Me, or not me?
(Image by Elijah Sargent, via Unsplash)

So yesterday, we talked a little about the phenomenon of languishing, and also about whether fiction can ever be anything other than essays in drag, moral lessons camouflaged by fake names and invented circumstances.

Let’s come at that a little sideways today, by talking about the idea of alienation. Alienation is the phenomenon of feeling separated from that which ought to feel native or inherent. Marx wrote a lot about alienation as the natural fate of the industrial worker: separated from the entirety of the made thing, not being able to identify one’s own contribution to the complex whole, not actually owning the materials or the processes or the machines or the final objects but simply being adjacent to them as they went along their own independent paths. Marx’s predecessor Georg Hegel wrote about the idea of being “at home” (zu Hause) as increasingly being an unavailable state for us moderns. If we can live anywhere, then we have no true home. If we can do infinite kinds of work, then we have no true livelihood. If we can make ourselves better (or worse) people, then even the notion of “human nature” is invalidated, becomes a proposition of alternatives rather than a known and singular state.

It’s no surprise that, in the face of this uncomfortable fluidity, people sometimes become desperate to limit their alternatives and name one as true. Whenever we claim an identity, we’re in part staking boundaries around what is permissible and what is not. Boundaries around what is even thinkable, and what is not. To be “a Vermonter,” for instance, is not the same thing as someone who exists in Vermont. It is a claim of some immeasurable but firmly-fixed truth. We often look to God or heritage or legacy or party or genetics or something to name us as firmly X rather than any other letter, and then take reassurance in our X-ness.

That surety is a comfort unavailable to good writers. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once wrote that every good anthropologist he’d ever known had felt himself or herself to be a misfit when they were growing up. And I think that must be true. It’s that sense of misfit that allows us to look directly at the unspoken rules that we never quite figured out. If someone imagines that everyone lives (or ought to) like they do and thinks (or ought to) the way they think, then that person has no idea that the ways they live and think could ever be studied and questioned and expanded. They just are. And in that unexamined comfort, people can be zu Hause.

The fiction writer can never be at home. Fiction is dedicated to the proposition that everything could have been otherwise. A bad “plot twist” is an occurrence that’s inserted to jump-start a failing story. But a real plot development is just the recognition that today might be the day that the ladder falls, or the day that we realize our job can’t be salvaged, or the day that girl finally admits how she feels about us. Any day can be that day, and honest fiction requires that our characters become at least fractionally different in the face of that new world.

The fiction writer must always carry ambiguities in evaluation. A good job has aches within it, just as a bad job has its satisfactions. A good marriage, a good place, a good person are all sometimes bad for exactly the same reasons they’re good. There are days when we are gratified and days when we are stultified, even though the external phenomena that “cause” us to feel certain ways may not have changed.

It would be nice to believe that we understood the world, to inhabit the lower ranges of the Dunning-Kruger spectrum in which we’ve asked so few questions that we don’t imagine questions are even possible any more, just assertions. It would be nice to imagine that either Santa or St. Peter has anyone firmly listed on the naughty or nice column. But the more we know… the more we pay attention and wonder how and why… the less stable we can ever be in naming any person as fully knowable, in naming any phenomenon as fully understood.

It’s curiosity that keeps us from entering into essayistic fiction, from making our characters into marionettes dancing at the ends of our strings. But it’s that same sense of never-at-home-ness that makes the writer’s life emotionally fraught. We are strange creatures, bred to live in the atmosphere of alienation, like deep-sea fish who endure enormous pressures and extraordinary cold. And because it’s so uncomfortable, we’d like to flee sometimes, head up to the beach and get some sun. But once we’re there, we look around, wonder why, and with a sigh, submerge once again.


A little beyond tenth grade, but the same principles and methods apply

So I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, afflicted with what the New York Times has accurately called languishing. Just a general sense of ehh… Part of that comes from having been finished with one project but not yet having another. Part comes from my most current batch of books, which should have been here three weeks ago, having finally been shipped on the 24th… but with UPS being overwhelmed by the holidays, their tracking website doesn’t think the boxes have even left the printing plant yet. And part comes from what I was writing about before my hiatus: will what I’ve written be troubling or offensive or difficult for my friends and neighbors and family to hear? I told Nora a couple of days ago that I feel like a child operating heavy machinery; I could really hurt someone without intending to.

Anyway, Nora read that six-part miniseries I wrote in early December on fiction ethics, and said that she’s really missed that part of my writing, the essayist with his head cocked sideways like a dog, trying to work something out.

She and I are both lapsed academics. We grew up with essays at every other spot in our genetic code, essays are as much a part of us as our hair color or our height. We both love to be enlightened by someone who’s thought through something we’d half considered, or by someone who’s connected something we understand to a whole other ecology we hadn’t seen as related. Connecting the dots reveals a pattern, but deciding which dots to connect is the work of creativity.

Because we are who we are, both of us are both drawn more toward inductive rather than deductive essays. A deductive essay stems from the impulse to say “I know something true; let me demonstrate it to you.” An inductive essay stems from the impulse to say “This phenomenon is confusing; let me see if we can figure it out.” We’re both drawn more toward people who are uncertain, who don’t think they have some master key to the universe’s meaning.

But regardless of whether the originating motive is deductive or inductive, essays (like this one) all have the same goal: improved understanding. The question is whether I’m trying to dispel YOUR misunderstanding, by delivering some truth, or whether I’m trying to dispel MY misunderstanding, by working my way aloud through a problem. Either type of essay is, by its nature, a form aimed at QED, the abbreviation of the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, or “which was to be shown.” The essay accommodates the word therefore in a way that fiction never can. We get somewhere other than where we started, somewhere secure enough to rest for a while.

Fiction, of course, gets us somewhere other than where we started too, but the journey is less stepwise and the destination less stable. In an essay, each tenuous move is cemented into place before we step out onto the next one; in fiction, every move remains tenuous for a long time, the whole rickety thing crying out for some kind of triangulation that’ll make it stiff enough to be trustworthy. Kind of like our own lives. So the fiction writer is working toward some sense of truth as well, but the nature of truth is different than it is in the essay form; less secure, more provisional. The paragraphs don’t snap together like Legos, they sort of mound up like a pile of gravel, the heap ultimately finding its own angle of repose.

A friend in my writing group was talking about Ayn Rand, an essayist who pretended to be a novelist. Her “characters” were never really characters at all, just roles to demonstrate her deductive statements about the ultimate truth of Objectivism. This isn’t surprising—her statements about the nature and function of art made that inevitable. The appropriate role of art, she believed, was to make concepts into percepts: to convert ideas into sensory information that could have emotional weight and thus more points of attachment. Art is a persuasive tool, an essay in drag, coming to a secure QED closure.

And who knows, maybe I do that, too. I believe that kindness is possible. I believe that the ends we set for ourselves can often be blocked, but that desirable alternatives can be fashioned. And my stories follow those beliefs. So maybe I’m just a deductive propagandist, too, not a novelist at all but just another hack inventing percepts that camouflage my concepts. The novel as stalking horse.

More tomorrow.

A Politics of Kindness (Fiction Ethics #6)

It’s pretty, but there’s a lot going on there
(Image by Henrique Ferreira, via Unsplash)

Yeah, I know I said I was done. So sue me. Think of it as an encore.

We went to our friends’ house last night for dinner, and to watch a webcast of the political historian Heather Cox Richardson interviewing the writer Rebecca Solnit about her new book Orwell’s Roses. In it, she contrasts Orwell’s clearly political writing with his love of flower gardening, and demonstrates how 1984 in particular was filled with the idea of the private power of pleasure—the ways in which totalitarianism tries fundamentally to control our language and thought, and the importance of reclaiming our own time and our own privacy and our own joys.

That evening followed on a message yesterday afternoon from Unitarian minister and political activist John Pavlovitz, describing what he called “cruelty sickness.”

“I sense a corporate emotional weariness in kind people these days, the accumulated scar tissue created when you’ve absorbed more bad news, predatory behavior, and  attacks on decency than your reserves can manage. Sustained cruelty will do that to the human soul… Eventually, we succumb to the numerous wounds of their boundless hatred, the suffering of those they victimize, and a steady stream of the unanswerable questions about how and why human beings can be this perpetually cruel.”

Pavlovitz’ solution is community. The ability to carry our injured until they’re well enough to re-enter the work, to offer sustenance and support to those who’ve been beaten. “We surround ourselves with people who value us not only for the work we do and the causes we support, but for the inherently vulnerable beings with finite resources that we are; those who demand that we rest and encourage us to play and give us space to pause—so that we are not consumed by the brutality of the day.”

The professional polymath Yi-Fu Tuan wrote a slim book in the late 1990s called Escapism, in which he counters the critics of “escapist” entertainments by arguing that almost all of human culture—the collective products of imagination—has been escapism in one form or another, has been intended to lift us at least for a minute above the brute facts of survival. His argument was launched by attending an academic conference that had been held at Disneyland, and finding himself surprised that he enjoyed it so much, having been trained by elite culture that such amusements are “escapist fantasies suitable only for the immature.” He follows on from that:

Suppose I move down the ladder. What comes after theme park? Shopping mall? It has been attacked as an escapist Eden for mindless consumers. Suburb? Academic detractors have not hesitated to dismiss it as a dull, middle-class playground. They prefer the city. But the city is escapist par excellence, for a city is a city—a real city!—to the degree that it has distanced itself (escaped) from nature and its rhythms. Is farm life, being so close to nature, the ultimately real? Urban sophisticates in a nostalgic mood seem to think so. Yet farmers have obviously striven to create their own world, and in any proud farmhouse, pictures hang on the wall, artificial light drives out darkness. Hunter-gatherers? They have barely modified their natural environment. They don’t have the tools. But they do have the tool of language, and with it they, like all humans, have woven an alternative or complementary reality to which they can resort for support in times of stress and in which they can take delight.

In 1912, the textile workers of Lawrence Massachusetts went on a strike that has come to be known as the “Bread and Roses” movement: the idea that dignity is as important as sustenance, that a life merely of bread is not as human as a life that encompasses both bread and roses, a life that climbs up Maslow’s hierarchy from safety to belonging to the continual growth of imagination.

That, in the end, is what I’m trying to do with my little stories of hope. Things will be hard, and they will get harder, but in the end, my characters find within themselves the power to be brave, to be kind, to be greater than they had been. And my hope is that through them, readers themselves may find moments of delight and strength that allow them to imagine that they, too, might be brave and kind and greater than they had been.

Service Industry (Fiction Ethics #5)

See anything you’d like? (Image by Roman Kraft via Unsplash)

This is the fifth and final of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

About twenty years ago, I was listening to an NPR piece about the spillover effects of the Hollywood writer’s strike. Shows and films weren’t in production, which meant that lumberyards weren’t selling building materials and hotels weren’t booking rooms and airlines weren’t booking flights. The upscale restaurant industry was hit particularly hard, because nobody was making production deals or pitching new projects. One of the restaurant owners they interviewed, fantastically successful for fourteen years to that point, talked about how tenuous the success of a restaurant can be, how every night is its own event with its own possibilities for pleasure, or for falling short.

And he let us in on his ritual. Every night when he was the last person out of the building, he would lock up, then turn back and pat the door. “Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow,” he’d say.

The Australian economist Colin Clark developed a theory of economic development that divided economic activities into four sectors:

  • Primary—pulling raw materials from the earth. Farming, mining, timbering, fishing, and such.
  • Secondary—manufacturing objects from those materials.
  • Tertiary—”the service economy,” providing goods and experiences and services to others.
  • Quaternary—finance and governance, organizing investment and policy for millions of people at a stroke.

So where would one place the writer in this structure of labor?

Certainly we’ve been engaged our entire lives in primary work. We conduct ethnosynthesis, the conversion of observation into story. We’ve spent decades watching people, listening to conversations, wondering about relationships or social movements around us. We go into the archives, looking at old newspapers and new websites to gather more evidence. Every day of our lives has been a mining expedition, the raw materials of the world collected and storehoused within us.

Lots of writers imagine themselves to be in the secondary or manufacturing trade. They select materials from the warehouse and assemble them into new forms. This is the world that focuses on craft, on the cycle of learning—from apprentice to journeyman to master—that allows us to make solid and capable work. Artists’ education of all forms lives here, from MFA programs to culinary schools, training us to make reliable pastry dough.

The publishing world writ large occupies the uppermost or quaternary economy. These are the tastemakers and investors, the agents and editors and publishers and grants agencies who make decisions on hundreds of thousands of stories a year, and through the collective weight of their decisions, steer the ship of literary culture a few degrees to port or starboard.

But it’s that third level, the work of hospitality and service, where I think that my work as a writer is best situated. Certainly I’ve done the primary work of being an eavesdropper—in the high school where I did my dissertation, the kids included my photo in the school yearbook, with the job title “spy.” And I work daily at the craft, at the level of manufacturing sentences from words and at the level of manufacturing relationships from sentences. But I think that the real goal of the work, as it is for any pastry chef, is the provision of pleasure and satisfaction for those who choose my table. And one of the fundamental practices of hospitality is to give people what they expect, but better than they expect. To offer moments of grace within the setting of generosity.

And paradoxically, I can’t do that by imagining who my readers are, just as restaurants don’t really imagine who their customers are. (Some restaurants do, of course. Olive Garden, Jack in the Box, Denny’s. The work of market research is a quaternary enterprise, beyond the interests of the craftsperson or host.) The philosopher Rush Rhees claims that “the artist does not work to satisfy an existing audience, but to create an audience through his work.” And that’s what restaurants and galleries and musicians and writers all do—we make the things that we believe in, and then we make them available to those who would choose them. The universally appealing restaurant does not, and cannot, exist. A good restaurant is a series of unpredictable relationships between the menu’s offerings and some community’s desires, and our widely varied subcultures result in a widely varied culinary landscape.

Any good restaurant, regardless of where it lies on the upscale or down-home continuum, regardless of who chooses it, is a full expression of the personalities and the obsessions of its owners. From food choices and decor and location and service patterns, a unitary experience arises. All of that is what writers call voice, the things that the writer cannot help but do, from themes to punctuation. The things that make us “us.”

And our friends are the people who find those choices engaging. Those are the people who return to our table, who recommend us to their friends and who make new friends with those around them.

Let’s hope that people come to see us tomorrow.

Vocation (Fiction Ethics #4)

Unnecessary grace. Thank you.
(Image by Claudio Schwarz, via Unsplash)

This is the fourth of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

E. F. Schumacher, “Small is Beautiful,” 1973

Ernst Schumacher was an economist whose primary career was in British efforts to rebuild the continent’s economy after World War II. But he did other economic development consulting, including a trip to Burma (now Myanmar) to help them make the transition to independence after sixty years of English colonial rule. While there, he was struck by the implications of Buddhist practice, and thought that rather than imposing Western development upon them, perhaps he could help them develop a locally relevant economics that didn’t assume a standard path of industrial labor.

He became converted to the idea of a humanistic economics, one that placed workers and their communities rather than products at the center of organizational principles. The book that came from this was Small is Beautiful, published in 1973 and immediately recognized as an important corrective to a “rational” (or more accurately, values-neutral) economics. He turned common questions on their heads. Why do we need more wealth? Why should labor be seen as an equivalent to mechanization? “To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal: it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence.

But Schumacher was hardly alone in his insistence that Western economics was a force for disaster. Five years before he published Small is Beautiful, we heard these words from a presidential candidate here in the United States:

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Robert F. Kennedy, speech at University of Kansas, 1968

When Nora and I got married some number of years ago, we were both mature adults with fully equipped households. We didn’t need a second Cusinart or a fourth set of dishes or yet another pie plate. So we asked our friends who made things to make us something. We asked our friends who were musicians to sing or to play for us. And we asked everybody else to support an artist or craftsperson they admired.

Our vocations, placed as they are outside of our merely economic sustenance, often result in gifts. We knit or weave, we cook, we sing. We write. And then we give the work to friends and neighbors, not merely as support for their survival, but as a marker of shared values. As another link in the ties that bind.

Look at that terrazzo floor in the image of today’s post. No one will ever know the names of the workers who did that tile work. They are invisible, anonymous. It’s the work itself that has brought hundreds of years of pleasure. It is a moment of grace, in the true sense of that word: an undeserved gift offered freely.

That, to me, feels like the role of the storyteller. We offer our moments of grace to our community, and to those we’ll never know.

Collateral Damage (Fiction Ethics #3)

Oops… thought that was protected.
(image by Nathan Dumlao, via Unsplash)

This is the third of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

Yesterday, we talked about what it means when your friends and acquaintances read your fictional writing, and make assumptions about what you, the writer, must think. Most of our friends haven’t been to MFA programs to study how fiction works, about the difficulties involved in crafting the boundaries between the author, the narrator, and the protagonist, not to mention all the other characters. No, I think that most people read essays and news articles and stories all with a similar presumption of verisimilitude. In an essay, the author and the narrator are (almost always) identical; in fiction, not so much. But that’s a distinction not always evident to a lay readership. 

Vampires notwithstanding. 

I mean, if a story is outlandish enough—vampires, a long-haired girl trapped in a tower, a man who turns into a wolf every so often—it falls into the realm of fairy tale, on the obvious far side of our truth/fiction fence. If a story happened 150 years ago, or 1,500 years ago, we can do the arithmetic to understand that it must not be the author’s memoir. But anything shy of those blaze-orange literary rangefinders leads our readers to place the truth/fiction fence wherever they will, often too close to the documentary side of the property. 

Maybe fiction should come with a surveyor’s certification, naming exactly where the boundaries lie. An author’s affidavit about exactly which details are real and which are not, and what those definitions imply. That signed confession would satisfy our voyeuristic motives for reading, the reality-TV crowd, and thus truncate what fiction is actually for.

Anyway, people read my stories, and they think things about me. That’s merely annoying. I signed up for that. The hazard, and one that happens far too often, is that they think things about my family as well. If these characters do these things, then clearly I do these things as well, which means that my family does… well, whatever seems to be implied by the story.

And that’s a step I cannot bear.

Let’s go back to Peter Ho Davies and the recent book A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, which we touched briefly upon yesterday. It’s a story about a family making the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and then subsequently to have another child, and all of the emotional weight that both decisions imply. The story is told by the male half of the couple, “the writer,” perpetually unnamed. That’s fine, but Peter—the author, if not “the writer”—is not a free agent. He’s married, and has a child. He’s made the decision to tell “his family’s story,” and hints broadly that it’s autofiction, drawn but amended from his life.

Read the opening clause of that sentence again. “He’s made the decision to tell ‘his family’s story’…” His wife did not make that decision, nor did his son. But they will bear some of the weight of his decision.

Now, in part, bearing the weight of a partner’s decision is a normal part of any working life. Half of the couple gets a job in Toledo, and the partner moves alongside and tries to build a life in this place she or he might not have chosen for themselves. But as difficult as that can be, it’s not nearly as personal and vulnerable as having to bear someone else’s definition of who we are and what we did and what we thought. Peter’s wife is a professional in her own right, with colleagues and friends who now all see her differently than they had before the book. She may not have been fully out to all of her friends about the difficult family decisions she’s had to make. But boy howdy, she sure is now.

Even if it’s not true. Even if the wife in Peter’s book is not at all the same person as the wife in Peter’s house. Even if they’re utterly and wholly distinct, she now bears every reader’s “knowledge” about who she is and what she believes and what she’s done and what she thinks. She has become, for us, what our reading leads us to believe about her.

I want to come back to this idea of outing. Politically and culturally, it stems from the practice of naming a public figure as gay when they would have preferred a different level of privacy over that identity. But we can think of it more broadly as any external release of information about us, without our control or agreement.

In our social-media, geolocated age, we don’t think as carefully as we might about privacy. But privacy is one of the most fundamentally personal decisions we can ever make. We decide what information about ourselves is shared, and with whom. We might tell our best friend about that time when… but we wouldn’t want all of our neighbors or work colleagues to know about it. The core of privacy is that we get to decide what to disclose about ourselves, and with whom, and the understandings we jointly come to about what they can do with that knowledge. People tell us sensitive things only because they trust that we will not broadcast them, or use them as currency, or as instruments of harm. My clients tell me things that you will never know. My friends tell me things that you will never know. 

And the fundamental, and never-discussed, element of the writer’s family life is that the writer’s family—without any agreement, without any discussion, without any deliberation—has lost control of their privacy, has lost control of the shaping of their own narrative. The reader’s frame, whatever that might be, is now added to the evidentiary record of the family’s life, even if the reader’s frame may not be warranted by the actual facts of the matter.

Again, as the writer, I signed up for that. So somebody writes (as they have) “And boo-hoo for Childress not getting to spend his life sitting on his ass at a university collecting a nice salary + benefits. I am crying my eyes out just thinking about it.” Or someone else writes that “Childress says that Jews, women, blacks, other races, cripples, and sexual deviants (who together make up the majority of today’s students) don’t belong at university.” <spoiler alert—I said no such thing, in fact the opposite. But stupid people gonna stupid.> Being attacked and misread is an inherent part of being read at all. But my family signed up for none of that, and they’re as likely to be misread as I am, even when they’re not part of the story at all. They entered into no agreements about what they would or would not disclose, how they would be seen and by whom. They have been outed, regardless of whether or not the new story about them is warranted.

Maybe it’s time to write stories about vampires. 

But that would be a guarantee that I’d stop writing. I’m drawn to write about the familiar, helping myself understand the layers beneath the surface. When I was teaching, the very best thing a student could ever say to me was “I’ve seen that a thousand times, but I never thought about it before.” That’s the highlight-reel moment—not merely that the student was seeing this instance anew, but that they now knew that every phenomenon could be broken open in the same way. I want my readers to have that same experience, of recognizing that the quiet lives around them may have far more depth than we’re shown. 

When I wrote my dissertation/first book, about the town I called Curtisville, I had several people from all over the country approach me afterward and ask, “is Curtisville really <fill in their own city here>?” And after a couple of those, I started to answer, “If you think it’s about your town, then it is.” Because really, the goal wasn’t to have them understand some random little city on the Redwood Coast; the goal was to have them wonder whether their community marginalized its teenagers in the same ways.

So too with fiction. The purely entertainment motive of fiction is to look at the strange specimens on display. That’s what the Real Housewives franchise is about, for instance. We’re not asked to reflect on our own lives, just to look at theirs. The larger goal of fiction is to have us look inward. To say to ourselves, “I wonder if my friend is struggling in similar ways. I wonder if there’s something I could do to get unstuck. Maybe I can be brave enough today to try to be vulnerable, maybe there’s reward in that.” It’s that dedication to reality, though, that leads readers to the presumption that the work must be thinly disguised documentary, and that with a little effort, they can pick out the players behind the costume. And the power of fiction becomes, simultaneously, the danger.

As you can probably tell, I don’t have a definitive resolution to this question. I wish that Solomon would deliver me, but no. It’s my own responsibility, every day, to determine how my work affects myself and my family and my friends. I’d look forward to hearing how you deal with those same questions.

More tomorrow.

Close to Home (Fiction Ethics #2)

For the writer, a paradoxically safer place
(image by Michal Nation, via Unsplash)

This is the second of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

The writer Peter Ho Davies has published three novels, each set in radically different time and place. The first book, The Welsh Girl, is set in 1940s Wales, portraying the lives of people distant from and yet fully caught up in the war. Peter is from Wales, but wasn’t born until the 1960s, and never served in a POW camp or a tavern. The second book, The Fortunes, is four different stories of what it means to be Chinese American, as seen through four different characters: a housekeeper/railroad worker of the 1860s, an actress of the 1920s, a Detroiter of the 1980s, and a couple traveling to China to adopt a baby in the 2010s. Peter is partially of Chinese ethnicity, moved to the US thirty years ago, and so has some grounding to explore Chinese American identity, but he never laid track nor acted in a movie nor saw his friend beaten to death in a parking lot nor adopted a child.

His third book, though, is different from those two. A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, a domestic drama of a couple making decisions about parenthood, stands upon that contemporary ground of autofiction, a story in which the storyteller and author are difficult or impossible to distinguish. Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is there a meaningful difference between those two?

Our dinky little town is oversupplied with marvelous writers. We have a friend who’s spent a decade investigating the lives of Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner for an epic novel about our continual responsibility in moving closer to war or to peace. We have a friend whose career has included several books about lives of women in the American frontier West. And of course, Nora continues her investigations about one particular 19th-century family of Quaker settlers in western Vermont, and about the ways that faith and community and distant powers all shaped their lives and their work.

Nobody ever asks them whether some character in their book is “really” their partner, or their neighbor. They have the freedom to write without the presumption that they’re engaged in shadow memoir.

My work is a little different than that.

A couple of days ago at dinner, a friend said, “You don’t have to tell me, but did that town in Michigan really get taken over by the mine?” Well, no, The City Killers is a novel. And I’m glad that it feels real enough that people are worried about the fate of Warrington Heights, but Warrington Heights does not exist. Places quite a lot like it do, of course, small industrial cities gutted by capital flight and divided by racial history. And the State of Michigan does have a questionably-legal emergency management plan in which the State is empowered take over the operation of local governments (Flint, for example). But The City Killers is a wholly fictional story, informed by my experiences of similar places.

Even closer, Nora tells me that a friend who’d read Trailing Spouse identified it as a story in its spirit about Nora and I. Well, no. It’s a story about a young man with a failed career who followed his wife’s college job to Vermont. The fact that it’s set in Vermont makes it local, and the fact that Nora and I used to be in academia makes it ground I know how to walk, but it isn’t our story. (We’ll talk in more detail about that specific issue tomorrow.)

My books are thematically tied. They’re about men. Specifically, they’re about young men who find themselves stuck, not where they’d intended to go but not having a strategy for moving forward. And some event provides them with an opening, but an opening that requires them to exercise their skills and good faith in new ways. A challenge that reveals unseen facets of their selves. They’re books about bravery—not battlefield bravery, but the emotional bravery that allows us to walk into a new relationship or an old family and make them stronger.

My books are spatially tied. They aren’t all set in the same place like the works of Donna Leon or Kent Haruf, but they’re all set in places I know well. The industrial Midwest. The High Plains. The Bay Area, and the Redwood Coast of Northern California. Rural Vermont. Places that I know well enough to do thick description, not merely of the physical landscapes but of the social and historical forces that shape them.

My books are vocationally tied. They’re about characters who do work with which I’m familiar. College teaching, academic research, half-assed government consulting, hospitality. Readers have told me how unusual it is for books to really get into the unseen details of workplaces, which is something that’s always fascinated me. So I bring that to the work as well.

So in their collective effort, I suppose that my fiction is autofiction. It’s close to home, even when it’s set three thousand miles or sixty years away.

One of the things we don’t tell aspiring writers is that our first work will always, only, be read by people who know us. Not merely our ever-patient partners, but by friends and neighbors. And that raises two related problems. One is that those readers are tempted to pick at the bandage, to look at some character and say, “Oh, I know who that really is!” And the other is that they start looking over their shoulder, saying “Wow, so that’s what he thinks of us…”

If I wrote about werewolves, or King Tut, we’d all be safer. If I set my stories in Argentina or Angola, we’d all be safer. But I don’t do those things. I write about everyday people who are called upon to be brave in familiar contexts. And that in itself is brave, I think. But I’ve prepared myself to do that, through months and months of creation, each book borne upon the years of emotional and craft training that have come before. Readers catch these books cold, and the draft of self-recognition can feel personal.

We think of our obligations to readers as being formal. We entertain them, we challenge them, we illuminate the world in new ways for them. But we don’t know them. We aren’t engaged in relationships with them beyond the bounds of those pages. The early writer, though, is only writing for readers with whom there’s already a relationship in place, and that’s ground that we rarely discuss. Do we hold back, out of an attempt at kindness? Do we write only about times and places that can’t possibly be interpreted as mirror?

Do we only write about medieval vampires?

More tomorrow.

Our Dot in the Painting (Fiction Ethics #1)

How many snowflakes does it take to make a landscape?
(image by Cody Fitzgerald via Unsplash)

This is the first of several short pieces on the ethical responsibilities of the fiction writer.

I went with Nora and a friend yesterday to a regional arts show, a chance for craftspeople to present their work for Christmas purchase. A rough order-of-magnitude estimation showed about ten thousand items for sale. Ceramic mugs and baby onesies. Earrings and macrame flower pot slings. Paintings and drawings and printed note cards. Sewn dolls, knit hats, woven baskets. I looked past one of the masked artists, eager and resigned simultaneously as she sat in her metal folding chair, looked out the window at the light scatter of snow. As many unique snowflakes inside as out, each the product of its ecosystem, each more significant through collective than individual contribution. The work mostly unconsidered, effort mostly unrewarded. We browse, we pass by.

I thought to myself, uncharitably, that most of the work was somewhere between undistinguished and meager. But it was there. It provided the basis for several hundred people to have a pleasurable time browsing, and made fifty artists probably a few hundred dollars per, on average. That’s a good contribution to the world’s supply of generosity, made slowly, one drawing and one scarf at a time. The individual scarf mattered less than the event, which brought us all together to leave the news and the fear and the anger behind for an hour in a pretty space on a pretty landscape.

Everyone who makes any kind of art has this question at some point or another: isn’t there enough already? Does the world need my novel, when millions of novels have already been written? (We need to come up with a different word, by the way, now that the novel has shed all of its novelty.) Do we need more earrings, more mugs, more potholders?

And a second, related question: is my contribution any good? Pre-COVID, Nora and I went every December to the Arts Boston annual Christmas craft exhibition, a closely juried, highly competitive event held in a ballroom of the Hynes Convention Center. By “highly competitive,” I mean that maybe one or two of the fifty folks we saw locally yesterday might have passed the juried threshold for Craft Boston participation. Would my own writing pass a similar threshold? Am I making stories of quality, or stories dull and ill-constructed? And would all juries agree on my work’s position within an ever-shifting context?

Let’s turn this around, all this self-focused, self-critical inner conversation that stops us. Let’s imagine another way to describe all of this, which is that all of us—all us writers, jewelers, weavers, potters, painters, papermakers, actors, furniture makers—are building a landscape of generosity through our continued investment in generous work. We spend our hours working to see, to make, and then to offer. And we know the alternative: people who spend their hours working to hide, or to tear down, or to diminish. As Nora has said to me about miserable, nasty people, “Just be glad you don’t have to live inside that head.” And I don’t. I can live inside the head of someone trying to be hopeful and compassionate. It doesn’t matter if I “fail,” if I fall short from time to time. Trying to be hopeful and generous and compassionate is way better than trying to be powerful or dominant or defensive. And if I can spend my time with others engaged in the same effort, with all those potters and weavers and singers placing their offerings on the altar, then my days are better days than they’d be otherwise.

So I’d ask you to stop thinking for a few minutes about whether the work you do is any good, or about whether the world “needs” your product. What the world needs is for you to be the kind of person who does thoughtful and generous work. To be a dot in our pointillist painting of a kind landscape. Thanks for doing that.

More tomorrow.

The Spruce Knob Press Holiday Gift Guide 2021

Just imagine all the pleasure you can bring!

As of yesterday afternoon, the new novel & Sons is off to the printer, available soon. It’s really quite a moment to approve the artwork and page layout and paper weights and finishes, to make that simple and incontrovertible decision to say “go.” And now it’s out of my hands, and all there is left to do is wait for UPS.

(Well, that’s not the ONLY thing to do…)

The holidays are here, and your gift-giving dilemmas are hereby solved—give your friends the pleasure of quality literature from Spruce Knob Press! Who doesn’t like a good story, right? We’ve got quirky short stories—Red and Misplaced Persons. We’ve got an outstanding YA novel—Leopard. We’ve got heartfelt family dramas—& Sons and Trailing Spouse. We’ve got an urban corruption story—The City Killers. And for the writers in your life, we’ve got Slush, a realistic look at the emotional churn of the aspiring author.

Give your friends the gift of these limited edition, autographed books. All you have to do is contact me with your name (or the name of the recipient), the book or books you want, and your US mailing address. You can reach me via e-mail if you know it; through LinkedIn messaging if that’s where you’re reading this; or through the “Keep In Touch” link at my website,

And to be honest, it’ll be your gift to me as well. What does every writer want for Christmas? (and Hanukkah and Arbor Day and the Lunar New Year, too?) Readers, that’s what we want. So let’s do some mutual gifting—books for you, readers for me. Better than Secret Santa, right? Put on your worst Christmas sweater, get yourself a drink, and read a good book!