The Writing Life

Producing Culture, Provoking Empathy

I am continuing to puzzle over the intuitive leap I made the other day to “There is no transcendence, only empathy.” If you haven’t read the post about that, you probably should do so before you read what follows. Today I’m writing about other ways of trying to understand creative work. For better or worse, much of this post is going to be in an academic mode, though I’ll do my best to clarify any jargon. Ready? Here we go.

There’s a game academics play that involves reducing your dissertation to a single sentence. Mine (which you can find a link to in the “works” tab) boils down to “music is a product of its time.” This is a pretty common conclusion for musicologists to reach. It is also, on its face, facile. How could something not be a product of its time? Is it instead something from the future, accidentally abandoned by time travelers? Seriously.

I find, though, that a lot of nonacademics need reminders of this common sense point. People—westerners, anyway—have a tendency to buy wholesale into both Romantic mythologies of music and the ancient Classical ideas of music of the spheres and universal harmony. This pushes music, especially “classical” music (stuff written for the concert hall) into a transcendental space, and leads to utter nonsense like “music is a universal language.” (Uuuuuuugh.) I listened to somebody at a workshop (for English teachers) expound enthusiastically on this idea as he explained how he was learning about jazz. (Aside: music is not a language. The semiotics of music are hella messy and culturally constrained. Philosophers who write about music frequently have unhealthy fixations on the European canon and zero understanding of any kind of nonwestern music.)

Music is cultural production. It is made by people, mostly for people. As cultural production, it is limited by cultural constraints. That doesn’t mean innovation is impossible, only that it is limited. You can do crazy things from inside cultural context! Late Beethoven (especially the quartets), for example, is a marvelous cul-de-sac of musical geometries that have only tenuous connections to what surrounded them. Even rebellion takes its form from what it rebels against.

Anyway. My idea about empathy as a kind of transcendence sidesteps the question of cultural production. Fundamentally, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” occupies a shaky conceptual space that is simultaneously about audience response and about the ontology (philosophy of existence) of art. The transcendence-empathy theory also involves epistemology (philosophy of knowledge), because it suggests something about how art functions to encode and convey understanding. Culture doesn’t come into it until you get several layers in.

I leaned a lot, in my dissertation, on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu wrote about culture and power;  the idea of “cultural capital” derives from his work. (Cultural capital is the set of knowledge and skills that marks one as an elite without necessarily involving material power. As an academic with a broad liberal arts education, I have a ton of cultural capital despite what I get paid as a high school teacher.) Bourdieu writes about “field” and “habitus.” Field is the available conceptual space. The field of cultural production, for example, includes everything from romance novels to symphonies. (There are axes to the field, usually, but they’re not mandatory to understanding the concept.) The field of power, which Bourdieu (and I) spend a lot of time on, is a way of understanding who has power and who doesn’t. Habitus is the way individuals navigate the field.

auditorium chairs comfortable concert

You have some expectations about what you do in a place like this. That’s the field at work. [Photo by Pixabay on]

Bourdieu’s theory doesn’t touch empathy or anything about the semiotics of art…at least beyond representing spaces in the cultural field and field of power. By Bourdieu’s theory, concert hall music (“classical”) occupies a space in the field closely aligned to the field of power. Think about the stereotypical image of a classical concert: musicians in tuxedos and black gowns, wealthy older people dressed up for a night out. There’s a lot of stereotyping in that image, but there are reasons it exists. It’s important to understand that music’s place in the field changes over history. Opera, which carries the same associations as classical instrumental music, began as a display of aristocratic wealth and became popular entertainment before gradually resuming its place as music for the elite.

So where does empathy fit into that? Let’s go back to the specific works I mentioned—particularly the Vincent Valdez paintings. Like most artists, Valdez occupies many different spaces in the field depending on how we’re looking at it—as a Latino from San Antonio, as an art school graduate, as a recipient of grants and awards. I saw his work in a museum on the campus of a state university, which has its own place in the field and lends a certain institutional credibility. By working in a “prestigious” medium (painting) and having that work displayed in an institution with authority (the Blanton), Valdez occupies a space in the artistic field that aligns to a significant degree with the field of power. None of that takes away his experiences navigating the broader field of power as a human being.

This is how we fit the one thing into the other. Art as a vehicle for empathy rather than transcendence can bridge distances in the field of power, even if the work as a cultural object is limited to a specific spot in the field (concretely as the museum, abstractly as a work in a medium with high cultural weight). Conceiving of art as cultural production doesn’t automatically preclude the intuition that I had at the museum. I can look at Valdez’s work and experience it empathetically despite the raft of privileges that go with standing in an art museum on a Wednesday afternoon.

I’m still not convinced that “There is no transcendence, only empathy,” entirely holds together. Experiencing art empathetically is great, but ignores many of the other elements of cultural production that affect the work, the creator, and the audience. The paintings that provoke an empathetic response in me won’t do the same for everybody else, because my experience is mediated by all the things I bring into a museum with me. The harder we push to universalize, the more the holes in the idea show.

Can something be true without being universal? Probably! Next post in this series is going to come at the question of empathy and transcendence from the other side, focusing on where our western idea of transcendental art comes from.



Mucking Up History

Worldbuilding is weird work. The goal is to create something that seems real to the reader, something with consistent rules, with both breadth and depth. It must be—or at least appear to be—plausible. Sometimes, people can get away with thin worldbuilding. Movies do it all the time. Give the audience just enough information to guess about what is going on, and move on before they can start considering details. Novels can’t just sub in special effects in the same way, but there are plenty of ways to suggest a world without actually building it.

This is trickier in fantasy, especially if the stories involve such mundane concerns as travel, economics, or politics. Or food. If you have characters drinking tea and coffee, it has to come from somewhere. You can handwave a certain amount of that, but the more specific your handwaved details, the greater the chance that you create the kind of snag that trips the reader out of the fiction.

Verisimilitude comes in degrees, as does similarity to the real world. George R.R. Martin has been lauded (sometimes) for making his work resemble European history. He’s made public statements about wanting to avoid the vague medievalisms of older high fantasy. Those claims are questionable. I read a blog post several years ago about just how selectively Martin picked the models for his events, and how messed up Westeros would actually be if the events in the novels actually played out. (Among the problems: massive peasant revolts.) I spent half an hour trying to dig up that specific post without any luck, but many of the same points are made by the Public Medievalist here. It’s great work by some great scholars.

The author of the missing post made a point about worldbuilding that stuck with me: everything in a fantasy world is there by the author’s choice. If you put in rape, or racism, or authoritarian ethnostates…that’s an authorial choice. You can claim verisimilitude, as Martin frequently has, but “verisimilitude” is a choice. As the author, you choose not only what is in the book, but what is in the foreground and what is in the background.

I am quite happy to have sidestepped medievalism questions. (I haven’t been able to write high fantasy stuff for most of the last twenty years, at least outside the context of specific RPGs.) The initial inspiration for Ghosts of the Old City was actually a paper I heard at a musicology conference on theater (musical and otherwise) in early 19th-Century New Orleans. I wanted trains and pistols and such.

This led to a different set of problems and a lot of research. The history of trains. The history of firearms. More importantly, it led me into politics. While they’re only in the background in Ghosts, they’re much more prominent in Spires of Trayan. That novel involves an attempted revolution meant to echo European events from 1848.

That drags you into economics, too, and leads to such fun questions as “what would the Industrial Revolution have looked like without chattel slavery?” Much different! Cotton produced via slavery and colonialism produced the explosive growth in production that, among other things, fueled the development of railroads. British textile mills were, at one time, making so much profit that their owners were having a hard time finding things to invest in. They settled on railroads.

I decided that I didn’t want chattel slavery in my books, and that I didn’t want colonialism to operate the way it did in our actual history. Those were decisions I made as the author. I’m still trying to sort out their consequences.

Part of the way I’m doing that is through reading history. Writers are magpies; we steal from any hopper we can get into. I’m learning things, but there’s a constant undercurrent of “what do I do with this?” and “how can I mess with this?” I’ve found myself drawing maps and writing encyclopedia entries that nobody is likely to see. None of the books involve such extensive travel that the reader will need a map to keep track of things. If I’m filling the history with war and political tumult, though, I need to know where things are. That’s why I’m gradually filling in this map:


The vast majority of the work that I’m doing will only appear around the edges. References to foreign places as a character walks through a market, filling in secondary characters, occasional references to foodstuffs or factories and such. It adds up, though. Those little things are part of what makes a world plausible. The details matter, and it matters that they’re not selected arbitrarily. (Gene Wolfe is a master of this.)

None of this is meant to be a “how to.” There are writers who do awesome things with deep dives into exposition, and others who use a dinner plate to suggest volumes. My tastes tend toward the latter. What’s been most fun for me this summer is approaching history inquisitively and acquisitively, layering choices to create a world that is bigger than my characters, even if it will be smaller than their stories.

We Make Because We Must

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas. I’d last been there two years earlier, when some of the exhibits were in the midst of renovation. There’s definitely something to be said for the experience of walking around quietly, looking at things humans have made. The Blanton’s current visiting exhibit is of Aboriginal art. That blew me away because its system of representation is profoundly distinct from Western modes, a difference more profound than anything I’ve encountered with natural language. I am still trying to make sense of it.

When I’d worked a little on digesting the visiting exhibition, I dutifully went upstairs and set in on the ancient European art. It was my usual mode of operation in a museum: I was looking at objects and images and thinking about what I could borrow or transform to use in my writing. In that mode, I was most struck by an ancient Armenian bronze belt. I scribbled some notes about it to perhaps use in a book.

I couldn’t cling to that “I’m a writer in a museum” mode, though, as I moved through the exhibition halls. The next line in my notes is “What place art in a disintegrating society?” The news has been awful. To say “our institutions are under assault” is a lame euphemism for “corruption is destroying our democracy.” Art has seemed so…futile, especially when I’ve been reading about 19th-Century revolutions.

I kept going, though, because I still love art. I particularly wanted to see again some pieces I remembered from my previous visit, two selections from Vincent Valdez’s The Strangest Fruit. These are life-sized paintings of Latino men in the physical attitude of being bound and hanged. The backgrounds are white. Neither noose nor ropes are shown. They hit me. I remembered them and wanted to go back. They hit me again. So did Charles White’s Homage to Sterling Brown, a painting that hadn’t been on display during my previous visit because of renovations. In it, Sterling Brown sits, holding a target before him.

Other works have, of course, arrested my attention. I vividly recall just staring at Picasso’s Woman with a Crow for long, long minutes at the Toledo Museum of Art. The colors of the Blanton’s 17th-Century copperplate paintings hold my attention in the same way. But neither the Picasso nor the copperplates forced me to think the way Valdez and White did.

We Make Because We Must

That was the next thing I wrote down: “We make because we must.” I’ve been messing about with writing with various degrees of seriousness since I was in third grade. (That’s when I first tried to write a novel.) I distinctly remember telling a teammate at an alumni tournament that I was working on my dissertation but kept getting distracted by wanting to write stories. (Best handler I ever played with, and a fine writer himself.) I don’t really seem able to stop.

That drive to make art doesn’t go away just because our hearts are sore. It’s harder. Some days it’s impossible. I don’t have it figured out beyond trying to take breaks from social media (especially Twitter, which seems to be fine-tuned to send me into fury or despair). Some days I get things written. Some days I don’t. Some days I do a bit of research. Some days I just stare out the window and think about made-up places.

There is no transcendence, only empathy.

When I was in high school, a wonderful English teacher got me the opportunity to go to a writing workshop near Sun Valley. While out in the woods near a stream, I was, for lack of a better term, thunderstruck by a poem. The world slowed down and sped up simultaneously. I could not make the words come out of my fingers as fast as they were coming to my brain. It was a paroxysm of language that felt more like a beast I was riding than a poem I was writing. I thought then that I had found some kind of transcendence.

The closest I ever really came to re-experiencing that feeling was a few years later during a breakdown. The quality of feeling like a spectator to my own mind, of grappling with something impossibly large, was nearly the same. I did not for an instant think of it as transcendence.

That statement up above, “there is no transcendence, only empathy” came to me in the art museum as I reflected on Vincent Valdez’s work, on Charles White’s work. I don’t have an entirely firm grasp on what, precisely, it means, but it resonates for me. It resonates so much for me that for the first time in a very long while I caught myself thinking about Capital-T Truth.

The idea of transcendence I had as a teenager, whether I knew it or not, was Romantic: the solitary artist walks in the wilderness, searching for the sublime. That sublime thing is higher and deeper than our usual perception and understanding, glimpsed and able to be glimpsed only in moments. It was absolutely a Capital-T Truth that only the most profound artists and thinkers could find. When they did, it was transportive.

There’s something to the idea that art can take you outside your habitual boundaries of self. That’s why we fall in love with stories. That’s why I could stare at that Picasso and be sucked in. That’s why I felt the need to return several times to the Valdez paintings, why they stuck with me after my first visit. Beyond the skill of their rendering and the brilliance of the approach, the images pushed me past my habits, past my usual inclinations. That’s empathy, and art puts you in a place where you cannot help it. You can’t “well, actually…” a painting. You can’t fence in a piece of music with questions. You can’t turn away from the discomfort a story might make you feel without turning away from the story itself.

We make art so we can understand. As creators, the process sometimes becomes the understanding. Sometimes we have something specific to say. Sometimes, we even manage to say that thing. We want to be understood even if—especially if—what we’re expressing can’t be articulated. Sound transcendental? Maybe. But there’s a hell of a difference between Ferdinand David’s wanderer up on his foggy hilltop, looking for something beyond human experience, and looking at Charles White’s interpretation of Sterling Brown against a backdrop of the man’s achievements even as he sits holding a brightly-colored target.

None of this means art “must” be about social justice, or about politics, or about experiences that cross the vast gulfs humans have collectively inflicted on one another. (Be wary of anybody who says “art must.”) We can make art about what we know intimately, experience things that remind us of what we already understand. Those are choices we face as makers. We just have to remember that choosing to avoid hard questions doesn’t make them go away, and that the avoidance is also a choice.

As a fantasy writer, there’s a degree of escape in my work. If I want to write a world that never experienced chattel slavery, I get to do that (although it leads to a lot of questions about what an industrial revolution might look like). I can tell myself “wouldn’t it be cool if…” and just do it. Try it, anyway. I make because I must.

Really, though, I make stories and go experience art because art is a place where empathy lives. We make because we must, because we wish to understand and to be understood and to connect, whether it’s with another person or an idea or an experience. It’s awesome, in both the casual and formal senses of the word.

We make because we must; there is no transcendence, only empathy. I feel like those are semi-colon close, and want to keep working on figuring out how.


Thinking Cap Swap


(Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina)

The parallel universe in which I hold graduate degrees in English isn’t that far from this one. For some reason, it never occurred to me to not go to graduate school. (I’m not entirely sure why this was, but it’s probably related to the time when somebody called a family reunion asking for Dr. _____________ and it could have been any one of seven people.) The only real question for me was whether I’d do English or music. I’d backed my way into my music major. (Instrumental lesson waivers are a gateway drug.) English seemed like a natural fit. I’d always been good with words. Why didn’t I dance with the one what brung me?

The short answer? I was sick of close reading. It felt less like a particular kind of thinking cap and more like a straitjacket.

I was never quite a traditional English major. My department allowed me to carve out a plan that balanced literature classes and creative writing classes. This allowed me sufficient training in literary theory and good writing that I started hating some of the genre fiction I’d so loved in high school. It never made me fall in love with “literary” writing, though, because so much of the stuff took itself so very, very seriously. It felt pretentious and the way we read it felt even more so. I wanted to read books without having to pick them apart.

I had a student this year who complained bitterly about Jane Eyre. It will be her Tess of the d’Urbervilles—a novel that I read and hated in high school and am still somewhat bitter about. I don’t feel bad about assigning Jane. There are much worse nineteenth-century novels out there in terms of length or difficulty or things to discuss. I also have a responsibility to get students ready for the exam the College Board writes. That exam include plenty of pre-twentieth century works. Jane Eyre had ample pedagogical merit, even if some students hated it.

The student’s seething made me think about that time at the end of my undergrad when I decided that I couldn’t put myself through who knew how many years of picking apart novels. It felt like killing them. Going for an MFA seemed useless, too, because I’d found my creative writing classes almost as bad as the literary ones for pretentiousness. (To be fair, it came mostly from the students. The professors I worked with at Mac, including the fantastic Wang Ping, were great.) I just didn’t want to hate what I read or wrote.

I’ve done a lot of writing since then, and a lot of reading. Some of it I’ve hated even as I was doing it. (Yay! Grad school!) There’s no doubt I’ve done at least my share of pretentious things, probably more. You don’t make a comparative studies omelette without breaking a few common sense eggs, and I still cringe at some of the things I forced into my master’s thesis. (Mikhail Bakhtin and mature Harry Partch go together better in theory than in practice.) I can’t get away from analysis. I tried! I was going to “just” do composition, but I added music history because I missed writing papers.

What I couldn’t understand—couldn’t have understood, really—when I was developing close reading skills as an undergrad (or, as it felt sometimes, having them inflicted upon me) is that it gets better. Getting better at close reading has meant I can pick up important pieces as I go along without having to let the close reading devour the attention that could be aimed at all the other good stuff in the writing.

Small digression: My college roommate was increasingly obsessed with traditional Irish music. He played it in our dorm room as he worked on learning tunes from recordings. At first, I could tell the tunes apart. Then they all started sounding the same to me, because there are a lot of similar patterns across the various jigs and reels. He insisted that when you listened enough, they started sounding different again.

Close reading is kind of like that. When you’re learning it, it can be miserable because every text becomes this series of discrete semiotic fragments—just a bunch of disassembled jigsaw pieces. Combine that with a 170-year-old text, and I’m sympathetic to the student I mentioned earlier literally burning her copy of Jane Eyre when we were done with it. When you have more practice with close reading, you can spot the shapes of the puzzle pieces without losing sight of the image.

…which doesn’t necessarily stop you from having plenty of pretentious things to say about it.

I have a long “want to write” list this summer, and a lot of related chores: reading up on 1848, revisions on existing pieces, blog posts, essays about some of the great novels I’ve read in the last year. Some of those things require my close reading cap. Other things require the “say something clever” cap. Others—most of them, really—require the “shut up and write” cap. The juggling of such hats isn’t easy. It wasn’t something I could do when I was sixteen and busy hating Tess. It wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was picking graduate programs. Now, it’s something I do out of habit as I bounce between the different paths of my wordwork.

Hopefully the monkeys stay away.

You Take It With You

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
       —Heraclitus (via Plato)

Embed from Getty Images

Four years ago (give or take), I was somewhere on I-35, south of the Twin Cities and north of Austin. We had carefully timed our departure to eke another month of benefits from the job my spouse was leaving. We had, rather less carefully, packed up the apartment we spent seven years living in. It’s cliché, but you never know how much stuff you have to take with you until you’re trying to squash it into shipping containers. You also forget just how much work goes into getting an apartment move-out ready until about 1 a.m. the night before you go.

My wife and I left that North Minneapolis apartment with two more kids than we’d moved into it with. We had more books, but fewer papers; my decision to leave academia was a good excuse to get rid of folder after folder of notes and printed articles. We had more furniture, too, having upgraded from Goodwill to IKEA and therefore having some furniture that was actually worth moving.

I can’t say that I was particularly reflective my last night in the apartment. On an air mattress. In the last room we hadn’t scrubbed down. Surrounded by the few items that were going into our cars rather than the pods. The thoughts that went beyond ‘I’m tired’ aimed at the road ahead, about how we’d keep the kids occupied, where we might stop, how it was all going to come together at the other end. I swam in a sea of change, taking care of whichever wave was coming at me next.

Now, I live in Texas. I doubt that it will ever be where I’m from…but my daughter has spent half her life here. I’ve made a new career as an educator here. I still hate the summers and love the availability of avocados. I still miss winter and the quality of the air that you only experience on clear days with subzero temperatures. I occasionally fantasize about moving to Duluth…but I have regular spots here, places I go not just because they belong to the right category (e.g., “coffee shop”), but because of the specific spot (e.g., Star Coffee downtown, which has decent coffee and good food and a few tables tucked into out of the way corners).

The neighborhood in which I wrote swathes of my dissertation—the area around Target Field in Minneapolis—has mostly completed the transition from dilapidated warehouses and small commercial businesses to posh condos and hip eateries. Going back would not, exactly, be going back.

That doesn’t necessarily matter. Until my memory goes, I’ll still have the late-night walks home, cutting across icy parking lots and over dingy barriers of plowed snow. I’ll still have the spring afternoons with my cohort, drinking a Friday beer outside when it was still actually too cold to enjoy sitting outside, but we did anyway because you can never hold back spring. I’ll still have summer afternoons running around the wading pool in the park with my kids (even if they were too young to remember it). I’ll still have burying my son in leaves, listening to his happy cackling and then having to dig out the Tigger he’d left in the pile.

In the last year or so, as I settle in to secondary teaching as a profession, I’ve caught myself thinking more and more about what has already happened. Partly, that’s middle age around the corner (I can hear it there, sounding like spilled soup and a mop.) I am a long way out of high school. When I taught freshmen last year, I had some who were born after I graduated from college. Time keeps on ticking, you know? Lived experience builds up.

The other, related part of thinking back through time is this: I am not in school anymore. I’m not training for what comes next. Years of graduate school kept me oriented toward an imagined future that was always one semester, one successful application away. Hope was perpetually deferred. These days, I have projects, from novels to school stuff to working through the home improvement to-do list. “What comes next” is smaller now. Sometimes that is a welcome release from anxiety. Sometimes it’s a tacit excuse to slide into mere preoccupation: mindless games, social media, reading comment sections.

Stability takes getting used to. Years in the same house, the same job—and teaching the same classes. This year I have no new preps, so I’m tweaking lesson plans and syllabi rather than creating new ones. Drop a work here, insert a project there. Remember which things my students hated and either adjust them or double down on the teacher-side enthusiasm. The small changes add up, just as they do in revising a work. The years are never as much the same as you might expect.

This is because of, and in spite of, memory. You take it with you. Memories aren’t exact, they aren’t permanent. They bleed together. They distort to match the stories we tell ourselves (or are told about) what happened. Even the things we remember as being the same were not necessarily the same; stability is more about the relative equilibrium of competing forces than it is about stasis. Memory is our throughline, but it wavers. We’re constantly re-writing the past in small ways to fit our present, just as we’re constantly adjusting to incoming waves of change.

The waves I’m swimming in August of 2017 are smaller than the ones I swam in August of 2013. The only things I’m packing up are the few items that need to go from my house back to my classroom at the end of the week. (I have plenty of boxes to unpack there, though.) As much as I might pine for Minneapolis on a rainy morning, I’ve still got the version I’ve taken with me. And the furniture that survived the pods. And the books. And things that I have added here in Texas…memories included. Men, rivers, und so weiter.

Novel vs. Dissertation, Round 2 (Revision bonus!)

I’m doing “Camp” NaNoWriMo this month, working hard on revisions to my 2013 NaNo project Ghosts of the Old City. The first full draft of that novel was completed in 2014 the weekend before I started my first full-time teaching job. Since then, I’ve drafted two other novels—Spires of Trayan (my 2015 NaNo project, a sequel to Ghosts that wants another 20-30,000 words and some research) and The Space Between Notes (my 2016 NaNo project, which is a thin sci-fi novel or fat novella that only wants another 7-10,000 words). I’ve made several stabs at revising Ghosts, enough to have a few colors of ink on the manuscript that I printed out way back when.

By now, “finishing” the novel is in the ballpark of how long it took me to finish my dissertation…although I wasn’t drafting a sequel dissertation while ostensibly finishing the first, nor was I branching out into dissertating on, say, literature. This month is the first time I’ve really dug into making changes (rather than just suggesting them to myself in margins or identifying problems). It’s gotten me thinking about the how revising a novel is and isn’t like revising a dissertation. (For a comparison of NaNoWriMo versus writing a dissertation, see my old post here.)


While dissertations are contributions to scholarship and (in a tiny way) to human knowledge, the audience for the document itself boils down to your advisor and committee. Turning the dissertation into a proper monograph is a different step, with different needs, than figuring out which references you need to include to help ensure that Dr. ______ signs off on it. Dr. X expects to see a careful, critical-theory heavy definition of “new music.” Professor Y wants more engagement with existing research. Dr. Z wants your footnotes to do some specific thing, and will throw a small but enthusiastic fit if you don’t.

(There is always a Dr. Z. Sometimes I wonder if professors draw straws to decide who will play that part.)

The revision process for the dissertation becomes, depending on how involved committee members are, a process of juggling occasionally competing needs, a delicate attempt to balance what you want to say with how you need to say it to get some more letters after your name. You pick your battles. For my master’s thesis, my advisor wielded a mechanical pencil of doom, marking all sorts of things. Some of them, I thought, were actually good. Good enough that I’d leave them alone and only change them if she marked them a second time. (I never attempted to go for a third.)

With the novel? Well, the audience at this stage in the process is me. I am writing a story I would like to read. I’m beholden to myself and myself alone. I can pick as many battles as I want, and feel responsible to pick all of the ones I can find. Once the draft goes to beta readers (in a month or so—drop me a line if you’re interested), the calculus will change. It will change again when agents or editors get involved.

Right now, though, revisions are thoroughly in the “author knows best” stage, which is certainly more fun than trying to suss out what a committee wants.

Staggered Starts

Dissertations are not novels, and they’re not, as mentioned earlier, scholarly monographs. Even with a plan for the whole thing, dissertations tend to be written one chapter at a time. This alters the revision process and hockets it with drafting. I was revising my first chapter while I was drafting my third (and revising it again when I was finishing my seventh). Finish a chapter, send it to the advisor, get feedback, use revision as a break from drafting (and vice versa). This process results in a dissertation that is much closer to being “finished,” usually, at the end of the drafting process than a novel is.

The NaNo process amplifies this difference: the whole point is to shut off your inner editor and get words onto the page. Most people, if they have a better idea for a scene they’ve already written, either take some notes or re-write it. Nothing gets sorted until later. When you do get around to sorting it, there’s invariably material you never want to see again. You do rewrites, but you’re rarely trying to alternate between drafting and revising. I didn’t really start making headway on my revisions for Ghosts until I read through the whole draft several times and went to work right at the beginning, a very un-NaNo process. No staggered starts.

Digging in the Guts

I tell my students that the purpose of revision is to help a piece be its best self. I also tell them that this means getting rid of parts that aren’t working. (High school seniors who freak out about needing to write a 5-8 page paper really freak out when you suggest that the paper would be better if they cut out a page and a half in the middle.)

With Ghosts, I threw away big chunks of text even before the first complete draft was finished. Of the 52000 I wrote during November of 2013, I threw out something like 10,000 almost immediately. They didn’t fit the way the story had grown. And now? I am still digging out the most “NaNo-y” passages and replacing them. I understand so much better what the story is, who the characters are, what needs to happen. There’s a lot of work I’m still doing to make the novel its best self, even before I get to the stage where other people start poking it in my blind spots.

The dissertation didn’t require throwing so much writing away, though there were equally painful cuts involving interesting research that proved to be tangential. I would have loved to follow up on some of the new music/pop crossover that appeared around the edges of my research, but that would have taken me out of my carefully-determined (and painstakingly-justified) timeframe, as well as away from my thesis. It would have changed the dissertation’s self.

I did change a few things substantially in the dissertation, particularly in the early chapters as I refined my argument and its scope. That’s probably the closest confluence of novel-revising and dissertation-revising: the writing and revising both refine your understanding of what the text’s “best self” is. Digging around in the guts of the work is about discovery as much as it is about doctoring. And it’s just as visceral as it sounds. There is a story you want to tell, and you evaluate whether you’re telling it, whether the story you think you’re telling is the story you are actually telling. Sometimes, the story your draft really tells is more interesting than the one you had in your head. Sometimes, the story your draft tells is just kinda dumb. Reconciling either can be messy and painful, but making things better often is.

Perpendicular to Everything

I had planned to write a Nicking from Novels today about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve just finished rereading the novel. I picked it up at an airport bookstore coming or going from Wales—it seemed like the kind of thing that, as a 17-year-old who desperately wanted to be a writer, was a necessity. I remember being caught up in the madness of it, the descriptions of jazz and the mythology of the American Road. Dean and Sal screwed up too many things to really be role models (and it wasn’t the 1950s anymore), but they were close. I thought there was something to emulate in the life fully lived, the mad saintliness of a Dean Moriarty.

On the Road ought, as a thumbnail sketch, be a buddy comedy: two friends pursuing kicks back and forth across the country. Rereading it over the last week, I’ve thought more about how much the two protagonists screw things up. Dean leaves wreckage in his wake, always, whether it’s his broken marriages, stolen cars, or nicked wallets. Sal, vitally, knows better and goes along with Dean anyway, even encouraging him. They enable each other in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy.

Those were things that, I think, it would have been impossible for me to understand at 17. I could think, in the abstract, that it was bad for Dean to abandon first one wife, then another, then the mother of yet another of his children. As a parent, an adult with “real world” responsibilities, I get just how awful it really is. I also see the casual, almost helpless misogyny in so many of the protagonists’ interactions with women. The desperate moments—picking up cigarette butts on the street, going without food, having  to beg shelter from resentful near-strangers—stand out more. I got a much better sense of just what beat meant to Kerouac, and it wasn’t good.

None of this keeps On the Road from being a beautiful book. Kerouac does breathtakingly poetic things with language, whether he’s talking about Dean or music or the Road. There are these brilliant moments where a metaphor snaps everything into perfect focus, the kind of clarity that only comes when a thing is likened. It’s magic. I can’t recall any other author (or many other poets) who can do that so consistently, make it seem so natural within the flow of words.

The metaphors make the melancholy all the more sublime. On the Road is simultaneously a deeply Romantic book and a deeply American book. It embraces loneliness and the pursuit of women just as enthusiastically as Keats and Byron and Shelley. It transposes the unknowable wilderness to the road itself, but treats it similarly: a place to be astounded and to know oneself. The characters chase life. They do that, though, in an American context. The American Dream is always in the background, the dream America dreams of itself: the mythic West, the tumult, the go-ness that always wants a home to return to. Sal and Dean never seem quite sure whether they’re running toward something or away from it; they’re fleeing life, too.

For me, today, it has been about away. I’m sitting in a coffee shop and the news has spent the morning rehearsing a gun attack on a congressional baseball practice. The Senate is manufacturing a healthcare bill in secret that seems likely to be catastrophic to people I care about. Last night I dreamed of concrete and plywood and baseball and music and all these things have knotted together in my stomach. I want to go, to go perpendicular to everything, away from everything in a direction that doesn’t exist. I get—I dig—a bit of what push-pulled Sal and Dean to the road over and over and over. They’re chasing something, fleeing something. Their drive—and their driving—is inseparable from the melancholy, from the sense that the world is spinning and spinning and the only things worth knowing are the things that are spinning away.

Tonight, probably, I will sleep better. Tomorrow, probably, the news will be a little less dire. Tomorrow, probably, there will be no knot in my stomach making my feet itch to walk in a direction that doesn’t exist. Today, though, I’m a little beat, a little beaten down, with words the only things that can take me the direction I need to go.