Week Ten—Permission to Land

I have the runway in visual. (Image by Jordi Moncasi, via Unsplash)

After ten weeks, I can see the end of the journey. It’s probably fifteen or twenty thousand words out, another few weeks, but I know how to land the plane. And on Wednesday, I absolutely did not. But I’m in contact with the tower now, I’ve got my coordinates for approach. All I have to do is be attentive to weather and traffic, and we’ll be home safely.

I’ll continue to report as we approach the runway and terminal, I’ll give you updates on arrival gates and all that, but you can rest now. We’re going to make it. This flight that departed on June 7 will be in soon.

Please leave your safety belts fastened until we pull up to the gate.

What I Know After Nine Weeks

The teams are sorted out… (Image by Pascal Swier, via Unsplash)

This past week has been volcanic, with allegiances being shifted and everyone discovering their limits. One opponent has begun to come around; one ally has become oppositional; and one other person, hinted at in the first twenty pages a couple of times, has now appeared, her allegiances not yet fully clear. Even whole communities are shown to be in opposition, neither side blameless.

That’s always a fascinating point. When the good guy reveals her or his shortcomings, when the bad guy shows us why she thinks she’s doing good. Writers build the stakes by showing us the conflict in unambiguous terms, then they build the story by showing us that things aren’t as clear as they’d seemed.


We’re on the glide path to landing now, about 60,000 words in. I don’t really aim for this, it’s not like I’m a TV writer who knows that I have exactly 22 minutes for this episode, but all of my novels have all been of similar length. The shortest, Trailing Spouse, is 61,000; the longest (four of them more or less tied) are at about 90,000. It seems to be the container I’m built to fill.

The generic guidelines for an adult novel put it between 70-100K. But of course, there’s been vast variability across time and writer. The five books in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin have all been over 300,000 words. Atlas Shrugged for a long time, over 560,000 words. At the other end of the scale, three classics of high school English—The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm—all clock in at fewer than 30,000 words.

The general range, 70 to 100, holds a lot of familiar books.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • 1984
  • The English Patient
  • Frankenstein
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • The Color Purple

That’s what you think of as a novel. About an inch thick in paperback (in modern terms; in the old-school compression of the Bantam and Dell paperback era, closer to half an inch, each page dense with ideas). It’s a comfortable space, the detached house of ideas, each family occupying its independent dwelling for us to visit.

Short story compilations, by contrast, seem more like apartment buildings. Smaller boxes, more families, not all of whom get along or even know of one another’s existence. And flash fiction is like seeing people in the subway station as you zip by on the express train; none of them matter, none of them are knowable, they’re just the interesting array of life to consider and then forget. At the length of a novel, I’m with this family long enough to start to learn who they are as they drop their guardedness. It’s an ethnographic form, built for deep learning of a few people.

What I Know After Eight Weeks

How time works in fiction

Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since week 7, which paradoxically is related to the topic of today’s post anyway. I’ve done some consulting work, I’ve got one of next year’s clients underway, and I’ve had a play staged last night at the Rupert Mountain Theaterfest, which was terrific. Thanks to Matthew and Vance for inhabiting those characters so fully, and to Diane for outstanding direction.

But I also had a few days last week to immerse myself back in Cale’s world. One of the things I’ve been wondering about for the past few weeks is how I was going to get them from summer to winter without you seeing it. And that leads me to today’s Chautauqua, on the expansion and compression of time in fiction.

Every beginning fiction writer has heard somebody say “Show, Don’t Tell,” which is a complete misunderstanding of what that reader would like to say but doesn’t know how. What they’re trying to say is “don’t be bland.” That is, don’t say something like “She was very happy.” “He was furious.” Bleh. When people say “show, don’t tell,” what they really mean as readers is that they’re bored by an unimaginative portrayal. And the easiest way they can think to remedy that is to show action instead of summary.

Let’s put some technical terms on the table. Instead of “show” or action, writers often talk about being in scene, portraying some circumstance as though the reader were watching it. Instead of “tell” or summarizing, writers often talk about exposition, describing or explaining something more remotely instead of showing it directly in scene. And being in scene is certainly one way to make your writing less bland and more specific, but it’s not the only way.

I think the differentiation that matters more is the purposeful expansion and compression of time. The diagram at the top of this post shows how compression waves (like sounds and explosions) work. In the compression phases, a lot of information is jammed right up close together; in the rarefaction phases, a similar amount of information is dispersed over a greater length. And this, I think, is a great analogy for how writers of traditional chronological fiction handle time. Sometimes, we spend pages and pages describing events that happen over the course of five minutes. It takes longer to read than it did in the actual story event. We pack pages full with seconds. And sometimes, we cover months or years in a paragraph, allowing time to relax and pass us by without regarding every instant of it.

So in the novel I’m in now, I’ve been fretting for a couple of weeks about the hinge that I knew had to happen in the middle of the story. I spent the first 96 pages describing three weeks, late June to early July, much of which occurred on the Nebraska farm where Cale had grown up and where he knew he no longer belonged. The next five pages covered roughly an equal amount of time, about four weeks. Then twenty pages on the three weeks after that. The time-to-page ratio had three major stanzas: 24 pages per week for the first, about a page a week for the second, and then seven pages per week for the third.

Even within that, of course, there are microcycles of compression and rarefaction. There were five-minute conversations that took three pages all by themselves, followed by an elided day or two. Rhythms have rhythms within them, as Charlie Watts knew so well.

Anyway, by this point, on the middle of page 123, we were roughly at Labor Day, and the second half of the book wasn’t really going to start until near Christmas. How would I build a hinge to lead us from Section 1 to Section 2 of the book?

I could do it simply by closing a chapter and starting a new one. I’ve certainly done it that way before. For instance, in Trailing Spouse, the chapter called “During” ended when Sarasa was nine; the next page, the chapter called “After,” started the day after her thirteenth birthday. The ratio of time-to-page was infinity, four years divided by zero pages. Quite literally, we went with one story with a group of characters to another story with the same group of characters. But I didn’t feel with this story that I wanted that kind of hard closure to a moment; I wanted instead to have continuity, but in a relaxed way. So here’s how I moved three months in a page:

The fall went from gray and foggy to gray and rainy, all fifty shades. I got smarter with my daily study, got stronger with my ongoing physical therapy, and loved Sammi more and more through our shared enthusiasms. And I hadn’t gone to a faculty senate meeting or a travel committee meeting since May; their own layers of gray had been lifted from my life, and I luxuriated in the pleasures of pure curiosity. 

Sammi had fallen back into fervor for her own dissertation research. The recruiters from Philadelphia’s Hog Island Shipyard collecting their commission for every human they lured north in the 1920s to work ten hour days, six day weeks, for 35¢ per hour. Thousands of Black workers themselves, and their families, finding that wage (and that safety) far more promising than continued life in Alabama or Mississippi. The foodways and language habits and religious patterns that migrated north along with them. The other desperate workers from Poland and Slovakia and Ireland that they fought for jobs and neighborhoods, tribal warfare imported from the homeland to be just as bitter in that new world.

Ray had brought in her best crop ever, 189 bushels per acre, but the price had dropped down just below six dollars from a spring high of $7.20. Even at that, though, she’d made $450,000 for the season, netting nearly $50,000. If you calculated her hours plus Jay’s hours plus Walker’s hours, they’d made about $7.70 per hour for the year’s work. Plus cancer.

More importantly, she’d sold the farm. AgReserves, the giant land-investment arm of the Latter-Day Saints, had outbid all of the locals, with a final sale price of $3080 per acre for the raw land, plus another $340,000 for improvements—wellhead, pumphouse, barns and storage. All at once, Ray had a check in her hands for $1,572,000. And she’d lost all of her local friends. All those farmers who’d banded together for generations turned their backs on her—she was walking away from the land, walking away from heritage, and selling it not to another local family but to the giant, despised Mormon ag machine. She was a traitor in every way, and they cut her dead. And if you asked any one of them, in the sleepless hours of the night, they’d have all done the same thing she did.

Her combine that she’d paid $650,000 for two years earlier received no bids at auction. Her neighbors passed on the chance for a good machine at a good price, just to spite her. She ended up selling it wholesale back to the equipment dealer for $200,000, should have got double that from another farm operation and it would have still been a good deal. The smaller equipment, the tractors and trailers and wagons and mowers, the aging backhoe, got bundled into a single lot, sold on an online auction for $65,000 to someone from Iowa who had no local grudges and recognized a hell of a bargain. They’d sold the old cars and whatnot in a lump as well to a local vehicle auction. They’d drive west in Jay’s year-old pickup, and figure out what else they’d need once they got out here.

The house would be torn down, probably replaced by a jobsite trailer for a farm manager. Maybe some temp housing for seasonal labor. 

The movers were collecting their furniture on December 1st, and she and her family would arrive here four days later, the movers two days after that. They’d found a house to rent in Indianola, on what had once been dairy pasture but now reclaimed for wetlands and ocean birds. “Gotta have space for the dogs,” she’d said, but I knew that it was Ray herself who’d feel penned in by my neighborhood..

Yeah, that’s “exposition.” Yeah, it’s “telling” rather than “showing.” But it remains precise, because it has precise work to do. It’s a transitional phrase that gets us from the first half of the book (Cale on Ray’s ground) to the second half (Ray on Cale’s ground). It sets the reader up to now engage in the same relationship in reversed terms, without a hard border wall between them. It is a rarefaction period that will be followed by a new cycle of compression.

We talked a couple of months ago about the ways that writers can use spaces (between words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books) to give readers space to regard and consolidate what they’ve just encountered. But another tool in the rhythm section is purposeful compression and rarefaction in the pace of the story.

Every time I do this, I learn something new. I can’t imagine anything more fun.

I Used to Be Somebody

We’re sorry, that identity no longer exists
(Image by Lesia_G, Getty Images)

Well I used to be somebody • Lord I used to have a friend • I’d like to be somebody again • I used to be somebody • Good lord where have I been

June Carter Cash

The British gymnast Nile Wilson was probably the very best men’s gymnast in the world in early 2018. And then he wasn’t. An injury to his hand took him off some of his equipment, but he kept training and tumbling, until he herniated a spinal disc on a skill he’d done ten thousand times before. In the space of seconds, he went from being one of the strongest, fittest people on the planet to being unable to walk.

And he collapsed. Not merely physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. His entire identity had been lost in an instant. He started drinking, developed an online gambling problem. He alienated family, friends, girlfriends. He had no tools with which to navigate this new world. This new Nile.


How many of us have experienced something like this. Maybe not as dramatic, the ends of the spectrum not as extreme. But for most of us, maybe all of us, there have been times in our lives when the self we were was no longer available to us. Or when we decided that that self was no longer appropriate to us.

My Nile Wilson moment came when it became clear that, although I had done academic work that was highly received and broadly acknowledged, I no longer had a future as an academic. I would never have my own classrooms, my own research agenda. I would have no access to helping young people chart a course through a more expansive world than they might ever have imagined. I would never again have permission to explore a confusing world without the requirement of setting it into immediate order for a client paying expensive billable hours. Everything that I had trained to become—everything that I WAS—was no longer relevant. No longer available.

And rather than go through the full process of grief, I did what a lot of people do without coaching, which was to get stuck at phase 1: denial. This isn’t really happening. I can keep publishing, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted. I can keep working as an academic administrator, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted. I can become a leader in a national pedagogical organization, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted.

I want to be clear about this. This was not the “loss of a career,” something external to me. This was the rupture of self.

When I was a kid, my very first career aspiration was to be a Lutheran pastor. I loved the pastor of our church, thought he was a model for the life I aspired to. And although I ultimately left that church, left that faith altogether, I continued to do that same exact work as an academic. I got to read important texts and deliberate about their meaning. I got to do public speaking, to write an essay every week that would illuminate ideas and their implications. I got to counsel people in need, who sat across from me in the office ostensibly to talk about their writing project but really to unload about their insecurities, about their own fears of failure, of being found to be a fraud. The job title had changed, but the self had not.

So when that “career” was invalidated, when my meter expired and I had to move on, I got a new job, I made a good living, but it was hollow, because there was no desirable self at the center of it.


The sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh conducted hundreds of interviews with people who were going through what she termed “role changes”—a productive term for sociology, I suppose, but a little anodyne and remote for the more fundamental identity changes she’s really describing. She herself had once been a nun, and had left that behind for marriage and family life and graduate school. And through her own experience and the experience of those she interviewed, she determined that there was an important but often missing step in identity change, which she termed “becoming an ex.” She claims that it is vital not merely that we construct the new self, but also that we look squarely at the former self as well, and learn what it means to be an ex-husband, an ex-convict. An ex-president. A widow, an orphan. Post-menopausal. Retired. She believes that without some sense of closure for that former self, it will haunt us like a ghost, appearing without warning and overturning the furniture of our newly constructed home.

Ebaugh talks about a sort of standard continuum for this kind of transitional work, framing it most centrally around the experience of departure from religious communities. While cloistered, one learns not only to dress but also to speak and to walk in a “modest” manner. Upon departure, the ex-nun or ex-brother often first clings closely to the habits they know and understand. They dress conservatively, they continue their quiet and non-assuming ways. But at some point, there often comes a shift far to the opposite end of the extreme: short skirts, taking up smoking, seeking sexual attention. It’s still an expression of loss, of not having come peacefully to terms with the ex-identity, letting the former self define us through its absence, through its rejection. The authentic new self requires a closure, a sort of cauterization, to emerge on its own terms, without being an artifice of what had once been.


As we get older, we accumulate more of those ghost-selves, apparitions who follow us around and speak in voices that only we can hear. We accumulate ex-identities, the selves we once were but can no longer be. And until we can perform the appropriate taxidermy, to mount those former selves on the wall as external facts of pride rather than open wounds, they will continue to torment us.

I don’t pretend to have completed that work, far from it. But I know that I’m doing that work. And you probably are, too. Be strong, and know that there’ll be days when you can’t be.

BlurbFest!

It took me years to write it, will you take a look?
(Image from Chuck Wendig, terribleminds.com)

Before we start, have a look at the title of today’s post. It combines four annoying traits all in one, like some demented anti-Twix. It jams two words together with no space but with the second word still capitalized, like every tech company that wants to seem urgent (WordPerfect, AutoDesk, CoreLogic). It incorporates an exclamation point, like the advertising promos for Utah! and the brands Yahoo! and Yum! and even ChipsAhoy! (A nice double there, the jam-up AND the exclamation mark. Well played, Nabisco!) And it appropriates the recognizable but irrelevant branding lever “-fest.” It would have been even more annoying if I’d titled it Blurbapalooza, right?

But the worst sin is the use of the word “blurb,” an ugly and awful word that sounds like a fish in distress. (The humorist Frank Gelett Burgess, who coined the term in 1907, said that, “To blurb is to make a sound like a publisher.”) Blurbs are the kudzu of publishing, once imported in small numbers to make a book stand out, now having overgrown the forest entirely. The hit 2018 novel Severance, which I sold for a couple of bucks to a used bookstore after a disappointing read, opens with three or four pages of nothing but blurbs, more than twenty of them! They used to be segregated to the back cover, like the images above. But then one of them got loose and crept around onto the front cover, like this:

Anatomy of a book cover - 99designs

After that, they just hamster-bred all over the literary warren, in wriggling litters of a dozen or more. And for the most part, they’re pretty vapid. It’s like the book opens with three pages of Be Excited! Be Excited! Be Excited! They’re an exercise in borrowed vigor, whether that vigor comes from the big-name author who wrote for you (a blurb from Stephen King is a big deal in certain parts of a bookstore), or from the comparison the blurb-writer made to some other book (“Reminded me of Stephen King’s The Stand“). To quote Burgess again, “A blurb is a check drawn on Fame, and it is seldom honored.”


But yesterday, I got a blurb from completely out of the blue. Jim Kucher, a friend of mine from Baltimore, had asked me a few weeks ago for a copy of Slush: Courageous Writing in the Face of All Reason, my book about the wonders and the aches of the writing life. I sent it off, and he responded a few days later with a photo of that book on the arm of his backyard Adironicack chair, a lovely image.

Anyway, Jim has now finished his reading and sent me a marvelously brief message yesterday, which he’s given me permission to quote.

You, sir, are the Anne Lamott of the unpublished. This thing is a gem.

Now that’s a blurb worth having.

As I move forward in my project of releasing my own book-spawn into the vast river, I’d love to fertilize the roe with blurbs like these.

So I now lay down my request and my challenge to you. If you’ve read any of my work (and you have, because you’re reading this, which is part of the work), send me a few words that you think encapsulates your experience. You can talk about a book, if you’ve read one of my books. You can talk about this blog, if you’ve read this blog. You can talk about working with me as a writing coach, if we’ve done that. Regardless of the venue, think about a sentence or two that might encourage trusted others to take a few minutes to explore.

Those words may appear on the soon-to-be-updated version of this website, immortalizing you as a blurb-writer of talent and renown. And you can have the satisfaction of having been among the early adopters, those wise enough to recognize gems before others have seen them.

Notes on Innovation

Tell us, oh oracle…
(image from Wyron A, via Unsplash)

It’s been about ten years ago now.

I was sitting in an airport gate with a friend, we’d just finished putting on a three-day professional development event for a bunch of higher ed people. I was showing her the current year’s report of assessment project I’d developed for the college I worked for. She was delighted, wanted a copy so that her own college could mimic it. She said, “One of these days I want to sit down and pick your brain about innovation.” And because it was Sunday afternoon and I was tired, I said in my best Yoda voice, “There’s no such thing as innovation. Innovate isn’t a verb.”

“So what’s the verb?”

I thought for half a second. “Re-imagining constraints.”

I’ve had this thought for a long time, but the architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake framed it in a very nice way, talking about the difference between innovation and novelty. Novelty is a dime a dozen; any child can do something different than it’s usually done. And most often, novelty is crap, because “the way it’s usually done” has a lot of good reasons behind it. Innovation can only be a judgment assigned after the fact; an action is an innovation if it changes the way that subsequent practitioners think, if it becomes part of the baseline of practice. If, in fact, it becomes part of “the way it’s usually done.”


“…most newness is new in all the same old ways: falsely, as products are said to be new by virtue of minuscule and trivial additions; or vapidly, when the touted differences are pointless; or opportunistically, when alterations are made simply in order to profit from imaginary improvements; or differentially, when newness merely marks a moment, place, or person off from others and gives it its own identity, however dopey.”

William Gass, “Anywhere but Kansas,” 1994

In “Anywhere but Kansas,” novelist and critic William Gass begins by talking about the ways in which readers pick up a story in order to be anyplace other than where they are. It doesn’t matter whether the other place is on an Atlantic whaling ship or in a Milpitas community center, it’s just somewhere other than here. It takes us away, and places us into novelty. Gass then carries that into the similar interests of writers, who themselves inhabit particular landscapes of prose, and he suggests that writers also are looking to be anywhere other than we are, which leads us into our own novelty, our own change for the sake of change.

In architecture and in writing and in higher education, I think, much of novelty fails in the ways that Gass identifies in the paragraph I quoted above. It’s minor, or stylistic, or re-named, or “brand conscious,” or enabled by some new technology. It is, in Gass’ words, “vapid,” because pointless.

Novelty that has any chance of becoming innovation—that is, of being recognized as worthy of understanding and incorporating into our practice—does so because it recognizes that some or another constraint gets in the way of doing what needs to be done. It relieves us from self-imposed limits, it allows us to do what we believe matters most.

The problem with confusing innovation and novelty is that we don’t focus on which constraints matter. Lots of bad design work gets done in grad school because the constraints that are rejected are gravity, or money, or culture. Lots of bad writing gets done in grad school because the constraints that are rejected are chronology, or plot, or motivation, or conclusion.

What if the constraint we rejected was “impressing our thesis committee?”

What if the constraint we rejected was “work that can be accomplished in a semester?”

What if the fact of graduate school was itself the fundamental failure of imagination, and that true innovation could only come through ignoring those demonstrably artificial constraints?


The historian of science Thomas Kuhn launched a thousand unseaworthy ships without ever intending to, with his 1963 essay “On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In this essay, he identified most scientific work as “normal science.” It played by the rules, it followed on from current literature, it accepted a body of knowledge and attempted to push it a little further downfield. As Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes put it, the model was “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Kuhn instead focused his attention on those moments where scientific consensus was broken and reframed; in particular, on the “quantum revolution” of physics from 1901 to 1912. What was being rejected? Not the facts: not the brute and incontrovertible items of empirical investigation. No, “paradigmatic science” accepted all of those facts, but not the mode of their organization. “This does not mean what you think it means” is the baseline maneuver of the paradigm shift. He claimed that science didn’t fundamentally advance incrementally; it advanced in sudden, jarring shifts between two incommensurate ways of understanding the same agreed-upon phenomena.

Anyway, like I say, this isn’t Kuhn’s fault, but a whole generation of somewhat sloppy thinkers took up the charge of “paradigm change” as a fundamental purpose rather than an outcome of careful deliberation. As an end, rather than a means. “Thinking outside the box” became the fundamental business metaphor of the past fifty years, and most of it has been vapid.


It’s hard to tell the difference between novelty and innovation. In heavy industry, the novelty was moving from a steam or water power source to electricity. But the real innovation was the realization, some years later, that the whole mill didn’t have to be run from one giant power source, that each individual tool could be run by its own dinky little motor. THAT’s the shift in thinking that enabled the contemporary factory.

When you see something new, ask yourself what exactly is different about it. I saw a little video clip the other day about an industrial process that was claimed to be an “innovation” because it did a two-person job with one person. The constraint that was being rejected there was the worth and the dignity of labor. The constraint that was being rejected was of a family being able to pay its rent and groceries.

The most innovative business book of my lifetime was Small is Beautiful, by the British economist E. F. Schumacher. The constraints he rejected were colonialism, and maximization of profit, and the centralization of the rewards of investment. The constraint he accepted was that labor is an expression of the human spirit, that work can be noble when we have some autonomy over its structure and conduct.

When we pursue novelty, we are (as always) involved in a statement of values. The things that we value, we will retain and advance. The things we do not value, we may discard. So think carefully, when you set out to “innovate,” exactly what you do and do not value. Because if it really IS an innovation, others will follow. As Victor Wooten’s mom said (on the record A Show of Hands), “If the whole world was to decide today to follow you… Victor… where would you lead them? You think about that.”

Gotta Creep Up On It

Be vewwwwy quiet…

A couple of weeks worth of professional writing and coaching is behind me, and now I get to spend a couple of days back in the story before the weekend prep for another university coaching session on Monday. I tend to be a binge writer, sitting for a few hours a day every day in full immersion. It takes me right back to my dissertation, spending a year of fourteen-hour days doing fieldwork followed by a second year of six-hour days writing. Unfettered curiosity is a gigantic privilege, one that universities are surprisingly uninterested in, given that they have a business model to support and a corporate org chart to arrange their efforts within.

Anyway, when I first started doing dissertation fieldwork, I constantly had to temper my desires to learn everything right now! with the knowledge that a) I almost certainly wasn’t asking the right questions yet, and b) people didn’t trust me enough to tell me what the right questions would have been. It took patience with being confused, with just sitting in absorption and letting patterns appear.

So too with leaving a novel aside for two weeks. Your characters get a little crabby about it. You promised us your full attention, after all, and now you’ve run off to some other project for a couple of weeks? I don’t think so, bud. So now I have to make amends, I have to listen and to reassure them that I’m really, really there. They’re not going to tell me anything important for a few days, and that’s their right.

In fact, they’ll mess with me a little. They’ll lead me down a side road, they’ll want to talk endlessly about minutia like their trip back from the airport and what they had for dinner. That’s partly the nonversations we have, the small talk before the large talk… but I think it’s also a little tweaking, a little testing of patience. It’s the friendship tests that we set for one another after an absence, before we fall back into openness and trust.

So I got all of seven hundred words written today, the distilled artifact of probably four thousand words written and mostly abandoned. I looked up the ground radar at the Arcata Airport (airport code ACV), and what kinds of commercial planes most often fly in. I looked up the most popular IPAs made by Humboldt Redwoods Brewing, made sure that Arcata’s most popular burrito shop was still there. I watched clips from Letterkenny, which reminds me of Cale’s upbringing, and played a round of the number quiz Kakuro, which just lets me look for patterns.

When you leave, you have to wait for permission to come back.

Alpha Poisoning

Well, let’s re-evaluate that, shall we?
(Image by Pablo Varela, via Unsplash)

Item 1: In a powerful New Yorker essay, Lizzie Widdicombe interviews NYU professor and psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner, whose professional work has focused on sexual harassment. The topic of the conversation was the shift, in about a year’s time, from the veneration of Andrew Cuomo (and the coinage of the term Cuomosexual) to the disastrous revelations of a disastrous managerial career.

Let’s go back to that point a year or so ago where Cuomo was lionized (and we’ll revisit that term in a minute). COVID had revealed itself to be persistent and serious. A hundred thousand Americans were already dead, and the Federal response was a combination of denial and ineptitude. So Governor Cuomo did what a governor should do. He talked directly to the people of New York. He told them what he knew, and what he did not know. He acknowledged that suffering was widespread, and urged New Yorkers to follow the best current guidance about individual safety and community protection. In so doing, he took the opportunity—sometimes quietly and by contrast, sometimes directly—to call out the Presidential administration’s callow ineptitude.

He became the hero in the white hat. But the hero is always the mirror image of the villain: another strong alpha man who knows what he wants and moves directly toward it. It can be no surprise that the same personality type can be drawn to either role.

The core paragraph, for me, is this:

She had some reassuring words for any Cuomosexuals who are in a shame spiral right now. The Governor was up to something in those press conferences. “He was radiating an erotized masculinity that has within it hostility and a little tenderness,” she said. “That combination of soft and hard—mostly hard, but also soft—is what so many women crave in some way,” she said. She called it the “retrosexual part of us”—the part that was raised with the image of a “big, square” daddy/lover figure, even if we’ve never actually had one. She noted that a lot of gay men respond to the fantasy, too: “That’s a figure that could easily be hot to a man.”


Item 2. About fifteen years ago, the linguist George Lakoff wrote compellingly about the overarching narrative frame of domestic politics. The core conflict, he wrote, was not red and blue, or progressive and conservative, or urban and rural. The core understanding for American political life (and public policy) was the tension between metaphors: the strong, demanding father and the loving, forgiving mother. Whether the policy issue is policing or abortion or public health, the father-metaphor community framed its response in individual terms of responsibility. You made your choice, and now you’ll live with the consequences. If you didn’t know better, you should have. The mother-metaphor community framed its response in collective terms of opportunity. You might have gotten it wrong, but there’s no reason to ruin the rest of your life; try it again. You’ll always be part of the family.

Oversimplified? Of course it is, it’s a single paragraph. But I think it has enormous explanatory power. Do we insist that individuals play the hand you’re dealt, or do we acknowledge that the deck was stacked against some of the players from the start? Do we start from stalwart defense of individual position, or generosity and inclusion to friends and strangers alike? Do we operate from principles or from relationships? The psychologist Carol Gilligan, forty years ago, proposed that most of what we understood about moral development was only partial, since it had all been framed for thousands of years in terms of masculine conceptions of rights and principles. Her response was to imagine that there might be room for what she called “an ethics of care,” focused not on individual rights but on collective well-being.

Let’s come back to that notion of “lionized,” used to venerate fierce heroism. It’s usually applied to men, but occasionally to women who embody the same virtues. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, who famously said that “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” The pride is everything, and all others are either dangers or prey.


Item 3. The historian Andrew Basevich, a retired US Army colonel with 23 years of service from Vietnam to Kuwait, has written consistently for twenty years about the foolishness of the notions of “American exceptionalism” and America’s “destiny to spread freedom.” He argues that our imperial enterprise isn’t much different than the Russian/Soviet version, willing to tolerate endless destruction and misery and squandering of resources in order to win some competition of ideals. The New York Times offers a review of his new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed:

“Just as the self-congratulatory domestic narrative centers on the ineluctable expansion of freedom ‘from sea to shining sea,’” Bacevich writes, “so, too, the narrative of America abroad emphasizes the spread of freedom to the far corners of the earth. ” America’s account of its foreign policy, he notes, is “even less inclined than the domestic narrative to allow room for ambiguity and paradox,” and it excludes “disconcerting themes such as imperialism, militarism and the large-scale killing of noncombatants.” 


A couple of days ago, the satirist Andy Borowitz wrote a fake-news column that said that in light of Cuomo (and subsequent to Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and Eric Schneiderman), the State Assembly had placed a fifty-year moratorium on male governors. And satire aside, it’s not a bad idea.

Isn’t it time to give traditional constructions of masculinity a rest? Isn’t it time to take a time-out, and recognize that we have alternatives to individual isolation and battles of strength and winner-takes-all? Isn’t it time to be done with Fred Trump’s admonition to his children that “You’re either a killer or a loser”? Isn’t it time to recognize that “the hero” is a public face that has private flaws, as we all do? And that the model of the lone hero, the boss, the unquestioned authority, draws a lot of the wrong people to the job description?

Isn’t it time to recognize that we’re all in this together?

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.

But What If It’s No Good???

Anachronistic, but still apt.
(Image from Steve Johnson via Unsplash)

Kanak Jha is the best table tennis player that the US has ever produced. He’s only 21, he’s been to the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the Tokyo Olympics this month, he’s won a gold and two bronze medals at the 2019 Pan American Games. He plays professionally with TTF Liebherr Ochsenhausen of the elite German Bundesliga, which is akin to playing in the National Hockey League. And yet, last week, he lost in the men’s singles at the Olympics in the round of 64. So, simple question: Is he good?

It takes so much work to even have a chance to fail. Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to be inept. There are tens of millions of things that I’d be inept at, because I’ve never given them any practice at all. From chemistry to ballet, from skateboarding to online multiplayer video games, there’s a vast universe of things at which I would be instantly and identifiably awful.

No, I’m talking about a different phenomenon. I’m talking about people who are really, really skilled and trained at something, whose excellence has been identified and praised, who sometimes do work that isn’t good. Think of Matthew McConnaughey in Sahara, or Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. Think of Madonna releasing MDNA, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer subverting their entire career with Love Beach. Think of any athlete who has a rough day with the entire world watching, at the World Series or the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. It takes a lot of work to come up short.


I’m at the point of my current novel where the question comes up — but what if it’s no good?? I’ve got a lot of plates launched and spinning: the sibling tension, the multicultural romantic drama, the emotionally wounded child, the physically wounded hero, the dying sister, the questions of whether one career will launch or another career sustain, the questions of sexual identity and sexual fluidity. That’s a LOT of plates. Too many? Are some working in opposition to others? Does the variety distract from the whole? And what if one of those plates drops and shatters? Ruins the whole act, right?

Plus I sent one of my prior novels to the printer last week for a short run. I wrote it in 2016-18, so it’s three years prior to Leopard or Trailing Spouse. I was a similar but not identical writer to the guy who wrote those later two. So what if The City Killers is no good? Am I just assembling the outtakes?

And there are other books I haven’t gone back to for revision and assembly. I’m planning to, but maybe that’s a bad idea, because they’re no good.

You’ve been there, I’m betting. You’ve wondered whether the work you’ve invested so much care and effort in is no good. So here’s my half-full thought for today on that.

It’s okay if it isn’t.

One of my writing heroes, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a daily 700-word essay five days a week from 1983 through 2015. They were wonderful, mostly, but of course not entirely. Any career with over seven thousand essays has to produce a dud now and again. Anyway, he was wrestling with this question — but what if it’s no good?? — one day, and came to a formulation that he believes supported him through his entire career. He said, “One of these five columns is going to be my worst column of the week. And I probably won’t know which one it is.” Once he gave himself permission to not be on an identifiably and perpetually upward arc, he freed himself to write more fully.

Here’s a challenge. Spend a weekday afternoon watching television. Scroll around and flip through the channels. It’ll be a real challenge to find anything that’s good anywhere in your hundred-channel basic package. And these are people who’ve made real careers around those cooking shows or soap operas or sports-shouting panels, around those game shows or shopping channels. They provide a lot of people with a solid living, and almost none of them are any good.

The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once responded to a critic who said that science fiction wasn’t literary because so much of it was low quality. Sturgeon responded that most work in most genres was of low quality. His more colorful phrasing, which has come down to us now as Sturgeon’s Law, was “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

Yes, ninety percent of everything is crap, and you deserve to make some of it. You are doomed to make some of it. If you do enough work with enough care for enough time, you will produce some of that work that is of lesser quality. It is as close to an immutable, inevitable fact as any social phenomenon I can imagine.

And that’s encouraging, I think. It gives us permission to do everything we can as fully as we can, and learn the verdict later on. So pull on your muck boots and wade back out there, comrades. If it’s every bit as good as you can make it today, then it’s made today worthwhile.