The story goes that golfer Ben Hogan, after his first round with a young Jack Nicklaus, was asked his opinion about Nicklaus’ prospects. Hogan was said to have replied, “This young man plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
We are all occasionally blessed to encounter people who are unreasonable. Who are so fully committed to their art that they do things that the rest of us not only couldn’t do, but couldn’t have imagined before we saw it.
Or, in this case, heard it.
I am several years late to this party, but in case you don’t know, I’d like to introduce you to the music of Jacob Collier. Jacob is a self-professed “chord geek,” always searching for new ways to combine the relative handful of notes available to us. He’s that rare figure who uses music theory to create rather than merely to understand. And what he creates is unexpected at every instant, even as it always feels inevitable.
Collier, growing up in a professional music home, was encouraged to a path of what I can only call rigorous play. Before he’d finished high school, that path was emerging onto the field of overdubbed recording, in which he sang with himself in densely textured arrangements of well-known songs: a few by Stevie Wonder, some Lionel Richie, even the theme song of The Flintstones, all shattered and rebuilt to be simultaneously recognizable and not.
But then, this. (Headphones or good speakers, please. You can thank me in nine minutes.)
Henry Mancini wrote the song “Moon River” for the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and it’s since been appropriated by tens of thousands of crooners from Andy Williams to Barbra Streisand to Frank Ocean. It’s a pretty song. But in Collier’s arrangement, it becomes both joyous and profound, and about three times longer than before. It becomes impossible. It has reached perfection.
Why is it that we cry when we encounter beauty? We can learn what Collier has done to build these chords, but it’s the chords themselves that break us to pieces. We can know that Spiro Kostof was trained in theater before his doctorate in architectural history, but it was the fact of his writing and his lectures that brought thousands of people to understand the built world in new ways.
When I see something like the dancer Yoann Bougeois’ interpretation of Claire de Lune, or pretty much anything that Simone Biles does, or the creative cycling of Danny Macaskill, I’m left wishing that every child everywhere had access to someone who is unreasonable. Someone who can show us up close what real greatness is, what it’s for, what it costs. Most of us live most of the time in the big bulge in the middle of the bell curve; we deserve to experience what’s out there on the far right tail.
And for ourselves and our own responsibilities, let’s close with a quote from Jacob Collier: Don’t wait for things to be possible before doing them.
I borrowed yesterday’s post from two thinkers I admire, Kristen Renn and Masha Gessen, and their hopes that we could imagine our identities, and those of others, in ways that are more fluid and less fixed. That we are all invested with innumerable possibilities, some of which will be more fully expressed than others.
But that’s slow work, convincing people one at a time to imagine things like gender and sexuality and race and religious beliefs and politics to be blurry and mobile. Most of us, most of the time, still see and react quickly. We are all the products of a lifetime of living within a culture that has dyed us in particular ways. (Even when we work hard at being aware of ourselves, we mess up. I realized about an hour after I’d posted yesterday’s thoughts that I’d used an incorrect pronoun to describe one of the people I mentioned. I caught it myself and fixed it as soon as I saw it, but we’re all the products of long training and habit.)
We might all be free to imagine and to employ our own identity in a more deliberate way, but that individual work of liberty takes place within a culture that’s instantly ready to hold us to more rigid categories. I imagine us all with a clipboard, walking down the sidewalk and ticking off categories of race and gender and age, spending an extra second or two of study when we can’t easily “tell.”
And those determinations would be harmless enough, I suppose, except that the “observable designations” we apply also carry a whole galaxy of emotional tones that launch our encounters. The whole notion of racial profiling rests on the broad array of social and moral characteristics that we believe are associated with the visual characteristics of skin tone or facial structure or language use or naming conventions or clothing. We judge almost immediately who is an ally and who is a risk, and then act upon those unwarranted judgments.
We see the physical harassment of Asian Americans in response to COVID.
We see BLM participants labeled “dangerous,” and white supremacist rioters called “patriots.”
We see store owners and managers making immediate judgments about who’s a “customer” and who’s a “potential shoplifter.”
I do it, too. We all do.
I see a lifted pickup truck and I worry about its driver’s capacity for anger management.
I see a police officer and I fear that if we had an encounter, I wouldn’t be able to trust the honesty of his recounting of the event.
I see a political yard sign and I can create an entire opera about the family life behind the doors.
Our capacity for rapid and uninformed judgment is immense, and it carries decades of cultural messaging that we don’t even remember learning. We are all native storytellers, even when we’re not all that good at it.
The seven deadly sins are often paired with what are sometimes called the seven recuperative virtues. Greed is countered by charity; gluttony by temperance; sloth by diligence; and so on. But I think these may be mistaken, because they continue to focus on the individual. I’m lazy: I should be more motivated. I’m angry: I should be more patient. And as nice as it is to imagine ourselves capable of that level of moral self-correction, or insist upon it from others, I don’t think it’s likely to work very often. I think instead that the appropriate counter to each of those cardinal sins is to stop paying attention to ourselves and to turn our attention outward. To become attentive, to become curious, to become eager to see what every encounter might offer.
To imagine that we don’t already know the story.
To believe of others what we hope is true of ourselves: that we’re not done yet, that there’s still growth and opportunity and magic ahead.
To return to Masha Gessen, what if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? To which I will add, what if we saw everyone else that way as well?
In yesterday’s online New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote a fascinating piece on transgender kids and the legal fights over various forms of reassignment or transition therapies. Rather than enter the fray of what is and is not “appropriate,” they raised a lateral question that I think is crucial.
People—including young people, acting legally, with their parents’ support—choose to have babies, move continents, subject themselves to extreme physical risk by engaging in certain sports, make what often amounts to commitments to lifelong medical intervention with S.S.R.I.s for depression or stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, join the R.O.T.C. or the National Guard… What if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? What if we accepted that some losses are desirable and some are regrettable, and that we can’t always know the difference? What if we knew that we are always changing not only as individuals but as societies, and the categories we use to sort ourselves mutate faster than we realize?
Mahsa Gessen, “We Need to Change the Terms of the Debate on Trans Kids”
We think of identity as something both immutable about ourselves and differentiating from others. We would never need to declare ourselves as “I am ___” without the context of knowing that other people are something else, that both those statuses are fixed, and that the difference between them matters in some deep, fundamental way.
That sense of permanence and inevitability is reassuring. Like the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, we can just set it and forget it. Our gender, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our age, all just facts rather than decisions, things about ourselves and others that we can know with certainty.
I’ve written before about the sociologist Kristen Renn and her ideas about ecological identity or situational identity. Based on her study of mixed-race and queer college students, she finds that the way we identify ourselves depends in large part on our context: the language that is available to describe ourselves and others, our decisions with whom to bond and from whom to distance.
I want to talk about two ways to think about situational identity. One has to do with location on a continuum. I’m 62 years old. That’s a fact, based on the related facts that I was born in 1958 and that the earth goes around the sun in a certain pattern at a certain rate under a certain system of marking time. Okay, arithmetic is arithmetic. But am I young or old or middle-aged? Those descriptors are entirely dependent on the context I’m in. When I did my ethnographic research with teenagers, I was simultaneously old (I was 36 and they were 15-18) and young (because I carried no authority, and didn’t have any vested interest in telling them what to do). Among my closest local circle of friends, I’m a pup, the second youngest of ten. I can comfortably walk a few miles, but have some lingering tendon damage in my right forearm from a month of firewood loading and splitting and stacking last fall. Where does that put me, and on whose continuum?
I’m just shy of 5’5″. Does that make me short or tall or normal? I can call myself short because American men average about 5’10”, but in a room full of women, I’m right at the mathematical average. And if the neighborhood kids came over, I’d be the one reaching for the stuff on the top shelf. I’m short for most team sports, a little tall to be a jockey.
So that’s comparative identity. But the second way of thinking about situational identity is one of performance. I grew up in a working class family, but went on to college and then grad school and then professional academic life. And lemme tell you, pal, I can code-switch with the best! I’m a total double agent, I can go unnoticed in both worlds because I’ve never felt fully at home in either. I’ve always been active in choosing my vocabulary and my references because I’ve always taken social class to be a mode of performance rather than a fixed truth about myself.
I am entirely confident in calling myself a writer, because I write. It’s not something I am, it’s something I do, almost every day. Among my local friends, I have the supposedly fixed identity of writer because my work has been published for thirty years and I’ve taught writing; in the world of “real writers”—that is, the community I aspire to join, that of published novelists—I’m a wannabe, a pretender. A “contributor,” to use the term from the Bread Loaf conference for that majority of us who pay full tuition because we’re not among the promising select few. But both of those attributed labels are less important than the fact that I write all the time, and try to get better at it.
What if we thought of identity as a pattern of action rather than a trait? To come back to Gessen, what if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? What if we believed that we were responsible for our identity rather than passive heirs? What if we thought of ourselves as doing gender, as doing sexuality, as doing race? That we usually do it one way, but we could easily imagine doing it differently, and sometimes might?
Now, that said, I want to come back tomorrow and talk about the differences between the identities we choose, and those that are applied to us by others. That’s a whole ‘nother thing, as my working-class friends would say.
In honor of the passing of novelist and essayist and environmentalist Barry Lopez on Christmas 2020, his spiritual home, Orion magazine, asked nineteen of his friends and colleagues to offer remembrance. And I was deeply moved, not so much by their memories of a friend, but by their consistent memories of his purposes as a writer. Of his steadfast belief that he should be simultaneously honest and generous, that in fact those two commitments were paired and parallel.
I bring some of those thoughts to you today.
The last time I saw Barry was at the Berkeley Book Festival, in 2019, where he told a story about sitting in a strip mall in Alice Springs, Australia, with a Pintupi man. Barry was explaining to the man the distinction our culture makes between nonfiction and fiction, the factual truth versus the emotional one. The man listened carefully, thought for a moment, shook his head, and said, “that wouldn’t work for us.” Then he said, “the distinction we would make is between an authentic story and an inauthentic story. An authentic story is about all of us, all the people. An inauthentic story is only about the one who wrote it.”
I put this story in my pocket, with another I heard Barry tell about a word an Inuktitut speaker in Yellowknife shared with him: Isumatuq. Storyteller. The person who creates the atmosphere in which the wisdom reveals itself. And in that same pocket, I added something else Barry said when we were teaching together at Pacific University, that we are pattern makers, that if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace, they will have the power to bring a person for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized up from their knees and back to life.
Triangulated, these three seem sufficient to construct a writer’s life.
In my mind he was traveling widely, to forgotten places across the globe, with a searchlight, like some archaeologist of the inner landscape, hoping to remind us of what we could be. Working, in effect, to bring us back to our senses.
We were drawn to art that chastened and unsettled us, but also to those artists, writers, and musicians to whom we kept returning to be reminded of what was, for us, solid ground.
Barry has often said that his role as a writer is to help. He did that by offering us a vast landscape of experience to consider, and he showed us how to observe and attend to our own landscapes with tenacity and kindness.
Barry’s respectful engagement gave me permission to notice small things, to see patterns, to connect them with their effects in a wider world, just as he had witnessed animals destroyed by our hurtling from one place to another too fast to notice.
Although his heart has stopped beating, after a long and dignified battle, Barry’s voice hasn’t been silenced. No. It abides in the books. They remind us that the world is vast and wonderful, that the heart and the curiosity of one Barry Lopez were vast and wonderful too, and that his character was keen and strong and benevolent. That’s the miracle of literature. We still have his voice, and it’s incomparable.
And the last words, from Lopez himself:
If I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold ways in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.
If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.
The reason the people were so unafraid of the cops who were so sparsely distributed through our Capitol that hasn’t been breached since 1812, when it was burned… the reason they could film themselves throwing things through the wall of our Capitol, and our property, and going through the Capitol, sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s office and have that played on Fox News, they know they are not in jeopardy because the cops are taking selfies with them, walking them down the steps to make sure they’re not hurt, and taking care with their bodies, not like they treated Freddie Gray’s body. White Americans aren’t afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops, even when they are committing insurrection and engaged in attempting to occupy our Capitol to steal the votes of people who look like me. Because in their minds, they own this country, they own that Capitol. They own the cops, the cops work for them and people like them and that people like me have no damn right to try to elect a president. Because we don’t get to pick a President. They get to pick the President. They own the President, they own the White House, they own this country. And so when you think you own the place, you ain’t afraid of the police, because the police are you, and they reflect back to you, “We’re with you. You’re good. We’re not going to hurt you because you’re not them.” Guarantee you if that was a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C., there would be people shackled, arrested en masse, or dead. Shackled, arrested, or dead.
When I was thinking about going to grad school, I was asked to provide the usual array of stuff: undergrad transcript, statement of purpose and research agenda, letters of recommendation, writing samples. But one of the requested items was entirely alien to me—they asked for a CV.
I had no idea what a CV was. I knew that it was kind of like a résumé, and I learned that the letters stood for curriculum vitae (or course of a life), but I’d never seen one. I went to the bookstore reference section and all the books on résumé construction, and none of them had an entry for CV. I managed to patch something together, which I’m sure was awful, but they took a chance on me anyway.
A singular mark of the scholarly enterprise is the overreliance on Latin, a holdover from two earlier conditions: that the academy was largely humanistic, and that the reading of Ovid was part of the early schooling of every one of the tiny cohort of privileged children who were aimed at Yale from birth. Now that higher education contains a much broader array of intellectual and professional fields, and an expanded cultural community, the continued embrace of Latin is simply one of the secret handshakes that divides insiders from outsiders. We could refer to the CV as an extended or expanded or full résumé, but that wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.
One of the very best things about my current professional life is that I don’t have to update my CV every time somebody gives me a participation medal. My most recent CV is dated April 2018; I’ve done some stuff since then, but I haven’t had the need to enumerate every scrap of it to defend myself. I know what I’m good at, and I can give you examples as needed.
There’s something kind of sad about a culture whose members must all maintain a document listing their every single accomplishment, both major and minor. It’s as though we’re keeping our own notes for some imagined posthumous biographer, a laser-printed proclamation that our work really has mattered. There’s no other profession in which a résumé goes on for more than a page or two, even for senior executives. But academics are often greatly afflicted by the fraternal twins of vanity and insecurity, and the rabbit’s foot of a growing and well-tuned CV is a comfort in an uncertain world.
As is true in most endeavors, size matters, and we invent creative ways to compare ourselves against others without being caught looking. A twenty-page CV feels more important than a ten-page CV, and so people are tempted to pad. We report every single committee and task force, every single presentation, every time we’ve been mentioned. Like seventh-graders, we get creative about increased margins, double spacing, doing anything we can to add one more sheet to the stack of our significance. (If it matters to you, the round, chunky Palatino is a great typeface for making the same number of words take up more space.)
We invent metrics for the publications themselves: the total number of times we’ve been cited, the h-index, the g-index, the i10. And trust me, we all know our own. 377. 7. 13. 6. So there. I just got my six-month royalty statement from The University of Chicago Press yesterday, which shows units sold both during the current period and LTD (lifetime to date). Neither book is at Harry Potter levels, but they’ve both done their work in the world, much of which I’ll never know about.
And that’s the problem. We don’t know. We’ll never know. We can’t know. And so we cling to whatever scraps of evidence we can dredge together, prepared to show our papers at every border crossing, hoping for safe passage.
A few days ago, Nora received a book from a friend in the fiber community, having to do with woven coverlets. It turns out that the author of that book is a member of the board of The National Museum of the American Coverlet. You might share my surprise that such a museum exists, or that it has a board of directors, or that you, too, could be a member for a forty dollar annual fee.
I don’t mean to pick on the NMAC. I’m delighted that an historic art form, one practiced mostly by women in relative anonymity, is recognized and honored. But the fact of its existence made me think about how many small groups there are in America, each hoping to survive by finding its tiny community.
Higher education has thousands and thousands of organizations related to its work. In fact, almost certainly more organizations than colleges and universities themselves. It would be a marvelous research project to learn exactly how many higher ed organizations there are, how many millions of volunteer hours they consume, how many billions of dollars they peel away from their institutional members for workshops and travel and membership fees. The private enterprises of airlines and conference hotels are massively subsidized by higher education, one meeting at a time.
There are organizations about the operation of higher ed as a business. There are organizations about various modes of student support. There are organizations about pedagogical methods, and about research methods. There are organizations to support disciplines, and sub-disciplines, and transdisciplines. There are organizations to support different tiers of teachers: faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, grad students. There are organizations to assist with and oversee accreditation. Each of those has conferences and conventions, publications, governance, websites, staff. Each of those have members, whether institutional or individual, who pay dues. They represent an unseen division of the higher education enterprise, the tens of thousands of weft threads that are woven across the five thousand warp threads of individual colleges to form the incoherent plaid of American higher ed.
I served on our Town’s Select Board for six years, and one of the things that I’m still so surprised by is Vermont’s governance structure in which the layer of the county is irrelevant. Vermont has fourteen counties, which do almost nothing. They’re a regional convenience overseen by the Superior Court, whose judges hire a clerk and a treasurer and which pays the salary of a Sheriff. The state mandate of the counties’ Sheriff’s Departments are also court-related: secure transportation of prisoners or the mentally ill. Whatever other duties they have are taken up as commercial agreements with schools and towns, like any other private security company.
The real home of governance in Vermont is its two hundred and fifty or so towns. In Rutland County, there are 27 of them (plus the City of Rutland), ranging in size from Castleton at 4,717 residents down to West Haven’s 264. Each town elects its own clerk, responsible for dog licenses and marriage licenses and maintaining the property records. Each elects its own treasurer, responsible for payroll and accounts payable and accounts receivable and grants management. Each has its own board of property appraisers, its own board of auditors, its own microscopic endowments that distribute a few hundred bucks at a time to a graduating senior or a dairy farmer.
In other states, much of this would be handled at the county level. You’d go in to the county building for your marriage license or to do a title search or transfer your mortgage, and the office would be open from 8am to 5pm five or six days a week. And they’d pay (and train) four professional clerks instead of 27 different elected clerks with wildly different skills, each of whom works for a few hours a week. (Our town office is open Monday and Tuesday except for lunch, Friday afternoon, and Saturday morning, a wonderfully random array.] Vermonters distrust larger levels of government almost reflexively, and are more than willing to exchange expertise and supervision for “local control.”
But that’s hardly unique to Vermont. The notion of local control is baked into our Constitution, making America nearly ungovernable. Every state gets to make fundamental (and wildly diverse) decisions about education and taxation and judicial organization and speed limits and liquor distribution and elections. We were a country designed for an era of limited mobility and limited diversity and limited information, and we hobble forward in our starched waistcoats and powdered wigs into an unknowable future, divided from one another by our commitment to autonomy, entirely unable to plan.
And so all of these ancillary organizations arise, doing the things informally that we could do far more efficiently and effectively (and less expensively) than we do now. We are so fearful of “government” that we doom ourselves to volunteerism and amateurism in every endeavor, a hidden tax of memberships and time and training sessions and mistakes that is our invisible balancing of the books; and we pay an immense number of for-profit businesses to do things that we could provide publicly. These are our investments in the misshapen ideal of small government.
We are not a loose band of competing British colonial land commissions any more. States are the very worst idea of American governance, but by historical circumstance and political wrestling, they hold vast and counterproductive power. We are reduced to George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light,” each wrangling with all the others for a few dollars here and there, unable to illuminate the way forward.
In his masterful history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis uncovers the way that the early commercial speculators of Southern California worked to create an immense number of smaller cities in the LA basin, so that none would be able to develop sufficient power to hinder the oligarchs’ dominance. We resist funding government functions, but we’re more than happy to give billions to Jeff Bezos instead, with no accountability. We recoil in horror from “socialized medicine,” never thinking to do the arithmetic of how much we spend on profits and staffing costs for health insurance companies that don’t really need to exist at all. (If you’re worried about a “bloated bureaucracy” or “death panels,” I suggest you needn’t look any further than Blue Cross Blue Shield or Humana.) America is designed for selfishness and mistrust and competition, which somehow we have rebadged to masquerade as virtues. We believe that the world is meager and harsh, that we must fight with our fellow citizens for the scraps; by so believing, we make that vision manifest. Our current political and public health crises are a fundamental and predictable part of the design, not a surprise.
Biden carried 85 percent of counties with a Whole Foods Market and 32 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
Back in the 1970s, the cultural geographer Wilbur Zelinsky was trying to firmly identify American “culture regions,” and was looking for ways to know when you were in the North and when you were in the South. He examined speech patterns, religious memberships… and decided that the most reliable indicator was to go into a grocery store and look for lard. In the North, it would be in one-pound blocks; in the South, it was in ten-pound tubs.
Likewise, in 2001 after the heat of Bush/Gore, when the whole red-and-blue Americas trope took off, the writer David Brooks spent some time driving back and forth between a blue county in Maryland and a red county in Pennsylvania that were about an hour apart (writing for the Atlantic). He said that no matter how hard he tried, it was impossible to buy a restaurant entree in a red county that cost more than $20. In that article, he wrote that Cracker Barrel was “Red America condensed into chain-restaurant form.”
Food matters. Food had ethnicity and social class and regional history baked right in. Here, just have a look at these two restaurant home pages.
The first is from Atalier Crenn, Dominique Crenn’s award-winning restaurant in San Francisco. The home page video is ballerinas, the oceanscape, a genderfluid couple walking down the beach. The message here isn’t about how wonderful the food is, the message is about how elegant and sophisticated your experience will be. And at one thousand two hundred dollars for two with wine, one expects sophistication, doesn’t one. The Michelin Guide has awarded Crenn three stars, meaning “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey!”
The second is from the New England favorite, Ninety-Nine Restaurant and Pub. No stars, no ballerinas, no scenery, and everybody is clearly cisgender-conformative. The corporate history page says “Charlie wanted to give locals a place where they’d always feel at home. A place where they could get no-nonsense food at down-to-earth prices, and where they’d be treated right by people who had a passion to serve.” Two people could get out for forty bucks, if they’d had a beer with dinner.
Let’s dig into Charlie’s statement a little further. He wanted to serve “locals,” because real people don’t travel for dinner no matter how many stars somebody got. A place where they’d “feel at home,” be “treated right,” not some uppity bullshit with French words and too much silverware, where every interaction brings the risk that you could do something wrong. A place with “no-nonsense food at down-to-earth prices,” not a place where there’s one fussy little thing on a giant plate wearing stripes and a hat.
Food is culture is economics is politics. Spending more money for less food = sophistication. Spending less money for more food = common sense. And when we don’t even share a vocabulary, how can it surprise anyone when we don’t share politics?
My parents had come from different kinds of social class backgrounds. When they argued, which they did, the worst thing she could call him was a hillbilly, and the worst thing he could call her was a snob. Which they did.
This class warfare played out in every possible aspect of their decision making. She drove an AMC Matador with the Oleg Cassini interior. He drove a succession of used pickup trucks. She drank—when she rarely did—a Grasshopper. He drank—when he did, frequently—Pabst Blue Ribbon. She bought a French Provincial living room furniture suite, and had a mural of some vaguely classical landscape painted on the living room wall. He stopped coming home, because it didn’t feel like his home any more.
If someone gave you a gift, say $60,000 to buy a new vehicle, your choice would be related to your social class. I might, for instance, buy a Porsche 718 Cayman, but most of my neighbors would prefer a Ram 3500 Laramie. If someone gave you a $1500 restaurant budget, you could go for a lovely evening at Crenn (using the extra to fund some of your Michelin-approved travel to San Francisco), or you could go to Ninety-Nine… every week for a year.
Scholars talk about material culture, about the ways in which our things tell stories about our values. But really, we’ve always known that even without the term. Everything we buy, everything we eat, everything we wear, is a message about “the good life,” however we define that to be.
Now, let’s broaden that some more. When you think of “comfort food,” what comes to mind? Mac ‘n’ Cheese? Mashed potatoes? Or sweet tea and barbecue? Or kimchi and japchae? Or enchiladas and rellenos? Or Tim Horton crullers and poutine?
Food is a language with which we speak. And like any language, it will feel easy and familiar to some, entirely alien and opaque to others. Go to Dunkin Donuts and ask for a medium regular. Everybody in New England knows what that means, but no one anywhere else will have a clue. I went into a neighborhood coffee shop in New York one day, one of those beloved holes in walls, and I asked for a tea, reflexively giving the size as “grande.” I was nearly bodily removed.
Another blinding glimpse of the obvious: thirty years ago, I was in a doctoral classroom where the topic of long-term housing for seniors was on the agenda. Our guest for the day said that we were used to bad, mushy food in trays being called “comfort food” because the seniors in homes had all been white Americans born in the 1910s and ’20s. We won’t provide real comfort through food, she said, until we learn to broaden our definition of comfort.
If we could all agree on whether we wanted to eat at Crenn or at 99, life would be a lot easier. But we don’t. Much less would we agree when our choices are expanded to also include a crab shack, a tandoori, a taqueria and a chips shop. And that’s part of the fear of “globalism,” a world in which our own choices and values aren’t taken for granted, aren’t seen as native and unquestioned, are seen as merely one option among many. For some people, that’s exhilarating; for others, disorienting.
Our choices are choices. They aren’t native, and the others aren’t wrong. We come from a long line of language and objects and foods, and other people will have come from their own equally long histories which lead them to make different decisions. When we dismiss or demean something even as simple as someone’s dinner, we do damage to the ideas of free will and democracy. All of us need to do better at being curious, to turn less easily toward judgment. That’s one of my resolutions for this pending year.
For about ten years, I did an annual summer coaching event for faculty members at a mid-sized private college. For a week, the participants had the permission to do nothing but write, while I and a friend led discussions about writing strategies, and read and reviewed and commented and cheer-led their work every day.
At the beginning, this writing retreat was sponsored by their academic division in the natural sciences, and so all of the participants were biologists and chemists and nursing faculty. Having been academically trained first in architecture and then in the social sciences, I had comfortably passed courses in calculus, statistics, physics, and building energy analysis, but I have never taken even ten minutes of chemistry, and remember nothing from my biology survey course aside from the slaughter of fruit flies as we tried to do rudimentary genetics. I am, when it comes to most areas of science, a half-intelligent layperson. And at different iterations of this retreat, I’ve been faced with a lab paper on the nutritional influences on folate uptake and production in drosophila melanogaster, a grant proposal for the acquisition of a Shimadzu QP2010 Ultra High-End Gas Chromatograph Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer, and instructions for classroom experiments in undergraduate physical chemistry (a field universally known by its rapper name: it’s P-Chem, yo…). I used to tell them that when I read their work, I was just praying for a verb, because I didn’t understand any of the nouns.
Verbs do the work of argument. Phenomenon X exists, or causes, or amends, or inhibits, or enables. You don’t really need any of the nouns to understand the basic claim of an argument. You just need to know that something does something, usually to something else.
Nora and I have recently started watching Season One of The Crown on Netflix, so we’re only four years out of date. The show is a sumptuous portrayal of unimaginable wealth and rigidity, a world in which mighty power can be exercised only when it’s kept squarely on the rails of convention. “The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, break the spell,” Churchill warned the willful Princess Margaret. The role is greater than its holder, and convention is privileged above individual desires.
Writing has its own conventions, built to support different illusions. The illusion of objectivity in science is upheld by the rigid conventions of scientific writing, in which there is no subject, no unique consciousness allowed to intrude. The premise of objectivity is that facts exist in the world, equally observable to all, equally defined and described by all, and that our individual role as observer is irrelevant. You would never see a scientific procedure described in this way: “Then I chose to use a dilute form of the compound, because I wanted to see whether the material would react at that lower level of concentration.” No, it simply isn’t done. One mustn’t insert oneself into it. The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, break the spell.
That level of subjectivity is all over real science, of course, and talked about easily and comfortably in the lunchroom and over drinks at the conference. Scientists talk about their work as though they were humans, about the decisions they made and the hunches they played and the guesses they called hypotheses and only discussed after they panned out. Science is filled with informed intuition, that we might try some action and we expect it might turn out a particular way. In fact, describing science as something people do is a standard practice for the recruitment of young proto-scientists. Science is fun. It’s a human activity with particular satisfactions for particular kinds of people.
But once we put on the robe, or the lab coat, we take on a legacy that simultaneously empowers and constrains. We inherit the mantle of Science, and in so doing set ourselves aside.
One hesitates to compare one’s own condition with that of the Monarch, but I find myself about to enter that same dilemma: to adopt the form, or to express a subjective consciousness. Specifically, I have contracted to write a handbook on academic assessment. But as I’ve led the online workshops that have culminated in this commission, the most common bit of praise I’ve heard is some form of “You make it seem possible. Not so scary.” And I’ve accomplished that through speaking as a person who has conducted assessments, as a warm and comforting and colloquial guide to the practices—and more importantly, the attitudes—of informal but productive research. I mean, if I can do it…
My goal for this handbook is that it carries that sense of reassurance, that sense that perfection isn’t necessary, that small steps can be immensely powerful. But that’s not how academic handbooks are. They carry not only their own work and their own intentions, they embody a lineage of handbook-ness, of matters settled and sealed. Their procedures are exportable to any setting. Readers turn to handbooks for “best practices,” hoping to be resolved of individual responsibility. The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, you break the spell.
So, like a young member of the royal family, I will embody this tension as I carry this project forward: how to express a voice that’s welcoming and reassuring and enthusiastic, to actually make human contact with a reader… while simultaneously carrying the authority that I (and my client) hope will foster confidence. Will there be a subject doing the verbs of guidance? Or will the guidance simply exist?
It’s remarkable how much social power our words carry. Grammar relies on tradition and community every bit as much as it conveys meaning. When someone uses the term “wordsmith,” I know that person hasn’t thought carefully about writing, imagines that words are simply poured from the vat and hammered into useful form, a horseshoe or a hinge. But writers consider every single decision about sequence and synonym, about the presence or absence of the writerly subject, about the difference between a strong verb that conveys emotion and a meager verb that requires an adverb to prop it up. With every decision, we place ourselves somewhere on that spectrum between individual and role. We choose which traditions to uphold, which to amend, which to cast aside. And we seek out the guidance of the elders to keep our willful selves in check.
We talked a bit yesterday about how wonderful it is to write, and how fraught it can be to have written. Today, I want to go back into that immersive space of writing, and talk more about how and why it matters.
Last week, I picked up Zadie Smith’s Intimations, a small collection of essays she’d already published as individual pieces (most in the London Review of Books). The essays are all dispatches from the early months of the pandemic times, and collectively, they do a marvelous job of reminding us just how emotionally dense this time is, and that it oughtn’t to be a surprise to any of us if we feel lost now and then.
Every so often, a piece of writing hits me so strongly that I feel compelled to type it out myself in order to understand it, to embody it, to have those ideas come through my own hands. One of Smith’s essays, “Something to Do,” meets that standard. Although I have the full text as a .docx file because I typed it, I’m not going to reproduce it in its entirety: she’s donating the proceeds of the book to COVID-related charities, so just go spend twelve bucks and buy the thing. But this essay really drives home the relationship I laid out yesterday… do we write a novel or make brownies?
If you make things, if you are an “artist” of whatever stripe, at some point you will be asked—or may ask yourself—“why” you act, sculpt, paint, whatever… the surest motivation I know, the one I feel deepest within myself, and which, when all is said, done, stripped away—as it is at the moment—seems to be at the truth of the matter for a lot of people, to wit: it’s something to do… Now I am gratified to find this most honest of phrases in everybody’s mouths all of a sudden, and in answer to almost every question. Why did you bake banana bread? It was something to do. Why did you make a fort in your living room? Well, it’s something to do. Why dress the dog as a cat? It’s something to do, isn’t it? Fills the time.
This sounds enormously nihilistic, laid out cold in the first paragraph of an essay, this notion that writing a novel is no different than dressing up the dog for an Instagram photo, that it’s merely a neutral choice of how to fill the empty minutes.
But then she works her way into an idea borrowed from another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, who wrote “Without [love], life is just ‘doing time.” Smith then talks about the ways in which empty time takes on meaning when it is used to express and receive love, and the ways in which any of those choices we make about time can be made powerful and meaningful if they are used to indirectly create love.
Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through—that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world— and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand—than by those surrounded by “loved ones.”
When Nora and I spent three full days making cookies, and then another day driving them around town and dropping them off, it was clear that this was an act of love. That it was a way to say, to the 15 or so families who received them, that they were valued and recognized, and that we were grateful to have them in our lives. The cookies were a statement, a speech act, clear and fully recognized.
What about the novel?
I read an interview today with Rainbow Rowell, whose book Eleanor and Park is one of the most fully realized books I’ve read in ten years. And she talks about the experience of being an “overnight success,” but also how difficult it is for her that Eleanor and Park has become slotted as a YA novel. She’s delighted to have a teen audience, and yet…
But it still feels weird because sometimes I feel like people expect me to be thinking of my teen audience at every step, like I came to town and said, “I’m here to serve you, teenagers. What do you want?” I didn’t do that. I didn’t write Eleanor & Parkthinking, What’s the best book I can write for a teenager? I just wrote it thinking, What book do I want to write?
What love does writing embody? To whom does it offer itself? Not to readers, that anonymous mass the writer will almost never meet nor hear from. No, I know my answer, and it won’t be popular, or broadly understood. But I’m committed to it.
Writing is, for me, an enactment of love for my characters. Those absolutely real, absolutely whole people who let me see their lives (and their obsessions and their shames and fears, too). I may not start there. I may start with an interesting intellectual question, an idea to explore, a setting that has come to mind. But before long—if I’m doing it right—I come to know, to understand, and to love the people I’m writing about. I write their lives because I admire their lives, because I believe that their lives deserve recognition. I feel the duty to bear witness to them, because I love them. They ought to be known. Ought to be seen.
In my writing book Slush, I liken my role as a writer to that of a designer creating a home for clients.
As a writer, I play the same role as the designer or builder of a home. I am not a member of the family who lives there, and cannot be. What I do is to facilitate the pleasures and the growth of that family, and to help them welcome friends to their table. I want them to be not merely comfortable, but to be loved, to be successful, to discover strengths they weren’t sure they could muster. I bear the same responsibility to my characters that I always imagined I would bear to the residents of the homes I might design. And what of the friends who visit? That would be the body of readers, unimaginable and ever changing, people invited and people who drop by. My goal, as a writer and as a designer, has been to allow the written family and their home to be so engaging that people want to stop by.
I have a whole philosophical thing about how fictional characters are real people, albeit within their own contexts, but that’s just me trying to understand my own complete conviction that Clay and Thanh and Camille deserve to be seen and loved. That Robert and Charles and Bess and Luther deserve to be seen and loved. That Svetlana deserves, after two decades of a safe and hollow marriage, to be seen and loved—if not by Dicky, then at least by us.
That’s all I have control over, in the end. I cannot manufacture readers. I cannot ensure that Svetlana’s life will be acknowledged by anyone beyond myself. But I owe it to her to make her such a full character that if she were introduced around, others would find her engaging. Would respect her, would enjoy their time with her. I have built homes for Svetlana and all the rest because I love them.
And there’s why the having written is such a challenge. I don’t care if you love me. But I want you to love Svetlana, and David and Gwen, and Tim and Nik, and so many others. And I have not fulfilled that responsibility once the book is over and the Word file is closed. I want them to be able to invite you over and tell you their stories. My work as the homebuilder is completed but not fully manifested until you sit at their kitchen table. Maybe with a brownie.