Desire and Suffering

What is created will be swept away

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:

  1. Immediately start to think about finding fame? Or wealth?
  2. Immediately start to think about finding readers who will love you because of the work?
  3. Accept readers, or not, as emerges in the course of the world?
  4. Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and look at it again occasionally in years to come?
  5. Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and leave it there unregarded?
  6. 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.

Stupid, Brave, or Desperate

So this quiz says I’m… HEY, WAIT A MINUTE!!!

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 Burr, 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.) 

Now’s your chance to become a fan!

Pick Any Two

Speed vs. Spin vs. Control — find your balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A very particular definition of “comfort food”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearing What Isn’t

Come on, dude… delicatemente, okay?

Music is the space between the notes.—Claude Debussy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Send/Receive Error

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Nothing Is a Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More tomorrow.

Works of Palliative Fiction

Let me prescribe a few of these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palliative Fiction

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

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

World Health Organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peer Review

Yeah, funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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