“It came to me in a dream…”

Stout StickerWell, the story didn’t, but the character did. I woke up a few years ago from a dream in which a saxophone player—a member of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra—was in full improvisational jazz wail, bent back, on his knees, while the rest of the band looked at him as though he was having a seizure, halfway between pity and panic.

So I wrote a story about a jazz musician trapped in a “beautiful music” television orchestra. It’s called “Red.” The language is a little coarse, as befits a jazz player, but not as bad as if it were on HBO… As always, let me know what you think.

Sisyphean Patterns

This is the second of two consecutive ideas about categories, sort of.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus
Sisyphus, by Franz von Stuck. 1920.

My ex-wife once told me that I ended my career by choosing an interdisciplinary graduate program. I could have stayed at Berkeley and done a PhD in architectural history, but no, I had to go off to a lower-prestige school and study small-town teenagers in a program with a title that nobody would understand.

She was right, of course.

But the work itself was exactly the right work, and that program gave me the intellectual latitude and the resources to pursue my own ideas rather than simply mirroring someone else’s. I got to work with geographers and novelists and historians and psychologists and designers to create my own recipe of thought, and it was absolutely exhilarating. The fact that it didn’t turn out to be a spendable currency probably could have been foreseen, but I wasn’t interested in work that was only means toward an end. The learning and thinking and writing were worthy ends in their own right.

And now, I’m repeating that pattern, by writing stories that don’t have an identifiable shelf-tag. There’s a lot of professional coaching about personal brands, about doing that one thing really well and “staying in your lane” and “focusing on your core competencies.” But the unspoken half of that message is that it’s a lot easier if everybody recognizes that your lane exists. John Grisham built his brand through a steady stream of legal/political thrillers, creating a product that led to an appetite for more of the same product, like Doritos. Elizabeth Gilbert changed paths in mid-career, moving from a broad array of writing into a series of coaching memoirs, and now has a devoted Oprah-like community of women who will follow her magic. All of the writers whose names are larger than the book titles on the covers got that “big name” by producing a reliable, high-quality, consistent product.

My writing life is just like my grad-school life. I have curiosities and compulsions that don’t lend themselves to known paths in major markets. I’ve written one book that might be called a romance, but I’m hardly a romance writer. I’ve written one book that’s a political thriller, but I’m not interested in becoming John Grisham. And now I’m writing a young adult, without the expectation that I’ll have a YA “career” like Rainbow Rowell. People just come to me, and I write about them.

Last week in the New Yorker, the brilliant (and newly Macarthur-annointed) cartoonist and creativity teacher Lynda Barry published an exercise she calls the “face-jam.” The idea is that people draw part of a face and then pass the drawing to someone else who adds another feature, literally seconds at a time, until eight different people have had their hands on each drawing. And in the end, each of those invented faces reflects a personality. Barry writes:

How can such specific mood-states show up in faces made by eight different hands? No one intended to make any of these people, yet here they are with specific dispositions. Who creates a comic? The person who drew it or the person who sees it?… We draw a face to see who shows up. We draw to activate our everyday super-power: we find faces, people, creatures in a few scribbled lines. They arrive intact. We can answer questions about them.

And that’s it, both in grad school and in my writing life. The people arrive intact, and I answer questions about them. I owe it to them to move into their lane, rather than have them force-fit into my own.

Like Sisyphus, I’ve taken the same task as a writer that I took as a graduate student. I follow a path that isn’t a path, and hinder my “career” by doing so. We repeat our patterns, don’t we? We learn the same lessons a thousand times. And yet, to borrow from Camus, the struggle toward the heights is enough, and I can be happy in the daily labor. I only worry when I’m at rest; when I push the stone, the stone is all there is.

Category Failure

This is the first of two having to do with the pitfalls of categories.

The Gestalt principle of continuation, from Smashing Magazine. Do we look at the colors or the shapes to decide what we’re seeing? Which category matters?

Item One. Which of these four things doesn’t belong?

  • fork
  • knife
  • spoon
  • plate

Most people would pretty easily say the plate is the outlier, because three of them are “silverware” or “cutlery,” and the plate isn’t. And they’d be right, but only within one system of knowing. Any of the other answers would be correct as well.

  • fork doesn’t belong, because the others are all five letters and “fork” is only four.
  • knife doesn’t belong, because the other three are all designed to carry food.
  • spoon doesn’t belong, because it’s the only one with a repeated letter.

Item Two. What do these three things have in common?

  • Grand piano
  • Vibraphone
  • Timpani

Well, of course they’re all orchestral musical instruments. But they’re also things I can’t afford, and things too heavy for me to carry.

Item Three-A. What kind of writer writes about all these different things?

  • The cultivation of oranges.
  • Professional tennis.
  • North American geology.
  • The history of fish.

Item Three-B. What kind of writer writes novels about these different characters and circumstances?

  • A divorced pool player in his fifties
  • An orphaned chess player from her ages 8 to 20
  • An alien who comes to Earth to retrieve water for his dying planet

The answer to 3A is John McPhee, and the answer to 3B is Walter Tevis.

(I had the chance to meet John McPhee once, a wonderful storyteller. And he said that bookstores hated shelving his books, because they never knew where to physically put them. Sports? Natural sciences? Agriculture? Business and economics?)

Item 4. Let’s say you have a book about the ways that American suburban teenagers use their homes and their schools and their communities, a book about how kids form particular kinds of emotional relationships with their places. Which of these Library of Congress designators would you use to catalog the book?

  • GF, for human ecology and “anthropogeography”
  • HM, for sociology (specifically social structure)
  • HT, for communities
  • NA, for architecture

Well, you’d be wrong no matter which you chose. The publisher put my first book under HQ, for The Family, Women, Marriage, and Sexuality.

All of this has been on my mind for the past few days because I’m at work on a new novel, which almost certainly would be put on the bookstore shelves as Young Adult. (A little hubris there, imagining my fiction on a bookstore shelf… a boy can dream.) Since I started writing fiction in 2013, I’ve completed seven novels and now at work on the eighth. And none of them would sit on the same shelf in the store. So what kind of writer am I?

Not to mention the giant category divide between my fiction and my nonfiction, already two genres that a single writer shouldn’t straddle. When you apply to writers’ conferences, you have to declare your allegiance to nonfiction or novel or short story or poetry. You aren’t allowed to just show up and be a writer, you can’t have dual citizenship. You have to declare a community and forsake all others.

The closest analog to what I do would be “women’s fiction,” which isn’t a genre like mystery or romance or horror, it’s not a category about plot structure. The Women’s Fiction Writers Association defines their field as “layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey.” And that’s exactly what I write: layered stories in which the plot is driven by the main character’s emotional journey. The difference is that my main characters are men, of widely varied age, having reached some point of unsatisfying accomplishment in their lives and wondering what, if anything, might be next. And the Wikipedia entry for women’s fiction clearly says that “There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to males.”

And now we’re back to another category system, one that claims that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I described my writing to a long-established literary agent a couple of years ago, and she said, “You’re asking men to think about their emotions. They don’t want to do that.”

I have an uncategorical response to that, which I’ll spare you.

It’s hard enough to describe a book in five seconds, as Joe Biel claims is necessary. It’s even harder to describe a writer. Categories help. But they aren’t right.

The Bad Impacts of “Good Fit”

Image from Glassdoor.com

Hiring is really, really hard. We winnow a giant pool of applicants down to a few who hit every single requirement plus some we hadn’t thought of, and then we’re faced with the impossible decision of which one of the remaining three or four should be invited to become a permanent colleague, should be given all of the start-up costs and training and resources we offer to members of our community. At almost every level of the organization, bringing someone on board is the riskiest decision we’ll make, loaded with potential and fraught with peril.

For the most part, though, the technical side of that decision was already made before the finalists come to town. We’ve already done the work of eliminating the unqualified and the confused, bringing the pool from two hundred to twenty. We’ve further sorted them by the criteria we find most important, whether that’s teaching record or publication record or funding history, moving from twenty to the final three or four. All that’s left in the pan is gold.

(As a side note, if you aren’t faced with this kind of hard decision, if you’re still thinking about whether any of your finalists is going to be capable, then your organization probably doesn’t have a reputation as a good place to work. I’ve seen broadly advertised executive searches that only attracted a handful of initial applicants, which means that an awful lot of talented people saw that ad and said, “ehhh…”)

So here we are, with our three. What is that final interview process doing that the previous round of phone interviews didn’t? I mean, we should have been able to tell from the phone call in the second round whether someone was rude or overbearing, whether they interrupt women more than men, whether they could think on their feet. All of that basic social stuff is already known. So we bring them to town in order to see if they spill salad dressing on themselves?

It’s this last round that has so much potential for bias, because for the first time, we’re seeing a living human being in front of us. A physical person of particular age, gender, race, height, weight. A person with a particular culture, a particular vocal tone, a particular set of choices about clothing and jewelry and tattoos and piercings. And in the end, we decide from among those highly qualified candidates by choosing which one would be “a good fit for our department.”

Just as a new Pope isn’t likely to be Buddhist, a “good fit for our department” isn’t likely to be someone whose beliefs and whose carriage in the world makes us uncomfortable. The “good fit” test is a place where we can lose an awful lot of women and people of color and people whose sexuality or gender expression makes us nervous.

The “good fit” test is also the place where we can lose a lot of risky, exciting scholarship. If, as Max Planck once said, science advances one funeral at a time, we put a pretty firm boot on the throat of progress if we insist on hiring only those people who fit our disciplinary orthodoxies or habits. We doom ourselves to what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science,” a world of incrementalism around which we’ve hammered in our own constraining fences.

So here’s a modest proposal. Let’s say we receive 200 applications for a position. The hiring department should only be allowed to bring that number down to about six, and should have clear criteria for eliminating the ineligible. (Remember your grad school methods class and the concept of inter-rater reliability? Now’s the time to trot that idea back out…)

At that point, the whole process should be turned over to the HR department, and the academic unit should have no more say in the decision. They’ve already spoken enough, in the framing of the job ad and the phone interviews and the choice of the finalists. And the new hire will become a member of a college or university anyway, not merely of a department.

Once there’s a handful of finalists, there should be no more interviews. HR should arrange to fly them in and meet with a local real estate agent to show them around, give them a sense of the quality of life. Now is the chance for the finalists to decide whether our college is worthy of them.

If a couple drop away because they don’t want to live in a particular physical or cultural landscape, then we’re left with two or three. That final choice should either advance particular issues of diversification that the institution has identified as important, or be drawn from a hat. All of them are stars; don’t choose the one that fits a predetermined constellation.

Nora Thinks I Need a Bodyguard

I was asked about a week ago to write a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed. That was a nice surprise from out of the blue, and I enjoyed creating the article.

It went up this afternoon (I’d been expecting this coming Wednesday, so I wasn’t ready). And when I read it to Nora, she said, “You think local politics is ugly? They’re really going to come after you for this.”

Naahhh… Civil discourse, intellectual freedom, mutual dialogue, those are the keys to the scholarly community.


A Thought Experiment

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

That’s been around forever, that demeaning sense that everyone knows how to teach because they a) raised kids, b) showed their neighbor how to start a lawnmower, c) led Cub Scouts for a couple of years, or d) have a job skill. And one of the surprising ways that belief expresses itself is in the number of people who hold some job or another at colleges, and pick up a course or two each semester as an enhancement of their salary.

Here’s a sample list of people at one college who, along with their day job, are also listed as “part-time faculty:”

  • Head coach, women’s soccer
  • Head coach, men’s soccer
  • Head coach, baseball
  • Head coach, football
  • Head athletic trainer
  • Head coach, men’s basketball
  • Athletic trainer
  • Strength and conditioning coach
  • Senior associate athletic director

But, lest you think they all work in the athletic department, there’s also…

  • Student support program coordinator
  • LAN/systems administrator
  • Writing tutor
  • Laboratory/greenhouse manager
  • Academic counselor
  • Director of academic services
  • IT specialist
  • Math/science tutor
  • Senior associate registrar

These folks are in addition to all of the more traditional adjuncts who are otherwise unaffiliated with the school. These “staffulty” are already in the HR system, and thus easy to tap. And, to be fair, they are able to offer one of the traditional roles of the faculty member, which is to offer an enduring presence within the community, someone to whom students can turn over time.

But let’s reverse the circumstances. How about if we had this list:

  • Professor of mathematics, part-time soccer coach
  • Associate professor of music, part-time registrar
  • Assistant professor of physics, part-time academic advisor
  • Associate professor of economics, part-time IT coordinator

What if we imagined that a terminal degree was an inherent, immutable requirement for working in ANY job in higher education, and that all of those faculty members also got some other institutional stuff done in their free time? What if we imagined that the deeply ingrained curiosity of intellectual life was in fact a treasured skill to be required of every single person at work among our young adults? What if we imagined that teaching and research were the fundamental skills of college life, and that being decent at spreadsheets would be enough to work a few hours a week in accounts payable?

I think it would work.

I think, in fact, that the entire culture of a school would be turned inside out. I think that intellectual dissatisfaction and curiosity and rigor would become the benchmarks of the organization, even if their soccer team sucked.

Put another way, I’d rather have a PhD faculty member in sociology doing a little advising than an advisor doing a little sociology teaching. Teaching is not merely about delivering a skill. It’s not “teaching” to show someone how to tie their shoes. At the college level, teaching should absolutely and always be about helping students see themselves as part of an intellectual community, about developing curiosity about the workings of the world, about discovering their right livelihoods and becoming vast.

This little thought experiment is one way to frame the question: What exactly is at the core of the college endeavor? Are we running a business that happens to teach classes? Or are we scholars who happen to run a business? I would absolutely, unreservedly, choose the second.

The Scourge of Author Photos

Would you buy a used sonnet from this man?

The portrait above is a historical recreation by the British artist Geoff Tristram, a 2016 effort to capture the best possible “accuracy” of Shakespeare in advance of the 400th anniversary of his death. I don’t know what Shakespeare’s face looked like, but this dude looks like a writer. The slouch, the sweatpants, the baggy eyes and bad shave, graying at the temples… I’m not a fan of the pinky ring, but in all his other schlubby, rumpled glory, this guy’s got writer stamped all over him.

The artist has fallen into the trope of the author photo: “hey, Will, just look like you’re writing, okay?” Posing with his quill nowhere near where he would have been writing, and his sleeve isn’t dragging fresh ink around. He might as well have his chin in one hand…

We’re in a highly visual age. Cameras are trivially available, and every actor and athlete and pop star has to be a model as well. It’s not enough to be good at something, you have to be good at it and cute, too. It’s a burden too far for some of us.

Nobody knew what Shakespeare looked like except for his neighbors, his friends at the pub, and the actors who put on his little shows. His manuscripts didn’t have an author photo on the back. Likewise Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, or pretty much every author until about 1970. We might have seen a photo in the paper, might have seen them on Dick Cavett, but the fact of an author photo actually attached to the book is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that I think should never happen again.

They say in the law that if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if the law is on your side, argue the law; and if neither are on your side, bang on the table. So the author photo is definitely not on my side, though I hope that the language might be. And I’ve got a decent voice (“a face made for radio,” as the old joke has it), so maybe those two out of the three will work.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew!