A few days ago, I talked about preparing to give some books away for free. Well, I can’t give this one away, but you should go buy it anyway. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture asked me about a year ago to do some workshops on assessment, which in the end had over 200 attendees from about 50 colleges and universities. So we decided that an assessment handbook might be in order, and have spent the past few months making one.
Although it’s aimed specifically at assessment methods that will be of use for architecture schools, it’s a simple guide for any school (or frankly, any organization at all) that wants to develop systematic ways to get better at the things they really want to do.
Assessment scares people, but it really shouldn’t. The cycle of assessment, from description to judgment to change, is a normal—and crucial—part of everyday life. Our new handbook describes both the practices and the opportunities of assessment.
Assessment can be an important lever for the pursuit of equity and inclusion, and for communication with stakeholders. Assessment can improve curricular alignment, and help your program to pursue your own unique mission. This plainspoken handbook is designed to help architecture programs at any level of development to create, improve, and make use of relevant and powerful systems of assessment.
The book is intended to be encouraging, to help your organization start somewhere and make some important and effective advances. So go pre-order one. If your school’s an ACSA member, it’s thirty bucks plus six for shipping; if you’re not an ACSA member, it’s forty plus six. And anybody can buy the electronic version that can be shared broadly across teams for a hundred. So go do one of those things. Right now. Go.
So for four months I was underground, digging away happily at the vein of ore in the mine. It was rich and productive, and I was fully immersed.
But now I’ve emerged, blinking, into the sunlight where all the complications of the world have waited patiently for my return.
The biggest problem that awaits the happy author of the completed manuscript is actually a mirrored pair of problems, a pushmi-pullyu that can’t successfully navigate in either direction. One head of the animal is finding readers. How can I get the book in front of people who might enjoy it? The world of literary agentry is the most fakakta enterprise ever invented, a community of connections for which you need pre-connections to get more than a desultory twenty-second review. Not their fault, of course; they’re looking for the love-at-first-sight moment, and using the equivalent of Tinder to do it. Swipe left… swipe left… swipe left…
I’m preparing to give copies of my books away to friends and their friends, but that means re-building my website, which means new plug-ins and new account levels and blah-de-blah-de-blah. I don’t need money, which means that I’m not all that attractive to the publishing world anyway, since words are currency over there. I’m actually looking forward to giving the work away for free, but that’s its own set of tasks.
But the other head of the creature is what might happen if I DID find readers. What are the book’s responsibilities in the world, and to whom? In particular, what do I owe Nora, my first and most steadfast reader? Can I publish things that she finds uncomfortable? Why would I introduce discomfort into the person I love most in the world?
I write lots of characters. I actually counted, in one book, that there were 84 specific, identifiable people who would have to be cast in the movie, not counting the anonymous crowds. Many of those characters are unlike me. In gender, in sexual orientation, in ethnicity, in age, in social class, in profession. I can research similar lives for months on end, but I can’t possibly “get them right,” because there IS no single right way to be female, to be Hindu, to be a corn farmer. All of those groups are wildly diverse within themselves, but lots of people are ready to be affronted if a writer’s expression of a community is different from their own. And I don’t mean to cause anyone else discomfort, either.
I’m not going to write about nothing but 63-year-old white guys who’ve moved to Vermont in the past ten years. That’s kind of a limited palette. (Although lots of memoirists have dug endlessly from a single mine. As David Chapin put it, they’ve become parasites on their own lives.) So what responsibility does my story bear to someone who might see herself “inaccurately” portrayed? And what responsibility does my story bear to people who ARE quite a lot like me, and might actually learn something about diversity (and about themselves) through the research I’ve conducted to bring my characters into being?
It’s dangerous above ground, right? Safer to duck back under and start another book!
One of the great things about my being married to a super-smart writer is that we have wonderful conversations. Nora and I actually went over a lot of these ideas this morning, while we were out digging potatoes and getting the garden ready for winter. We talked about what it meant to be novelists who were both trained as ethnographers, for whom the research can sometimes be more fun than the writing, for whom listening to characters has ethical importance. We talked about the limits of what must be known and what may be filled in with invention. We talked about what it’s meant that she’s read three of my novels in the past four months, and thus now knows all my tricks. “Oh, geez, that again?” Patterns you might miss if you dip into a writer’s work every couple of years become visible (and maybe annoying…) when you’ve seen them three times since summer. What of our repetition is our “voice,” and what of our repetition is just laziness? Or some authorial disability that limits our motion?
All that, plus we got potatoes.
Anyway, keep you eyes open for the web re-launch, and your opportunity to choose from among several new books that will be my gifts to any readers who ask.
As of about half an hour ago, the new novel is done. & Sons has been fully assembled, fired up and run on the bench with no damage. There’s a fair bit of cleanup left to do before we take it out to the show, but I know how to do that.
I opened my writing log and closed out the account for this one. One hundred twenty-six days, eighty-seven thousand words. And I discovered that, without my knowing it, this one has pushed me past a significant mark. I’m now over a million words of completed book-length work since I started doing this seriously back in 2013. I must be getting better at it, right?
Here’s the family:
Nonfiction: The PhDictionary. The Adjunct Underclass. Slush.
Fiction: The Abbot of Saginaw. The Triptych (The Host/The List/The Test). The City Killers. The Opposite of Control. A Field Guide to Men of the 1970s. Trailing Spouse. Leopard. & Sons.
Fourteen books in eight years. Productivity or compulsion? And who could know the difference?
I’ll be revising my website in the next few weeks to make some of this work available to you. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for following along with the journey so far. Your comments and thumbs-up’s have been sustenance on the trail.
I act as the Emergency Management Director (EMD) for our little village of about 800. Mostly what that means is that I compile our annual Local Emergency Management Plan (LEMP) in April, coordinate our five-year Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (LHMP) coming up again in 2024, and pay attention to what the Vermont Department of Health is telling us about COVID.
Yesterday, I was in our neighboring metropolis for a five-hour workshop provided to local EMDs by our regional planning commission and the state’s office of emergency management, running through a scenario about the remnants of a tropical storm dumping five or six inches of rain in a 36 hour period, with winds gusting up to 70 miles an hour. Not unreasonable; a Hurricane Irene sort of event. We talked about how we’d open and staff our Emergency Operations Center (EOC), what we’d have done in advance of the storm, during the storm, immediately after the storm, and in the subsequent two weeks when some of the remote areas STILL didn’t have electrical service. And one of the things we talked about was debris management.
In our town, debris management mostly means downed trees. That would occur in two phases: the first phase would be cutting brush and sectioning branches to drag off to the roadside so that we could make things passable, and the later phase would be disposing of all of that cut brush and sectioned wood. In low-lying areas of the County, the definition of “debris” would be more likely to include a broad and messy array of crap moved around during a flood, ranging from refrigerators to propane tanks to dead animals to building materials, along with probably quite a lot of mud and gravel. One of the first phases of disaster reclamation is getting the crap out of the way, for public safety and for a clear playing field to rebuild on.
Foolish person that I am, I volunteered at the end of the meeting to take on two tasks and report back to the larger community. One was to investigate policies for non-competitive hiring of immediate disaster relief contractors, people who just wade out there and get stuff done in the first couple of days. You don’t have time to advertise those jobs, and they aren’t expected to endure anyway; you just call your friends who are trained loggers to go out and cut brush so you can clear roads, and you hire the farmer who also has a trucking business to haul gravel in and branches out, and you try after the fact to get them reimbursed.
But the second task broke me.
I volunteered to investigate policies for post-disaster debris management. Which led me to the August 2020 Interim Public Assistance Debris Monitoring Guide, published by FEMA. Fifty-four pages of requirements for debris control, all of which must be followed in order for a town to provide adequate justification for disaster reimbursement. We have to have a “debris monitor” who oversees the retrieval, the staging, and the ultimate disposal of all refuse. We have to have truck loading guidelines, and refuse-separation guidelines. We have to name our job-cost accounting methods, and have draft contracts ready to go in order to hire trucking contractors to retrieve and dispose of our junk.
It’s easy to look at all of this and get all red-faced and shouty about big government and bureaucracy and the time-suck of paperwork. But every single bit of this is a response to someone’s malfeasance at some point in the past. Every line in the tax code is a response to a tax cheat in the past. Every regulation in a health-care chain is a response to insurance fraud that’s happened before and shouldn’t happen again. We are buried in regulations because we are beset by grifters who’ve tried to skim a little money or save a little time.
So someone, somewhere, was running half-full trucks of debris and claiming full load capacities to make a few hundred extra dollars, and now we all have ten pages of monitoring guidelines to prevent that from happening. Someone was jamming all the debris they could find together into one truckload, regardless of whether it was a dead cow or a pile of tires or a half-filled gas can, and trying to tip it all together into the landfill. And now we have a dozen pages of refuse-segregation requirements to prevent that from happening.
Colleges and workplaces have equal-opportunity hiring guidelines because decades of people just somehow seemed to have hired nothing but white guys (golly, how about that, what a coincidence). We have Title IX guidelines because decades of college decisions seem not to have recognized that women actually go to college and deserve to be well-served (and because too many men are predatory).
Every law is the product of a prior abuse. So if we want less regulation in our lives, we just have to quit being dicks about everything. We have to encourage our friends not to be dicks about everything. We have to prosecute white-collar crimes aggressively and early, at low levels, before they metastasize into systemic abuses, criminal organizations armied up with lawyers and accountants to muddy the waters.
Jane Jacobs, in her wonderful book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, puts forth the idea that commerce and government play mutually regulating roles, that they are by necessity in opposition, the engine and the brakes of civic society. Which, of course, means they have to be relatively balanced in size and scope. The difference is that commerce is represented by hundreds of thousands of organizations, from the country store to Goldman Sachs, and government is seen as a monolith, a single occupying force. But “big government” has all grown in response to millions of stupid, abusive, decentralized decisions.
To paraphrase your mom in her worst moments of frustration, this is why we can’t have nice things. This is why we have to have a wall full of manuals for emergency management, and state and federal agencies dedicated to their oversight, and monthly trainings about how a town of 800 people and its volunteers have to deal with disaster reimbursement. Why we have EMDs and LEMPs and LHMPs and EOCs and endless other acronyms and initialisms. Because of demonstrated mistakes and abuses that have occurred before, and need to be avoided in the future.
As the old proverb has it, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.
After ten weeks, I can see the end of the journey. It’s probably fifteen or twenty thousand words out, another few weeks, but I know how to land the plane. And on Wednesday, I absolutely did not. But I’m in contact with the tower now, I’ve got my coordinates for approach. All I have to do is be attentive to weather and traffic, and we’ll be home safely.
I’ll continue to report as we approach the runway and terminal, I’ll give you updates on arrival gates and all that, but you can rest now. We’re going to make it. This flight that departed on June 7 will be in soon.
Please leave your safety belts fastened until we pull up to the gate.
This past week has been volcanic, with allegiances being shifted and everyone discovering their limits. One opponent has begun to come around; one ally has become oppositional; and one other person, hinted at in the first twenty pages a couple of times, has now appeared, her allegiances not yet fully clear. Even whole communities are shown to be in opposition, neither side blameless.
That’s always a fascinating point. When the good guy reveals her or his shortcomings, when the bad guy shows us why she thinks she’s doing good. Writers build the stakes by showing us the conflict in unambiguous terms, then they build the story by showing us that things aren’t as clear as they’d seemed.
We’re on the glide path to landing now, about 60,000 words in. I don’t really aim for this, it’s not like I’m a TV writer who knows that I have exactly 22 minutes for this episode, but all of my novels have all been of similar length. The shortest, Trailing Spouse, is 61,000; the longest (four of them more or less tied) are at about 90,000. It seems to be the container I’m built to fill.
The generic guidelines for an adult novel put it between 70-100K. But of course, there’s been vast variability across time and writer. The five books in The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin have all been over 300,000 words. Atlas Shrugged for a long time, over 560,000 words. At the other end of the scale, three classics of high school English—The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, and Animal Farm—all clock in at fewer than 30,000 words.
The general range, 70 to 100, holds a lot of familiar books.
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Joy Luck Club
The Girl on the Train
Anne of Green Gables
The English Patient
The Catcher in the Rye
The Color Purple
That’s what you think of as a novel. About an inch thick in paperback (in modern terms; in the old-school compression of the Bantam and Dell paperback era, closer to half an inch, each page dense with ideas). It’s a comfortable space, the detached house of ideas, each family occupying its independent dwelling for us to visit.
Short story compilations, by contrast, seem more like apartment buildings. Smaller boxes, more families, not all of whom get along or even know of one another’s existence. And flash fiction is like seeing people in the subway station as you zip by on the express train; none of them matter, none of them are knowable, they’re just the interesting array of life to consider and then forget. At the length of a novel, I’m with this family long enough to start to learn who they are as they drop their guardedness. It’s an ethnographic form, built for deep learning of a few people.
Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since week 7, which paradoxically is related to the topic of today’s post anyway. I’ve done some consulting work, I’ve got one of next year’s clients underway, and I’ve had a play staged last night at the Rupert Mountain Theaterfest, which was terrific. Thanks to Matthew and Vance for inhabiting those characters so fully, and to Diane for outstanding direction.
But I also had a few days last week to immerse myself back in Cale’s world. One of the things I’ve been wondering about for the past few weeks is how I was going to get them from summer to winter without you seeing it. And that leads me to today’s Chautauqua, on the expansion and compression of time in fiction.
Every beginning fiction writer has heard somebody say “Show, Don’t Tell,” which is a complete misunderstanding of what that reader would like to say but doesn’t know how. What they’re trying to say is “don’t be bland.” That is, don’t say something like “She was very happy.” “He was furious.” Bleh. When people say “show, don’t tell,” what they really mean as readers is that they’re bored by an unimaginative portrayal. And the easiest way they can think to remedy that is to show action instead of summary.
Let’s put some technical terms on the table. Instead of “show” or action, writers often talk about being in scene, portraying some circumstance as though the reader were watching it. Instead of “tell” or summarizing, writers often talk about exposition, describing or explaining something more remotely instead of showing it directly in scene. And being in scene is certainly one way to make your writing less bland and more specific, but it’s not the only way.
I think the differentiation that matters more is the purposeful expansion and compression of time. The diagram at the top of this post shows how compression waves (like sounds and explosions) work. In the compression phases, a lot of information is jammed right up close together; in the rarefaction phases, a similar amount of information is dispersed over a greater length. And this, I think, is a great analogy for how writers of traditional chronological fiction handle time. Sometimes, we spend pages and pages describing events that happen over the course of five minutes. It takes longer to read than it did in the actual story event. We pack pages full with seconds. And sometimes, we cover months or years in a paragraph, allowing time to relax and pass us by without regarding every instant of it.
So in the novel I’m in now, I’ve been fretting for a couple of weeks about the hinge that I knew had to happen in the middle of the story. I spent the first 96 pages describing three weeks, late June to early July, much of which occurred on the Nebraska farm where Cale had grown up and where he knew he no longer belonged. The next five pages covered roughly an equal amount of time, about four weeks. Then twenty pages on the three weeks after that. The time-to-page ratio had three major stanzas: 24 pages per week for the first, about a page a week for the second, and then seven pages per week for the third.
Even within that, of course, there are microcycles of compression and rarefaction. There were five-minute conversations that took three pages all by themselves, followed by an elided day or two. Rhythms have rhythms within them, as Charlie Watts knew so well.
Anyway, by this point, on the middle of page 123, we were roughly at Labor Day, and the second half of the book wasn’t really going to start until near Christmas. How would I build a hinge to lead us from Section 1 to Section 2 of the book?
I could do it simply by closing a chapter and starting a new one. I’ve certainly done it that way before. For instance, in Trailing Spouse, the chapter called “During” ended when Sarasa was nine; the next page, the chapter called “After,” started the day after her thirteenth birthday. The ratio of time-to-page was infinity, four years divided by zero pages. Quite literally, we went with one story with a group of characters to another story with the same group of characters. But I didn’t feel with this story that I wanted that kind of hard closure to a moment; I wanted instead to have continuity, but in a relaxed way. So here’s how I moved three months in a page:
The fall went from gray and foggy to gray and rainy, all fifty shades. I got smarter with my daily study, got stronger with my ongoing physical therapy, and loved Sammi more and more through our shared enthusiasms. And I hadn’t gone to a faculty senate meeting or a travel committee meeting since May; their own layers of gray had been lifted from my life, and I luxuriated in the pleasures of pure curiosity.
Sammi had fallen back into fervor for her own dissertation research. The recruiters from Philadelphia’s Hog Island Shipyard collecting their commission for every human they lured north in the 1920s to work ten hour days, six day weeks, for 35¢ per hour. Thousands of Black workers themselves, and their families, finding that wage (and that safety) far more promising than continued life in Alabama or Mississippi. The foodways and language habits and religious patterns that migrated north along with them. The other desperate workers from Poland and Slovakia and Ireland that they fought for jobs and neighborhoods, tribal warfare imported from the homeland to be just as bitter in that new world.
Ray had brought in her best crop ever, 189 bushels per acre, but the price had dropped down just below six dollars from a spring high of $7.20. Even at that, though, she’d made $450,000 for the season, netting nearly $50,000. If you calculated her hours plus Jay’s hours plus Walker’s hours, they’d made about $7.70 per hour for the year’s work. Plus cancer.
More importantly, she’d sold the farm. AgReserves, the giant land-investment arm of the Latter-Day Saints, had outbid all of the locals, with a final sale price of $3080 per acre for the raw land, plus another $340,000 for improvements—wellhead, pumphouse, barns and storage. All at once, Ray had a check in her hands for $1,572,000. And she’d lost all of her local friends. All those farmers who’d banded together for generations turned their backs on her—she was walking away from the land, walking away from heritage, and selling it not to another local family but to the giant, despised Mormon ag machine. She was a traitor in every way, and they cut her dead. And if you asked any one of them, in the sleepless hours of the night, they’d have all done the same thing she did.
Her combine that she’d paid $650,000 for two years earlier received no bids at auction. Her neighbors passed on the chance for a good machine at a good price, just to spite her. She ended up selling it wholesale back to the equipment dealer for $200,000, should have got double that from another farm operation and it would have still been a good deal. The smaller equipment, the tractors and trailers and wagons and mowers, the aging backhoe, got bundled into a single lot, sold on an online auction for $65,000 to someone from Iowa who had no local grudges and recognized a hell of a bargain. They’d sold the old cars and whatnot in a lump as well to a local vehicle auction. They’d drive west in Jay’s year-old pickup, and figure out what else they’d need once they got out here.
The house would be torn down, probably replaced by a jobsite trailer for a farm manager. Maybe some temp housing for seasonal labor.
The movers were collecting their furniture on December 1st, and she and her family would arrive here four days later, the movers two days after that. They’d found a house to rent in Indianola, on what had once been dairy pasture but now reclaimed for wetlands and ocean birds. “Gotta have space for the dogs,” she’d said, but I knew that it was Ray herself who’d feel penned in by my neighborhood..
Yeah, that’s “exposition.” Yeah, it’s “telling” rather than “showing.” But it remains precise, because it has precise work to do. It’s a transitional phrase that gets us from the first half of the book (Cale on Ray’s ground) to the second half (Ray on Cale’s ground). It sets the reader up to now engage in the same relationship in reversed terms, without a hard border wall between them. It is a rarefaction period that will be followed by a new cycle of compression.
We talked a couple of months ago about the ways that writers can use spaces (between words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books) to give readers space to regard and consolidate what they’ve just encountered. But another tool in the rhythm section is purposeful compression and rarefaction in the pace of the story.
Every time I do this, I learn something new. I can’t imagine anything more fun.
Well I used to be somebody • Lord I used to have a friend • I’d like to be somebody again • I used to be somebody • Good lord where have I been
June Carter Cash
The British gymnast Nile Wilson was probably the very best men’s gymnast in the world in early 2018. And then he wasn’t. An injury to his hand took him off some of his equipment, but he kept training and tumbling, until he herniated a spinal disc on a skill he’d done ten thousand times before. In the space of seconds, he went from being one of the strongest, fittest people on the planet to being unable to walk.
And he collapsed. Not merely physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. His entire identity had been lost in an instant. He started drinking, developed an online gambling problem. He alienated family, friends, girlfriends. He had no tools with which to navigate this new world. This new Nile.
How many of us have experienced something like this. Maybe not as dramatic, the ends of the spectrum not as extreme. But for most of us, maybe all of us, there have been times in our lives when the self we were was no longer available to us. Or when we decided that that self was no longer appropriate to us.
My Nile Wilson moment came when it became clear that, although I had done academic work that was highly received and broadly acknowledged, I no longer had a future as an academic. I would never have my own classrooms, my own research agenda. I would have no access to helping young people chart a course through a more expansive world than they might ever have imagined. I would never again have permission to explore a confusing world without the requirement of setting it into immediate order for a client paying expensive billable hours. Everything that I had trained to become—everything that I WAS—was no longer relevant. No longer available.
And rather than go through the full process of grief, I did what a lot of people do without coaching, which was to get stuck at phase 1: denial. This isn’t really happening. I can keep publishing, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted. I can keep working as an academic administrator, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted. I can become a leader in a national pedagogical organization, and that good work will get me noticed and accepted.
I want to be clear about this. This was not the “loss of a career,” something external to me. This was the rupture of self.
When I was a kid, my very first career aspiration was to be a Lutheran pastor. I loved the pastor of our church, thought he was a model for the life I aspired to. And although I ultimately left that church, left that faith altogether, I continued to do that same exact work as an academic. I got to read important texts and deliberate about their meaning. I got to do public speaking, to write an essay every week that would illuminate ideas and their implications. I got to counsel people in need, who sat across from me in the office ostensibly to talk about their writing project but really to unload about their insecurities, about their own fears of failure, of being found to be a fraud. The job title had changed, but the self had not.
So when that “career” was invalidated, when my meter expired and I had to move on, I got a new job, I made a good living, but it was hollow, because there was no desirable self at the center of it.
The sociologist Helen Rose Ebaugh conducted hundreds of interviews with people who were going through what she termed “role changes”—a productive term for sociology, I suppose, but a little anodyne and remote for the more fundamental identity changes she’s really describing. She herself had once been a nun, and had left that behind for marriage and family life and graduate school. And through her own experience and the experience of those she interviewed, she determined that there was an important but often missing step in identity change, which she termed “becoming an ex.” She claims that it is vital not merely that we construct the new self, but also that we look squarely at the former self as well, and learn what it means to be an ex-husband, an ex-convict. An ex-president. A widow, an orphan. Post-menopausal. Retired. She believes that without some sense of closure for that former self, it will haunt us like a ghost, appearing without warning and overturning the furniture of our newly constructed home.
Ebaugh talks about a sort of standard continuum for this kind of transitional work, framing it most centrally around the experience of departure from religious communities. While cloistered, one learns not only to dress but also to speak and to walk in a “modest” manner. Upon departure, the ex-nun or ex-brother often first clings closely to the habits they know and understand. They dress conservatively, they continue their quiet and non-assuming ways. But at some point, there often comes a shift far to the opposite end of the extreme: short skirts, taking up smoking, seeking sexual attention. It’s still an expression of loss, of not having come peacefully to terms with the ex-identity, letting the former self define us through its absence, through its rejection. The authentic new self requires a closure, a sort of cauterization, to emerge on its own terms, without being an artifice of what had once been.
As we get older, we accumulate more of those ghost-selves, apparitions who follow us around and speak in voices that only we can hear. We accumulate ex-identities, the selves we once were but can no longer be. And until we can perform the appropriate taxidermy, to mount those former selves on the wall as external facts of pride rather than open wounds, they will continue to torment us.
I don’t pretend to have completed that work, far from it. But I know that I’m doing that work. And you probably are, too. Be strong, and know that there’ll be days when you can’t be.
Before we start, have a look at the title of today’s post. It combines four annoying traits all in one, like some demented anti-Twix. It jams two words together with no space but with the second word still capitalized, like every tech company that wants to seem urgent (WordPerfect, AutoDesk, CoreLogic). It incorporates an exclamation point, like the advertising promos for Utah! and the brands Yahoo! and Yum! and even ChipsAhoy! (A nice double there, the jam-up AND the exclamation mark. Well played, Nabisco!) And it appropriates the recognizable but irrelevant branding lever “-fest.” It would have been even more annoying if I’d titled it Blurbapalooza, right?
But the worst sin is the use of the word “blurb,” an ugly and awful word that sounds like a fish in distress. (The humorist Frank Gelett Burgess, who coined the term in 1907, said that, “To blurb is to make a sound like a publisher.”) Blurbs are the kudzu of publishing, once imported in small numbers to make a book stand out, now having overgrown the forest entirely. The hit 2018 novel Severance, which I sold for a couple of bucks to a used bookstore after a disappointing read, opens with three or four pages of nothing but blurbs, more than twenty of them! They used to be segregated to the back cover, like the images above. But then one of them got loose and crept around onto the front cover, like this:
After that, they just hamster-bred all over the literary warren, in wriggling litters of a dozen or more. And for the most part, they’re pretty vapid. It’s like the book opens with three pages of Be Excited! Be Excited! Be Excited! They’re an exercise in borrowed vigor, whether that vigor comes from the big-name author who wrote for you (a blurb from Stephen King is a big deal in certain parts of a bookstore), or from the comparison the blurb-writer made to some other book (“Reminded me of Stephen King’s The Stand“). To quote Burgess again, “A blurb is a check drawn on Fame, and it is seldom honored.”
But yesterday, I got a blurb from completely out of the blue. Jim Kucher, a friend of mine from Baltimore, had asked me a few weeks ago for a copy of Slush: Courageous Writing in the Face of All Reason, my book about the wonders and the aches of the writing life. I sent it off, and he responded a few days later with a photo of that book on the arm of his backyard Adironicack chair, a lovely image.
Anyway, Jim has now finished his reading and sent me a marvelously brief message yesterday, which he’s given me permission to quote.
You, sir, are the Anne Lamott of the unpublished. This thing is a gem.
Now that’s a blurb worth having.
As I move forward in my project of releasing my own book-spawn into the vast river, I’d love to fertilize the roe with blurbs like these.
So I now lay down my request and my challenge to you. If you’ve read any of my work (and you have, because you’re reading this, which is part of the work), send me a few words that you think encapsulates your experience. You can talk about a book, if you’ve read one of my books. You can talk about this blog, if you’ve read this blog. You can talk about working with me as a writing coach, if we’ve done that. Regardless of the venue, think about a sentence or two that might encourage trusted others to take a few minutes to explore.
Those words may appear on the soon-to-be-updated version of this website, immortalizing you as a blurb-writer of talent and renown. And you can have the satisfaction of having been among the early adopters, those wise enough to recognize gems before others have seen them.
I was sitting in an airport gate with a friend, we’d just finished putting on a three-day professional development event for a bunch of higher ed people. I was showing her the current year’s report of assessment project I’d developed for the college I worked for. She was delighted, wanted a copy so that her own college could mimic it. She said, “One of these days I want to sit down and pick your brain about innovation.” And because it was Sunday afternoon and I was tired, I said in my best Yoda voice, “There’s no such thing as innovation. Innovate isn’t a verb.”
“So what’s the verb?”
I thought for half a second. “Re-imagining constraints.”
I’ve had this thought for a long time, but the architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake framed it in a very nice way, talking about the difference between innovation and novelty. Novelty is a dime a dozen; any child can do something different than it’s usually done. And most often, novelty is crap, because “the way it’s usually done” has a lot of good reasons behind it. Innovation can only be a judgment assigned after the fact; an action is an innovation if it changes the way that subsequent practitioners think, if it becomes part of the baseline of practice. If, in fact, it becomes part of “the way it’s usually done.”
“…most newness is new in all the same old ways: falsely, as products are said to be new by virtue of minuscule and trivial additions; or vapidly, when the touted differences are pointless; or opportunistically, when alterations are made simply in order to profit from imaginary improvements; or differentially, when newness merely marks a moment, place, or person off from others and gives it its own identity, however dopey.”
William Gass, “Anywhere but Kansas,” 1994
In “Anywhere but Kansas,” novelist and critic William Gass begins by talking about the ways in which readers pick up a story in order to be anyplace other than where they are. It doesn’t matter whether the other place is on an Atlantic whaling ship or in a Milpitas community center, it’s just somewhere other than here. It takes us away, and places us into novelty. Gass then carries that into the similar interests of writers, who themselves inhabit particular landscapes of prose, and he suggests that writers also are looking to be anywhere other than we are, which leads us into our own novelty, our own change for the sake of change.
In architecture and in writing and in higher education, I think, much of novelty fails in the ways that Gass identifies in the paragraph I quoted above. It’s minor, or stylistic, or re-named, or “brand conscious,” or enabled by some new technology. It is, in Gass’ words, “vapid,” because pointless.
Novelty that has any chance of becoming innovation—that is, of being recognized as worthy of understanding and incorporating into our practice—does so because it recognizes that some or another constraint gets in the way of doing what needs to be done. It relieves us from self-imposed limits, it allows us to do what we believe matters most.
The problem with confusing innovation and novelty is that we don’t focus on which constraints matter. Lots of bad design work gets done in grad school because the constraints that are rejected are gravity, or money, or culture. Lots of bad writing gets done in grad school because the constraints that are rejected are chronology, or plot, or motivation, or conclusion.
What if the constraint we rejected was “impressing our thesis committee?”
What if the constraint we rejected was “work that can be accomplished in a semester?”
What if the fact of graduate school was itself the fundamental failure of imagination, and that true innovation could only come through ignoring those demonstrably artificial constraints?
The historian of science Thomas Kuhn launched a thousand unseaworthy ships without ever intending to, with his 1963 essay “On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In this essay, he identified most scientific work as “normal science.” It played by the rules, it followed on from current literature, it accepted a body of knowledge and attempted to push it a little further downfield. As Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes put it, the model was “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
Kuhn instead focused his attention on those moments where scientific consensus was broken and reframed; in particular, on the “quantum revolution” of physics from 1901 to 1912. What was being rejected? Not the facts: not the brute and incontrovertible items of empirical investigation. No, “paradigmatic science” accepted all of those facts, but not the mode of their organization. “This does not mean what you think it means” is the baseline maneuver of the paradigm shift. He claimed that science didn’t fundamentally advance incrementally; it advanced in sudden, jarring shifts between two incommensurate ways of understanding the same agreed-upon phenomena.
Anyway, like I say, this isn’t Kuhn’s fault, but a whole generation of somewhat sloppy thinkers took up the charge of “paradigm change” as a fundamental purpose rather than an outcome of careful deliberation. As an end, rather than a means. “Thinking outside the box” became the fundamental business metaphor of the past fifty years, and most of it has been vapid.
It’s hard to tell the difference between novelty and innovation. In heavy industry, the novelty was moving from a steam or water power source to electricity. But the real innovation was the realization, some years later, that the whole mill didn’t have to be run from one giant power source, that each individual tool could be run by its own dinky little motor. THAT’s the shift in thinking that enabled the contemporary factory.
When you see something new, ask yourself what exactly is different about it. I saw a little video clip the other day about an industrial process that was claimed to be an “innovation” because it did a two-person job with one person. The constraint that was being rejected there was the worth and the dignity of labor. The constraint that was being rejected was of a family being able to pay its rent and groceries.
The most innovative business book of my lifetime was Small is Beautiful, by the British economist E. F. Schumacher. The constraints he rejected were colonialism, and maximization of profit, and the centralization of the rewards of investment. The constraint he accepted was that labor is an expression of the human spirit, that work can be noble when we have some autonomy over its structure and conduct.
When we pursue novelty, we are (as always) involved in a statement of values. The things that we value, we will retain and advance. The things we do not value, we may discard. So think carefully, when you set out to “innovate,” exactly what you do and do not value. Because if it really IS an innovation, others will follow. As Victor Wooten’s mom said (on the record A Show of Hands), “If the whole world was to decide today to follow you… Victor… where would you lead them? You think about that.”