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.

The Elder and the Younger

Seven years between them

Two new books are now available for you, under what one of my friends has called the “zero-revenue business model.”

The Abbot of Saginaw came to me in 2014, my first novel. It had set out to be a completely different book, but as I took notes for that one, a new character emerged: Robert Yoder, former Benedictine novice turned Army Air Corps mechanic in WWII, who had become the owner of a poolroom in Saginaw, Michigan. He and his business partner/bartender Charles had constructed a generous, welcoming home for the working men of Saginaw, a true “third place” focused partly on pool but more fully on conversation and cameraderie. (The fictional Genesee Billiards Club is a better version of the best parts of the bar my dad went to, a family more native to him than the family he had at home. The guys at his Eagles Club would ultimately be his pallbearers, the ones who knew him best and would miss him most.)

Robert operates from what Natalia Ginsburg would call “the great virtues” rather than the little ones. He plays pool not to beat others, but to be his best self. He competes not to win, but to employ his full focus. He is a professional host not merely to make a living, but because he is drawn to build a place where men can become friends.

Throughout the story, he encounters others for whom those virtues do not exist. And although there’s a plot and a tournament and all that, the heart of the story is how Robert can maintain those great virtues in the face of the chislers and hustlers and fearful men who often travel from one poolroom to the next. How he can discover more ways to bring his best traits to the service of others.

& Sons was the work of summer and fall 2021. You may have seen it “live-blogged” here during the summer, as I gave weekly updates on its emergence, like a crop report. The origin of this one was in remembering a place I’d worked in the 1980s, a family sporting goods store that had once been the father’s general store. When that father died, he left it to his two children, in a way that guaranteed that they would be at one another’s throats for the remainder of their own lives.

In this book, the family business is Barrows & Sons, a sixth-generation farm in southern Nebraska. Cale, the youngest son, has spent his whole life fleeing farm culture, via college and grad school and faculty life and moving half a continent away from his home. Ray, the middle son (actually his sister Coby Rae, but she’d been a better son than Cale had ever been) stayed home to run the farm. BJ, the eldest son and rightful heir of Barrows & Sons, had been killed twenty years earlier in a farm accident, leaving Ray to hold the family’s legacy together.

When their father Bobby dies, his will makes it clear that Cale and Ray will have to come to some new relationship with one another—not a ten-minute phone call on their respective birthdays, but a tenuous, bumpy, wondrous partnership that makes them both new.

The two books are separated by seven years. One is urban and the other rural. One is set in the 2022 present, the other in April through November 1956. One protagonist is sexually and romantically inexperienced, the other broadly and diversely engaged. One has a doctorate, the other went straight from high school to abbey. But for all of those surface differences, the books share a common project: to explore the roles that generosity and service and decency can play in men’s lives, even as people around them imagine that they should just “man up” and fall in line.

Either of them can be yours, for the asking. Get in touch, give me your mailing address, and it’ll be on its way.

Men’s Books #2: Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

Nora was about to go to her volunteer shift at the library. The first Monday of the month, from four to six. Kimberly would be there for part of it, but the volunteers gave her a little extra time for herself. She deserved that.

Bring home a book for me, Herb said before she left, and he handed Nora a paper with a title and the author on it. She brought it home that evening. Why did you want this book?

I read it a few years ago. I wanted to read it again. I thought maybe I’d write about it. I’m starting a book club.

He explained a little about that idea, and she thought it was a good one. But after dinner, she started to read it herself.

I wonder why he writes like that, she said later that evening. It’s flat.

Well, I think he’s trying to have it feel plain. Like even quotation marks would make it all feel special, like their words were important and not just words.

Even this section, she said. And she quoted from a part of the book she’d just read, where Louis and the boy were in a hardware store so Louis could buy the boy a baseball glove. She read. “That cap’ll keep you from getting burned up in this sun, the little man said. Rudy was his name, Louis knew him from years ago. It was a wonder he was still working, a wonder that he was still alive. The other manager, a tall man named Bob, had died years ago. And the woman who owned the store had gone back to Denver after her mother died.”

She hinged the book almost closed across her thumb. Why is it that we need to know the name of the other manager? And that the woman who owned the store was gone to Denver?

I think it’s because Louis would know those things. It’s another way to show us who Louis is.

She read the book in three days. That was unusual for her, she normally sat with a book for a long time and read just a few pages at a sitting. Every so often she’d say, I’m forgetting whether this is his book or yours. I want to ask you why you did something or another, and then I remember that you didn’t write this. But it feels like you. It feels true.

He liked that idea. He didn’t write anything at all like this writer Haruf did, but he wanted to read the book again because he thought it had a kind of decency to it. It was a book about a man who was kind and who seemed to know how to be kind even when other people weren’t. So when she said that Haruf’s book reminded her of his own, he was pleased with that. It felt good.

They’d had a few hard days leading up to her reading the book, mostly because of something else Herb had written. But it seemed like now she was able to hear him again, to remember that he was trying to be kind even when other people weren’t, and that he was drawn to write about people like that himself. That was why he’d wanted to read this book again, because there was something decent and generous about it.

Other people wrote about Haruf’s books, too. Sometimes important people, like Joan Silber, who wrote for the New York Times that “his great subject was the struggle of decency against small-mindedness, and his rare gift was to make sheer decency a moving subject.” She wrote about him that way because he’d just died, not long after finishing the book but before anybody besides his editor and his wife Cathy had gotten to read it.

The book is flat, like Nora said. But it’s not flat in the same way that Hemingway was, even though the sentences are short and the language is simple. Hemingway had something to prove, and like most men with something to prove, he wasn’t going to let you know how he felt. That tightness was a resistance to emotion, keeping things aboveground. Haruf was simple too, but it was because Louis and Addie didn’t need to prove much of anything. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re stingy. Sometimes people are quiet because they’re generous, and they want to leave space for others. They look the same if you’re not paying attention, but they feel different.

Men’s Books #1: Walter Tevis, The Color of Money

Don’t be deceived because you’ve seen the Tom Cruise movie. From Walter Tevis’ official website: The Color of Money was first published by Warner Books. Copyright 1984 by Walter Tevis, Inc. The Touchstone Pictures film directed by Martin Scorsese was released in 1987. The screenplay by Richard Price bears no resemblance to the novel.

Within a year he’d be dead.

He taught writing at Ohio University for a while, drank and smoked and didn’t write a word for fifteen years. He’d been a phenom, publishing The Hustler when he was 31 and working as a technical writer for the Kentucky Highway Department, The Man Who Fell to Earth four years after that, but got comfortable and lazy and forgot what he was for. 

He tore himself away from academic life, put himself into a New York apartment, and wrote Mockingbird in 1980, The Queen’s Gambit in 1983, and this book, The Color of Money in his final year, 1984, which feels to me like the most autobiographical fiction ever written. 

He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, remembering from time to time the games of straight pool he had played as a young hustler…[41]

This book, about Eddie Felson rediscovering who he is, is about Walter Tevis rediscovering himself as well. He had lived a life without drama for twenty years, but shook himself loose for four final years of brilliant return to his storytelling core, for which we can all be grateful. It’s a message to us all: do the thing you’re made to do. Here, at length, is Tevis’ anthem to honest work in a dishonest world:

People thought that pool hustling was corrupt and sleazy, worse than boxing. But to win at pool, to be a professional at it, you had to deliver. In a business you could pretend that skill and determination had brought you along when it had only been luck and muddle; a pool hustler did not have the freedom to believe that. There were well-paid incompetents everywhere living rich lives. They arrogated to themselves the plush hotel sites and Lear jets and American provided for the guileful and lucky far more than it did for the wise. You could fake and bluff and luck your way into all of it… The world and all its enterprises could slide downhill through stupidity and bad faith, but the long gray limousines would still hum through the streets of New York, of Paris, of Moscow, of Tokyo, though the men who sat against the soft leather in back with their glasses of twelve-year-old Scotch might be incapable of anything more than looking important, of wearing the clothes and the haircuts and the gestures that the world, whether it liked to or not, paid for and always had paid for. Eddie would lie in bed sometimes at night and think these things in anger, knowing that beneath the anger envy lay like a swamp. A pool hustler had to do what he claimed to be able to do. The risks he took were not underwritten. His skill on the arena of green cloth—cloth that was itself the color of money—could never be only pretense. Pool players were often cheats and liars, petty men whose lives were filled with pretensions, who ran out on their women and walked away from their debts; but on the table, with the lights overhead beneath the cigarette smoke and the silent crowd around them in whatever dive of a billiard parlor at four in the morning, they had to find the wherewithal inside themselves to do more than promise excellence. Under whatever lies might fill the life, the excellence had to be there. It had to be delivered. It could not be faked. But Eddie did not make his living that way anymore. [186-88]

The excellence had to be delivered. It could not be faked. And for those first few years, and then again for the final few, Walter Tevis—fully, vividly alive—delivered it.

Don’t be misled, by my enthusiasm for this book, to imagine that you’ll encounter Eddie Felson as some sort of model of the new man, the guy who’s got contemporary masculinity all figured out for the rest of us. What you’ll see here instead is someone who knows that his old version isn’t going to cut it any more, and who’s stumbling in the dark to make a new way. When he’s at his worst, he’s trying to figure out an angle, to set up a game, to lay the odds and make some money. When he’s at his best is within those six rails, where he loses his sense of self altogether and just builds patterns upon patterns. Does he gamble because he’s competitive, because he loves to win, because the money can be good? Yes. But he also gambles because it’s the price of entry to those rooms in which his entire focus is demanded. Once he’s bought his way in, he can let all of that go and just have the balls tell him what they want him to do.

With his new girlfriend Arabella (another searching soul—Eddie’s drawn to squandered promise, like himself), he does things that can be seen as supportive, or that can be seen as overbearing. They’re probably both. She knows Appalachian folk art, and has left her crappy administrative job to work with Eddie to start a gallery. But although it’s wonderful, it’s not easy:

He felt suddenly uncomfortable. “What are you pissed about?”

“I don’t know.” She had just finished showing one of the less expensive quilts and it was laid out on the counter to display the pattern; she began folding it now. “I’m sorry if I was mean-spirited, Eddie,” she said, “but I’m beginning to feel as if I’m working for you. You make the decisions and take the responsibilities.”

He seated himself on the stand where the Statue of Unliberty had been. “You took us to Marcum and the others,” he said. “You’ve put up the money.”

“It’s not the same. I was the one who was supposed to know folk art, but you chose the pieces to buy. You’ve taken over.”

He understood her problem, but he was getting annoyed. “You don’t have to be a second-class citizen.”

She was silent for a moment. Then she said, “Maybe you’re right. You caught me off balance at first. I hadn’t expected you to move so fast.”

“I was making up for lost time.” He took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. “Still am.” [226]

This is the awkwardness of gender negotiations, both those between Arabella and Eddie, and those within each of them.

This is not Tevis’ best book—that would be The Queen’s Gambit—but it’s the book that’s clearest about the dilemmas that men have built for ourselves, and in its portrayal of one particular man’s search for something he’s never seen.