A couple of weeks worth of professional writing and coaching is behind me, and now I get to spend a couple of days back in the story before the weekend prep for another university coaching session on Monday. I tend to be a binge writer, sitting for a few hours a day every day in full immersion. It takes me right back to my dissertation, spending a year of fourteen-hour days doing fieldwork followed by a second year of six-hour days writing. Unfettered curiosity is a gigantic privilege, one that universities are surprisingly uninterested in, given that they have a business model to support and a corporate org chart to arrange their efforts within.
Anyway, when I first started doing dissertation fieldwork, I constantly had to temper my desires to learn everything right now! with the knowledge that a) I almost certainly wasn’t asking the right questions yet, and b) people didn’t trust me enough to tell me what the right questions would have been. It took patience with being confused, with just sitting in absorption and letting patterns appear.
So too with leaving a novel aside for two weeks. Your characters get a little crabby about it. You promised us your full attention, after all, and now you’ve run off to some other project for a couple of weeks? I don’t think so, bud. So now I have to make amends, I have to listen and to reassure them that I’m really, really there. They’re not going to tell me anything important for a few days, and that’s their right.
In fact, they’ll mess with me a little. They’ll lead me down a side road, they’ll want to talk endlessly about minutia like their trip back from the airport and what they had for dinner. That’s partly the nonversations we have, the small talk before the large talk… but I think it’s also a little tweaking, a little testing of patience. It’s the friendship tests that we set for one another after an absence, before we fall back into openness and trust.
So I got all of seven hundred words written today, the distilled artifact of probably four thousand words written and mostly abandoned. I looked up the ground radar at the Arcata Airport (airport code ACV), and what kinds of commercial planes most often fly in. I looked up the most popular IPAs made by Humboldt Redwoods Brewing, made sure that Arcata’s most popular burrito shop was still there. I watched clips from Letterkenny, which reminds me of Cale’s upbringing, and played a round of the number quiz Kakuro, which just lets me look for patterns.
When you leave, you have to wait for permission to come back.
Item 1: In a powerful New Yorker essay, Lizzie Widdicombe interviews NYU professor and psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner, whose professional work has focused on sexual harassment. The topic of the conversation was the shift, in about a year’s time, from the veneration of Andrew Cuomo (and the coinage of the term Cuomosexual) to the disastrous revelations of a disastrous managerial career.
Let’s go back to that point a year or so ago where Cuomo was lionized (and we’ll revisit that term in a minute). COVID had revealed itself to be persistent and serious. A hundred thousand Americans were already dead, and the Federal response was a combination of denial and ineptitude. So Governor Cuomo did what a governor should do. He talked directly to the people of New York. He told them what he knew, and what he did not know. He acknowledged that suffering was widespread, and urged New Yorkers to follow the best current guidance about individual safety and community protection. In so doing, he took the opportunity—sometimes quietly and by contrast, sometimes directly—to call out the Presidential administration’s callow ineptitude.
He became the hero in the white hat. But the hero is always the mirror image of the villain: another strong alpha man who knows what he wants and moves directly toward it. It can be no surprise that the same personality type can be drawn to either role.
The core paragraph, for me, is this:
She had some reassuring words for any Cuomosexuals who are in a shame spiral right now. The Governor was up to something in those press conferences. “He was radiating an erotized masculinity that has within it hostility and a little tenderness,” she said. “That combination of soft and hard—mostly hard, but also soft—is what so many women crave in some way,” she said. She called it the “retrosexual part of us”—the part that was raised with the image of a “big, square” daddy/lover figure, even if we’ve never actually had one. She noted that a lot of gay men respond to the fantasy, too: “That’s a figure that could easily be hot to a man.”
Item 2. About fifteen years ago, the linguist George Lakoff wrote compellingly about the overarching narrative frame of domestic politics. The core conflict, he wrote, was not red and blue, or progressive and conservative, or urban and rural. The core understanding for American political life (and public policy) was the tension between metaphors: the strong, demanding father and the loving, forgiving mother. Whether the policy issue is policing or abortion or public health, the father-metaphor community framed its response in individual terms of responsibility. You made your choice, and now you’ll live with the consequences. If you didn’t know better, you should have. The mother-metaphor community framed its response in collective terms of opportunity. You might have gotten it wrong, but there’s no reason to ruin the rest of your life; try it again. You’ll always be part of the family.
Oversimplified? Of course it is, it’s a single paragraph. But I think it has enormous explanatory power. Do we insist that individuals play the hand you’re dealt, or do we acknowledge that the deck was stacked against some of the players from the start? Do we start from stalwart defense of individual position, or generosity and inclusion to friends and strangers alike? Do we operate from principles or from relationships? The psychologist Carol Gilligan, forty years ago, proposed that most of what we understood about moral development was only partial, since it had all been framed for thousands of years in terms of masculine conceptions of rights and principles. Her response was to imagine that there might be room for what she called “an ethics of care,” focused not on individual rights but on collective well-being.
Let’s come back to that notion of “lionized,” used to venerate fierce heroism. It’s usually applied to men, but occasionally to women who embody the same virtues. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, who famously said that “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.” The pride is everything, and all others are either dangers or prey.
Item 3. The historian Andrew Basevich, a retired US Army colonel with 23 years of service from Vietnam to Kuwait, has written consistently for twenty years about the foolishness of the notions of “American exceptionalism” and America’s “destiny to spread freedom.” He argues that our imperial enterprise isn’t much different than the Russian/Soviet version, willing to tolerate endless destruction and misery and squandering of resources in order to win some competition of ideals. The New York Times offers a review of his new book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed:
“Just as the self-congratulatory domestic narrative centers on the ineluctable expansion of freedom ‘from sea to shining sea,’” Bacevich writes, “so, too, the narrative of America abroad emphasizes the spread of freedom to the far corners of the earth. ” America’s account of its foreign policy, he notes, is “even less inclined than the domestic narrative to allow room for ambiguity and paradox,” and it excludes “disconcerting themes such as imperialism, militarism and the large-scale killing of noncombatants.”
A couple of days ago, the satirist Andy Borowitz wrote a fake-news column that said that in light of Cuomo (and subsequent to Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner, and Eric Schneiderman), the State Assembly had placed a fifty-year moratorium on male governors. And satire aside, it’s not a bad idea.
Isn’t it time to give traditional constructions of masculinity a rest? Isn’t it time to take a time-out, and recognize that we have alternatives to individual isolation and battles of strength and winner-takes-all? Isn’t it time to be done with Fred Trump’s admonition to his children that “You’re either a killer or a loser”? Isn’t it time to recognize that “the hero” is a public face that has private flaws, as we all do? And that the model of the lone hero, the boss, the unquestioned authority, draws a lot of the wrong people to the job description?
Isn’t it time to recognize that we’re all in this together?
So I’m going to need to take this week off to do professional stuff. Don’t count it against my clock.
Last week was a little slower, also because of some professional work, but I made an interesting discovery, through remembering something that a reader had said to me four years ago. My lead characters have sometimes had doctoral training, because that’s a way of thinking that I just understand. So they’re driving from an apartment in Minneapolis to a farm in southeast Nebraska, and the drive puts them in mind of Walter Christaller’s Central Place Theory, because of course it would, right? Or they stop at Starbucks, which reminds them of the gravitational centralization of capital. I mean, who among us wouldn’t have those thoughts.
Anyway, a few years ago, I was at Bread Loaf writer’s conference, and one of the readers of that story said, “I love that this guy has these little PhD mini-lectures.” It’s like Tourette’s, right? He can’t help himself, it’s just an involuntary genetic thing.
One of the things that writers have to guard against is expository dialogue, in which one person tells some dense background thing to another person who sits there passively to receive it. That’s not how dialogue works; linguists have found that the “median length of utterance” among American adults is about ten words. Dialogue, for most people, is a series of relatively brief exchanges. Every so often, someone gets a Shakespearean soliloquy, but it’s rare, and has to be used sparingly.
But what do professors do? We get soliloquies every time we stand at the lectern! It’s like stand-up comedy: I talk, you laugh. In the lecture classroom, I talk, you think “wow, that’s really interesting!” (Seminars are different. They’re the land of brief dialogue where everyone gets their moments.) So now, every time Cale gets a bug up his butt to talk about Jean Anyon’s Hidden Curriculum of Work or something, I’m literally calling it out, formatting it in a box with a different typeface, and delivering it as a “little PhD mini-lecture” directly to the reader. It’s like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, it’s a purposeful removal from the movie to drop a little idea-bomb on you, to reframe your attention for what’s coming.
This stuff is so much fun I can’t stand it.
Hey, let’s go back to that book I took with me to Bread Loaf. It’s called The City Killers, and it’s about a young couple who discover that a crushed industrial town is about to be taken over by the state, possibly for somewhat nefarious larger purposes. Think Chinatown crossed with the Flint water crisis. Plus some tournament darts, and some choral singing, and some intervention in domestic abuse. It’s pretty cool.
And thirty copies of it will be on my porch by tomorrow afternoon. Want one? Let me know. No charge; this is my self-imposed tax for citizenship in the nation of writers.
Kanak Jha is the best table tennis player that the US has ever produced. He’s only 21, he’s been to the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the Tokyo Olympics this month, he’s won a gold and two bronze medals at the 2019 Pan American Games. He plays professionally with TTFLiebherr Ochsenhausen of the elite German Bundesliga, which is akin to playing in the National Hockey League. And yet, last week, he lost in the men’s singles at the Olympics in the round of 64. So, simple question: Is he good?
It takes so much work to even have a chance to fail. Don’t get me wrong, it’s easy to be inept. There are tens of millions of things that I’d be inept at, because I’ve never given them any practice at all. From chemistry to ballet, from skateboarding to online multiplayer video games, there’s a vast universe of things at which I would be instantly and identifiably awful.
No, I’m talking about a different phenomenon. I’m talking about people who are really, really skilled and trained at something, whose excellence has been identified and praised, who sometimes do work that isn’t good. Think of Matthew McConnaughey in Sahara, or Charlize Theron in Aeon Flux. Think of Madonna releasing MDNA, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer subverting their entire career with Love Beach. Think of any athlete who has a rough day with the entire world watching, at the World Series or the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament. It takes a lot of work to come up short.
I’m at the point of my current novel where the question comes up — but what if it’s no good?? I’ve got a lot of plates launched and spinning: the sibling tension, the multicultural romantic drama, the emotionally wounded child, the physically wounded hero, the dying sister, the questions of whether one career will launch or another career sustain, the questions of sexual identity and sexual fluidity. That’s a LOT of plates. Too many? Are some working in opposition to others? Does the variety distract from the whole? And what if one of those plates drops and shatters? Ruins the whole act, right?
Plus I sent one of my prior novels to the printer last week for a short run. I wrote it in 2016-18, so it’s three years prior to Leopard or Trailing Spouse. I was a similar but not identical writer to the guy who wrote those later two. So what if The City Killers is no good? Am I just assembling the outtakes?
And there are other books I haven’t gone back to for revision and assembly. I’m planning to, but maybe that’s a bad idea, because they’re no good.
You’ve been there, I’m betting. You’ve wondered whether the work you’ve invested so much care and effort in is no good. So here’s my half-full thought for today on that.
It’s okay if it isn’t.
One of my writing heroes, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote a daily 700-word essay five days a week from 1983 through 2015. They were wonderful, mostly, but of course not entirely. Any career with over seven thousand essays has to produce a dud now and again. Anyway, he was wrestling with this question — but what if it’s no good?? — one day, and came to a formulation that he believes supported him through his entire career. He said, “One of these five columns is going to be my worst column of the week. And I probably won’t know which one it is.” Once he gave himself permission to not be on an identifiably and perpetually upward arc, he freed himself to write more fully.
Here’s a challenge. Spend a weekday afternoon watching television. Scroll around and flip through the channels. It’ll be a real challenge to find anything that’s good anywhere in your hundred-channel basic package. And these are people who’ve made real careers around those cooking shows or soap operas or sports-shouting panels, around those game shows or shopping channels. They provide a lot of people with a solid living, and almost none of them are any good.
The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once responded to a critic who said that science fiction wasn’t literary because so much of it was low quality. Sturgeon responded that most work in most genres was of low quality. His more colorful phrasing, which has come down to us now as Sturgeon’s Law, was “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”
Yes, ninety percent of everything is crap, and you deserve to make some of it. You are doomed to make some of it. If you do enough work with enough care for enough time, you will produce some of that work that is of lesser quality. It is as close to an immutable, inevitable fact as any social phenomenon I can imagine.
And that’s encouraging, I think. It gives us permission to do everything we can as fully as we can, and learn the verdict later on. So pull on your muck boots and wade back out there, comrades. If it’s every bit as good as you can make it today, then it’s made today worthwhile.
Well, we’re six weeks and about 36,000 words in—halfway through, more or less—and settling into the long game. I didn’t work on the novel as much this past week as I’d have liked. We had friends from out of town stay with us, the first time in two years we’ve had people stay overnight! It was wonderful. And I did some work to teach myself a new graphics program, and got another of my novels into the production process. There’s just something wonderful about a physical book in your hands, after months or years of looking at the thing on your monitor as a Word file. And it makes a nicer gift when you give one to a friend. I highly recommend it. Stay tuned for more developments on that front…
But back in the story, everybody’s coming to terms with the new world after the old one’s now been irrevocably broken. We’re going to have changes in where people live, and with whom. We’re going to have changes in how people make their living, or don’t. And Cale’s got fundamental changes in how his body works, changes that he doesn’t yet understand, and hasn’t yet fully seen.
Two doctors came in, the one I’d met plus another. They talked almost exclusively to one another, I was just the object, like a dog at the vet. I remember one of them asked Sammi, “How are you around the sight of blood? I don’t need a secondary casualty in here.” Then they put a mask over my eyes. “It’ll be bright in here, we don’t want to aggravate your brain injury.” She was lying, of course, they didn’t want me to see my hand, but they were nice to me, and it was all okay. I wanted to say thank you, but it turned out that I couldn’t say anything, so I didn’t try very hard.
The two women had similar voices, so I couldn’t tell who said what. I felt cutting and pulling, but none of it hurt much, and I couldn’t talk to them anyway. I felt Sammi’s hand crush down on my good hand, felt her jerk back.
“Military surgeon, probably” somebody said. “Keep him from bleeding to death, and send him back for someone else to clean up.”
“And they did a full open for the tendon repair, not arthroscopic. I haven’t seen an incision like that in fifteen years.”
I wondered if cars could hear it when mechanics talked about them. ‘I don’t know who worked on that transmission, but that’s just fucked. Yep, it’s a goner.’
I’m not an especially experimental novelist. Or, perhaps more accurately, the experiments I set for myself aren’t formal; they’re ethical. I want to know how someone might overcome or adapt to a new world that they weren’t able to fully create themselves. Our lives change around us all the time, and I’m fascinated by the ways that we change in response.
Because of that, I write in an identifiably realist mode. I write in a relatively linear chronology, with some sense of a before, a during, and an after. “And THEN what happened?” is at the core of my organizing structures.
It’s surprising how unusual that’s become in literary circles. It’s still the norm in every commercial genre you can imagine, but it’s no longer interesting to the people whose job it is to invent new forms, just as humane habitation isn’t very interesting to the architects whose job it is to invent new forms. I recently proposed a Myers-Briggs equivalent that I called the Reader-Writer Type Indicator, that attempts to help us understand the types of novels that will be most appealing to us. Like the Myers-Briggs, it has four variables with two types each:
E/A—Is the action responsive to the Environment or to the characters’ Agency? Can people overcome their circumstances, or are the circumstances too substantial to be resisted?
C/U—Is the story intended to be Comforting or Unsettling? Do we want things to become better, or ever worse in creative new ways?
N/F—is the story set in some Nearby place that we’re helped to see more richly, or is it set in a Faraway and unfamiliar place that keeps us off balance with its forms and rules?
R/J—is the story fundamentally about the Relationships of its characters, or more about the Journey or the adventure on which they’ve embarked?
I’m more or less an ACNR reader, looking for well-executed but pretty traditionally structured stories about the successful building of a relationship with self, friends and partner, set in a seemingly familiar place that surprises us with its inner workings. My wife is an EUFR, constructing ethnographic studies of people bound by culture and family and place, most of those places being distant in time and space, but like me, focused more on the daily inner lives of her characters than on some large adventure they embark upon.
Your literary personality type will be different than either of those. But you should know it, because if you write outside those bounds, the work won’t draw on your greatest strengths. All of us are instruments suited for a particular repertoire, with a voice that has in fact been generated by that repertoire. No matter how conscious we are of our craft, we still largely play by ear, falling into the written culture that has shaped us. This is not a failing; it is a celebration of the reading life we’ve chosen.
So here I am, right in the heart of the book, about 33,000 words in. It’s been a productive month. And, as often happens, I learned something about my writing this week through a surprising source.
As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, once we get through the first fifteen or twenty thousand words, we know who all the players are and what fundamental problems the book is going to have to get them through. The last ten or fifteen thousand words will be the resolution of those problems, for better or worse. So what’s the fifty thousand words in the middle doing? I mean, why bother? It should be like bowling, right? Set the problem up and knock it down.
But early this week, I got an e-mail from a friend. He’d read one of my books, and loaned it to his high-school-senior granddaughter. She read it, and enjoyed it as much as he had. I won’t replicate that message here, but one of the things she said that really landed with me was that the characters were compelling and multifaceted and “just plain likable.”
And that’s what I’m doing in the middle of the book.
What makes a character compelling? I think it’s when they have a compelling self-problem to address. Vin Diesel isn’t a compelling character in the F&F franchise, because his whole worldview is external. Stuff happens, he reacts to it. The writers try to tag on a little internal struggle, but come on, that’s not why you watch those stupid movies.
Characters are compelling when they’re compelled. When they’re driven by some internal demons or some internal motivation to do something bigger than everyday life. Let’s stick with the action-movie mode for a minute. James Bond as portrayed by most actors has been externally driven. Villains or girls (or sometimes girls who are villains) present themselves, and he responds. We wait for the fight scenes or the wisecracks. But Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig is completely different. He hates his life, he doesn’t want to live this way any more, and he’s aging out anyway. He does what he does, because of patriotism and because it’s what he knows how to do, but he fights against it every step of the way. So the explosions and motorcycle chases are still cool, but the movies are way better because Bond is now a compelling character. He has an internal life that he hasn’t resolved.
What makes a character multifaceted? I think that it comes through seeing how they react to different kinds of people and events. They have a personality that’s expressed more or less the same way in different life moments—not perfectly consistent, because none of us are, but reactions that are reasonably evoked from that person. So every interaction gives the characters a chance to show you a different facet of who they are, a different glimpse into how they think. And those interactions have to be different enough to give you meaningful difference in how characters respond. If every single challenge in your book is yet another bad guy, or yet another alien, or yet another dinosaur, then your characters have only one facet to show you. (There are a lot of action movie stars whose facial expression has two modes: happy and resolute.)
And how does the writer choose what other kinds of people and interactions to put in there? The writer does not choose! The writer knows the characters well enough to know their friends and their workplaces and their habits, so that’s what shows up. This is what ethnographic writing is about; it’s about studying a person and their ecosystem thoroughly enough that you know how everything’s related to everything else. There are surprises for the reader (and the writer), but they aren’t “plot twists.” (Oh, no! He has amnesia and his long-lost twin brother has arrived!!!). They’re merely another part of everyday life as it exists in that ecosystem.
Finally, what makes a character likable? Well, what makes anybody likable? They look out for their friends, they don’t pick fights, they look for ways to be supportive and kind. They’re curious and generous. I have a friend whose LinkedIn profile tagline is “Restoring Human Dignity through Social Innovation.” I mean, if your mission in the world is people’s dignity, then what’s not to like? And because I choose to spend time with likable people, it’s no surprise that my characters are likable. I seek out people who are curious and generous, who respect the dignity of those around them.
Now, here’s a little secret. I never did this on purpose, but I think it actually helps the likability factor. All of my books are about human interaction, so people talk to each other a lot. Not too many car chases or gunfights. And what do likable people often do? They make other people laugh. So I actually show people laughing, quite a lot, because they’re funny people.
There’s a lot of coaching about overwrought dialogue tags. “Stop That!” he emoted wildly. Stuff like that. “S/he said” is thought to be the most invisible tag, a simple identification of the speaker without the intrusiveness of a self-aggrandizing verb. The two most common ways to frame dialogue involve a comma. She said, “I have to go back to the office after dinner.”—or—“I have to go back to the office after dinner,” she said. But we can attribute dialogue, often to great effect, simply by shifting the camera shot. We show that person doing something for half a beat before they speak.
She laughed. “Only people who ever call me Coby Rae are women over 70. All of Mom’s old friends.”
I cracked open the seal and passed it to her. “First slug for the eldest child.”
I thought for a second. “I want Ray to live out her life the way she wants. I want Jay to move on after. I want Walker and April to see what the world is like, so they can make up their minds after they know more.”
I glanced at my watch. “Why don’t you call the house? We should let them know we’re okay, and you can find out how the family reunion went.”
I still use some variant of “said” probably 80 percent of the time, but these kinds of occasional refocusing shots allow us to have a lot more control over how a reader hears that next spoken line. And they let us see people laughing at what someone else has just said, which is at the heart of likability.
There’s been a lot of communications research about the effectiveness of the laugh track in television comedy. Whether pre-taped or from a live audience, laughter is social, and we enjoy being around other people who are having a good time. So I think that the fact that my characters are often laughing is a significant part of their likability.
So that’s the work of the middle of the book. The story’s going to take care of itself once it’s launched; my job in the middle is to help you invest your care in the people, to make you emotionally engaged in their well-being.
Before we’re underway, I wanted to start with a review of a short story. We won’t bother with the author or the location of its publication, but the story was accompanied by an interview with the author, who was trying to describe what she was trying to do. (And yes, that repetition is purposeful. As Yoda tells us, “Do or do not. There is no try.” She landed on the “do not” half of that formulation.) Anyway, it was an abysmal story about abysmal people. That seems to be this author’s forte. In her interview, she described a reviewer’s reaction to one of her prior stories: “one commentator said that she’d rather shove shards of glass underneath her fingernails than ever read the story again.” That’s a bit extreme, but only just.
That motif of the damaged hand appeared last week, but this week… well, I’d been wondering for a couple of weeks if this thing was going to happen, and on Wednesday, it did.
He still wouldn’t look up, but he hadn’t left the table, so I took another step. “I talked to your dad earlier this morning, before he went off to work. He said that you feel bad about my accident, and that you’re taking it pretty hard. I appreciate that, but accidents happen. That’s why they’re called accidents, because they aren’t anybody’s fault. You didn’t know that ladder was broken, right?”
I intended that space to let him have some peace, to agree with me that he hadn’t known, that it was all just an unfortunate mistake. But the space grew, the void filled the kitchen.
“You didn’t know, did you?”
He bolted then, ran out the door and off the porch, his mother screaming behind him, everyone on their feet, April out of the room and away. And then Ray let out a half-animal moan, and just made it to the kitchen sink before vomiting up her lunch. Sammi went to her, pulled her hair back, and I went out onto the porch. No sign of him anywhere, he was lost to the corn.
And a new project has emerged for Cale, one that will bring his family together, or do permanent damage. Hard to know. It came to him as an epiphany in the AmericInn motel on their way back from the farm to Minneapolis, after that explosion at the lunch table.
Since I was inert, I decided to look at the ceiling. Three different smoke detectors. Two different water stains. An unpainted drywall seam, the nailheads still dented and visible beneath the too-thin skim coat. Corrosion on the ceiling fan motor. Years of cobwebs and dust in the fins of the heating grille. It was probably just as well I couldn’t roll over, who knew what the bedcover and sheets would look like.
Why was it so hard to do work with care? Why was the world filled with Rollerbites and margaritas made with Mr & Mrs T mix? Why hadn’t Ray ever cleaned up all the junk equipment and returned the farmhouse to being a point of pride? Why was the world so filled with half-assedness?
And, in my half-oblivious, pain-infused misery, I suddenly knew the answer. Literally, it was like Saul blinded on the road to Damascus, I had a vision in its totality, and I was charged with bringing it into fullness before releasing it into the world.
When Sammi returned with soggy subs and a couple of bags of Sun Chips, I didn’t try to lay it all out for her at once. I knew it would scare her, that it would sound like the ravings of a concussive. I knew that this editing job would be the most important of my life. I had to get it right, in order to bring the team together.
I’ll take a couple of days away from it now, tomorrow for a civic event and Monday for returning rented tables and chairs and washing coolers from said event. We’ll see how it all feels on Tuesday.
I took a week away to do some professional writing and to help organize a local friend’s memorial service, but this past week, I was back at it, and blew through another 9,000 words. Absolutely incredible, it feels like molasses while you’re in it, but at the end of the day you’ve written a real, meaningful scene.
Lots of stuff happened in the story this week, but we’re in the point of the book where it becomes a spoiler if I tell you too much about plot. Ray becomes a little less of a farmer, and Cale becomes a little more of a farmer (to his chagrin), and everybody has a few too many margaritas made in the bad midwestern style with Mr & Mrs T premix.
All I knew is that the Royals had lost their sparsely attended afternoon game against the Texas Rangers, I’d finished my chile rellenos and then my enchiladas verdes, and a sequence of large, frosted yellow glasses had come across the booth and been emptied. They tasted like Mountain Dew with tequila, and I didn’t care.
Everybody’s a little more complicated now. And we’ve hit the part of the storytelling where “themes” are emerging. I didn’t put them there, but I’m starting to see similarities between different characters’ problems, mildly different tones of the same dilemma, so I can now keep those categories in mind and bring them forward when they make sense. But I think that themes have to be inductive. You just have to start with characters, and let patterns emerge. I’ve read too many books where the author clearly started with patterns and then pressed some misshapen characters onto them, characters that never once became people.
This is also the place in the manuscript where questions of pace start to become more important. The opening of a book is easy to pace, it just natively wants to go fast. You’re introducing everything all at once, place and people and contexts and competitions. But now, sixty-five pages in, we know everybody we’re gonna know, we know all the places we’re gonna be, and you can’t rely on simple novelty to make the reader go on to the next page—and, as Peter Ho Davies says, “Novels, in the most basic sense, whether we’re talking about Jane Austen or John Grisham, are machines to make us keep reading.” So we’ve reached the point of the story where the machine is running efficiently, but could easily bog down if the added complexity isn’t just as interesting as our first glimpses of the characters. The saddest review of a book is “DNF 40%.” That’s what it looks like when a promising opener stops paying off.
I used to tell my students that the first four weeks of a course is new and exciting and filled with brand new things to think about. The last month of the course is tense and filled with production and deadlines. And that two months in between there takes a year and a half, you think it’s NEVER going to be over. Reading a book is like that, too. That middle half is brutally difficult, because it occupies the native emotional trough. When it’s played well, it seals you into that world completely. When it’s given even the least little bit of room, it squiggles into the corner and takes a nap.
That’s one of the great things about writing blind, about following the story where it leads me. If I’m excited by these new developments, then I can convey that excitement through tone and syntax, and it’s more likely to be exciting for a reader. If a writer is road-mapping a story, and they know they’re at A and need to be at B pretty soon, it’s easy to take the nice dull interstate and see nothing along the way. I get to follow my characters off-road, into a Mexican restaurant after a bad late-morning doctor’s visit.
Weepy, woozy Tex-Mex music was playing, the walls were draped with Christmas lights and sombreros, and all the windows had been darkened. Perfect. Funereal. I thought about sitting at the bar, but figured that if I drank enough, I might fall off the barstool, and I wasn’t wearing a bike helmet. So I let the pretty young hostess lead me to a booth, and chose the side from which I could see the TV. A young man appeared magically with water, chips and salsa, followed soon after by the room’s only lunch waitress. “Hey, hon, welcome to Playa Azul,” she said, rhyming the second word with dull.
You’ve been in that room, you know you have. Nothing better than Mexican food for self-pity. So now your own experience of being there is mapped onto Cale’s, and your own emotional resonance colors his. I can borrow your own history to ease you through the increased density of the trip.
Every time I do this, I learn something new. I can’t imagine anything more fun.
I’m back into the new story, which just got kicked sideways this morning. Didn’t intend it, but there it is. And this new direction will make it appealing to some readers more than others, as every writing decision always does.
Anyway, I was taking a break while considering how to ride this new course, and through the random miracle of hyperlinks, I happened across this little nugget, a tweet from the novelist Brandon Taylor:
Pls do not tag me in scathing, incomprehensible misreads of my work, lol. People are entitled their experiences with the text but don’t involve me in it, pls!
(This is one of the reasons I’m never on Twitter, by the way. It’s the cattiest, bitchiest platform out there, rhetorically based as it is on nothing but one-liners. It’s nothing but #snark.)
Anyway, it’s an interesting idea. Once the book leaves your hands, it’s not yours any more ever. It belongs, differently, to every reader, who will make their own project of it. Every reader will not merely have a different judgment from one star to five, but will place it into their own category system, will take different life lessons from it, will think it’s “about” different things or “means” different things. It will remind them of different other books. The book becomes a metaphor through which other people think. It’s now theirs, individually, to do with as they wish.
I got a wonderful letter from a friend about my recent novel Trailing Spouse. He wrote, “I read it with great interest, finished it blown away. I think it’s brilliant. I was impressed by your table tennis book; I’m even more impressed with this one. It begs to be published—as a YA, to my mind, but what do I know? I think I’ll lend it to my 17-year old granddaughter, see what she thinks.” I never once had it in my head that Trailing Spouse was YA, but all of my books are hopeful resolutions to difficult stories, and YA is a native market for that. (I watched a podcast last night of three literary novelists talking, and one said that he’d set himself the challenge of writing for once about happiness rather than trauma. The other two almost visibly shuddered. “Oh, I could NEVER do that…”) So my friend made my book a YA book, and I think that’s really nice, though I wouldn’t have done that myself.
When I taught at Duke, we used to speak occasionally of “productive misreadings,” when a student would take a text that seemed to be doing one kind of work and then follow it down an entirely different, but really interesting, path. But I think that ANY good reading of a book is a productive misreading. If the book is so didactic that it can only be interpreted in a single way, then it probably isn’t a very interesting book.
I think that all we can control as writers is how WE think about the work, which is just as much a personal and imperfect reading as anybody else’s. We have no authoritative interpretation, though we naturally have an authorial interpretation. We can only hope for productive misreadings, the fact of our story helping someone else do her own work.
My relationship with design education has been fraught. As both a student of studio architecture, and later a teacher of design theory and human interactions with places, I was dismayed at the degree to which the pleasures of habitation and public life were discounted, or more often, never raised at all. The buildings we studied and were asked to emulate were mostly isolated and irresponsible buildings—vacation homes, world’s fair pavilions, museums, monuments. Even churches and skyscrapers, which do have real work to do, were taught primarily as urban monuments, as moments of inspired jewelry in the city’s wardrobe. The academic study of architecture is all head and no heart. All ideas and no comfort.
The academic practice of fiction is similar. All head, all ideas, all carefully shaped novelty. Stories no longer need to end, they just stop at the moment that the narrator realizes the depth of the shit they’ve gotten themselves into. We talk only to ourselves and those who’ve been similarly trained in academic “close reading.” We admire rather than enjoy.
So I was exactly the right audience for Peter Schjeldahl‘s essay in this week’s New Yorker, “My Struggle with Cézanne.” Schjeldahl is nobody’s fool when it comes to contemporary art; he’s been a professional art critic since the 1960s, along with his other career as a poet. But in this essay, he uses the work of Paul Cézanne as an entry into why so much contemporary art leaves him cold. “You don’t look at a Cézanne, some ravishing late works excepted. You study it, registering how it’s done.” That’s the academic impulse, of course, to understand rather than to enjoy. In a writing program, we can never merely read a story; we have to “interrogate” it, to use the writing-program cliche for reading. As Billy Collins says, we have to tie a poem to a chair and beat it with a hose to find out what it really means.
For Schjeldahl, Cézanne is not the problem but the symptom.
So what’s my problem? Partly it’s an impatience with Cézanne’s demands for strenuous looking. I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased. (Here I quite favor the optical nourishments of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat.) But my discontent is inseparable from Cézanne’s significance as a revolutionary. How good an idea was modernism, all in all? It disintegrated, circa 1960, amid a plurality of new modes while remaining, yes, an art of the museum. It came to emblematize up-to-date sophisticated taste, spawning varieties of abstraction that circle back to Cézanne’s innovative interrelations of figure and ground. It also fuelled a yen in some to change the world for the more intelligent, if not always for the better. The world took only specialized notice. Modernism’s initially enfevered optimism could not survive the slaughterhouse of the First World War and the political apocalypse of the Russian Revolution, which ate away at myths of progress that had seemed to valorize aesthetic change. Dedicated newness in art devolved from a propelling cause into a rote effect.
“I tire of being made to feel smart rather than pleased.” This is my own response to so much contemporary art. To quote a t-shirt available in the gift shop of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, “Contemporary art does not love you.” To which I say, well then, screw it. Go bother somebody else.
The bartender and writer Jim Meehan once weighed in on the difference between bartender and mixologist. “A mixologist serves drinks. A bartender serves customers.” And this is the principle that I try to hold in my work of all sorts. People don’t come to my house to have a drink; they come to my house to have an evening of conversation, and a nicely made drink is something yummy and fun to talk about for a few seconds. The drink is at the center of our attention for all of fifteen seconds. People don’t read stories to be instructed in literary structures; they read to leave their own lives for a bit and be welcomed into the lives of others. And people don’t go to architecture, at least not many of us. We go to work, or we go to a store, or we go to church for those purposes, and if we’re lucky, the building makes the experience of our work or shopping or worship a tiny bit more graceful.
I am dedicated to the principle of offering pleasure to my readers. And the more difficult the subject matter, the more comforting I try to make the form and the diction of the stories. Our work can be willful, an imposition of our ideas. Or our work can be a gift, a generous offering that takes into account what pleases its recipients.