So last Sunday, I told you that the new story had arrived, and was ready for boarding. Now it’s Saturday, five writing days later, and I’m 7800 words in. (That can happen, sometimes.) And I know some things.
I know who my character is: Cale, short for Caleb, the younger son who left the farm for urban and academic life. And I know the biggest character he’s going to have to push against: his older sister Ray, short for Coby Rae, who’s run the farm herself for 25 years. So when Dad got the farm, he kept painting Barrows & Sons on the trucks. And Coby Rae had been a ranch kid right from the start, had no patience with anything girly, insisted that everybody call her Ray anyway. She was a better son than I ever was, knew her way around a field and a fuel injector and a co-op board meeting since junior high.
I know what the landscape looks like. I know the gossip that goes on at the co-op as the farmers come in for lubricants or to schedule their deliveries of corn, most of it bound for ethanol refineries. I know how far everybody has to drive every day. You drive a lot in Nebraska, because everything you need is 15 miles away from where you’re at, no matter what you need or where you’re at.
I know how Cale and Ray’s brother, mother, and father died. The opening chapter is the preparation for the father’s funeral, in the church you see up at the top of today’s post. Having an image like that is important not for describing the color of the pews or the altar cloth, but to describe what it would feel like to be inside it. The sanctuary was lit only by daylight through the two big windows on each side of the plain plastered walls, the room feeling every second of its 130 years. It’s hard to remember how gloomy an indoor space can be in on a bright prairie day, the sun pours straight down like hail and leaves no light to scatter sideways.
I know what the farm looks like, because I’ve seen it in my own neighborhood. Deceased trucks and tractors and implements and cars, all left wherever they dropped. The trucks still had Barrows & Sons painted on their rusted doors, the trucks we used to haul corn and wood and gravel and sand and Christmas trees and dead stock and whatever damn thing somebody needed moved from A to B. The weeds had grown up to about mid-door height and then just surrendered, like everything else.
And most importantly, I know Cale’s biggest internal dilemma: he’s never really been convinced of who he is. And the fact is, the simple binary of I got out, she didn’t isn’t sufficient anyway. Because I didn’t just leave one culture, I joined another. A culture in which we talked endlessly and rarely accomplished anything, a culture in which feelings and manners and process outweighed getting shit done. A culture in which no finely-sliced difference couldn’t be sliced even a little further, Freud’s narcissism of small differences carried to the sixth decimal place. I left a world I didn’t want and never would, and walked into a world I didn’t understand and never would. I had dual alienship.
So a good week. I’ve got the people and the place and the voice. I’ve been surprised half a dozen times a day at what somebody said or noticed, always a good sign that the story’s real. And I’m ready for week 2.
As always, it begins with a person bearing a particular problem, and a context that makes that problem matter. But I’m also realizing this evening that it has a subsequent starting point, which is the opening sentence.
There’s a lot of blather in writing circles about the importance of the first sentence as the hook that makes a fickle and impatient reader hang on for a few seconds further. That’s just market research, it’s Twitter-think. There’s a reason that TikTok videos are ten or fifteen seconds and novels take ten hours, you can’t just cobble a tweet onto the front of a book and think you’ve got something. (Though the writers at Saturday Night Live often seem to think so, for instance, coming up with a great ten-second gag that they stretch out to fill six minutes.)
No, I think that the first sentence is important for the writer, not for the reader. The first sentence sets the terms of engagement, sets the trajectory through which the terrain will be approached. If you’re a micromanager like me (to use Zadie Smith’s term), you start with the first sentence and end up a few months later with the last sentence, and you’ve made every single decision along the way as a part of the run. It’s like race driving: you don’t get to stop halfway through the course and say, “I didn’t come into that curve the way I wanted to, let me back up thirty seconds and hit it again.” I know that there is a vast community of writers who would find that sentiment to be (at least) naive and (at worst) lazy, because they believe that every decision is fungible and swappable at every moment. But that’s not how I write. Like Zadie Smith and many others, I write like a reader reads: “And THEN what happened?”
So my first sentence (or maybe, to be fair, my first paragraph) does a pile of things. It names the temporal starting place for the story, not at the protagonist’s conception but at some meaningful moment along her or his life course. It establishes why that moment is, in fact, especially meaningful. It sets the narrative voice, lays out what kind of sentences matter and the kind of narrator by whom that kind of sentence would be said.
I’m increasingly wary of cultural appropriations, the idea that because I heard a cool word once, I understand all of its meanings and implications and can take it on as a normal part of my vocabulary. We do a lot of that. We talk about someone being Zen, someone being enlightened, someone being a saint or a mensch, a Brahmin or a good ol’ boy. We don’t really own those words, most of us, certainly not all of them. We borrow them as one borrows any precious object: with care, with respect. We borrow them as metaphors rather than as native expression. (Nora always laughs when I use some Yiddish expression like gathering one’s farmegens, but it’s an enormously helpful idea. The fact that Yiddish words don’t have fully agreed-upon English spellings is part of their history.)
As a teacher, I love metaphors, always searching for that secret code that will help you see what’s before you in a way that you can best absorb. So I’m going to give you a word today as a metaphor rather than as a literal expression: ensō, the circular form that is drawn in a single brush stroke as a result of meditative absorption. You prepare yourself—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years—and then you act. The resulting form does not belong to its maker; it now exists independently in the world.
The opening sentence of a story is, for me, an ensō. It launches me down the mountainside.
Just for fun, here are my first sentences or paragraphs. Each of these is from a different book, in the chronology that I wrote them. Some are sentences and some are paragraphs simply because ensō don’t come in uniform size. Each was the seed that grew to be its book.
Dearest Mother, I do hope that this letter finds you in better health, and that your arthritis is relieved as the days become warmer. (The Abbot of Saginaw)
Clay was a good cook, limited in range but reliable within it, but had hardly cooked anything at all in the three years since he’d left Elaine. No one to say thank you, no one to appreciate his effort. (The Host: Triptych Book 1)
Clay had watched television cooking shows as a child while his mother was at the college and his father at the club. He loved to watch the chefs talk as they casually tossed in ingredients that magically appeared from bowls and ramekins arrayed across the counter. He felt like they were speaking directly to him as a friend. They had taught him not only how to cook, but how to be simultaneously genial and utterly controlled. (The List: Triptych Book 2)
Clay wiped his forearm across his brow to clear a light sheen of sweat, and divided the pot of steaming rice into three glass bowls. (The Test: Triptych Book 3)
In the early 2000s, I was teaching in the University Writing Program at Duke, one of my favorite jobs ever. But something caught my attention. I kept hearing my colleagues, all relatively recent Ph.D.s, referring casually to something that their mother or father had once done as a college faculty member or administrator. If it had been one or two people, I’d have left it alone; in any crowd, there’s probably two plumbers or two golfers or two college faculty members. But this was a constant background sound, like a refrigerator motor or tinnitus. (The PhDictionary)
Even though I knew it was coming, it was always a surprise. (The City Killers)
Colin had been in anonymous roadside shopping centers like this thousands of times, built two dozen of them himself. Even though he had a different purpose today, he still found himself reflexively itemizing construction flaws—poorly installed flashing, stained stucco from insufficient roof drains, cracked mortar that indicated foundation settling. (The Opposite of Control)
This is a book for those thousands… hundreds of thousands… millions among us who write in silence. For all of us who write carefully, patiently, thoughtfully, and whose work has not (yet?) found its audience. (Slush)
This is how you kill a profession. (The Adjunct Underclass)
The very most important things about you were decided by lottery. (Trailing Spouse)
Is it possible to hate a machine? Or do you hate what, or who, the machine represents? (Leopard)
I don’t hold these out to be exemplars of literary sophistication. What they are, each of them, is the expression of preparation that then, once manifested, allowed the rest of the book to spring from the reservoir.
So I know what this new story is. I know what it’s called, though that may change. What I don’t know, yet, is its first stroke. Once I have that, I’ll be lost to it for months.
Sometimes the scale of numbers blinds us to their meaning. It’s one thing to know that 600,000 Americans (or likely more) were killed by COVID in the past year, another thing entirely to know someone who suffered with it themselves, or who lost. It’s one thing to know that there’s nearly two trillion dollars in student loan debt in the US, another thing entirely to be working your way out from under $80,000 of it with fifteen years left to go.
We have data, and trends. Points, and patterns. But we don’t often think to put the two together. So here’s one example.
I published a book a couple of years ago, maybe you’ve heard. (I talk about it enough…) Yay me! I’m awesome. But just today, I received my catalog for the University of Chicago Press’ 2021 book sale, that flea-market even where they try to clear some warehouse space before next year’s boxes arrive. And sure enough, The Adjunct Underclass is in there, down from its original $24 cover price to only $11. Now’s your chance!
This, of course, is the fate we all approach, but we don’t always get such clear indicators.
The UCP sale catalog has 628 named books on the sale table. That’s one publisher. Times hundreds of publishers. Times decades of offerings. You wrote a book? Good for you, get in line, Mr. Special.
It’s the work. It’s always the work. It’s only the work. As Martha Graham once said, “What other people in the world think of you is none of your business.” You do it because the doing matters.
Today’s post is inspired by two wonderful pieces of art. The first is a brief documentary of the Scottish poet Robert Fullerton, originally trained as a shipbuilding welder. He says: This is the wonderful thing about both these trades. They are both done solitary and in silence. The second is a late-1980s essay by the San Francisco Chronicle writer Jon Carroll which no longer seems easily found online, in which he writes about the visit of Tibetan monks who were spending the week at the Palace of Fine Arts, creating a sand mandala that would then be swept into a bowl and cast into the sea as a teaching of non-permanence and detachment. But then a crazy lady walked through the middle of it while they were still making it. They looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “well, guess we’re done early, then. Lesson over.”
Writing is indeed done solitary and in silence. But then the moment comes when it’s done. What do we do then? The notion of detachment, as practiced fundamentally in Buddhism but really in lots of different faiths, is that suffering is born of desire. Teaching ourselves to renounce desire allows us an enlightened view of a world that needn’t respond to us, that needn’t implicate us at all. We have dedicated ourselves to the work, because the work is worthy. And then we let go of the work, because the attainment does not matter.
So here’s today’s quiz, to see the level of enlightenment that we may have reached around our work. Let’s say that you’ve spent a year or so writing a novel. You’ve tuned and revised, you’ve cut and arranged, you’ve brought it to a place where it feels true and real. It is done. Do you:
Immediately start to think about finding fame? Or wealth?
Immediately start to think about finding readers who will love you because of the work?
Accept readers, or not, as emerges in the course of the world?
Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and look at it again occasionally in years to come?
Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and leave it there unregarded?
Delete the file?
The work was the work. The work drew your attention and devotion. The work was worthy. But the work is done. The work no longer exists. The resultant object is not the work; it is an historical artifact of work that was once done, by a self who no longer exists. A self who typed “the end” some increasing number of days or months or years ago. In fact, the self who did the work isn’t even the same self as the one who now owns it. They wanted different things, and conducted different efforts to reach for it.
We contain multitudes, right?.
I vacillate between Levels 2 and 4 of the scale above. Level 1 is stupid, and Levels 5 and 6 are well beyond me. I have a long way to go to reach apatheia, may not reach it in this life. Should I? Or is the renunciation of desire its own form of self-regard, the snake consuming its ever-so-noble tail?
I read a book earlier this week that I’d written six years ago. No other human being in the world has seen it, and likely never will. It’s a good story. It made me happy to revisit those people and their affections and adventures once again. That’s my Level 4 experience. I can live at peace with that. It’s Levels 3 and especially 2 that ache, that burn. But as they say, time heals all wounds. Perhaps we natively inhabit different levels of detachment by temporal distance from the moment of completion. My first book, now over twenty years old, doesn’t even feel like mine any more. I’ve got a bunch of copies in the garage, a holdover from when I had some shipped to a speaking event. They are silent and inert. I’m not ready to put them into the recycling yet… but if someone else did, I probably wouldn’t be angry with them, and after a couple of days, I’d appreciate the empty shelf space. I’m at Level 5.8 with that one.
A different one—the one I just printed and sent around—is a red-hot Level 2. I want people to tell me how wonderful I am, what a great story it is and what a great writer I am to have devised it all. I’m a long, long way from detachment on that one. But in a few years, maybe I’ll buy a new computer and just not transfer that file over.
What an odd business we writers find ourselves in. We are at peace when we do the work, and then drive ourselves nuts every day once we’re done.
Here’s three connected things for the day. At least, they’re connected in MY head.
Thing One. I have a morning ritual. I check my email to see if anything’s on fire. Then I go to the Comics Kingdom website and do the Battleships puzzle, the Calcudoku puzzle, and then read the comic strip Zits. And one of the things that I think is remarkable is that the comics all have comment sections. I’m picturing some recently retired guy in a trailer park in Florida, reading the day’s installment of Jeremy and his parents and his friends, and imagining that the world needs to hear his thoughts. Today, Jeremy and his friend Hector are goofing around in a little kids’ playground. Some comments include:
Young, inexperienced, adventurous, and not a lick of sense….as Granny would say.
How today, ignore all rules…
That’s not a playground, it’s an entertainment center for snowflakes, people that will grow up with absolutely no ability to cope with a cloudy day
I understand the grumpy old man impulse. I have it all the time. But really, dude, do you need your inept social commentary attached to a freakin’ comic strip?
Thing Two. I was walking the cat this morning (yep, cat on a leash) and we went by the vacation house down the road. Nobody lives there full-time, so they only get junk mail, and the mailbox door has fallen off years ago. The cat was eating some grass, so I was stopped for a minute, and glanced at the mailbox where I was standing. A couple of envelopes and the most recent copy of the Lakes Region Free Press, rolled up and crushed in. The LRFP is a free weekly ad newspaper, with inserts from the supermarket and the hardware store, classified ads and a few display ads, surrounded by photos of kids sports teams and other small-town Rockwelliana. They send out tens of thousands of copies every week, one to every mailing address in our region, which is great because I need to light the wood stove with something.
Really, there’s a significant amount of creative energy invested in every week’s copy of that paper, (which they pay postage for to give it away to me for free!!), and it has almost never contained anything I chose to read. Literally, it comes in the door, I put the glossy inserts into the recycling and the newsprint into the basket next to the wood stove. It never even sits on the kitchen table for half an hour to raise the question about whether it’ll be read. It just won’t be.
Thing Three. I had a random thought this morning, about comedy clubs. They’re the bravest environment I know of. You don’t have to be brave to be an established stand-up comic, because you have fans. People come to your shows because they know your stuff, and already like it, and want more. You have a brand. You ARE a brand. If you’re Nikki Glazer, you’re the pretty, slutty sex comic. If you’re Ali Wong, you’re the angry, potty-mouthed mommy comic. If you’re Bill Barr, you’re the reactionary, “everybody’s stupid” Bostonian-barroom comic. As audience members, we know that coming in the door. We bought tickets specifically to see that. It’s a safe room, for audience and performer alike.
But comedy clubs are a dog’s breakfast. Four or five performers you don’t know, each with a radically different style and tone and topical content. If you like Nikki Glazer but go to a club and get Ron White, that’s just not going to speak to you the same way. You’re buying a product that you know nothing about in advance. And for the performers themselves, they go in with absolutely no warm-up and no reputation points on the board. They have to work from raw skill, as performers and writers. They have to earn every laugh.
Sum of Three Things. My writing group met on Sunday, and we had a long talk about motivation and purpose. We talked easily about our motivations for writing, for actually sitting down in front of a keyboard and making stories. But it was much harder to talk about our motivations for wanting readers. That’s embarrassing. It’s needy. We’re asking other people to pay attention to us.
I mean, I have a blog. This post today is the 295th in the past two years since I started it. Nobody asked for that. I’ve written a bunch of novels. What makes that different from the grumpy old guy in his BarcaLounger shaking his fist at the online comic strip because nobody else will listen to him anymore? What makes it different from the Lakes Region Free Press?
Nothing, that’s what.
But I prefer to think of it in the bravery mode. I’m going to take my few minutes in the club, as an unknown, and see if I can help my audience have a good time. I’ve invested the effort in the craft, and now I’m setting it out into the world to see if it connects, like pollen, to a receptive reader.
So just for fun, here’s the offer. I’ve had a few copies of my most recent novel, Trailing Spouse, printed in paperback. Here’s the blurb:
From grade-school spelling to top-tier PhD, Kurt Genier had always been an academic star. But his university career failed to launch, and he followed his wife Megan to her new faculty position at a third-rung college in rural Vermont. Kurt was just a trailing spouse, far away from friends, from scholarly life, from urban diversity.
When their closest friends were deported, Kurt and Megan were called upon to serve a child they’d never met. They fought against the weight of bureaucracy and habit, defended an unfamiliar family life from those for whom differentmeant dangerous. Kurt had to use his intellectual gifts in an entirely new way—to move from star to servant.
Trailing Spouse shows what can happen to a child when the interests of individuals, families and cultures collide. Shows who we can be, after who we were has collapsed. Shows how far we would go to protect the future of another.
If that sounds like a book you’d be interested in reading, let me know. I’ll send a free copy to up to ten people. Here’s the rules:
I’ll take the first ten requests I receive. One copy only per request.
You can contact me by e-mail, if you know it, or through messaging me on LinkedIn, if you’re a member, or through the Keep In Touch tab on the website.
Include your name and mailing address. (US addresses only! I’m willing to spend three bucks to send it out domestically, but not twenty-five for international mail.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.