From Greatness to Kindness

The strength to offer mercy.
(Image by Jim Sahagun, via Unsplash)

I’m going to try an idea out today that I’m not sure I believe, but that’s what writing is for sometimes.

Think of a writer. Had a few books published, one of them really wonderful, the others quite good. Teaches fiction at a major university. But if you gathered together a broad array of writers and critics, and asked them for their list of the hundred most important contemporary American novelists, I’m betting that he wouldn’t make many of those lists.

Most professional writers teach writing. Most professional musicians teach music, artists teach art, actors teach acting, dancers teach dance. There comes a point for most of us where the scramble for the pinnacle is left behind, where we make a tenuous and uncertain peace with our own attainment.

But those words “tenuous” and “uncertain” weigh a lot. We can stop our climb from exhaustion, always imagining what could have been if only… We can stop our climb from barriers, and live forever in the resentment of those gatekeepers. We can stop our climb because we’ve attained a pleasing vista, satisfied with the view. The question becomes, what do we do when we stop? Do we look upward in anger? Do we look outward in smugness? Or do we look back to others at earlier stages on the trail, help them rise and warn them of risky handholds?

Andrew Carnegie is widely said to have laid out this guide to a good life: to spend the first third learning as much as you can, the middle third making as much as you can, and the final third giving away everything that you can.

And if we think of that in metrics beyond mere dollars, then most artists of most sorts do that. We spend years absorbing every single thing we see and hear, we’re in full growth mode. We spend more years making, exploring, doing everything we can with whatever talents we’ve cultivated. And then, we bring others into the fold. The problem I have with Carnegie’s formulation isn’t his reduction of success to money, nor even his paternalism of donating, deciding for himself what others needed. The problem is with the even division of the sequence into thirds.

I think that, in order to really enact Carnegie’s dictum, we need to think of making a conscious decision, at some point, to shift from a focus on greatness to a focus on kindness. That might happen at any point along one’s life, that move from achievement to generosity. I’ve written before about the idea of the bodhisattva, the semi-divine entity who foregoes nirvana for a life of assistance and mercy. And continued suffering.

Some people, of course, never make that shift. You know their names. Musk, Bezos, Jagger, Wintour, Kardashian. Always climbing, grasping, never easing the lives of others. As Thom Yorke of Radiohead put it, Ambition makes you look pretty ugly / kicking and squealing Gucci little piggy.

I’ve had teachers like that, people far too invested in their own work to bring themselves fully to the work of their students. I’ve known neighbors like that: committed to a life of alpha positioning, first through high school football, eventually through buying really sad oversized trucks and demeaning everyone around them.

Maybe it’s not sequential, either. Maybe we get up every morning and decide whether today’s going to be a greatness day or a kindness day. I think a lot of teachers do that, without ever naming those terms. They teach two semesters, and work on their own through the summer. They spend three years writing the novel, and then a year as a visiting scholar at someone’s writing program. They work weekdays to teach studio art, and then retreat to their own studios on the weekends to follow their own missions.

I just think maybe it’s worth being overt about where we stand at any given moment, with any given task. And when we’re teaching, when we’re giving it away, to at least in that venue leave ambition aside, let go of the anger and the fear and the striving and just be an instrument of mercy. A momentary bodhisattva.


Don’t go there.
(Image by Tim Mossholder, via Unsplash)

I’ve worked for a long time on several traits of good writing. I can pretty reliably produce correctly-formed sentences featuring correctly-spelled words. I try to be clear: to make sure we don’t subsist too long on pronouns without referring back to the noun in question, to connect “it” or “this” occasionally to secure referents.

I try to be specific, not merely by loading up with detail but by choosing the details that matter. I’ve learned to listen to people talk, and to replicate dialogue in ways that sound like their speakers. As one friend just wrote to me, “All the larger themes are created from the situations, conversations and philosophy of the story.

I try to be true. To places, to times, to ways of life. To the ways that people bond with one another, and the ways those bonds are broken. This truth is always relative. It’s my truth. That’s part of what we mean by a writer’s “voice.” And therein lies danger.

Last week, I had a new story come into my head. That’s usually cause for celebration, but this one isn’t. And I’ll tell you why.

Stories usually come from a bunch of places at once, a confluence of several things that have composted into a fertile humus. So here are a few experiences.

  • I just finished writing a book featuring a working-class woman who’d been fully capable of doing a working-class “man’s job,” for thirty years.
  • I served on our Town’s Selectboard for six years, learning the details of purchasing road salt and repairing a grader, the cost of a dump truck and the cost of having it significantly damaged during a seemingly everyday plowing tour.
  • I know the everyday politics of road work: of some people complaining about improvements to their rustic roads, and others complaining about how their dirt road falls apart every spring. About how concrete contractors compete to pour culvert walls, how paving contractors compete to grind and blacktop a couple of miles of state highway. About how some bids come in with spreadsheets and cover letters, and other bids come in handwritten on a sheet torn from a legal pad, with illustrative diagrams in the margins. About the ways that a Town job represents safety, with reliable income and health insurance—and about how providing that scarce safety to one new employee causes resentment among all of the others who might have done the job. About the ways that the grudges harden like the roads.
  • I currently serve as our Town’s Emergency Management Director, and last week, we were going through our Vulnerable Populations Protocol. And I thought of all the hermits, the drunks, the immobilized, those in need of nearly-regular nearly-emergency care, the victims of domestic abuse—all of whom would be dangerously isolated if their road failed or their electricity failed for a few days.

And all of those things suddenly bonded through chemical reaction into a story. A story that I know how to tell. A story that, half a year from now, would have come together into truth.

A story that maybe I shouldn’t write.

The better we are at writing, the more precise and more truthful we become. And that brings with it a great responsibility. If I wrote that book and sent it to you—in Cleveland or in Baltimore, in Boston or in Atlanta—you would find it powerful. It would raise important questions about gender, about loyalty, about hard work in hard conditions—and simultaneously, it would just be an engaging story about engaging people. I know how to do that.

But if I shared that book with anyone here in my town, it would be wrenching and disruptive. They would imagine that they were seeing themselves and their neighbors. They would believe me, and thus would believe that I was telling a true story of identifiable characters that they know… or that they are. They would try to pick apart the pseudonyms, would imagine that they know exactly which family I was talking about at the end of Tinkham’s Ridge, the family with the innumerable, half-feral children and the scatter of failed car projects and collapsed outbuildings.

(Even that sentence—regardless of the fact that there is no Tinkham’s Ridge anywhere that I know of, even though I’m not picturing any particular, knowable family on any particular, knowable road when I wrote that—would be explosive, because all the local readers would have their own nominees for exactly which family I was referring to. It’s a composite, made up of two dozen dead-end dirt roads and half a dozen landscape features and a homestead that I drive through every Monday in a town thirty miles from here, but all of the local readers would see it as a nameable specific.)

That’s what happens when you’re a good writer. You become a refined fuel, which is a hazard as well as a gift.

If you’ve ever been behind a tanker truck on the freeway, you’ve seen some diamond-shaped placards on the back and sides, that look like this:

If you’ve seen a movie or a Netflix series in the past few years, you’ve seen markers like this at the beginning of the episode:

All of these are warnings about the contents of what you might encounter. And maybe I need to provide some kind of related system to alert specific people of the specific discomforts they’ll come upon.

I have a few books that I’ve given to individual friends in town, but that I have not given to our local library. I don’t want to take the chance that some unassuming person might come across them and be burned. The stories aren’t intended to be harmful, just as the truck filled with fertilizer isn’t intended to blow up on the interstate, but it could, and maybe everyone should know that.

One of the benefits of my gift-giving publishing strategy is that I can try to calibrate which hazmats can be handled by which readers. But A) I could occasionally be wrong, B) innocents might stumble across it anyway, and C) there might be negative side effects beyond those that my internal studies have already determined.

So I’m sitting on this new story. I might never write it at all. And that’s a brand new place for me to be.

The Spectrum of Exile

Held apart
(Image by Kristina Tripkovic, via Unsplash)

When you’re a little kid, you have an egocentric view of the world. The things that happen around you are things that you influence. You make something, you move something, you get something out or you put it away. You imagine yourself to be the sole motivating force for the universe, and it takes some developmental growth to be able to recognize that other people do things for reasons that make sense to them but that you’ll probably not quite ever know.

So when the people around you ignore you, or don’t want to be with you, you imagine that it’s your fault. You imagine that there’s something you’ve done—something you ARE—that’s made them not want to be with you. You search through the silence for some clues to what you could do differently, even as nothing that you try to do makes any change at all.

And that understanding of the world, that it’s our own flaws that make other people not respond to us, is pretty persistent. We know that’s not true (well, at least not always true), but it still feels true, it runs straight through those channels that were cut into us from childhood onward.

As adults, we’re left to interpret silences in a lot of different ways. We apply for jobs, we send our work off for review, we put our profiles onto dating sites, we send our work component to our colleagues. And then we wait.

And as we wait, we don’t just go into power-save mode. We keep thinking. Why am I not hearing? Should I do something else? Should I send a reminder, or would I be a pest? Should I assume it’s gone cold after a certain number of days? Have I done something wrong? If we got information, we could act on it, but the absence of information demands that we create our own. The fact that it’s almost certainly wrong doesn’t matter. It feels better than the void.

I want to differentiate here between two phenomena that are related and yet have important distinctions: loneliness and exile. We can be lonely temporarily or permanently. We can be lonely for reasons that have nothing to do with us, after someone dies or moves away. Exile is different; it’s the fact of others’ decisions to not have you any longer, to not associate with you, to exclude you from membership. The emotional states feel similar, but their implications are radically different. In exile, you have no recourse, no options, no agency. It wasn’t an accident.

When I was excluded from academic life twenty-five years ago (and as Marc Bousquet accurately puts it, the PhD is now rightly understood as the conclusion of an academic career, not its beginning), it was a form of exile. It was a community to whom I had dedicated my allegiance, which had then determined that I was not desirable. When I send a manuscript to a literary agency, never to be responded to again, it’s a form of exile. It’s another community to which I would like to dedicate my allegiance, which has determined that I am not desirable.

The more we aspire to, the greater the depth and diversity of exile we invoke. If we grew up imagining ourselves fundamentally flawed, wretched, unwantable, then those are the interpretive stories we employ every time we offer ourselves to the world in a new way, only to be met once again with silence.

You can help with this, though. If you advertise a position in your company, acknowledge every single person who applies. If you invite submittals of creative work to your fellowship or gallery or publishing house or conference, acknowledge every single person who applies. Tell them what the schedule is, when they should expect to hear about next steps and what those next steps will be. Don’t leave them to imagine, for weeks, or months. Tell them how many applicants you’ve had, so that they know the odds.

If you’re working with colleagues on a complex project, acknowledge the work they send you, let them know whether it needs revision or re-thinking. If you’re overwhelmed and won’t be able to use it for a few days, one sentence in an email is enough to communicate that. If you’ve promised work on Wednesday and now won’t be able to get to it until Friday, tell us that on Tuesday, and keep us apprised of how things are going.

We can frame all of these simple actions in terms of workplace professionalism, of organizational courtesy. But by doing so, we diminish their weight. They’re more important than that. There are people on the other side of the silence who are desperate, who are anguished, who need to believe that they aren’t irretrievable. You can offer comfort, if you want. You just have to think about it.