Architectural Narratives

This joy in imagined habitation will be driven out of her in studio courses.
(Image by Zhenzhong Liu, via Unsplash)

I’ve sat on a lot of design juries…

You know, I’m gonna stop right there. Juries. What the hell kind of an educational experience has a jury? Juries exist to deliver an unequivocal binary judgment. Guilty/not guilty. Pass/fail. Next round/off the show. Uphold the call on the field/reverse the call. Just the idea that design education relies so comfortably on the idea and the practice and the underlying horror of standing before a jury… Yikes. Complete pedagogical disaster.

Architecture is filled, in fact, with what feel to me to be pedagogical missteps. The sketch problem, in which students are rewarded for being glib and clever. The charette and the all-nighter, scattered thinking and procrastination and awful time management. The studio/atelier, with no place for the introvert to just sit and get work done. It’s an academic field that needs to be rethought right down to its bones.

Anyway, it’s common enough in design students’ early lives that when they present a project, they do it by walking the visitors through the floor plan on a tour. “So you come in through here, and then the bedrooms are over there and the kitchen in here…” Floor plans, in fact, are behavioral diagrams. They are a predictive record of navigation, of adjacencies, of roles. The rooms are named with labels conveying appropriate and inappropriate activities. So students reasonably give us a temporal and role-based tour.

This practice is seen as an immature first stage of design thinking, to be left behind as quickly as possible for a presentation of a design’s “concepts” and “intentions.” But I think that imagining a designed space as being inhabited—being lived in, by people in particular roles, for a particular purpose, at a particular time—ought to be the singular core function of a designer.

Imagine a courthouse, for instance, a building type that I know fairly well. Imagine all the people who will come into contact with that building. Just in criminal court alone, there will be:

  • judges and clerks and judicial staff. They have to be protected against threats, they have to look like the officiants they are, and they have to have the tools of their work.
  • attorneys for prosecution and for defense. They need to be protected as well, to be able to confer with their clients, to be called to quick conference with a scolding judge.
  • defendants, often arriving every day from jail in police custody. They need to be protected, too. (Courthouses are angry places.) They also can’t receive any contraband or messages from visitors.
  • jurors, who need to be protected and sequestered and have deliberative space after the presentations have ended.
  • “the public,” often divided into unspoken but opposed camps, each there to see their own definition of justice played out.
  • custodians and electricians and sound technicians and facilities staff of all sorts, who take care of the place after hours in ways larger and smaller.

Each of those players have work to do and safety to uphold, and that leads to a lot of technical requirements for separated zones and independent circulation, sallyports and magnetometers, conference rooms and segregated seating. But let’s go deeper than that. Each person who comes into contact with a place has their own desires for it, has a need to be held in love and respect as best we can define it. To be not merely efficient but to be honored, in whatever role they play.

Thinking of buildings as places that support innumerable and divergent desires leads toward a novelistic, ethnographic approach to design. Who ARE these people? What are their habits, their patterns? What do they carry? With whom do they speak, and with whom should they never speak? What parts of their lives should be public and visible, what parts private and protected? What would a productive and enriching day look like? How do we honor their work, and their lives?

The little designer’s impulse to lead us through the dollhouse is not an impulse to be set aside. It is a strategy to be celebrated, and enriched, and brought to vastly greater levels of sophistication. To move from a singular story about how Ms. Bunny goes up the stairs and makes her tea to a novelist’s understanding of multiplicity and intersection of characters and their desires.

It was my drive toward storytelling that made design studio courses such a miserable experience for me thirty-five years ago. I wasn’t all that interested in geometry and ordering patterns and the play of light across surfaces. I wanted to make homes and taverns and restaurants that were comforts at the end of a long and disrespectful day, and I wanted to make workplaces that reduced that disrespect in the first place.

Those things don’t photograph well, and they’re harder for jurors to read quickly in a drawing set or a model. They take a lot of time to parse well enough to be able to talk well about them. But just as so much about high school education is driven by things like bus schedules and sports practice sessions, too much of design education is a reflection of its visual biases and pedagogical conveniences that have little enough to do with the experiences of habitation. Architecture could be a storyteller’s art. I wish that it were more so.

Dedicated to the Ephemeral

Beauty needn’t last
(Image by Mulyadi, via Unsplash)

I just taught a writing course for a dozen neighbors here in Vermont. We spent about eight or nine weeks going from totally blank page to twelve credible, intriguing new short stories (fourteen stories, actually; I wrote a couple as well). During that time, I spent probably fifteen or twenty hours a week giving feedback to individual authors, writing the next week’s assignment, making mid-week recommendations to writers who felt stuck.

Yesterday, we had our event to celebrate that work. And I spent days doing the page layouts and cover designs and uploading files and managing the book printing experience; taking orders and managing payments for the books; making posters and writing press releases for the event; making name tags and orientation signs for the event; unfolding and setting out chairs; writing a script and recruiting members of our local community theater group to perform story excerpts; welcoming guests and chatting with folks I hadn’t met before.

The event itself, the performance and the conversations and the post-performance snacks and drinks, went from 5 to 7pm. And then it was done. Nora and I carried our gear out to the once-again-empty parking lot, shooed the neighbor’s chickens away from the cars, backed away and drove off.

I got an email from a friend last night, saying how much he’d enjoyed reading my most recent novel during a long beach weekend.

I spent some time this afternoon making a green-bean-and-potato casserole that we’ll take to a friend’s house, during this first week after her husband’s death.

I worked for six hours yesterday morning at our town’s transfer station, helping a couple hundred people manage their trash and recycling while the regular attendant was at another site managing our annual large-trash and scrap-metal collection. And I had two hundred greetings, eighty or a hundred brief conversations, fifty people who couldn’t lift something and let me do it instead.

My last big book, The Adjunct Underclass, sold thousands of copies in its first six months, probably two hundred in the three years since.

It’s easy to discount the value of the ephemeral things that we all do to bring pleasure and comfort and new ideas to the people around us. Our meals don’t last, our conversations don’t last, our classroom coaching doesn’t last, our favors that we do for friends when they’re in need don’t last. They evaporate as soon as they’re concluded. But their invisible traces do last, they change the course of the river in some tiny and unknowable way. They lend their grams to the scale of kindness and good will, tipping it a little more in our favor.

As Nora said last night, a whole bunch of people were celebrated yesterday, and their family members got to see them in a little richer and more complex way. The host organization got to build more interest in their larger arts mission, the partnering theater group got to shine once again on our makeshift stage. And yes, all that is done, gone forever. But its residue is not.

These twelve writers may never again write another short story (though one writer told me that the experience had given her the courage to go back to college and major in English). But even though they won’t become internationally famous authors, we won’t acquire any Pulitzers, they’re very slightly different people because of that experience.

We have to have faith in the durable effects of ephemeral acts. We have to believe that the accretion of goodness builds more good around us. Pleasure and kindness are the things we can create through whatever temporary medium presents itself to us. We can’t sign our work like a painting, but it’s unmistakably ours. It doesn’t endure like a wall, but in its own way, it lasts.

The Breeds of Shame

Shut up, I AM standing.
(Image by Peter Pryharski, via Unsplash)

This weekend in the New York Times Magazine, staff writer Sam Anderson wrote what I hope will become a foundational article in our understanding of men and their bodies. If you can’t get to it because it’s behind a paywall, I’ll pirate a PDF copy to you if you ask; it’s that important.

No matter what my body happens to look like at any particular moment, Fat Sam lives inside me. I recognize now, in fact, that Fat Sam represents some of my best qualities: curiosity, cheerful appetite, a hunger for life, satisfaction in the moment. Fat Sam’s mission is to consume the world in giant gulps of joy. It doesn’t even have to be food: It can be naps, or video games, or telling jokes at a party, or walking, or shooting free throws, or reading, or petting a dog. Whatever satisfies a need, whatever I am starving for. And in that transfer, in that passage from outside to inside, in that radical taking in, there is a validation of existence, a proof of being, that I refuse to reject. Fat Sam, in many ways, is precious and good. He is a funnel into which the universe pours, the pinch in the hourglass. He reminds me that all of life is, in a sense, appetite. Even restriction satisfies a hunger — the hunger to restrict. When I chose to deny myself something, it is Fat Sam who is feeding, greedily, on that denial.

A radical taking in. That is the nature of an ethnographer, of a writer, of a servant attentive to the needs of those around. That is the nature of a fat kid.

When I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I temporarily left that fat kid behind. I regularly weighed between 130 and 135 pounds, as low as 127 after a two-week bike trip through the mountains of Northern California. I ran a 5K or a 10K or a half-marathon more or less every month, two full marathons about five years apart. I can still recite you personal bests—18:51 5K, 39:25 10K, 1:37:15 half marathon—with religious fervor. I wasn’t an elite athlete, far from it, but I was solid and fit and steady.

What I wasn’t, not ever even once, was slim.

At just under 5’5″, I’m at about the fifth percentile of height for adult American men. About at the median for a 14-year-old boy. My dad was 5’11” and lean, my mom 4’11” and round. My three brothers are all 5’11 and 6’0″, but when I came along fourteen years later, there was no genetic material left in the bank.

Along with that general lack of height, though, I have a relatively long torso, and particularly short legs. Especially from the knees down; my tibia and fibula are especially short. When I sit in most chairs, I fit perfectly from backrest to end of seat, but my feet often don’t reach the floor. Even at my very most athletic, I have never once in my life had visible Achilles’ tendons. My calves are and have always been cylindrical, right down to the collars of my shoes.

And when I would get promotional photos back from races, races in which I’d again gone faster than I’d been previously able, running for miles and miles at 6:20 per mile pace, those photos would come in and just spoil all the pleasure I’d taken from that day. I didn’t recognize myself. I’d felt like a racehorse, but looked in the pictures like a Clydesdale.

The array of animal metaphors was kind of normal, in fact.

  • My ex-wife, with great affection (I think), once told me that my totem animal was the corgi. “Look at those short little legs go!” she said once, as I finished a race.
  • I was sitting with a group of student colleagues as we powered through a summer college design competition, spending hours a day together for three months. We were taking a dinner break, and discussing the ways in which people do and don’t look like their dogs. When it came my time to speak, it took five minutes for the group to recover its composure from the revelation that I’d grown up with daschunds.
  • A few years later, when I played racquetball three times a week with one of my grad school friends, I never lost a single best-of-three games set for three years. I just understood trajectory, could see where the ball was going. And once, when he’d pinned me with what he thought was an unreturnable shot that I again hit a winner from, he said in exasperation, “I can’t believe you can get to those balls, with those stubby little rhinoceros legs!”

Corgi people and daschund people and rhinoceros people don’t get a lot of praise for breed conformation. We’re just the second-rate entrants in the general show, up against the greyhounds and Australian shepherds that have a chance at the ribbons. The leopards, sleek and sudden, watch us rhinos from the trees as we plod across the savannah in search of a watering hole.

We are individuals, with individual intellect. We can come to rational understandings of ourselves and others. And yet, we are also members of a culture, which has its own stories, louder and more pervasive than the ones we can write for ourselves. I have lost decades of chances to make myself a better corgi because I could only see myself as an insufficient border collie. No amount of time in the gym or accumulated miles on the road could change my breed, or the varying rewards provided at the show.

I’m trying, now, belatedly, to be the best corgi that I can. But there are days when I can only look across at the Dalmatians and wish it were otherwise.

Every Note Has Its Consequence

No wrong notes
(image by Mpeha, via Wikimedia)

I’m often taken by the ways in which things are like other things, and therefore also notice the degree to which we limit our thinking by only comparing any phenomenon to “related” phenomena. That’s more a statement about our categories than it is about what we might learn.

I got a lovely email from a friend a few days ago, in which she copied her email newsletter from the author Louise Penny. It was full of quotes and ideas about “process,” an abstract word for how we do stuff. One quote was from Joyce Carol Oates, in which she said that “Getting a first draft done is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Well, far be it from me, right? But my experience of writing is different from hers. As one might expect. Here’s what I wrote my friend in response:

The thing about first drafts is that, for me, there isn’t one. There are several thousand. Each sentence is its own first draft, getting revised a couple of times before moving on to the next. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a paragraph. And then I have to go back and revise within that paragraph, too, so all that secured work gets modified again. Then, after a couple of hours, there might be a component of a scene or a stretch of dialogue. That’s also sketchy, and may not add up to a coherent whole without some new internal work.

Then I set it aside and go to bed. The next day when I start up, I re-read what I’d done over the past couple of days (what some writer once called “the snowplow method,” in which you hit the snowbank at ten miles an hour and shove it all forward another few feet). That requires its own post-fit trim work.

Eventually, there’s something that looks like a chapter or a section. Once I have that, reading it a few last times for minor finish flaws, I’ll set it aside and go on to the next. But after a while, I’ll see something that looks like an idea that I had while I was writing an earlier section. “AHA!!!” sez I, the trained analyst. “I’ve stumbled across a THEME!” So then I go back through what I’ve written to see how I can foreground that theme in earlier iterations, playing up some detail or moment of conversation to add a bit of that color to the mix.

So rewriting, as in eliminating whole sections of a story or cleaning up some hazardous waste site that I’ve let languish for months? I never do that. Revision happens every second of the writing day. Structurally, I write like readers read: “And THEN what happened?” Well, I’d like to know, too, but unlike the reader, I have to do more work to find out.

I love writing. I know that people find it agonizing, like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor. But for me, it’s more like a cat with a paper ball; every time I touch it, it’s going to do something cool and unpredictable, and I’ll chase it around all day.

So last night, I was immersing myself in music, and watching a little teaching video by the once-in-a-lifetime musical genius Jacob Collier, whose photo opens today’s post. In this brief clip, he talks about the idea of “wrong notes,” which he utterly rejects. As a composer and an improvisational performer, he’s completely invested in the idea of time and sequence: “If I do THIS, then I might do THAT or THAT next.” And he gives the example of a “bad chord,” an array of notes that sounds dissonant. He says, “well, rather than say I won’t put that in my textbook of sounds, you think, well, how can I justify that as a sound?” And sitting live at the piano, he says to himself, “so this can go up and this can go down… yeah.” And he plays a second chord that makes the first chord into a brilliant introductory move. He closes this way:

Rather than saying this note is good and this note is bad, it’s more “this note hasn’t found its consequence.”

And that helps me imagine that my writing “process” is akin to improvisation. I find people in places with problems, and I write my way into learning more about the people and the places and the problems. And without long-range planning, I try to discover what the consequence of all that first stuff is. What am I learning in later writing that makes the earlier writing come back to me, but in a new way?

It’s crucial to say here that I claim no special authority for this process. I do not suggest that it is correct, or superior in any way. Every writer, every musician, has her or his fans, and others for whom the work leaves them cold. What I can say is that it IS a process, and one that’s served me pretty well in the simple enjoyment of writing as a way of living.

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

Raymond Chandler, to his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, 1947

Two Stories, Conflated

Choose your cell wisely
(image by Giorgio Grani, via Unsplash)

News from Bloomberg: 46% of college graduates over age 25 surveyed reported that they worked in the field that they went to college for, a quarter of them make $30K per year or less, and about 15% don’t make the poverty line. All interesting facts, but it’s pretty sloppy thinking to put those things in the same article. It falls totally into the trap of crushing every version of college into the trade school model, and then accusing people of picking the wrong trade when they were 18.

Let’s take those two stories apart. The bad news is that college isn’t the infallible safety net that everyone claims it to be. Now that a third of all Americans have college degrees, it’s just not special the way it once was. Any employer at any level can require an irrelevant degree to qualify for a job that once would easily have been done by non-collegiate adults. And in our current economic model, in which labor is always a cost to be avoided, humane work at a humane wage is hard to come by. There are enough college grads that we’re no longer protected from the humiliations that we once would have simply visited upon others. When we insist upon low, low prices and 24-hour-automated service and free overnight delivery, we can’t be surprised when the plague of low wages and job insecurity eventually arrives at our household as well.

But the other half of that story can’t be surprising to anyone, and we can’t imagine that it’s bad news at all. More than half of all adults work in a field other than the one they majored in at college. Could we expect anything other? And what a tragedy it would be if we all set our course at the age of 18 and 19 and never, ever deviated from it! I did not have the same enthusiasms and the same sense of mission when I was a kid that I do now. I was smart and obedient, I did what people told me to do, and they gave me a pat on the head and a nice grade. I have indeed grown into my adult life, and thank god for that.

That’s been my favorite version of college all along, the one that sets riches at our feet and kind, intelligent adults to show us their wonders, and lets us fall in love with something we might never have expected. I thought I was going to be an architect, but I discovered architectural and landscape history, and then in my very last semester, took a course in journalism where we learned something about the craft of writing criticism. Those five courses set my career, not all the studio design courses or building technology courses or visual design/graphics courses. I never practiced the career that my major “prepared me for,” because I could discover the right path only by walking the path.

I was talking with a wise friend the other day, and I was talking about the ways in which suffering had prepared me to help alleviate suffering. I said that there was a way in which my history of traumas had become a tool that I could employ on behalf of others. And he said, “Does it have to be a tool? Can it be a toy?”

What an interesting idea, that something can be freed from our perpetual Puritan drive to productivity and can simply be playful. And as I mused on that, I realized that to play requires safety. We can’t play when we’re afraid, we can’t play when we’re being judged (or judging ourselves as a proxy for all the judgments we’ve internalized). We can only play when we feel safe, unselfconscious.

College can be that place of safety, the place where we can wander through the garden of intellect and choose the particular fruits that appeal to us. Where it’s okay to taste a plant and say, “Yuck! Never gonna eat THAT again!” Where we try on the enthusiasms of our friends to see how they fit us, and share our own with them as well, the roles of teacher and student becoming blurred and indistinct.

But we’ve engineered a version of college that can never, ever be that toy. That can only ever be a tool, employed for survival or defense against penury. That fear-filled way of thinking is imbedded in this Bloomberg article, and in the college model that it recognizes and upholds. That way of thinking is native to most non-college families who send their kids to college thinking that it’s a “leg up,” a “safety net,” a “first step,” a “foot in the door,” a “career path,” any of a hundred metaphors that make it clear that college is not a toy! How could college be a toy, when so many families are at the edge of danger even with decent jobs? How could college be a toy, when every commentator around us is shrieking be afraid be afraid be afraid?

We have built a fear-filled economics, and that economics has robbed college of its possibilities except for that handful of well-to-do families whose kids will always land on their feet no matter what. We hobble curiosity in favor of knowledge far too early, and leave ourselves to merely work.

Paired Test

It seems like A OUGHT to be like B…

Nora and I were at an event this weekend at the Bennington Museum, to celebrate friends who’d been important parts of that museum community as volunteers and donors. I’d never been to that museum before, so between snacks and drinks, I took a few minutes to see the exhibitions. And one of them, called Parks and Recreation, was interesting for several reasons, one of which was that I learned the role of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the clearing of ski trails for many of Vermont’s most popular resorts. Vast numbers of unemployed young men worked through the Depression to build roads, parks, fire safety infrastructure. To do the coarse work of clearing and grading land to make a road, and also to do the finer work of building benches, signs, cabins.

Vermont, like most of rural America, had been hit pretty hard by the Depression. And it was Federal funding that saved it… projects that were later monetized by venture capital and turned into private wealth.

We don’t often think about how much wealth has been appropriated through gaining private control over things that the public has paid for. Empires have been built on the back of Federally-subsidized railroads, and Federally-owned interstate highways. From Federally-built dams and power projects to the technological miracles of the Internet and GPS, our history is littered with men who were given a vast gift and then said “look upon what I have made!” Given our various panics over the last century, it’s a nice paradox that we now see that the native end state of capitalism is Russia, where a few dozen men own everything.

When you get to the top, don’t say we never did anything nice for you.

I raised this question in passing at one of my last live events, back in February 2020, but it’s bugging me more thoroughly today, so I’m going to place it upon you with more detail than I did before. You’re welcome.

Condition A: a moderately sized private college. (I have one in mind, but why embarrass anyone?) Annual budget: $350 million. Number of employees: 1,500. Number of constituents served: 3,000. President’s salary: $560,000, plus loads of travel money and an on-campus house, in a job that lasts as long as the Board of Trustees are happy—seven years and counting for the current occupant, ten to twenty years in historical average.

Condition B: a moderately sized city. (Okay: Burlington, Vermont.) Annual budget: about $100 million, a third of the college’s budget, and that includes running its own major police, fire, road, and airport divisions. Number of employees: 2,900, about double the college (on a third of the budget). Number of constituents served: 43,000. Mayor’s salary: $115,000, and he pays his own mortgage, and has to convince the majority of the community every three years that he should keep his job—not merely a board of a couple dozen people, but all of the adult residents, thirty thousand or more.

So explain to me again about the efficiencies of capitalism? Explain to me again about overpaid public servants feeding at the public trough? Explain to me why being the mayor of Vermont’s largest city, an enormously complex job answerable to a diverse population of over forty thousand, in the face of a vigorous independent media and an organized opposition party, should pay a fifth of the wage of a president of a comfy, well-to-do college serving three thousand children of privilege? I know absolutely and without a doubt which one of those two is harder and more complex work.

Explain to me why Jeff Bezos personally, individually made over five billion dollars last year, and fifty billion the year before. Yes, he’s smart. Yes, his business is successful, and profitable. But from the point of view of both the consumer and the worker, profit = tax. It’s as simple as that.

Actually, profit is worse than tax, because it’s a surcharge that doesn’t benefit either the consumer or the community in any way at all. It doesn’t get turned into public roads or parks, it doesn’t get turned into electrification projects or schools or bridges. Every dime that gets sucked out of a transaction and kept by the ownership is a tribute tax. It doesn’t benefit the actual worker or organization who provides the service, nor does it benefit the customer who uses the service. It’s just the emperor’s cut. Money is the only thing in the world that flows uphill.

There is no reason why the president of a major research university should make more than that state’s governor. (Don’t even start on college football and basketball coaches…) There is no reason why the president of a small state college or a private liberal arts college should make more more than the mayor of the city that hosts them. There is no reason why a CEO of anything should make more than a couple hundred dollars an hour. Think about that—think about you, personally, making $250 an hour. That’d be unimaginably fantastic, right? Now multiply that ridiculous sum by TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND and you’ve approaching the growth in Elon Musk’s net worth last year. That’s not the worth of work, that’s just a tribute to the emperor. We’ve just stopped paying attention to numbers and their meaning, and have invested ourselves fully in habit and mythology.

From Greatness to Kindness

The strength to offer mercy.
(Image by Jim Sahagun, via Unsplash)

I’m going to try an idea out today that I’m not sure I believe, but that’s what writing is for sometimes.

Think of a writer. Had a few books published, one of them really wonderful, the others quite good. Teaches fiction at a major university. But if you gathered together a broad array of writers and critics, and asked them for their list of the hundred most important contemporary American novelists, I’m betting that he wouldn’t make many of those lists.

Most professional writers teach writing. Most professional musicians teach music, artists teach art, actors teach acting, dancers teach dance. There comes a point for most of us where the scramble for the pinnacle is left behind, where we make a tenuous and uncertain peace with our own attainment.

But those words “tenuous” and “uncertain” weigh a lot. We can stop our climb from exhaustion, always imagining what could have been if only… We can stop our climb from barriers, and live forever in the resentment of those gatekeepers. We can stop our climb because we’ve attained a pleasing vista, satisfied with the view. The question becomes, what do we do when we stop? Do we look upward in anger? Do we look outward in smugness? Or do we look back to others at earlier stages on the trail, help them rise and warn them of risky handholds?

Andrew Carnegie is widely said to have laid out this guide to a good life: to spend the first third learning as much as you can, the middle third making as much as you can, and the final third giving away everything that you can.

And if we think of that in metrics beyond mere dollars, then most artists of most sorts do that. We spend years absorbing every single thing we see and hear, we’re in full growth mode. We spend more years making, exploring, doing everything we can with whatever talents we’ve cultivated. And then, we bring others into the fold. The problem I have with Carnegie’s formulation isn’t his reduction of success to money, nor even his paternalism of donating, deciding for himself what others needed. The problem is with the even division of the sequence into thirds.

I think that, in order to really enact Carnegie’s dictum, we need to think of making a conscious decision, at some point, to shift from a focus on greatness to a focus on kindness. That might happen at any point along one’s life, that move from achievement to generosity. I’ve written before about the idea of the bodhisattva, the semi-divine entity who foregoes nirvana for a life of assistance and mercy. And continued suffering.

Some people, of course, never make that shift. You know their names. Musk, Bezos, Jagger, Wintour, Kardashian. Always climbing, grasping, never easing the lives of others. As Thom Yorke of Radiohead put it, Ambition makes you look pretty ugly / kicking and squealing Gucci little piggy.

I’ve had teachers like that, people far too invested in their own work to bring themselves fully to the work of their students. I’ve known neighbors like that: committed to a life of alpha positioning, first through high school football, eventually through buying really sad oversized trucks and demeaning everyone around them.

Maybe it’s not sequential, either. Maybe we get up every morning and decide whether today’s going to be a greatness day or a kindness day. I think a lot of teachers do that, without ever naming those terms. They teach two semesters, and work on their own through the summer. They spend three years writing the novel, and then a year as a visiting scholar at someone’s writing program. They work weekdays to teach studio art, and then retreat to their own studios on the weekends to follow their own missions.

I just think maybe it’s worth being overt about where we stand at any given moment, with any given task. And when we’re teaching, when we’re giving it away, to at least in that venue leave ambition aside, let go of the anger and the fear and the striving and just be an instrument of mercy. A momentary bodhisattva.


Don’t go there.
(Image by Tim Mossholder, via Unsplash)

I’ve worked for a long time on several traits of good writing. I can pretty reliably produce correctly-formed sentences featuring correctly-spelled words. I try to be clear: to make sure we don’t subsist too long on pronouns without referring back to the noun in question, to connect “it” or “this” occasionally to secure referents.

I try to be specific, not merely by loading up with detail but by choosing the details that matter. I’ve learned to listen to people talk, and to replicate dialogue in ways that sound like their speakers. As one friend just wrote to me, “All the larger themes are created from the situations, conversations and philosophy of the story.

I try to be true. To places, to times, to ways of life. To the ways that people bond with one another, and the ways those bonds are broken. This truth is always relative. It’s my truth. That’s part of what we mean by a writer’s “voice.” And therein lies danger.

Last week, I had a new story come into my head. That’s usually cause for celebration, but this one isn’t. And I’ll tell you why.

Stories usually come from a bunch of places at once, a confluence of several things that have composted into a fertile humus. So here are a few experiences.

  • I just finished writing a book featuring a working-class woman who’d been fully capable of doing a working-class “man’s job,” for thirty years.
  • I served on our Town’s Selectboard for six years, learning the details of purchasing road salt and repairing a grader, the cost of a dump truck and the cost of having it significantly damaged during a seemingly everyday plowing tour.
  • I know the everyday politics of road work: of some people complaining about improvements to their rustic roads, and others complaining about how their dirt road falls apart every spring. About how concrete contractors compete to pour culvert walls, how paving contractors compete to grind and blacktop a couple of miles of state highway. About how some bids come in with spreadsheets and cover letters, and other bids come in handwritten on a sheet torn from a legal pad, with illustrative diagrams in the margins. About the ways that a Town job represents safety, with reliable income and health insurance—and about how providing that scarce safety to one new employee causes resentment among all of the others who might have done the job. About the ways that the grudges harden like the roads.
  • I currently serve as our Town’s Emergency Management Director, and last week, we were going through our Vulnerable Populations Protocol. And I thought of all the hermits, the drunks, the immobilized, those in need of nearly-regular nearly-emergency care, the victims of domestic abuse—all of whom would be dangerously isolated if their road failed or their electricity failed for a few days.

And all of those things suddenly bonded through chemical reaction into a story. A story that I know how to tell. A story that, half a year from now, would have come together into truth.

A story that maybe I shouldn’t write.

The better we are at writing, the more precise and more truthful we become. And that brings with it a great responsibility. If I wrote that book and sent it to you—in Cleveland or in Baltimore, in Boston or in Atlanta—you would find it powerful. It would raise important questions about gender, about loyalty, about hard work in hard conditions—and simultaneously, it would just be an engaging story about engaging people. I know how to do that.

But if I shared that book with anyone here in my town, it would be wrenching and disruptive. They would imagine that they were seeing themselves and their neighbors. They would believe me, and thus would believe that I was telling a true story of identifiable characters that they know… or that they are. They would try to pick apart the pseudonyms, would imagine that they know exactly which family I was talking about at the end of Tinkham’s Ridge, the family with the innumerable, half-feral children and the scatter of failed car projects and collapsed outbuildings.

(Even that sentence—regardless of the fact that there is no Tinkham’s Ridge anywhere that I know of, even though I’m not picturing any particular, knowable family on any particular, knowable road when I wrote that—would be explosive, because all the local readers would have their own nominees for exactly which family I was referring to. It’s a composite, made up of two dozen dead-end dirt roads and half a dozen landscape features and a homestead that I drive through every Monday in a town thirty miles from here, but all of the local readers would see it as a nameable specific.)

That’s what happens when you’re a good writer. You become a refined fuel, which is a hazard as well as a gift.

If you’ve ever been behind a tanker truck on the freeway, you’ve seen some diamond-shaped placards on the back and sides, that look like this:

If you’ve seen a movie or a Netflix series in the past few years, you’ve seen markers like this at the beginning of the episode:

All of these are warnings about the contents of what you might encounter. And maybe I need to provide some kind of related system to alert specific people of the specific discomforts they’ll come upon.

I have a few books that I’ve given to individual friends in town, but that I have not given to our local library. I don’t want to take the chance that some unassuming person might come across them and be burned. The stories aren’t intended to be harmful, just as the truck filled with fertilizer isn’t intended to blow up on the interstate, but it could, and maybe everyone should know that.

One of the benefits of my gift-giving publishing strategy is that I can try to calibrate which hazmats can be handled by which readers. But A) I could occasionally be wrong, B) innocents might stumble across it anyway, and C) there might be negative side effects beyond those that my internal studies have already determined.

So I’m sitting on this new story. I might never write it at all. And that’s a brand new place for me to be.

The Spectrum of Exile

Held apart
(Image by Kristina Tripkovic, via Unsplash)

When you’re a little kid, you have an egocentric view of the world. The things that happen around you are things that you influence. You make something, you move something, you get something out or you put it away. You imagine yourself to be the sole motivating force for the universe, and it takes some developmental growth to be able to recognize that other people do things for reasons that make sense to them but that you’ll probably not quite ever know.

So when the people around you ignore you, or don’t want to be with you, you imagine that it’s your fault. You imagine that there’s something you’ve done—something you ARE—that’s made them not want to be with you. You search through the silence for some clues to what you could do differently, even as nothing that you try to do makes any change at all.

And that understanding of the world, that it’s our own flaws that make other people not respond to us, is pretty persistent. We know that’s not true (well, at least not always true), but it still feels true, it runs straight through those channels that were cut into us from childhood onward.

As adults, we’re left to interpret silences in a lot of different ways. We apply for jobs, we send our work off for review, we put our profiles onto dating sites, we send our work component to our colleagues. And then we wait.

And as we wait, we don’t just go into power-save mode. We keep thinking. Why am I not hearing? Should I do something else? Should I send a reminder, or would I be a pest? Should I assume it’s gone cold after a certain number of days? Have I done something wrong? If we got information, we could act on it, but the absence of information demands that we create our own. The fact that it’s almost certainly wrong doesn’t matter. It feels better than the void.

I want to differentiate here between two phenomena that are related and yet have important distinctions: loneliness and exile. We can be lonely temporarily or permanently. We can be lonely for reasons that have nothing to do with us, after someone dies or moves away. Exile is different; it’s the fact of others’ decisions to not have you any longer, to not associate with you, to exclude you from membership. The emotional states feel similar, but their implications are radically different. In exile, you have no recourse, no options, no agency. It wasn’t an accident.

When I was excluded from academic life twenty-five years ago (and as Marc Bousquet accurately puts it, the PhD is now rightly understood as the conclusion of an academic career, not its beginning), it was a form of exile. It was a community to whom I had dedicated my allegiance, which had then determined that I was not desirable. When I send a manuscript to a literary agency, never to be responded to again, it’s a form of exile. It’s another community to which I would like to dedicate my allegiance, which has determined that I am not desirable.

The more we aspire to, the greater the depth and diversity of exile we invoke. If we grew up imagining ourselves fundamentally flawed, wretched, unwantable, then those are the interpretive stories we employ every time we offer ourselves to the world in a new way, only to be met once again with silence.

You can help with this, though. If you advertise a position in your company, acknowledge every single person who applies. If you invite submittals of creative work to your fellowship or gallery or publishing house or conference, acknowledge every single person who applies. Tell them what the schedule is, when they should expect to hear about next steps and what those next steps will be. Don’t leave them to imagine, for weeks, or months. Tell them how many applicants you’ve had, so that they know the odds.

If you’re working with colleagues on a complex project, acknowledge the work they send you, let them know whether it needs revision or re-thinking. If you’re overwhelmed and won’t be able to use it for a few days, one sentence in an email is enough to communicate that. If you’ve promised work on Wednesday and now won’t be able to get to it until Friday, tell us that on Tuesday, and keep us apprised of how things are going.

We can frame all of these simple actions in terms of workplace professionalism, of organizational courtesy. But by doing so, we diminish their weight. They’re more important than that. There are people on the other side of the silence who are desperate, who are anguished, who need to believe that they aren’t irretrievable. You can offer comfort, if you want. You just have to think about it.

Three Meditations on Ephemerality

Who knows where they’ll take us?
(image by Laura Kapfer, via Unsplash)

First Verse

I worked a volunteer shift at our tiny library today. It was a quiet, drizzly day, with few patrons. But I had some homework. Our librarian would like to cull the collection a bit, and so asked if I’d go through the adult fiction, YA fiction, and graphic novels, looking for the last borrow date on each book. Any book that hadn’t been taken out since 2017 was to be rolled forward onto its nose, awaiting her further consideration.

There’s a humbling exercise for a writer.

The array of writers whose books I tipped (at least one, sometimes two, sometimes several) would be known to many or most of us. There were literary heroes: Colum McCann and Zadie Smith, Haruki Murakami and Ursula LeGuin. There were pop stars past their prime: Anne Tyler and John Irving, Jennifer Weiner and Robert Ludlum. There were the phenoms by Stieg Larsson, two of the three girls no longer of interest as they played with fire or kicked the hornet’s nest. There was fluff by Danielle Steel and George R.R. Martin, classics by Twain and Steinbeck and Morrison.

This is the fate that awaits us all. From compost were our books grown, and to compost shall they return.

Second Verse

Nora and I were in Manhattan last week to visit friends. We had a conversation with one of those friends about their favorite museums, which included the American Folk Art Museum. And it suddenly occurred to me that my writing might be described as a form of folk art, so I looked at their definition.

Since 1961, the American Folk Art Museum has been the leading institution shaping the understanding of art by the self-taught through its exhibitions, publications, and educational programs. As a center of scholarship, it showcases the creativity of individuals whose singular talents have been refined through personal experience rather than formal artistic training.

Well, I’m certainly self-taught, my work coming through personal experience rather than formal artistic training. But can I claim “singular talent?” Not for me to know. That’s a curatorial decision.

Third Verse

As part of that New York trip, we went to a pretty abysmal (albeit highly reviewed and pretty expensive) restaurant, where we had an array of dishes suitable for the world’s most exclusive nursing home. All I had to do was lift a fork and point in the general direction of a vegetable, and it collapsed in surrender.

But, because Nora is who she is, we ended up in a delightful, nearly hour-long conversation with the young couple at the next table. And it emerged through the course of our chatting that he’d also written a novel. I told him I’d be eager to read it, and yesterday afternoon, he sent it as a PDF. Because I’m a binge reader, I’ve now read it.

It’s really good.

No, I mean really good.

I’m not going to tell you much about it, it’s not mine to disclose. But I mean, here’s this fellow who went to college to become an engineer, who’s worked for a dozen years as a coder for big tech companies, and he’s written a book that’s at least as good as anything I tipped forward in the library today. If it were available to you in a bookstore, I’d write a review and recommend that you buy it. If he were teaching this summer at Bread Loaf, I’d recommend that you try to get into his workshop.


Well, maybe not so much a synthesis as a swirl of leaves. Folk art. Culled collections. Those whose work is known, and those whose is not.

If we aspire to anything beyond immediate kindness and generosity, I think that we delude ourselves. We have no monuments, no lasting value. We simply help our friends and neighbors, or we don’t. My days have been improved because of the books that I’ve read; some other folks’ days have been improved because of the books that I’ve shared. That’s all that there is. That’s all that there needs to be.