Pick Any Two

Speed vs. Spin vs. Control — find your balance

There’s an old saying in building design—you can have a building fast, you can have a building cheap, and you can have a building good. Pick any two.

This formulation has been repeated across many fields. I heard it at Duke, for instance, about student success—you can get good grades, have a good social life, and get enough sleep…Pick two. It seems to be impossible to optimize for everything simultaneously. That simple insight has made uncountable millions of dollars in consulting fees for business gurus who conduct cost-benefit analyses. Costs and benefits are always paired (and we’ve usually resolved that dilemma by maximizing the benefits to ownership and shunting most of the costs onto the workers or the people who live next to the factory or the mine or in another country or in the future). Any political policy decision can be picked at because it does 86% great things and 14% bad things, and we’re only going to hear about the bad things from the noise machine. But the fact is that every decision we make requires us to think carefully about the good and the bad, and then revisit that over and over as we start to see the empirical facts of its impacts and not merely our imperfect and delusional forecasts.

I was put in mind of this by an email with a friend yesterday. She sent me a Margaret Atwood quote: Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it. And that’s true, but only partly true. And the reason it’s partial is that the “act of writing” is a lot of different and only mildly related acts, each of which optimizes toward different benefits and offers different costs.

Here’s another quote about writing, from the theater artist Kaneza Schaal: There was theater that I wanted to see that I wasn’t seeing, and I was tired of complaining about what I was seeing. So at some point I was like, “I guess I need to make some stuff.” That’s the origin moment, the spur to action that has no relationship at all to any audience beyond oneself. I’m not seeing the story I want to see or the book I want to read or the song I want to listen to, so I have to make it myself. That’s not a hopeful position. It’s more an exasperated position, an obsessive position. We’re scratching an itch that no one else has been able to reach.

Then we get underway with it, fretting every day for a couple of weeks that we’re wasting time, that there isn’t really a story there, blah blah blah. But what we’re actually doing is laying out the kindling. It only looks like pine cones and wood chips; what it really is, is the stuff that’ll catch and let us put the big wood in there later on. It feels futile until the moment it’s not.

Once the fire’s lit, though, we get the daily pleasure of watching the flames and feeling the warmth. Another log, and another log, and another. It just works, and we feel…well, I was going to say that we feel competent, but that’s not right, really. We don’t feel anything. We’re lost to flow, just watching the story. It’s like we’ve got the exclusive months-in-advance preview of a book we’ve never seen before. I don’t know how many times I’ve gotten ready for bed and said to Nora, “Something just happened today. The story went a really different direction than I expected, and I have no idea yet what’s coming next.” The story tells you, if you let it.

There comes a point about 85% of the way in when, for the first time, you spot the finish line. You know how this bird is going to land. You still have to be vigilant about the wind currents and the glide path, you can’t get sloppy, but you know that this story will have a conclusion that feels right. And once that conclusion’s reached, you roll up to the hangar, and run through your post-flight checklist, walking it all again from front to back to make sure the story’s intact, tightening and replacing any loose bits you discover on your tour.

None of this work of writing has any concern for external readers at all. It is a bespoke novel, written exactly and only for its author. And it’s at this moment, once the story has safely arrived, that represents the hinge to not merely different aspects of “the act of writing,” but a whole different family of acts. The novel, once innocent and isolated, now asks to be introduced to the world. You want the best for it, but you can’t protect it from bullying and being ignored in gym class. You have no control over what happens to this story once it’s appeared. You introduce it around, sent application packages and letters or recommendation to agents and editors, but those institutions will or won’t accept the story and you’ll never know why, usually will never hear back at all.

The last couple of things I’ve written, I’ve worked up a page layout and a cover design and sent it off for a small-edition printing that I then give to friends. (And here I offer my recommendation for Mixam, a printer that’s been remarkably accommodating and affordable. I’ve done print runs as small as thirty copies, and their staff has worked with me on layout issues and done terrific quality work. And even at thirty copies, no cost advantages that come with high volume, I can still get them printed and delivered to the porch for barely six dollars a book.) It feels good to share my stories with some readers, storytelling at the retail rather than wholesale level. Like being back around the campfire.

Maybe you share it with a writing group, a workshop, a conference, where each participant tries to drag the story into their own circle of allegiance. It could be more like this, or like that, or like the other. Writers are writers for a reason, after all; give them characters and a setting and a problem, and they’ll listen to their own inner voices and the story will suggest itself differently to every one.

Let’s say you get a publisher, a contract. Your agent and your editor now want your book to become their book, because they need to sell it and they track the market far more closely than you. The book, because it’s now an economic as well as a literary object, also enters the world of commerce, selling or not selling copies to meet a publisher’s expectation. The book market provides a sharp upward curve followed by an equally sharp downward curve, the book achieving most of the work it will ever do in the world within the first two months of its public life. It becomes an annual royalty statement of disappointment

Then the book enters the world of commentary, with professionals and (innumerable) amateurs offering their judgment, their stars, their thumbs oriented upward or down. For my most recent book, the Amazon rating is 4.5, Goodreads is 4.01, 3.50 on LibraryThing, each site with reviews covering the full range from best thing ever to unmitigated trash. (“For a seemingly smart guy, Childress has written a stupid book. It’s full of useful facts & stats, so it’s good research fodder but his analysis is so simple-minded that you almost feel sorry for him.”) Some magazine and newspaper writers get in on the act as well, using your book to make their point. Writers are writers for a reason, after all.

And all of those reviews and stars from the last paragraph now become part of your sales team as the book goes forward, their interpretations becoming far more expansive than the press’ marketing materials. The collective word count of the reviews of my last book is greater than the book itself, which was relatively short. Imagine a poor little book like Gatsby, its 47,094 words having been completely overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands of bad student essays about it, Jay Gatsby now fixed in mind for millions of people as Leonardo DiCaprio.

No, this “act of writing” is a vast number of things, each bearing little enough relation to the others. So let’s go back to our original formulation. You can write because you need the story. You can write because you want to please your friends. You can write because you want to be acclaimed and/or rich. And I really don’t think you’re going to get all three.

So the question of optimization becomes individual. What is the cost and benefit analysis that makes this work even remotely reasonable? Margaret Atwood and Stephen King would answer that question differently than I would, and differently from each other as well. “The writing life” is a sham concept, covering hundreds of thousands of unique stories. And as storytellers, we ought to find the uniqueness comforting. We are strange characters, all of us, doing what we do for reasons invisible to others and often enough opaque to ourselves. And that’s what makes characters interesting.


A very particular definition of “comfort food”

When I taught at Duke, I was often amused to hear my students use the word “we” to talk about the basketball team. “We beat Carolina!” or “We’re in the Final Four!” And I always thought, WE didn’t do anything. A dozen or so mercenaries won a game. But our pride in collective belonging is powerful, and often positive. It’s important to not be isolated, to feel that we’re part of a group.

But if we’re going to claim the pride of our group, we need to own the drawbacks as well. In Vermont, Black drivers were 80% more likely than white drivers to be pulled over; once stopped, were more than 240% more likely to have their vehicle searched than white drivers; once searched, were actually slightly LESS likely than white drivers to have illegal materials in the car. How can we, as a community, accept those patterns? Maybe we individually didn’t make that happen, but maybe we as a group can make it stop.

Black Americans are far less likely to have health insurance, far less likely to have regular access to healthcare, and far less likely to live in neighborhoods with good clinics. Black Vermonters, as is true in the US more broadly, are about twice as likely to contract COVID as whites. Maybe we individually didn’t make that happen, but maybe we as a group can make it stop.

As a simple matter of public health policy, it makes sense to go after a disease where it’s disproportionately prevalent. That’s why we vaccinated older people first. But that seems to be contentious when it comes to the racial implications of public health science. Maybe we individually aren’t biased, but maybe we as a group only accept some definition of who belongs and who doesn’t.

Whenever we divide the world into us and them, we and they, it’s important to be precise about who’s included. To understand what definitions account for the division. And to examine the patterns that result, and whether we’re proud of them.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in his book Cosmos and Hearth, talks about the inverse relationship between fear and inclusivity. He argues that fear makes us circle the wagons, close the borders, define the others as a potential threat or enemy. Fear makes our world small.

By contrast, people who see the world with curiosity make their world larger. They belong to bigger and broader communities, they move more freely among a greater diversity of people and cultures and places. They see opportunities more than hazards.

The great drive to tribalism and nativism is a fear-based movement. The Great Replacement theory of white culture being dismantled and swept away by “those people” is different only in scale from the Old Vermonters fear that their way of life is being dismantled and swept away by the “flatlanders.” When a culture is seen as set and immutable and requiring defense against impurity, then any outside force is immediately repellant. No Internet, no hip-hop, no internal combustion engines, nothing “fancy” or “uppity” or “immoral.” But if culture is instead seen as changing daily to accommodate the interests and purposes of its participants, there’s not as much to fear, and far more to be curious about.

We can remind ourselves every day to be curious. To be expansive. To embrace the richness of the buzzing, blooming world. The alternative is to bunker in and wait for the end times.

Hearing What Isn’t

Come on, dude… delicatemente, okay?

Music is the space between the notes.—Claude Debussy

Our small local theater company, Theater in the Woods, puts on a few shows a year, mostly to raise money for their summer kids’ theater camp. One annual tradition is their Ten-Minute Play event, in which local writers come up with very short plays that are then performed together in a single-evening show.

I’ve written a play for this year, a story of three men of three different generations each facing their own life crisis and working each other through it. And in preparation for that, I’ve had the chance to have a couple of Zoom table reads with the actors, and another one coming tomorrow with the actors and director.

One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read your work aloud as you revise, to hear the lumpy spots. And you do—boy, do you ever. That’s kind of a normal part of my revision process. Where do I hear the emphasis within the sentence? Where do I hear vowel sounds align? Where do I place the hard-stop consonants that break long phrases into haiku?

So as I heard my play performed for the first time, I wasn’t often surprised by how the actors read the words. I’d done most of the work to let the text read itself. What I wasn’t prepared for, what was really revelatory, was hearing the silences. Hearing how long someone paused between lines. Or within a line. Silences in a conversation or a dialogue are the moments where we’re thinking… and I could hear these characters thinking.

One of the reasons I love typography (like that little blue separator we just passed, or the parentheses around this comment) are that they guide the reader to think in spaces and not just in sounds. We steer your thinking with all that stuff that isn’t actually words. We help you slow down, help you hit words harder, help you hear repetition. Just read the score of a piece of classical music sometime… composers offer instructions with the pace and density of an air traffic controller. Every note is guided not merely by pitch and by duration, the stuff on the staff, but also from above, a voice from God to guide us into right thinking about volume, cadence, connection or disconnection with the neighbors. He even offers little endearing Italian murmurs like affettuoso or sospirando, telling us what attitude toward life we should embrace as we play.

Text is filled with breathing instructions. The little channel between the period and the next capital letter (a gulf that’s narrowed over the past decades from two spaces to one as the pace of our lives has increased). The different tools we use to separate non-restrictive clauses—commas, parentheses, brackets, em-dashes, even footnotes—each of which signals a different kind of separation from the main thrust of the sentence. One of the tools I rely on far too often: the ellipsis… a foot on the clutch to more gently shift gears, the three little dots that soften and ease our pace as we enter the curve.

We have the word, the phrase, the clause, the sentence, the paragraph. The scene and the act. The novel and the three-novel trilogy and the whole Nancy Drew / Harry Potter / Jack Reacher oeuvre. We are taught to read by a broad taxonomy of spaces, given a chance to breathe and to think and to prepare for what’s next. Even when we binge-watch The Crown, we get to go to the bathroom once every 55 minutes, and use that moment to reflect on the collective tragedies of the last episode before we get into the next one.

I know better than to even start Lucy Ellmann’s 2019 novel Ducks, Newburyport, its single sentence stretching in a uniform-bordered carpet across literally a thousand pages. (One reviewer said “this book loves itself very much.”) I don’t know how to read that. I don’t know where I would stop by choice and where I would stop by exhaustion and where I would stop from impatience, but I know I can’t stay awake long enough to read a thousand pages. It’s been called an “ambitious” novel, but I don’t feel the need to be caught up in her ambition. The weakness may be mine, probably is. That’s okay. I’ll own that. I’ll opt for the comfort of textual convention that allows readers to THINK they’re ignoring the road signs, even as those signs influence every driving decision. I mean, if I gave you a test to remember every single road sign between here and Rutland, no way could you do that. But you see them, and you use them, even as they (mostly) don’t enter your conscious thought.

If you’re a reader, ignore all that, the man-behind-the-curtain stuff. Pretend you didn’t see it, let it be invisible. It ought to be. But if you’re a writer, start to look at something other than the 26 letters of the language. Start to see—and to hear—the spaces.

Send/Receive Error

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

A couple of years ago, Nora got me a wonderful birthday present: a three-hour guided walk through the property behind our house with two local naturalists. My understanding of nature is pretty much limited to gross categories—tree, shrub, rock, stump, bird, mud. But they were able to help me see the vast array of plants on our land, were surprised themselves to find a black birch, were able to see where the land had been disturbed by human intervention and probably how long ago. Where I saw a wilderness, they saw patterns and histories and occasional, delightful surprises.

The environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan wrote a book thirty years back about people’s cognitive experiences of nature. In it, they had a number of interesting paired ideas that they used to help them make sense of our cognitive processes about the places we find ourselves.

One of them had to do with the “legibility” of an environment, and how that leads us to anticipate what was coming next. If an environment is illegible, we aren’t able to make any rules about how it works, and so what might come next is a matter of confusion. But if the environment we see is legible—that it, it has recognizable patterns that we understand—then what might come next is seen as mystery, an intriguing set of possibilities that we can’t fully predict but still look forward to.

But of course, an environment isn’t legible or illegible on its own. It is legible or illegible to someone, and that judgment will differ based on prior knowledge of similar experiences, based on cultural values, based on language and behavior patterns. I used to talk all the time in my research about how teenagers’ environments absolutely have rules, but grown-ups just don’t know what they are, so they think those places are chaotic or nonsensical.

Trust me, whenever some group of people does one thing and not another, there’s a reason. Just because we don’t know what it is doesn’t mean it’s not there. But patterns are only legible once we name them and use them.

I raise this idea today in light of the current book I’m reading, Matthew Salesses’s wonderful Craft in the Real World. We talked a little about it yesterday, about how creative writing “workshops” unwittingly reinforce some patterns and prohibit others. He discusses the ways in which the fiction of different genres and different cultures represent insurmountable challenges for readers trained to workshop (yes, it’s a verb, too…<sigh>) in the traditional way. It’s an important book that I think will help a vast community of writing teachers reconsider their choices.

But, as is often the case with books about complex social issues, I’m compelled by his diagnosis while being less compelled by his prescriptions. He lays out a variety of alternative modes for presenting, reviewing, commenting upon and accepting the comments of others; individual readers may find some of those useful, others alien. But in his own example syllabus, which I find generous and hope-filled, there’s still a reversion to seemingly neutral terms like agency and conflict and stakes and tone. But as Salesses himself argued in the first half of the book, those things aren’t universally received, aren’t even universally necessary to fictions of different genres and cultures. These are all patterns that are only legible once we’ve named them and used them.

I think maybe all we have is the ability to seek out people who share our patterns; to learn other patterns as a matter of choice and breadth; and to be able to explain our own patterns to anyone else who seems curious. And we need to understand that when our work doesn’t excite someone else, it’s as likely to be a simple send/receive error as a matter of craft and talent. The writer and reader have different patterns, different rules, different expectations.

This raises an opportunity and a problem for creative writing as an academic discipline. The opportunity is for all of us—faculty and students alike—to name the patterns we recognize and value, and to become more fluent in a broader array of patterns. The problem is that it leaves us susceptible to a radical relativism, a fallback to “it’s all good, man” that allows us to insist on the quality of our work and to blame the insufficiency of our readers to “get it.”

If reading and writing are modes of communication, then their quality resides in our mutual satisfaction with that communication. What one reader finds “clear” another finds “dull.” What one reader finds “challenging” another finds “bewildering.” What one reader finds “reassuring” another finds “rote.”

So maybe what creative writing programs should teach in class is the identification of patterns in fiction, and the self-identification of the patterns we most value as readers. And then the work of actually writing and judging and improving our own fiction comes when we’ve found our tribe; it happens away from classrooms, outside the curriculum, as acts of communication and friendship and love freely shared among friends.

Doing Nothing Is a Choice

If all you ever do is all you ever done, all you ever get is what you already got.

I’m in the midst of reading a terrific new book, Craft in the Real World, by Matthew Salesses (pictured above). In it, he questions the origins, functions and outcomes of our common beliefs about literary fiction, and then turns to the ways in which the “writing workshop” reinforce those beliefs, to the detriment of those whose identities or practices don’t fit that singular model.

Let’s back up. What exactly is a writing workshop? The term “workshop” implies a place where things get built, and a place where a master craftsman shows apprentices how to use tools, maintain materials, and learn the equipment and practices of a trade. But the writing workshop isn’t that. The master craftsman isn’t working on salable materials of her own in that space, and isn’t showing students how to move words around or select terms or introduce characters or deal with cultural difference. It’s not like a cabinetmaker’s workshop or an auto body workshop.

The writing workshop (which Salesses tracks back in origin to the University of Iowa in the 1930s and to a larger project in anti-communist cultural intervention) is a room with one instructor and eight or ten or twelve students. One of those students has sent her or his story to the rest of the group in advance, and the group comes in having read it, marked it up, and prepared to discuss it. During the discussion, the author is intended to be silent, so as to allow the other students to simply talk about what they found interesting or problematic, and to forestall writers’ defensiveness about “what they MEANT to do…”

Out of such good intentions comes a well-paved road to an often bad destination. And Salesses names a bunch of those bad destinations. Events in which people of color or LGBTQ+ people feel as though their powerlessness extends even to their own stories. Events in which the intentions of one genre are overwritten by the intentions of someone else’s genre. Events in which “the audience” is presumed to mean “people like me,” rather than people like the writer. Events in which words like conflict and stakes and story arc are tossed off as though they had a singular meaning.

The very best writing workshop I ever had was on the porch of the main house at Bread Loaf after the unproductive workshop of my story that had taken place in the reading group itself. That group of a dozen found themselves completely incapable of imagining Tim’s life and circumstances, wondered why he didn’t do X or why he thought Y. Applied their own concerns, argued about the character’s interpretation of events as though his interpretation wasn’t intended to be particular and specific to his circumstances. It was awful and unhelpful, as I imagine that it was for every writer over the course of those ten days. One story in particular, which I thought was just marvelous, was taken by the group and smashed to bits, each critic then reassembling the shards into her or his own mosaic. It’s really a pretty awful thing, which, to paraphrase Tolstoy, is awful for every participant in their own way.

But the next day, I sat on the porch with the workshop leader, Peter, and we had a true master-apprentice conversation about how I could literally speed up or slow down the pace of a scene to make it do even more of what I wanted it to do. It was the exact analogue to the cabinetmaker who says to the apprentice, “So if you want to make that kind of a curve, there’s a better tool to use to cut it.” And we talked for almost two hours not about interpretation or theme or mood, but about the actual work of creation, the materials available and their variety of uses. I learned more on the porch than I had from decades of writing instruction and a dozen traditional workshops.

We often repeat the things we know because we know them, and forget that the decision to do exactly the same thing again is a decision. It’s just gained momentum in such a way that we let it continue. We’re afraid of the decisions we could make, because we don’t know if they’ll work; but the decisions we’ve made for decades often don’t work, either. They’ve just become invisible.

There’s a lot of chatter, for instance, about electric vehicles. People are filling the conversation with chaff—no fueling networks, precious metals for batteries coming from third-world political crises, the cost of disposal—in an effort to distract and confuse. But listen. Henry Ford didn’t have fueling networks when he introduced the automobile; they arose to meet the demand. Oil comes from places with vast political crises, and plays into those crises. And rather than dispose of one thousand-pound battery every ten or twelve years, which is visible and easy to imagine, we currently dispose of seventy or eighty thousand pounds of gasoline or diesel fuel over that same period, which is invisible and goes into the sky rather than being visible and going into some repository. People pose problems with the possible, and never once consider the vast, unimaginable problems already present with the current.

Writing workshops are the same. We could go on forever with the cone of silence in which the writer sits helplessly off to the side while ten people misinterpret their work for an hour, but really, we don’t have to.

More tomorrow.

Works of Palliative Fiction

Let me prescribe a few of these.

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of palliative fiction, stories designed to ease suffering and renew strength. It can be hard, in our contemporary literary marketplace, to find the aisle where these over-the-counter aids are located. Just this morning, in fact, I saw a book praised for being “unsentimental,” a very sad and contemporary trait to celebrate. No, let’s look for some books that are, in fact, sentimental. Books that are motivated by generosity and hope.

Let’s start with an easy one: Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit. Yeah, the Netflix show was great, but you don’t know this story until you get into the weeds of this book. We meet Beth at age eight, when she arrives in the orphanage after her parents are killed in a car accident. Over the next couple of hundred pages, we watch Beth learn her powers at the board, occasionally falling to better players but using her anger at those losses to drive her to greater capability. We watch Beth become addicted to tranquilizers at the orphanage, watch her become more deeply held in their grip, watch her develop strength to resist. We watch her with her aimless adoptive mother, watch her learn some empathy for a woman she disdained. And none of her growth requires sudden superpowers. She has two superpowers right from her first moments at the orphanage: she’s fiercely intelligent, and she notices everything. Those two gifts underlie every action in the book, from sex to friendship to international chess tournaments. It is from front to back a novel with interest in agency, in Beth’s ability to see and then to act. 

How about The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim. Just an amazing story, so rich, so careful. The Confucian culture of early 20th century Korea comes through in every sentence, every gesture, every refusal to speak. The complications are vast. Tradition and modernity. Confucian and Christian. Brother and sister. Husband and wife. Elite class and servant class. Good child and bad child. Occupier and occupied. Wife and mistress. Teacher and student. At every step, with every person she encounters, Najin has to make choices, and she agonizes over every single one, never certain upon which ground she stands. I increasingly value stories about people who always try to do the right thing, even when they have no idea what the right thing is. I’m tired of cynical, opportunistic, craven stories. Give me a story of someone generous, someone smart, someone intelligent enough to know that they don’t know. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is exactly that.

Or maybe the best novel of the past twenty years that scarcely anyone’s heard of: Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. Mayumi, the narrator of this story, is a Japanese-British-American librarian who lets us completely, unguardedly, inside her mind as she navigates a web of relationships—family, work, and (most especially) otherwise. She is disgusted and at peace with her husband, loving and exhausted with her daughter, at home and alienated from her work. And she is ashamed and impatient and delighted and brazen with her lover. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is a treasure, a powerful and humbly honest story that defies summarization. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I haven’t read his other books, but I stumbled across Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, and I was immediately taken. Two small town neighbors, an older widowed man and and older widowed woman, turn to one another from simple loneliness and discover so much more. And together, they take on the project of reclaiming her grandson from his meager, uncaring family. A multidimensional book about the families we inherit and the ones we make.

YA literature is filled with books of hope and discovery. Two of my favorites are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Any book where outsiders discover their capabilities, and discover people who can see and love those capabilities, is a win, and YA does that better than any other genre, because teenagers haven’t yet learned that being unsentimental is a good thing. Alexie tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a delightfully profane young man who loves his family and friends but simultaneously wants something undefinably more, and struggles through his time away in a predominantly white high school to reconcile those two dreams. And Rowell puts two kids together who really don’t want to be, the Goth girl and the comic book boy, and lets them discover each other’s strengths.

There’s plenty more, but let’s start with these. I’ll write you another prescription later after you see how these go.

Palliative Fiction

Yeah, it’s tough, but we’ll make it. Maybe some of these books can help.

Palliative Care: an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems—physical, psychosocial, and spiritual.

World Health Organization

Last night, Nora and I watched the first episode of the Lynn Novick / Ken Burns series on Ernest Hemingway, in which one of the chattering commentators praised him for fully capturing the “brutalizing era” that he saw around him. I’ve written before about the artistic valorization of suffering that supposedly makes literature serious. And Hemingway brought us fully into the violence of life: into war, into the bullring and the sport-hunting trip, and always into his toxic relationships with women. And I wonder, I really do, what we as readers gain from that. I’ve missed out on a vast amount of important literature because I’m just not interested. I finally three years ago read The Great Gatsby, which really isn’t anything more than an extended cut of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which every character has exchanged their last scraps of honor and decency for champagne and nicely wrapped shirts, covering the shambles of their misery with an expensive skim-coat of gaiety.

What do we gain? Can attending a dog fight do anything other than brutalize us just a little bit more?

A friend of ours wrote a few days ago that his obituary should include the line “and also penned what has been described as the two most profound books of poetry never to have been published.” Nora was deeply touched by that, and wrote back to him about the importance of doing work that may never be seen. And she wrote the following about my work: Herb talks about readers and wanting people who take pleasure in the characters he shapes, who identify with them, see themselves as better because of them…but then I have always said he is a pastor in writer\academic\municipal leader’s clothing. And that’s true. As a college teacher, I was less interested in teaching what I thought students “should know,” and far more interested in sharing my enthusiasms so that they might find their own.

Any career has three elements, and each of them requires a different role from its guides.

  • There’s technical or content knowledge, the things our tribe knows that others don’t. Our body of knowledge, our mode of discourse. College is really good at content knowledge, and the teacher’s job is to convey that.
  • There’s logistical knowledge, the tasks and tricks that we need to know in order to employ our content knowledge. We need to know how to schedule and how to budget, how to acquire good materials and how to quickly discern materials that won’t last. How to build and manage a team, how to find funding, how to keep a client happy. The training of that comes from the supervisor.
  • And finally, there’s emotional and strategic knowledge, the reasons why we do whatever it is that we do. We need to know what draws us, both in the proximal sense of interesting projects and in the distal sense of life mission. And that’s fostered by the mentor.

When I taught at Duke and at the Boston Architectural College, I was an adequate teacher and a decent supervisor, but I was attentive every day to being a mentor. That notion of “the life of the mind” really did speak profoundly to me, far more than any specific expression of it. My best students have gone on to be lawyers and doctors, writers and historians, urban planners and engineers. I’m agnostic about the mode of joy any individual chooses, favoring joy itself in whatever form it emerges.

I had a conversation once with the president of a college now loosely affiliated with a religious denomination. I asked whether there was any tension for him between the intellectual and religious roles he played. He said, “We can teach students what to think, or we can teach them how to think. It isn’t possible to do both.”

I’ve struggled for a long time to find a rapid descriptor of my “genre.” I’ve tried out men’s romance, which is kind of true but self-denigrating. I’ve tried out men’s fiction, as a mirror of women’s fiction ( the WFWA defines “the driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self”), but men’s fiction just sounds like more of the Hemingway macho adventurism that got us into this mess in the first place.

But Nora’s comment last night clarified things for me. I want to ease suffering and encourage enthusiasm. I want to find a character I care about and write them toward safety—and by so doing, to write my readers toward safety as well. We have all suffered, and we’re all going to die. Our condition seems to be terminal. So a palliative fiction, borrowing from the WHO’s definition of palliative care, would be one that improves the quality of life of readers and those around them through prevention and relief of suffering, addressing pain that is physical, psychosocial, or spiritual. That feels like a worthy enterprise to me.

So, for the moment, palliative fiction will be the shelf tag. Tomorrow, I’ll recommend some.

Peer Review

Yeah, funny.

I think often about the differences between art forms: different expectations for who does them, how often, with what level of review or oversight or feedback. I have a friend who’s a brilliant wood turner, for instance. He treats each piece of wood as its own event, has almost never made the same thing twice. But he doesn’t take a bowl or a vase that’s drying after having been turned, and carry it to a colleague’s house and say “have a look, tell me what you think about that curve there.” No, he trusts his experience and his eye and he does what he wants. And when he’s accepted to a juried show, the jurors carry no expectation that they’ll be able to say “We’ll take it, but we have some recommendations…” No, they accept it or they don’t.

But writers are different from that. We belong to writers’ groups, send our work to be workshopped, sometimes more than once, while we’re working on it. If we’re lucky enough to have an agent take it on, that agent feels entirely warranted in making substantial recommendations about the book they see hiding inside the book we wrote. And then if that agent is lucky enough to sell it, the author goes through it all over again with an editor. I’m not complaining about that—I’ve had really wonderful relationships with a couple of different editors who’ve helped me make stories better—but I’m just noting it as a fundamental difference between craft practices.

That wood turner has made about five or six hundred beautiful things in a dozen years of work; that works out to maybe one a week. Each one might be two years in the making, but he’ll be working on a bunch of them at once, turning some and drying others and finishing yet more. I’ve made a dozen things in seven years, not quite two a year. And in the writing world, that’s suspect, the notion that someone might be able to write a novel in four or six months. It must be rote, formulaic. Hack work. (And working fast certainly CAN produce hack work. I read a novella today as one of my free downloads on my new iPhone, by a writer who’s written almost three dozen books in the same period since 2013 that I’ve been writing fiction. And good lord, it’s awful.)

So we have different expectations by pace, different expectations by nature of review and editorial input. It’s fun, as a counterfactual exercise, to imagine taking on another way of working. To say, as a writer, that I’m going to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about stories, and the people who’ll like it will like it. Everybody else can go on to the next booth.

I’ve been doing some academic coaching lately. And without putting a precise dollar amount on it, I can say that I’ve made about the same in the past five months of that work than I’ll have made from everything I’ve ever published in thirty years. (You can make your own case as to whether one is underpaid or the other overpaid.) And that coaching is only possible because I’ve had twenty years of practice at doing what I do around assessment. I’m able to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about how colleges work, and get good products onto the table reliably and fast. The novelist William Saroyan once wrote that “I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”

I watch my friend Aimee make jiseung. She’s been doing it for decades, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Now she’s in Korea, watching the “intangible cultural resource holder” Bak Seong-chun make bamboo screens. He’s been doing it for seventy years, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Jazz players improvise every night. Decades of practice makes them reliable. But in the twenty-five years since he became a professional golfer, Tiger Woods has had a daily swing coach in all but six of those years, seeing the things that Tiger himself could not, tinkering and tweaking every day toward incremental perfection. So the role of collaboration and oversight varies even at the highest possible levels of different art forms.

I’m self-taught in almost everything I do, though that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had feedback. And we all are, aren’t we. We all taught ourselves how to cook and how to be parents or friends. We all taught ourselves how to drive, really, and how to read, really, with only the lightest forms of coaching along the way. No state licensing board requires a masters degree in parenting before one’s first child, and THERE’s a high-stakes practice, isn’t it? And with only a few guides along the way, I’ve taught myself how to write.

As Marge Piercy wrote in her brilliant poem “For the Young Who Want To,” every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall. We just do the work, over and over, and occasionally we ask someone to look over our shoulder.

Forego the Crocodiles!!

Don’t even think about it.

Let’s ply some strands together today, shall we?

Strand 1. Back when I was in grad school, I discovered a faculty hobby: writing themselves extra salary. All these people had “nine-month contracts,” which meant that their salary was intended to represent nine months of service to the university (though their health care continued unabated over the summer). Those three summer months were free to do with as they pleased. And what they pleased was to write small research grants that included a summer stipend for two or three months of work at their pro-rated monthly faculty salary. They weren’t embarrassed about saying that they were looking for summer support. Better than selling ice cream at the beach, I suppose.

Strand 2. A friend of mine, a deep and devoted student of Italian language and culture, wrote to me about the Italian guild system for protected crafts. “Those inside it are well off and self-congratulatory as they ensure that the moat around them is filled with crocodiles. It is the reason why they stay inside its confines well past retirement and the young are left to rot outside the walls.” Huh. I seem to remember a book about that a couple of years ago…

Strand 3. I picked up a copy of Poets & Writers magazine on Saturday, because I clearly don’t have enough opportunities already to torment myself. I was browsing their section on summer workshops and retreats, and I kept coming across one name over and over as a workshop leader. And no, I won’t tell you their name, but it’s ubiquitous. One major conference in April, another major conference in July, a third major conference in August. And by “major,” I mean a conference that even the most casual writers would have heard of. 

This person is a faculty member at an elite institution, teaching two courses per semester. An adjunct faculty member teaching two courses per semester would make about twelve grand per year, with no benefits. This faculty member, based on Chronicle of Higher Ed data for their institution and rank, makes about $125K plus substantial health care and contributions to retirement. On, you guessed it, a nine-month contract. Leaving plenty of time for socializing around the country, making a few grand per week for a) being a star, and b) occasionally commenting on the work of the desperate climbers.

Strand 4. I forget the writer who said this, but he claimed that the fundamental distinction between commercial and literary fiction is that writers of commercial fiction make their living from writing, and writers of literary fiction make their living from university patronage. They needn’t actually sell much of anything, merely get the right publishers to put their work before the right awards committees. The author I mentioned in strand 3 published a novel twenty years ago, a second one five years ago, and a book of essays three years ago. Their total income from the royalties of all three of those books was likely at or slightly less than a year’s faculty salary. Perhaps quite a lot less.

The mystery writer Nevada Barr wrote 19 novels in her series about National Parks Ranger Anna Pigeon, between 1993 and 2016. Nineteen very good books in 23 years, not three books in twenty. And the first half dozen written while she was still working as a park ranger herself, not teaching elite undergrads in groups of a dozen. Her novels have been her primary job for a quarter of a century.

She’s not featured at three different writing conferences this summer. Because she writes commercial fiction. She’s not a member of the guild.

So what yarn shall we spin from these singles?

Well, the easy one is resentment, but let’s try to avoid that one for a minute.

Another easy one is the unpredictability of the universe. But that’s kind of nihilistic, liable to become a sweater with one arm, or with five.

No, I want to re-create the yarn plied together a few years ago by Robert Frank, in his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank, an economist by trade, argued that of course talent and hard work matter in attaining success. But he demonstrated over and over that millions of people have talent and work hard and don’t succeed, and that the last secret sauce is just having stood in the right place at the right time. Malcolm Gladwell also notes this, showing that all of the microcomputing billionaires were born between 1953 and 1956, so as to be at the right age when IBM’s first personal computer became widely available in 1975. All of the social media billionaires were born in the late 1970s and early 80s, so as to be at the right age when free college server space and vast internet bandwidth were becoming normal.

Frank further demonstrates that those who recognize how lucky they were are more likely to try to manufacture that luck for others, whereas those who believe they did it all on their own are more likely to hoard it all, like self-congratulatory Italian guild members.

So let’s take that as our lesson for the day. Those of us who got lucky (and yes, we were talented and worked hard, too, here’s a cookie) have a responsibility to build the conditions in which luck can fall more broadly. We have to introduce people around, make connections, get the work we like in front of the right readers. We have to make opportunities for our new colleagues, at every chance we get, knowing that we’re already doing just fine.

Forego the moat and the crocodiles. Build the bridge instead.

Mysteries of Faith

We’ll get back to you, probably…

So I’m 62 years old, yay me. And that means that, as of 8:15 this morning, I was eligible to register for my first COVID vaccine. So I did. Sort of.

I logged onto the Health Vermont portal, using the account that I’d created last week. It didn’t like my password. It came straight from my Apple keychain, I didn’t mistype it or misremember it, but who knows. So I created a new password. Fine. Then I logged in, went to my account page, and there was no button for making a vaccination appointment. A testing appointment, yes, but no vaccination appointment. I opened a new browser window and looked at the video for how to apply online, and THAT showed a vaccination appointment button… but mine didn’t.

I logged out, and logged back in. No button. I refreshed my browser. No button. The phone system was, of course, jammed, and you couldn’t hold, just “call back later.” Logged out, logged back in again. Nothing.

Finally, a little after 8:30, I logged back in (for literally the twentieth or more time) and NOW there’s a vaccination button. So I went through the appointment sequence, verified that I didn’t currently have COVID and wasn’t allergic and wasn’t pregnant, and set an appointment for Saturday 3/27. Great, only two days away. I confirmed, logged out, and a confirmation email had already come into my inbox.

Done, right?

Oh, honey, NO! This is the internet! You’re never done.

Two hours later, I got another email saying that my appointment had been cancelled. Well, what the hell, at least I know how to do it now. So I log back in, go through the sequence again, and make another appointment, again this coming Saturday. No harm no foul.

Confirmation email comes in. Followed ten minutes later by another email saying that my appointment had been cancelled. I go back online, and now nothing’s available any time in the next two weeks!

So I bucked up and called the phone line, intended only for those elderly hermits who’ve never seen a phone that didn’t have a plastic dial on it. (Vermont’s got a lot of those folks.) It rang through, put me on hold… and disconnected me.

I called back, it rang through, and to my amazement, immediately connected me with an employee, a pleasant young man used to dealing with elderly hermits. “Let’s go ahead and get you started,” he said, in that tone used to get Grandpa to come down to the sunroom and work on a jigsaw puzzle.

I explained to him that I was young enough to use a computer, and that I’d already made two appointments that had subsequently been auto-cancelled. “Yeah, we’ve had a lot of technical problems this morning,” he said, “everybody who was making vaccination appointments got routed into testing appointments instead.” But at least I’d verified my online bona fides (bolstered further by my not having a hotmail or AOL email address), and he stopped coddling me and we got on with the job, laughing together a few times at the randomness of the world.

As frustrating as all of this was, it was at least possible, with great persistence, to get an answer, and ultimately to get through the door. There are innumerable things that we apply for that are completely opaque, for which neither answers nor rationale will ever be available.

Apply to a college, for instance, and the answer months later will be either yes or no, in either case with no elaboration. Apply for a job. Apply for a faculty position. Apply for a fellowship or a residency. Yes/No, usually long enough later that we’d forgotten we’d ever applied in the first place. No other options, no further knowledge. No one will laugh with you about the system failures. No one will even talk to you in their grandpa-voice about what’s going on at the call center.

And writers have it even worse. Slightly more than half of the queries I’ve ever sent to literary agents have simply evaporated. The other half: Yes/No. (Actually: No. In three cases, Yes, followed a few weeks later by No.)

I was listening last week to an interview with a writer I like, and she said that before her current big-deal magazine gig and book contract, she’d been writing for an online magazine, and was responsible for writing two or three pieces a week that would get a hundred thousand views each. She meant it as an illustration of the pressures of making one’s private life public, but I heard it a little differently. She, on her own, would never have been able to muster a hundred thousand views. Her magazine’s renown (and its subscription mechanisms and its daily e-mail blast) was responsible for at least ninety thousand of that, and she was responsible, more or less, for not damaging the brand, not squandering the platform she’d been given, adding her marginal gains onto the established endowment.

If you write for the Atlantic Monthly, let’s say, you’re guaranteed to have a couple of million views. As Elizabeth Warren is fond of saying, “You didn’t build that on your own.” You’re borrowing the king’s cloak. But we see that work—just the quality of the work itself, not all the supportive infrastructure—and we think to ourselves, “I can do that.”

That’s the bait we talked about yesterday. That logical sequence from I’ve been well trained and put in the training time to I’ve done a smaller version of this thing and had it highly praised to therefore, I ought to be able to get this thing, right? That sequence of thought is what makes us click on the submittal button and open the portal. But that last step—that word therefore that spans from empirical past to deductive prospect—is where the bridge of logic collapses, where we’ve simply entered into matters of prayer that will or will not be answered. We will enter a world of silence, a limbo in which we are neither guilty nor innocent, merely set aside with all the uncountable others.

I’ve risen to that bait once again. It just looks so good. And the pursuit has given me the excuse to go back to a novel that I’d completed in draft but always knew had some weak areas, so that if I AM welcomed to paradise—by whatever miracle that I can’t invoke myself—I have something to offer St. Peter. But just the clicking of the button was traumatic, reawakened all of the fear of that invisible world. The world in which all the other kids are laughing at me, I just know it. All those other kids who know where the good parties are at, who call one another by nicknames, who’ve hung around each other every summer since they were in MFA together. As the founders of one notable literary journal said, “We didn’t even set out to do this, but we just knew so many people.” As is true for the afterlife, others must intercede on our behalf to get us through the gates.

That’s the difference, isn’t it, between the edible little fish that will nourish you and the balsawood minnow with the barbed treble-hooks that will pierce you and drag you along. If a patron knows you and asks for your work, it’s a fish. If you don’t know your potential benefactor, and you have to ask them to read your work, it’s a lure. But magical thinking comes true every rarely so often, which is enough to keep us imagining causality rather than grand cosmic accident.

It really does look like a fish, though, doesn’t it…