Desiderata: or, A Few Caveats to Start


A few years ago, not very many, I remember telling someone that if I ever started a blog they should just go ahead and shoot me. I was trying to find the time and space to write my first book, and at the same time the internet was inconveniently growing, becoming a massive distraction. I was aggrieved, peeved, humbled and overwhelmed by the rapidly-reproducing content out there: overwhelmed at the volume of it and at the thought that I should be adding to it; humbled by the sheer output of other writers I knew; peeved by the quality, or lack thereof, of all these dashed-off thoughts; and most of all aggrieved by the idea of regularly making my private thoughts public.

Since what you’re now reading is, in fact, a blog, this would be a good time to refute all those objections. I can’t. I think often of something Nabokov once said, that showing around one’s first drafts is like passing around samples of one’s sputum. (Sorry.) I can’t get over the idea that blog writing will be messy, sloppy, and unfinished. However, I am coming around to the idea that it’s supposed to be that way.

I’m starting this blog mainly because, despite my long-standing aversion, I can no longer count the times that I have started writing imaginary blog posts in my head. Often it’s because Twitter and Facebook are deeply unsatisfying as venues for substantive thought and argument, and I just need more room. In the same vein, I often have thoughts I’d like to work out about an article or event long after it has passed through the approximately 10-minute news cycle we now endure on social media. If nothing else, this blog will be the land of ICYMI.

 “The role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them.” – Anton Chekhov


As a fiction writer—or, maybe, just as a person—I hold on to things for a long time. (Nabokov has done his damage.) I don’t like to show drafts until they’re polished, or at least readable. Sometimes that’s a good instinct, and sometimes it’s not; polishing something that turns out to be a dead end is a frustrating waste of time. Some writers are able to be very free, but one of my goals is to be more free. Letting things go when they’re only days, or even hours, old will be a good discipline.

Chekhov said that the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them. I just recently learned of this quote, and not a minute too soon. I spent much of the time writing my last book worrying that it was a book only of questions and no answers. When I finally decided I had no choice but to accept this half-enlightenment, along came Chekhov, in the universe’s beautiful way of synchronicity, to confirm it. Of course he was talking about fiction; however, I happen to think also that the lion’s share of nastiness in our public sphere today comes from the imperative to come up with answers quickly. We must be pithy, we must be punchy, we must give no quarter, we must take no time to weigh things carefully, passing them from one hand to the other, and we must not decide that the truth is somewhere in the middle, because that will not fit into 140 characters—even though that is where the truth often lies. Especially for fiction writers, whose job is empathy, not judgment.

So consider yourselves warned, dear readers: I will ask questions, probe, look at things from all angles; I will waffle, wiggle and waver (pace Bill Bradley); and then most likely I’ll slink away, leaving the rest to you. We live in fearful times. We want certainty, but the best antidote to its absence is the earnest whirring of our brains, and hearts.