for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

May 7, 2013

Asking and Giving: the way we live now

This will start with a gift and end with a call-to-arms.

Among the happy things the internet brings me, from time to time, is a bit of writing so striking it stays with me. Nothing to do with facts or the immediate moment. Rather something about what it is to live right now. In this manner, I held onto an essay on cities and loneliness, by a writer named Olivia Laing. The essay is part of a book, which turned out to be a book I very much wanted to read. I found her site and learned that this book, which touches on themes I am obsessed with, strangers and cities and how it is to live among them–this book did not exist yet. The last line of Laing’s page about the book is this:

If you’re interested in supporting The Lonely City, I have a wishlist of research material here. All donators of books will be thanked in the acknowledgements.

So I did it. I sent her a book from her Amazon wishlist of research materials she needed and couldn’t afford. And I tweeted that I had done so. Someone who follows her asked for the link to the list, and this morning I found out that I am not the only one to have sent her a book. Which is the most wonderful outcome I can possibly imagine.

What I’m interested in here is how in our culture right now, the ivy of generosity is growing over every structure we have built. The research and first printing for Don’t Go Back to School was funded by Kickstarter backers. We create, publish, and sell our work now outside traditional channels, and we make communities in the process. None of this is new, but its pervasiveness is new.

One of the most significant findings of my research for Don’t Go Back to School is that people learn together. They form communities and learn with and from each other. They have as much access to experts as any enrolled student would. The people I interviewed told me stories about asking experts questions–polite, respectful questions (in the book they give advice about how to formulate these). They told me stories about those experts taking them seriously and helping them.

We are deep in the culture of generosity now in how we learn and think and create and contribute and live. It did not seem strange to me to ask strangers to support a book I wanted to write, and it does not seem strange to me every time I support another person’s creative production. It did not seem strange at all to me to send a book to a stranger, a writer whose work I wanted to read more of. It does not seem strange to me when people ask me for advice about independent learning. It does not seem strange to me when people write to me after reading my syllabi on the internet and ask me to suggest further reading on specific topics they’ve discovered there. None of those seem strange at all. They are a part of how we live now. If you are not living that way, you are doing it wrong.

April 26, 2012

Video: my Skillshare Penny Conference talk

I gave a talk last week with a fascinating roster of speakers at Skillshare’s first Penny Conference, to an audience of enthusiastic independent learners. Everyone in the crowd considered themselves an independent learner, and more than half of them had dropped out of school at some point in their lives.

All the speakers gave fascinating presentations, and it was exciting to hear some of the themes I’ve been finding from my interviews turning up in other people’s research as well. Tony Wagner, who works on restructuring K-12 education to promote innovation, noted the same things my interviewees reported about what’s wrong with school: a lack of autonomy and control over their learning, being taught vs. active learning, the paucity of really engaging teachers, and having no room to fail. Among many other questions, I asked my interviewees how they figured out where to start, what path to follow, and where to get help. Zach Sims, founder of Code Academy, cited these questions as the dilemmas his site tries to solve for people who want to learn programming.

Aaron Dignan, CEO of Undercurrent, reframed the idea of gamification in an educational setting for me. I’ve been talking a lot with educators about taking the inherent gamification out of traditional education: grades, honors, achievements. These cater to extrinsic motivation, while intrinsic motivation is a much stronger driver of learning that people find satisfying and worthwhile. His talk revolved around the part of games that involves collaboration, narrative, and quests, which give learning a context, purpose, and interdisciplinary approach. I love having my mind changed, thank you Aaron!

And thanks to Skillshare for inviting me to speak!

March 16, 2012

Shaking it up

Molly Crabapple, a wonderful artist who I interviewed for Don’t Go Back to School, is doing something right now that’s shaking up the conventions of the traditional gallery system.

Molly is an incredibly hardworking artist who makes a living with her work in as many ways as she can. She’s an illustrator, she’s done book projects, she’s been hired to paint elaborate murals in swank restaurants, just for a few examples. Her work has a respectable following, and she’s the founder of “Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School.”

Molly hasn’t yet been able to find a gallery to represent her and sell large works on her behalf. That means it’s a real challenge–and financial risk–to give up time from the work that supports her in order to make those paintings. So she found another way. She’s funding her gallery show, called Shell Game, on Kickstarter, without a gallery, and she’ll rent a storefront to display and sell the paintings (if they’re not all sold already) when they’re done. Backers of the project at various levels get things like ephemera, prints, access to the process of creation, and, at the highest levels, the paintings themselves.

The one thing you can’t exactly do DIY has to do with the reputation and recognition that being represented by a gallery confers. Writers have the same dilemma. For a lot of us, the idea of publishing our work Creative Commons is really appealing ideologically, and has the potential for wider circulation. It’s not the loss of potential revenue that stops people–that’s not what stopped me, anyway. As a first-time novelist, I wanted the stamp of approval and legitimacy points that being published by a ‘real’ publisher confers, and ended up getting it. Follow Me Down came out last summer.

A while back, Robin Sloan took a different path. He used Kickstarter to modestly fund the writing of a novella, which he produced in hardcopy for backers and released Creative Commons for the world. It’s a great piece of literary science fiction, and as it gained momentum, it also scored him a book deal, for an expanded version, with FSG, one of the most prestigious big publishers around. The book will be out in June. Of course, that’s helping Robin in the legitimacy department, but I think the lesson of his project, and of Molly’s Shell Game, is that legitimacy and reputation can increasingly be conferred by communities of what you might call informed fans. This isn’t just sheer, unadulterated page-view populism. This is the idea that when a discriminating community of consumers of a genre think something counts as ‘real,’ it does.

That’s a liberating sea-change for everyone.

March 14, 2012

I read something incredible today

I read something incredible today, and then I read the first thousand words of it again aloud to Bre, my voice breaking over the last few lines. It’s a story of tragedy coming, and then of the tragedy itself, one of such magnitude it cannot be absorbed.

What I read is “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” by Michael Paterniti, about the crash of Swiss Air flight 111, published in Esquire in 2000. I saw a link and took a peek at it on my phone, and then stopped the four other things I was doing and read every stunning word. I don’t read on my phone. But the prose was so astonishing and the story so well told that I couldn’t stop long enough to find it on a bigger screen.

Sometimes when I read writing this good, it sets in motion writing of my own. And sometimes it simply does the thing that words can do. It makes me feel the story in my own flesh.

I write fiction now, but I didn’t start out that way. I used to think the real world was so interesting, how could you ever stop just writing it down. Why would you make it up? I started out wanting to write like Michael Herr and Joan Didion and Truman Capote and Tim O’Brien, beautiful, brutal, and true. Now, there is a deep and complex conversation among writers and readers of nonfiction about writing truth and telling stories and which matters most and how the two meet and depart and entwine. I don’t know exactly when I shifted over into the realm of invention, but I do know that my writing is still driven by wonder at the things that are most real. And driven too by wonder at how the smallest molecules of what is real can be coaxed by a pen into bonding differently than they did when you first saw them.

July 13, 2010

words and their failures

I am thinking now of the summer years ago when I taught expository writing to a group of 13-14 year olds, about twenty of them. We met every morning for three hours, much too long an interval for them. I broke up the time halfway through by playing a game of ping pong with each of them. Because I’m such a lousy player, this took only 20 minutes.

That day I had given them something very hard and brutal and self-absorbed to read, Joan Didion, I think, and asked them to write their thoughts about it.

One boy, the Korean boy who had taught me to write my name in Kanji, wrote a remarkable thing.

Read more …

June 16, 2010

It’s pay what you can, not what you want

[Originally published June 15, 2010 at The Literary Platform]

We are living in generous times. I don’t mean that in a hippie, random acts of kindness sort of way. I mean that we are living at a time when sharing as a model of exchange is increasingly common.

Right now, our models of getting paid and paying for things are both up for grabs in fascinating – and potentially society-changing – ways. As newspapers fail, crucial experiments in how to pay for news – especially investigative reporting – are underway. Ebooks, creative commons licensing, and ever-more legitimate forms of self-publishing are challenging the book publishing industry’s way of doing business. As I writer, I’ve got a vested interest in what’s going to happen – and the open question applies to everyone who makes any form of culture, amateur or professional or anything in-between. One place to look for lessons is the open source movement, which began as a collaborative, distributed model of making software, and is fast becoming a pervasive set of values taken up by communities as diverse as open source sewing and amateur unmanned aerial vehicles development.

Notice that word, communities. Open source production and some of its consumption happen in communities. The model is most efficiently sustainable when most of the community respects the ethics of mutual sharing that open source is built on. That is to say they are freeloader-tolerant, and able to function when some of the participants are taking but not contributing. The point is, within a community, ethics are agreements, not abstractions. Within a community, generosity is a social contract.

Read more …

March 2, 2010

What are you afraid of?

My ITP students went out on the street and asked (on video) about 40 people the question, “What are you afraid of?” It was remarkable how many of the respondents gave thoughtful, vulnerable answers.

Most common:

1. Failure. Most of the people who said they were afraid of failure were young. Also, one older man said if you’d asked him 10 years ago he would have said failure.

2. The future

3. Being alone/loneliness

4. Death/getting old

5. Things that are out of my control

6. Nothing. This was mostly older people, one of whom said, “I’m not even afraid of the Devil.”

Most esoteric:

1. Clowns (in a serious way)

2. Aliens (in a serious way)

3. Embarrassment

4. The dark (“you can’t see what’s around you”)

5. Torture/pain

6. Buried alive, blinded, falsely imprisoned (same respondent)

Flippant answers: snakes, spiders, rats, people.

February 10, 2010

Masked men, bare cocks, and sometimes a conversation

There are a thousand ways to make a binary split of the world’s population, and the one on my mind right now is this: there are the kind of people who pick up a ringing payphone, and the kind of people who don’t. I pick it up.

I love those strange, slightly jarring, unexpected interactions with strangers. I write about them on a blog called Municipal Archive and I teach a graduate class about them at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. So, I can tell you a lot about the locations and moments in which strangers interact. About the means and methods. These things have been observed and studied and documented. What we don’t really know with any precision—nor even with much poetry—is why.

Chat Roulette is the newest form of what you might call “stranger chat.” It’s a technology-mediated instance of an old cultural tradition: talking to strangers in public spaces. We do it in an ephemeral, casual way in public places, particularly in the anonymous transitional spaces where proximity is especially temporary: elevators, park benches, waiting spaces, the subway. It’s a fleeting connection, a shared moment, an acknowledgment of your common humanity in the bustling, anonymous metropolis.

Chat Roulette is both the same and different from those encounters. You’re talking with a stranger—which you’ve been able to do since time immemorial in chatrooms—but, now there’s a live video and audio feed to accompany the chat window, and the next random stranger is a click away. Video makes the interaction much more risky and intimate, but also more like a chat in an elevator, except you can make your chat partner vanish at any time. When you talk to strangers in public, you’re making an informed choice, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’ve got social cues like your shared location, the person’s appearance, their clothing, how they carry themselves. When you talk to someone on Chat Roulette, you’re confronted with—if you’re lucky—with the head and shoulders of a stranger, and almost no readable cues. You and they both are making a split-second decision about whether to engage with each other.

Did I mention the part about how it’s an incredibly weird experience? Because it is. Read more …

May 12, 2009


Dear ______, Lisbon is strange and small and full of ruins. I can see now why Saramago’s blank cities come out the way they do, such a city would have to replicate itself and double back to become a place you could get lost in, a place of anonymity. Instead there are rococco elevators to take you to the hilltops, where the spines of a gothic cathedral, ruined in the 1755 earthquake, have been left arching into the empty sky.

May 8, 2009

scars + marks

Unpublished list-poem gathered from Bertillon cards for Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.

Rt. Lit fing. off at tip. Scar upper left cheek. Fingers blistered. Bullet cic 14 below elbow jnt frt. Scar from horse bite at end of nose. Left arm tattoo name Jean. Birthmark right stomach. No. 10 shoes. Tattoo of an anchor right arm. Pimples on face. Tattooed all over both arms and body, large mans head on brest with reath of thorns across forehead. Right ring finger amputated at 3rd joint. Wears glasses. Limps on lt leg. Lower incs very irreg. “LOVE” on scroll across heart with arrow behind the heart. Bulbous nose. Bites fingernails.