of life. The writer Sarah Miller said that she recommended the book to her friends this way:

I promised them that anyone who has ever felt lost, rejected, or underestimated while nurturing a fierce, mute hope that something residing deep within them might somehow save their life would love this book.

Sarah Miller, “The Fatal Flaw of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’,” New Yorker, December 1, 2020

That’s what obsessions do for us—that fierce, mute hope that enlivens us in the face of all else. And that’s what the writer risks everything to portray, even as we know that one drop too much will spoil the meal.

We walk our readers right up to the edge of tolerance, even as we know that some are daredevils who’d prefer to go further and others want to stay protected a hundred yards back. I don’t really know where that boundary lies for any individual reader, so I’m left with my own judgment. Worse than that, I’ve done the research that it’s taken to know what matters and why, which makes me already an unreliable judge of the tolerance of others. My frontier of interest is way further out than most people’s just because I’ve spent months to know the things that this character must know. I’m no longer a representative reader; I’ve been infected by some of that obsession myself.

Writers must allow ourselves to be carried down the same stream as our characters. We have to know what they know, fear what they fear, want what they want. If we hold them distant, our writing will instantly fail, schematic and flat instead of lived. And then, after the story is told, we step away from it, try to regain some distance from those obsessions, decide on the appropriate reduced dosage for our readers’ benefit. And we’ll likely be wrong. It’s the hardest decision a writer will make, I think, because it asks us to empathize with not our characters but our readers, far more imaginary and less understood. We haven’t lived with YOU for months on end, after all.

So when a writer goes overboard with the details of a profession or a way of life, know that they’re doing it not to show off, not to mansplain, but from a place of love and enthusiasm. We commit errors of exuberance, knowing that when it works (once in a rare while), it’s perfect.

The Herb Childress Official Christmas Catalog

Washed Duck, by Aimee Lee

Every year for the past six or seven, Nora and I have driven down to see the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts’ CraftBoston Christmas show at the Hines Convention Center. We usually make two full days of it, one day to browse the 175 or so booths and the second day to shop. We always tour in opposite directions, so that we can talk with artists and pick out things that the other one won’t see until it’s too late (ha!).

But in this pandemic year, the holiday show—usually a fundamental part of how artists and craftspeople make their living—isn’t available to us. So I thought I’d do some beloved people a favor, and recommend their work to you. Imagine that you were walking from booth to booth, and had a chance to stop and chat. It would reward your time to visit their websites, and just to slow yourself down and browse and read and look around.

When Nora first saw the work of Bonny Hall, she told her “Now I’m going to have to get pregnant just so that I can give my kids your animals!” We have a pair of Bonny’s Beasts, and they lend their vast enthusiasm every time we see them. If we have anything like a totem animal, it’s one of Bonny’s dogs. We aspire to be as joyful as they are.

My friend David Munyak has been turning wood here in Middletown Springs for a long, long time. I think I probably have eight or nine of his turnings (plus a pair of salad scoops, just because they’re comfortable). He just sees wood in ways that I don’t have many precedents for. The grain comes alive in his hands, turns into shapes and curves that are just brilliantly wonderful.

I met Aimee Lee when she reached out to me after reading The Adjunct Underclass. And our friendship has been one of the very best things about that book. She’s just so smart and so committed to both the visual and material character and the cultural history of paper, and to bringing a new generation of viewers and students into the craft. Nora and I are the proud owners of one of her ducks, looking out the window at the garden. And I also have one of her handmade artist’s books, which I keep next to my writing desk as an inspiration for those inevitable lonely, difficult days.

I met Kurt Meyer seven years ago at CraftBoston, and seek his booth out every year when I return. He is a master of geometry: sometimes precise and mathematical, other times revealing the patterns that already live inside the wood that he presents. We have some of his ornaments, as well as a wonderful and intricate jewelry box. And if you’ve paid any attention to the media world in the past few months, you’d know that The Queen’s Gambit is the biggest thing on streaming TV this year. (Watch the Netflix show, but read the book, too, one of my long-time favorites.) Chess has become such a big thing this year that chess sets are in short supply. But you can get one from Kurt. And you should.

Jewelry comes in thousands of flavors, and tastes will all vary. But when Nora wants to reach for a necklace-and-earring set that’s light and easy and eye-catching, she puts on the “Vertigo” work from Meghan Patrice Riley. It’s simultaneously simple and unique, super light, and you won’t find anything else like it.

It’s a good thing we like our friends. Otherwise, I’d have to wonder about questions of inappropriate harassment every time Nora wears her goddess pendant from Carolyn Morris Bach. People instinctively reach for it, stare at it, want to touch it. It has magical powers. It lures people in, perhaps too close.

I already told you about Kurt and his chess sets. But if you’d like to learn to play pool, I’d have you come visit for some lessons… and I’d have you invest in a cue from Thierry Layani of Quebec. The engineering is ingenious and productive, and the visual craftsmanship is absolutely stunning. (And we’d be using Aramith balls, and playing on a first-generation Brunswick Gold Crown table, covered with Simonis worsted-wool cloth. These tools are not merely fun and games; they enable spiritual growth.)

Christmas and Hanukkah and the new year are coming, thank god, and it’s the appropriate season for gifts. I would wholeheartedly recommend a gift from any of these wonderful artists. Sure, you could get your love another pair of socks, or some gimmicky bullshit from the Sharper Image or Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs that’ll break or be stuffed in the back of the closet by February. But if you want to give the blessing of repeated engagement and lasting fascination, these are the crafts you want.

Options and Choices

Take a spin and see what happens.

Engineers know more and more about less and less, until eventually they know everything about nothing. Architects know less and less about more and more, until eventually they know nothing about everything.

Anonymous folk wisdom

In the past four days, I’ve had half a dozen ideas of things to write about here. Each on its own would have been fun and interesting, but one of the problems I’ve always faced is too many possibilities. I’m just interested in a lot of things, and that has its own power. When you appreciate a diverse array of fields, it gives you the power of metaphor, of seeing one thing in terms of another, of making connections between things that people normally see as discrete.

But when you know one single thing… wow, you can be really great at it.

I’ve recently finished a novel called Leopard, in which I play out one of the reasons I never wanted to have kids. Would I encourage my kids to develop a thousand interests, to be the “well rounded” person with sufficient Velcro to stick to any circumstance? Or would I encourage my kids to be monomaniacal, and thus have the opportunity to reach truly elite heights of performance?

Here”s a passage from Leopard, in which a US Olympic coach is talking to his junior team members:

“I’m going to give you some names,” he said, “and I want you to tell me what they have in common. Ready?” We all nodded.

“Round One. Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams.”

Tennis players. “Yes, but more importantly.”

World champions, world #1’s. “Yes, but before that. Let me add some and see if it changes your mind. Ready? Simone Biles, Shaun White, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wayne Gretzky, Martina Navratilova, Danica Patrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Pioneers in their sport.

Greatest of all time.

“I’ll add a few more. Beyoncé. Hilary Swank. Leonardo DiCaprio. Emma Stone. Bruno Mars.”

Now we were all just lost, quiet.

“I’ll tell you what they have in common. And they share that same trait with Xu Xin and Ma Long and Timo Boll and Jan-Ove Waldner and Chen Meng. They decided, when they were really young, that they were going to dedicate themselves fully to their talent, and they chose training over college.”

What would it be like to be that good? What would it be like to be trained from birth, to have coaches and agents compete for you, to be drawn ever forward into the next level of excellence? And what would it be like to leave everything else behind?

In a strange bit of meta, the story line for Leopard was suggested to me by a character from one of my other novels. (Yes, they’re real people, shut up.) Katie, in her first date with Colin in the book The Opposite of Control, was talking about wanting to write a young adult book related somewhat to her own childhood as an elite gymnast:

“So I have an idea for a character, she’s fifteen, an athlete, and she and her best friend are on a team together. I don’t know what sport yet, I could do gymnastics but that feels too easy. I’m thinking basketball, or track, or something. Anyway, they’ve been friends practically since before they were born, their moms knew each other when they were teenagers. And they’re both terrific athletes, both have colleges coming to recruit them. But one of them wants a kind of more normal life, wants to date and go to college for math and play other sports. The well-rounded kid, right? And the other one wants to be in the Olympics, wants to be the best in the world, and she knows that means that she has to miss out on almost everything else. She can’t play a musical instrument, because there’s no time to practice. She can’t play softball, because she might get injured. She can’t go out with friends, can’t hang out with boys, because she’s either training or practicing or doing homework or sleeping. She doesn’t even go to, like, birthday parties, because there’d be Taco Bell and a birthday cake, and she can’t eat anything but her training diet.”

“What a great premise,” he said. “And they’re both jealous of the other one, a little bit, having the life they didn’t choose for themselves.”

“Exactly right. They completely love each other, they’d do anything for each other, but their relationship is coming apart a little, partly because they’re envious, but partly because they can’t just hang out the way they used to.”

That little snippet—three-tenths of one percent of one book—became an entirely new book three years later. Being a generalist is a trait good for a writer, because it allows you to empathize with a hundred ways of life. But you always look over your shoulder and say “what if…?”

When I was a kid, I wanted more than anything else in the world to be a professional bowler. I was good at school, I loved the pastor at our church, I liked to sing, but there was something about bowling that was truly spiritual for me, a set of bodily and intellectual expressions that could have been made manifest in no other way.

I chased that goal until I was 25, becoming awfully good but realizing in the end that I would never be good enough. But I grew up with another kid who went further. A kid who won a regional professional tournament when he was 16, a kid who got a job in a bowling alley in junior high and high school exactly and only because he could afford to practice. He had no interest whatsoever in school, went to class only in order not to go to jail. He never had a girlfriend, never had another hobby. He was purely a bowler. The very best I’d ever seen.

He made it to the lowest level of professional competition before his anger and his frustration and his drinking derailed him. He went back home and went back to work in that same bowling alley, which is where his memorial service was held when he died at age 54.

Several years later, in my early 20s, I had moved to another state and continued to compete, and ran into a couple of other bowlers who had come specifically to Amarillo, Texas to be part of the West Texas State University bowling program, at that time the equivalent of Duke basketball or Alabama football. They were far and away the two best bowlers I had ever known. One of them, Bud Loveall, went out on the tour for four years before going into a career in IT.

The other, Jack Jurek, also went out onto the tour in the mid-80’s (he’s the guy in this clip who’s smart enough not to wear pants with two different-colored legs) before moving back to his hometown and buying a bowling alley. But he kept competing, and won two professional tournaments, in 1996 and 2009 (at age 46), and now coaches at Villa Maria college in Buffalo.

What is a life made of? What makes some people resilient and others brittle? What is it that led Walter Ray Williams to win 47 professional bowling tournaments, and Jack Jurek, as great as he is, to have won two? And Bud Loveall, a national all-star, to win none? And my high school friend to die early and broken, and have his funeral in a small-town bowling alley? And me to be a writer?

I don’t know that this essay is about anything. It’s the musings of a committed generalist, someone who’s lived my life knowing an awful lot about an awful lot of things, able to make loads of connections while always wondering what it would be like to be the very best at one thing.

If there’s such a thing as karma, in which we are reincarnated in order to learn some lesson that we couldn’t in an earlier life, I might have been really good at one thing in my last life, and needed to be sent back to see another way. Or I might get to do that next, to learn a new way of singular excellence after this broad life. (Or I might become a cow, who the hell knows?)

The river of time flows downstream and fast, and we can’t row back to see what was out that other tributary. And any of us who believe we know what’s further ahead are just deluding ourselves. But we can always wonder.