What I Know After Three Weeks

They’re only anonymous if we don’t ask
(Image by Gleb Lucky, via Unsplash)

I had a slow week with the book, doing the necessary work of going backward to earlier scenes to ask myself why people were doing what they were doing. Or, more accurately, what kind of a person would do these things. It really is ethnographic, in which we have to watch people do stuff before we try to guess the meanings behind it.

I know some big structural things about the story. I know my protagonist. I know that the book will see him at four different stages of his life: in his middle-school years, in his early 20s, in his late 30s or early 40s, and again in the present day in his mid-50s. I know that the four novelettes will be called Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master.

I know that the streetscapes will be characters themselves. No retail store stands on its own, it lives on an urban block, shoulder to shoulder with taverns and markets and bowling alleys and bookstores and florists and diners.

And within that frame, I have no idea what the painting will look like yet. I have to let them tell me.

The big work of this past week has been to learn more about the second tier of characters, the ones who’d be supporting actors. In the case of middle-school Jimmy, that’s his dad, his mom, his mom’s new boyfriend, his brother and sister, and the other people who work in the store. I’ve learned things about each of them this week that I absolutely didn’t know last weekend.

I have to do some work to imagine the array of businesses that would be on a middle-class Milwaukee shopping street in 1980. No Starbucks yet, too small a neighborhood to warrant a vest-pocket Burger King. The neighborhood grocery is now bigger than a corner store, not yet a supermarket. No one drives to the shopping center to Staples or Bed Bath & Beyond yet, so small family versions of housewares and office supplies and bookstores still exist. But exactly what’s on that block of Oakland Avenue in Shorewood… that’s crucial work still to be done.

And what I don’t know yet… can’t know yet… are the early disruptions of Jimmy’s young path. There’s been one, the revelation of his mother’s affair and his parents’ divorce. But there will be a reckoning with his siblings, and with his mother’s new partner, and those I can’t yet describe. They’ll come into view as I sketch, and then pen, and then color those scenes.

Well, THAT Explains a Lot

Nail it to the seminary door
(Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nora’s been clearing out old papers yesterday, and came across a few things I’d sent her ages ago. One of them was the proposal for a day-long conference session I hosted in 2000 at the Environmental Design Research Association meeting. The session was called “Environment-Behavior Research as a Field of the Humanities,” in which I invited lots of other folks to come deliberate on the idea that maybe EBS (as we called it) was misplaced by being categorized within the social sciences. Maybe instead we’d be productively housed with the other branches of the humanities: literature, philosophy, history. I didn’t use this language at that moment, but my argument was that EBS could be fundamentally hermeneutic rather than analytical, even while retaining a shared interest in the careful, empirical study of real people in real places. Novelists do that, too, without any expectation of coming to some immutable laws of behavior. We watch people, and report back on what it looks like and what we think it might mean.

I can tell you that attitude did me no favors in my academic job search. Architecture departments are variously housed in larger institutional structures alongside the fine arts, or engineering, or “applied sciences,” or in independent units they share with urban planning and interior design and landscape architecture. Every time I was making my case about why architecture mattered, I was making it not merely to my prospective colleagues, but also within an institutional structure and set of values that I almost never considered.

Anyway, Nora found another thing this morning that also did me no favors. It came from work I did as part of a team that was trying to redevelop the first two years of a college design curriculum. That process taught me a lot of things. It taught me that all of the experimentation and suspension of assumptions we teach in studio get left aside almost immediately when designers have logistical problems to solve—Oh, we could NEVER do that, because… Rather than attempting what we believed in, we reverted immediately to managerial expediency, house-trained to follow the channels pre-cut for us. And as Audre Lorde reminded us, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Anyway, as an early process in our team’s work, I started by asking all the team members to put our foundational values on the table. None of the rest of them did, just me. I still believe all of it, but it never found traction. And now that I’m safely out of the game, I can offer them to you, the sixteen things I believe about education in environmental design.

  1. Environmental design is primarily a civic and political activity rather than an artistic expression. We are fundamentally in the business of creating the stage sets on which people will live out the dramas of their individual and communal lives.
  2. The criteria for successful environments are that they are helpful, dependable, satisfying and fair. Every place is owned by some person or organization with goals, and inhabited by other people with other goals. We have to understand and value the entire range of goals, create for future fluidity, and ensure that our work enhances the lives of all who come into contact.
  3. All problems of citizenship, including environmental design, are wicked problems, impossible to even fully define much less correctly answer. This implies that realistic process management and facilitation are core skills of citizenship in any of its forms.
  4. The photograph has drastically changed both design and design education, to the loss of context, sequence and experience. Buildings are taught in isolation, but can only be experienced as part of a larger landscape. Design students need to be trained in careful, naturalistic observation and study of real places.
  5. The vast majority of the built landscape is created by people who are not trained designers; thus, design guidelines and strong performance criteria are more influential than objects. We need to help students define and understand desired outcomes.
  6. The education that designers need is more similar to that of other professions than it is different. Our students may not remain in the design professions for their entire lives, but they will always be family members and citizens. We want students prepared to engage the world from whatever position they might find themselves.
  7. The academic curriculum of design programs should be heavily weighted toward general education, with the expectation that those interests have a role in their design work. We need a strong focus on strategic thinking, the “why” that lies behind the “what” and the “how.”
  8. Design education should cover the entire building sequence, from conception of need through habitation, revision, and ultimate demolition. The weight of design education currently falls within conceptual design, with successively less attention in the curriculum as one moves away from that five weeks of initial excitement about a new problem. Students need to understand their role in the hundred-year cycle of the work, not just the moments of blinding creativity.
  9. Every student can be a successful designer, if we think more broadly about success. Students will differ in their capabilities across content areas. What does design look like for the talented graphic artist who writes poorly, or a skilled writer with a math phobia, or a brilliant design historian with poor graphic control? It takes a broad community to make powerful contributions to the built world, and we need to be equally diverse in our thinking about how to help all students be their best selves.
  10. Any educational setting needs strong and clearly stated outcome criteria, combined with great freedom in achieving those criteria. What we hope students will be able to do is more important than the paths they each follow to arrive there.
  11. The most vulnerable people deserve the greatest amount and highest quality of our resources. We need to offer our least experienced students our most experienced and proven instructors, the best physical resources, and the most curricular attention.
  12. Collaboration is a core educational value; students should work together far more often than they work individually. For the rest of our professional, civic, and family lives, we work as team members, and projects are achieved through the quality of our collaboration.
  13. We must devise ways in which students can do fewer hours for greater impact rather than simply asking for more hours. The charette and the all-nighter may be great social experiences (for extroverts), but students deserve to go home, be with their families and friends, get sufficient rest, and still do good work.
  14. Mentorship and advising are everyone’s business. Every student should have one or two allies among the permanent staff who know them, check in with them about their progress and their happiness, act as a sounding board, offer counsel. We are all complex wholes, and need to be considered and mentored with that awareness in mind.
  15. Leadership is everyone’s business. The best definition of leadership I know is “taking responsibility for something that matters to you.” We should be fostering that attitude among students and faculty from their first moments in the program, knowing that it will raise contentious and messy issues. We can teach mediation and negotiation better through working with live issues than with the canned and bland.
  16. We do not have to replicate the ways we were educated.

Yeah, all this would be hard to do. Yeah, we might get it wrong once in a while. But we are not proposing to abandon some perfect present condition; the costs of continuing as we have are also real, and substantial. Alas, though, inertia is powerful, and things in motion continue in motion. As one of my characters put it in considering his own academic life, universities are simultaneously dedicated to advancing the furthest frontiers of human knowledge, and to ensuring that nothing about their own operation must ever change.

I didn’t know any of that, so I was perpetually working against the current. If you choose to pursue any of these, you need to recognize that you also will face significant headwinds. Be prepared.

What I Know After Two Weeks

Don’t be in such a rush, hot rod (Image by Logan Weaver, via Unsplash)

When I did my dissertation research 28 years ago (!!!), I knew that it would take me a while to be recognized and considered trustworthy within the high school community I was studying. It turned out to be somewhere between a month and three months for most of the kids, some never; between a week and a month for most of the teachers and administrators, some never.

Nora put me in mind of that this evening. I came downstairs after a day of writing, and said, “I just feel like there’s a distance between me and these people.” And she said, wisely, “They don’t trust you yet.”

Part of it is the structure of the story. The story that presented itself was of the later-adult James facing a major life change. But I wanted to see how he’d gotten to that place, which meant writing about the nine-year-old Jimmy, and the high school and young-adult Jim, as well as the older James. Plus Jimmy’s dad, and his mom, and his little brother and sister, and his mom’s lover. None of those people volunteered for this, and I could make them look bad if I wanted to. So I have to earn their trust before they’ll really tell me what they value. And that takes time.

And even with that, I’m a fair ways in, and I think it’s a viable story. I’ll tell you more next week.

What Stories Are For, and How to Read Them

Let yourself come into the world of the story
(Image by notquitemax, via Unsplash)

When we encounter a spirituality that differs from our own and seems alien, [Islamic scholar Louis] Massignon explained, instead of simply dismissing it, we must ask ourselves how the writer came to have these ideas. We must acquaint ourselves in a scholarly fashion with the social, political, geographical, historical and philosophical context in which he lived and worked. And we must not leave this text, Massignon insisted, until we can honestly say that, in such circumstances, we would feel the same. In this way, he explained, we can broaden our horizons and make a place for the other in our minds and hearts. It is an ekstasis, a disciplined “stepping outside” of the self in a sensitive but informed identification with another — not an exalted trance, but an intellectual process that enables you to open your mind and heart to something that seemed initially alien.

Interview with Karen Armstrong, New York Times

I came across this interview yesterday because of its lovely title, “The Novel That Made Karen Armstrong Quit Her Reading Group.” I knew nothing about Karen Armstrong, but there’s a story imbedded in that title that I wanted to know about. And as with any good browsing, what you find is different than what you came for.

Toward the end of the interview, Armstrong loops back to this opening idea of imaginative entry into the world of another:

Novels can serve a moral function by enabling us to enter the lives of others imaginatively. It is an ekstasis in which we step outside the self, leaving it behind, and embrace a different perspective — realizing, for example, the attractions of evil at the same time as we are made to recoil from it. Novels force us not only to face but to experience the terror of illness, sorrow, poverty and infirmity. They enhance our compassion by compelling us to feel with others, taking us out of the comforts of solipsism.

The questions that a writer is interested in addressing have to be met by a reader intrigued and open to addressing them as well. When we put a book down and don’t finish, the flaw may lie with the writer, who hasn’t done the work of putting a life fully enough on exhibit to capture our imagination or intellect. But the flaw may also lie with the reader, in not setting aside their own assumptions and expectations to fully enter the world of the story.

I had that experience this morning, sitting down to review a short story opener by one of the members of my writing group. When I first opened it, I read the first paragraph too rapidly, it didn’t slow me down enough to really comprehend what I was about to engage. That flaw, I think, was mutual: the tone of the story was a little flat and didn’t invite slowness, but more importantly, I didn’t come to it in the spirit of full engagement. It took me ten minutes or so to slow down enough to really read it, to sit inside the narrator’s experience for the next hour.

I think that maybe we need to go through the equivalent of warm-ups before we sit to read fiction. To fully prepare ourselves to leave the passive TikTok feed and pinging texts of the swirling days, and to embark on the quiet, rigorous investigation of another’s life.

What I Know After a Week

A novel about customer service? Sure, why not.

A year ago, I live-blogged my last novel, & Sons, keeping you (and myself) apprised of progress. That was fun, let’s do it again.

Last Tuesday, my new story appeared. Young Jimmy first presents himself in 1978 as a nine-year-old, riding his bike on a Saturday for his flanêur’s afternoon on Lincoln Street in Milwaukee.

The glass storm door sounded its usual welcome, a leather strap with jingle bells hanging from its inner handbar to alert the Johnsons to new arrivals. Jimmy knew every aisle and corner of the store, had spent innumerable hours there as a free agent, loosely overseen, able to let his mind and body wander. Mrs. Johnson, as always behind the register in her little retail island just inside the door, nodded at him in recognition but nothing further. Jimmy walked back into the store, through the aisle of Comet and Reynolds Wrap, brooms and Playtex dishwashing gloves, toward the curved-glass butcher counter behind which Mr. Johnson was stationed. Mr. Johnson would either be talking with a customer and putting cuts of meat or scoops of ground hamburger onto butcher paper on the scale, or cutting huge slabs of red-and-white-streaked meat on his bandsaw, ribs and hip joints cruelly bared from their formerly quiet lives within a cow or a pig. Jimmy imagined that Mr. Johnson had never actually seen him; the man was in constant work, fully intent on customer or display or carcass.

Even though he’s only in fourth grade, Jimmy has always been far more attuned to the everyday adult world than the kids around him, whom he mostly finds bewildering.

One of the things he liked about being with adults was that they didn’t need to be mean just for fun. The only problem with school was the other kids. Grown-ups sent kids to school to learn how to be adults, and then defeated their own purposes by surrounding them with the savage culture of children. Every kid had to decide for themselves which team would have their allegiance, and Jimmy, by virtue of having chosen wrong, earned the complete and total disdain of the other kids.

We’ll see Jimmy, then Jim, then James, at four different phases of his life through the course of the book, I think, as he grows into full expression of his nature. And I increasingly see that the book will serve as a love poem to the very idea of the sidewalk, the most urban of spaces.

I can’t imagine anything more fun than this.

Today’s Best Book in the World!

In his book Craft in the Real World, writing teacher Matthew Salesses talks about the ways that traditional writing workshops can be places of hostility, even when (almost always) unintentional. The pitfalls come when some kinds of stories and narrative structures and characters seem so taken for granted that stories of other cultures or structures are deemed to be incorrect or out of bounds. There’s no “conflict,” no “arc of change,” and so therefore the story is faulty. Some stories are within the community’s unspoken expectations, and those that aren’t will be met with resistance.

The first writer I read that truly challenged those expectations was Kenzaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1994, who once said that his work was about “the dignity of human beings.” Oe’s stories don’t move us along as much as they ask us to sit, quietly, with the facts of a person and her or his circumstances. There is a story, a sequence, but it’s in the background, a simple chronological organization of a series of states of mind. When I teach fiction writing, I say that the basic logic of fiction is that there’s a pre-BOOM, a BOOM, and a post-BOOM; that is, that there’s one or more disruptive events that change the angle of the story. And Oe’s work helps me to see how cultural that expectation is, and how Western of me that I’d never imagined stories created otherwise.

My own work has some of that non-BOOM character, though, based on the fact that I was trained as an ethnographer rather than a fiction writer. I’ve always felt at home watching people in the everyday, trying to understand the unspoken cultural guidelines that shape the visible behaviors. And because of that, I’ve been told occasionally that it’s problematic that my stories don’t hit their point of conflict early enough. In response to reading the first page of one of my stories, one reader said, “So does anything happen to your boy Tim? If so, start there.” That expectation that we’re tossed immediately into tumult is a particularly cultural belief, and could be otherwise. But different stories rely on different readers, who are willing to sit and watch.

The most recent, wonderful example of a BOOM-less book I’ve read is Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata. Originally published in 2016, the book sold a million and a half copies in Japan, likely substantially less in its 2018 English translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story is told through the person of Keiko, a woman in her mid-30s who has found a seemingly destined life through her work in a convenience store (“Smile Mart”). Others around her, her family most centrally, can’t quite understand why she hasn’t fulfilled one of the two culturally acceptable roles of womanhood—wife/mother or career woman. They acknowledge that she’s stable and capable, but not in a way that they deem “successful.” They’ve always tried to repair what they see as her faults.

The success of the book is in its deep ethnography. For readers willing to sit, we’re shown the inner workings of a mind untroubled by being “other.” Keiko has never been able to read the emotions of others, but she’s learned to mimic their expressions well enough to be adjacent to people, even as she’s never fully one of them. She’s learned to read the labels on others’ clothing so that she knows the “right brands” to buy, so that people will see her as acceptable. She’s learned what can and cannot be said—mostly the things that cannot, as when examining her sister’s baby: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others, but so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.”

At eighteen years in the Smile Mart, she’s outlasted eight managers, every coworker, every individual product that’s ever been sold. In one of the most brilliant passages of the book, she talks about the underlying change that feels to casual observers like stability:

As she fished out her purse to pay, she again muttered, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?”

Actually, someone was eliminated from here today, I thought. But I merely told her “thank you” and started scanning her purchases.

Her figure overlapped with that of the old lady who had been the very first customer when the store opened eighteen years ago. She too had come daily, walking with a stick, until one day I realized she wasn’t coming anymore. Maybe her health had deteriorated, or maybe she’d moved. We had no way of knowing.

But here I was repeating the same scene of that first day. Since then we had greeted the same morning 6,607 times.

I gently placed the eggs in a plastic bag. The same eggs sold yesterday, only different. The customer put the same chopsticks into the same plastic bag as yesterday, took the same change, and gave the same morning smile.

There is a BOOM in the book, sort of, coming late, but its narrative function is to convince Keiko that she’s been on the right path all along, and wants nothing more than to sustain it. The work of the reader is not to be swept along in the flow of events—it’s to sit quietly with Keiko and experience those events with her and through her.

Western reviewers of the book often turned to a handful of terms to describe the book, or to describe Keiko. Words like “oddball,” “strange,” “weird,” “eccentric,” “quirky.” And that’s an example of the problem that Salesses tries to show us in his book. Even the most positive reviews of the book often described it in words that showed us that it was exotic, that it was outside the norms of the canon. If we came to literature knowing that there are a body of people who are asexual, then Keiko’s revulsion at sexuality wouldn’t be quirky, it’d just be who she is. If we came to literature expecting occasionally to read about people who are neurodivergent, then Keiko’s regular confusion at the norms of the world wouldn’t be oddball, it’d just be the story of someone navigating a culture. Praising a book for its “nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator” means that we’re treating it like a pet, a TikTok-able novelty, rather than a meaningful contribution to literature

Convenience Store Woman is one of the very best things I’ve read in ages, exactly because it makes a way of living and thinking so completely visible.