What I Know After Seven Weeks

Tell us more, professor!
(image by m accelerator, via Unsplash)

So I’m going to need to take this week off to do professional stuff. Don’t count it against my clock.

Last week was a little slower, also because of some professional work, but I made an interesting discovery, through remembering something that a reader had said to me four years ago. My lead characters have sometimes had doctoral training, because that’s a way of thinking that I just understand. So they’re driving from an apartment in Minneapolis to a farm in southeast Nebraska, and the drive puts them in mind of Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory, because of course it would, right? Or they stop at Starbucks, which reminds them of the gravitational centralization of capital. I mean, who among us wouldn’t have those thoughts.

Anyway, a few years ago, I was at Bread Loaf writer’s conference, and one of the readers of that story said, “I love that this guy has these little PhD mini-lectures.” It’s like Tourette’s, right? He can’t help himself, it’s just an involuntary genetic thing.

One of the things that writers have to guard against is expository dialogue, in which one person tells some dense background thing to another person who sits there passively to receive it. That’s not how dialogue works; linguists have found that the “median length of utterance” among American adults is about ten words. Dialogue, for most people, is a series of relatively brief exchanges. Every so often, someone gets a Shakespearean soliloquy, but it’s rare, and has to be used sparingly.

But what do professors do? We get soliloquies every time we stand at the lectern! It’s like stand-up comedy: I talk, you laugh. In the lecture classroom, I talk, you think “wow, that’s really interesting!” (Seminars are different. They’re the land of brief dialogue where everyone gets their moments.) So now, every time Cale gets a bug up his butt to talk about Jean Anyon’s Hidden Curriculum of Work or something, I’m literally calling it out, formatting it in a box with a different typeface, and delivering it as a “little PhD mini-lecture” directly to the reader. It’s like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, it’s a purposeful removal from the movie to drop a little idea-bomb on you, to reframe your attention for what’s coming.

This stuff is so much fun I can’t stand it.


Hey, let’s go back to that book I took with me to Bread Loaf. It’s called The City Killers, and it’s about a young couple who discover that a crushed industrial town is about to be taken over by the state, possibly for somewhat nefarious larger purposes. Think Chinatown crossed with the Flint water crisis. Plus some tournament darts, and some choral singing, and some intervention in domestic abuse. It’s pretty cool.

And thirty copies of it will be on my porch by tomorrow afternoon. Want one? Let me know. No charge; this is my self-imposed tax for citizenship in the nation of writers.