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Today I gave a short talk to the lunch meeting of the Rotary Club of Redlands, California.

By natural inclination I am more of an introvert than a joiner; one reason I so like being a professor is that I am left alone with my books much of the time. But the cheery, do-good-and-be-friendly ethos of the Rotarians is infectious, I must say. I like them.

My topic was China, of course.

About 20% of the audience had been China, a quick, show-of-hands poll suggested. A smaller percentage said China’s rise has already directly affected their business. A significant fraction also raised their hands to say, yes, China’s development has already affected their own lives.

I then said I would try to persuade them that everyone should have raised a hand, because China’s transformation has already affected us all. For example, most of us have a mortgage, car loans, student loans or credit card debts; China’s purchase of US government debt helps keeps those interest rates (and our taxes) lower. I pointed out that a nearby shopping center—the one containing our local Walmart (and one of the better Chinese restaurants in town)—was recently purchased by a Chinese investor for $17 million, in cash, as reported by our hometown paper. I observed that the stuffed peppers we’d just been served quite probably contained pork processed by Smithfield, now owned by the Chinese company Shuanghui. I also observed that if we took off everything we were wearing that was made in China, we’d be mostly shirtless, shoeless and pantless (a vision perhaps not everyone would want to meditate upon). If any of us recently bought a child a toy (or just about anything else at Target or Walmart), we’ve bought something made in China. The prices we pay for gas and other commodities—and the cost of our lunch itself—is already influenced by China’s development (a trend only likely to intensify, it seems). I also noted that our cameras, our smartphones and the televisions we’ve been watching March Madness on all probably come from China, whatever their brand. I also mentioned the page one, above-the-fold article from last week’s LA Times about how Chinese buyers are affecting the prices of housing just a bit closer to LA.

Having, I hope, persuaded them that China’s rise does already affect all our lives, I then asked them which of the following scenarios seems to most likely predict the state of the world 100 years hence:

  1. The US will remain the world’s predominant superpower. We will continue to have by far the largest economy, most powerful military and greatest global influence. Our institutions—our economic, political and legal system, our individual freedoms—will be widely admired and emulated. We will remain the world’s center of technological innovation and progress. The US Dollar will remain the key global currency. Our popular culture will remain the world’s most influential. Meanwhile China will have grown and developed but will not have surpassed the US, and China will have evolved to be much more like the US (with multi-party elections, less censorship and greater rule of law).
  2. China will be the world’s most important country, with the largest overall GDP, the most influence in global affairs and the most formidable military. The RMB will be the world’s principal reserve currency. Mandarin Chinese will be the language elites around the world learn to communicate with each other, and it will be the language that people in poorer countries learn to increase their chances of prosperity. China’s success will have created a new consensus about the optimal institutional arrangements and values for getting and maintaining a rich, strong country; state-led development and authoritarianism, not lightly regulated markets and democracy, will be the new global standard. Chinese culture will exert a powerful influence around the world.
  3. Neither China nor the US will disproportionately dominate the future, but we will instead have a multipolar world, some kind of new relations among great powers, with the US and China both prospering and peacefully coexisting. They will buy a lot more from us, and we will benefit from China’s increased contributions to human progress (China will massively generate, not only copy, major innovations).

I got a few takers for each choice, and a lot of people abstained. I told them I don’t think that I know which scenario will occur, that the longer I’ve studied China—now some 25 years—the more circumspect I’ve become about oracular pronouncements. Normatively, I of course prefer scenarios in which China has a continued peaceful rise—a heaping jueqi, and I hope that in the future China does become more free and democratic. I don’t expect China’s growth to continue unabated, and I don’t imagine that China’s authoritarianism will become the new global aspirational model. But declaring who will be the world’s most powerful country 100 years hence, or what mix of authoritarian and liberal values China will adopt? Can’t say.

I then offered a quick version of what is essentially my China stump speech, something I’ve developed and polished in classes introducing students to China. I first offer a list of ways China matters, making explicit various facets of its importance. Perhaps the Rotarians are great humanists, but because I normally teach undergraduate business students, I try to persuade them that China matters by appealing to their crass commercial interests. I suggest that even if they don’t yet have a passport, don’t like Chinese food and hope never to visit Asia, China is likely to matter to them if they like money. In particular, China matters as a place to:

  1. Make things (examples of how China is the world’s factory already abundant—no need to belabor the point);
  2. Sell things (I trotted out the usual examples about cars, smartphones and tablets, gaming, outbound tourism, luxury goods);
  3. Invest capital (and as an investment thesis even for non-Chinese firms), citing examples like Baidu and YUM, and
  4. Get capital, citing the US Treasury auctions and examples like Smithfield and Nexen.

Nothing too original there, and the idea that China is reshaping the world isn’t much contested. The list mainly serves to get everyone thinking about the overall impact of China’s rise; I think it’s better to lay out the multiple dimension of impact than just invoke a couple of tried examples of how China is the “world’s factory” and “a huge market.” Of course, China’s environmental, political and military impact may exceed the impact of all these business dimensions of its importance, and one could add other dimensions—China may increasingly become a source of cultural soft power, and global business competitors may increasingly come from there). But the case is made; I only had a few minutes (and, frankly, know less about some of those other, critical dimensions of China’s like the military implications).

I then listed a few reasons it’s hard to grasp this obviously important topic, reasons to resist facile claims:

  1. China is big and diverse. It’s a continent, like the US. Hard to generalize across China’s regional differences and rural-urban divides. I hazarded a prediction that Alabama will not be an early adopter of same-sex marriage, for instance, so visiting LA or New York City and thinking you’ve seen the US would be misleading. Same is true, even more so, in China.
  2. China is changing rapidly. It’s spectacular urban skylines, impressive infrastructure (gleaming airports, high speed rail, new ports) and even the pace of new policy developments can make one feel lost, visit to visit.
  3. China’s long history—or more precisely people’s understanding of it—is relevant to many contemporary issues, though it’s unfamiliar for most of us. This summer’s 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, the May Fourth Movement, the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese invasion and occupation in WW II, the Opium Wars and the Imperial era—all that is relevant to understanding various current events.
  4. China’s institutions are quite different and often opaque; they have organizations called companies with boards of directors—they even have shares listed on stock markets—but the Communist Party is really in charge of these “companies,” or can be; they also have a legislature with elected representatives, but the Communist Party is, no doubt, actually in charge.
  5. China’s development model is unprecedented. What do we call it? Market Leninism? Hard to name and understand it.
  6. And, finally, it’s all happening in Chinese. That makes us rely on a small number of reporters who are based in a few major cities. There is a lot of great journalism about China, but, chances are, they are missing something.

So, it’s a good idea to be humble about saying, “this is how China is” or “this is what’s going to happen.”

I concluded with a list of challenges China faces. I ran out of time before listing many (a half-hour talk goes by like that), but before inviting questions I mentioned: the environment, corruption and the wobbly or inefficient financial system. I could have added: their challenging demographics (their grey-before-rich problem—the looming, acute problem of a decreasing number of workers supporting an increasing number of retirees); ethnic tensions (as events in Kunming and Tibet vividly illustrate); risk of increased frictions with trading partners; tensions with neighbors; the risk of domestic political unrest; income inequality; a lack of social trust; weak civil society; deng, deng.

Unfortunately there wasn’t time for much discussion, but many seemed eager to chime in. I got good questions on the environment (no, it doesn’t look to get better soon), rising wages (yes, China no longer is the cheapest place to do many things, but they have other advantages: competitive infrastructure, vast know-how and, for better or worse, apparent political stability), the mechanics of Chinese people buying houses for cash in Orange County (suitcases of cash, I speculated, or wire transfers refracted through Hong Kong or Macau, possibly with some over-invoicing, and I observed that although some of the cash infusion could be about securing ill-gotten gains offshore (the spoils of corruption), much of it is likely legitimate earnings, a reflection of how big the Chinese economy now is (its export success and the development of the domestic economy), though the phenomenon may reflect pessimism on the part of some Chinese about China’s continued rise and stability, or at least the continued appreciation of real estate prices there vs. the value available here).

. . . I enjoyed the iced tea and cauliflower puree (I passed on the stuffed peppers; I’ve been eating a vegan diet for several months—no cheese or meat for me, a topic for another time). I hope the Rotarians were satisfied with how I sang for my supper (or, ah, lunch). I had a little jaunt in my step this afternoon, their upbeat piano songs echoing in my head.

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Three dots of water. That’s a way to express the kind of writing I am doing and the way I now approach writing.

San dian shui or three dots of water is a common component in Chinese writing. It literally signifies water. Written in Chinese, it looks like, well, three dots of water:氵, as if you just flicked water off your fingers.

These three dots of water combine with many other elements to create a flood of characters. Usually, the three droplets tell you that that the more complex character relates to water in some way. There are three dots of water in ocean 洋, river 江, lake 湖 and sea 海. They surface again in wine 酒, waves 浪 and tears 泪. You need three dots of water to wash 洗, ski 滑, or blend 混 (multiracial children, like mine, are called 混血, mixed blood; the Chinese reflexively say that such children are smart and pretty—and, oh, dear reader, I confess that, at least in our case, I do believe they are right.). Three dots of water appear in soup 汤, sweat 汗 and steam 汽 (ah, life is but a vapor—and you need three dots of water to write that in Chinese). You must have three dots of water to swim 游泳 or have a pool 池 in the first place. Naturally, fish 渔 require them, and there could be no floods 洪 without them. They are essential to oil 油 and paint 漆. They infuse froth 泡沫 and flow 溜. You use them to pour out your attention 注. In sum, these dots of water are essential to life 活.

Is this not a fine emblem for writing? There is a touch of beauty, as there so often is in China’s ancient script. Critically, for me, this beauty evokes a casual touch—something light and not-too-consequential, nothing too ponderous and heavy. Carving stone monuments? A fine writing stance, if you want to be a frozen pillar. I need a playful, contingent stance to write; I must invite unexpected and imperfect results, intend the unintended. It’s just a flick of ink, not a chisel taken to granite. For me, then, three dots of water is an apposite image.

Plus, I write essays. Essays have a shape-shifting, fluid form. The essayist’s sensibility is recombinant, attaching to multiple topics. You make endless meaning, flowing around the world’s cornucopia, adhering first to this element, then to that one. You redefine those things to which you attach, and you are endlessly reconstituted, even as your distinct identity still can be discerned. This is a pleasant, productive way of being, to essay the world.

Do these dots get written often as a stand-alone character? No. They come into being only in relation to a shifting set of other written marks.

I name it now; three dots of water is my writing way.

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The idea is hardly original to me. Others have expressed it well. Ann Lamott put it this way: you have to write “really, really shitty first drafts.”

Just so.

Another pithy formulation of the same basic idea, one I stumbled upon while scribbling in my journal (and that is, so far as I know, my own original packaging, though that seems odd, given how obvious it seems) is: mess first; masterpiece later.

I made a graphic reminder, to help bore this into my head. Knowing this idea intellectually is different than embracing it in practice. It’s hard, like learning to ride a bike without training wheels, dive headfirst into water, dance, sing or speak in public if that’s not your thing. I will need lots of practice before it feels natural. I have to train myself to interrupt some habitual patterns. If I treat outwardly-directed words as too precious, they don’t come. So, the mantra is: make a mess first, then, perhaps, through editing, a masterpiece later emerges. The freedom to write starts with freedom to make a mess. Mess first; masterpiece later.

Good writing, especially the kind taught in creative writing programs, is often assumed to mean good storytelling. One must create believable characters, compelling dialogue, enticing narrative arcs, vivid fictional dreams.

I am not a storyteller. I doubt I will ever become one. But I desperately want to blossom as a writer. Am I doomed?

No, I am delighted to report, I don’t need to become a great or even accomplished storyteller to do the kind of writing that feels like “my” writing. There is a genre that suits me. I have a tribe. I am trhilled to have found it. I am an essayist.

Liberating my voice as a writer means understanding and accepting—affirmatively embracing, actually—this identity. My authentic work is mainly in the realm of ideas and language, not in the realm of seductive narratives, at least not the kind populated with vivid imagined characters who walk about saying and doing vivid, dramatic things. Ideas and language enthrall me more than characters and drama. Imagined characters do not take on lives of their own in my head. But ideas do, all the time. And words constantly swirl about in my head, too. So the dramatic tensions in my work will be about opposing ideas and associative chains of language, not characters who are blocked, at least until some magical resolution in act three, from getting what they want.

The moves it feels natural for me to make as a writer are to try to capture in apt language the subtle, elusive and contradictory aspects of interiority, not to embody abstract concepts in concrete characters, settings and situations. I am excited by The Dreams of Reason, not The Dream. I hereby accept that ideas inspire me as a writer more than stories. Usually, at least.

I thus out myself as an essayist, not a novelist or short story writer or even memoirist. (I’m not a poet, either, but that’s a different story.) And I’m going to be a particular kind of essayist, at least at the beginning. Intellectual exploration, mixed with sentiment, is my siren song, the dog whistle I hear.

Would-be writers are commonly advised to “show, don’t tell.” This maxim prods writers to create “vivid and continuous fictional dreams” as John Gardner urged novelists to do. Rich details help readers create mental movies. Thus it is better to write that a character drug her feet into her apartment, slid her heavy bag off her shoulder, collapsed on the sofa and rubbed her fingertips on her forehead, rather than to write, “she felt tired.”

I get that. “No ideas but in things” a poet said.

Only, that’s not how I write, not how my brain naturally works. That’s not the kind of writing to which I am drawn nor the kind of writing that I feel best suited to produce. My bookshelves sag under the weight of nonfiction. I teach nonfiction subjects—international business, law, contemporary China. I see that I own every year’s edition of The Best American Essays (I have bought them religiously; read them less faithfully). Of course I realize that to describe this divide as a binary one is problematic. All work is imagined, constructed, fictive in some sense. But I’m old school; fiction/nonfiction is not a distinction without a difference, and I belong on the nonfiction side of the fence, however much seeps across it.

I don’t mean that stories do not move me. Of course they do. That’s human. I mean that the place I belong as a writer is not in the story-telling part of the universe. I need to boldly go somewhere else.

In her recent book Writing is My Drink, Theo Pauline Nestor encourages developing writers to find their tribe. She has an artful chapter, “Find Your Tribe, Find Your Voice.” Her tribe includes writers, mostly women, who tell first-person, nonfiction stories—memoirists.

In describing her idea that writers have to find their own tribes, she weaves together descriptions of her adolescent embarrassment over items in her record collection (she liked Cat Stevens, not Led Zepplin, which she perceived to be the Wrong Choice, uncool among the cognoscenti of her suburban adolescent peers) and the embarrassment she later felt (and saw in others) as a first-year students in an MFA program at the University of Washington when a professor (whom she names Tall and Urbane; I assume David Shields) asked workshop students to identify writing they loved and to defend their choices.

There’s the stuff we think we are supposed to like—deconstructionist European PoMo lit. crit. in English programs; spare, minimalist form experimenters in MFA programs?)—and there’s the stuff we actually like (for Nestor, pop music and first person autobiographical narratives, memoir). We can try to bluff our way into liking what we think we are supposed to like, maybe even convince ourselves we do like it, but Nestor suggests that to flourish writers have to find and embrace their real, natural tribes.

I think she’s absolutely right. Of course, one might actually like reading Heidegger, and one’s social context (say a public high school in Alabama) might make that as taboo as not at all liking Heidegger could seem in another social context (say a seminar on phenomenology at Northwestern). We could also acknowledge that one has to be initially exposed to something to discover whether or not you like it, and trying on different experiences—different personas—is thus part of education and maturation. Plus one changes over time. So one’s tribe is not static or fixed at birth. And we should be explicit that tribal is borrowed in the positive sense of “supportive group with shared customs and culture” not “pack hostile to outsiders.” All true.

But the point is, there are things that appeal to you in some visceral way, for a perhaps subconscious set of reasons, and there are things that you might try to like—try to adhere your attention to—that just don’t really work for you. Finding your voice as a writer means finding or perhaps inventing your genre, finding your form, stance, style or material. This is part of finding or liberating your voice.

Nestor has a great line about first encountering the prose that she now identifies as representative of her tribe. She writes that when she first encountered Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, “I couldn’t name it yet. It was more like grunt me like this grunt. Me want to do this grunt.”

Yes, exactly. Personal essays. Me like this grunt. Me want to do this grunt.

During my long, chronic period of failing to write outwardly-directed material, I took a class on memoir writing. Theo Nestor taught it. I had this notion that I would write a memoir about my long, painful experience of failing to write, of failing to do the one thing I most wanted to do and felt most equipped to do in life. I even had a title for my imagined memoir: Not Writing a Memoir of Failure. It’s the title I’m using now for this blog. No semicolon, you see. The book would chronicle my struggle to write, describing the pain and anguish it inflicted on me, all the damage not writing did to my promising-start career, and it would explain how after a long odyssey I finally triumphed over my not writing demons. The book would both describe and evidence my victory over not writing. I thought that it could help others who struggle with the same awful problem; it might I thought not only testify to my own liberation as a writer but also help others who feel called to do creative work yet simultaneously feel unable to coax the work out of themselves, despite evidence of talent, and who perhaps like my former self don’t understand why—are baffled and confounded. Not Writing a Memoir of Failure. Redemption at last. Lazarus, come forth! How clever, I thought.

This plan to finally flourish as a writer and redeem my years of misguided wandering in place, I was genuinely excited about the memoir writing class. It would unlock my writing life, cure my chronic block, liberate my voice. The class would be my Rubicon, my road to Damascus. Before it, my life was in disarray because of an inexplicable, chronic failure to write; after the class, I would flourish, producing outwardly-directed material with enviable ease. I would be productive, transformed, cured, fixed.

I genuinely thought I was close to this deeply yearned-for blossoming. My dreams of liberation as a writer seemed within reach. In fact, in my mind I was already running victory laps. I imagined the interview with Terry Gross. She would ask thoughtful, penetrating questions in that pensive way she does. I would respond with well-rehearsed deep thoughts in a warm, unhurried radio voice, offering up pithy soundbites about how I’d finally overcoming my decades-long block. I would feign humility and surprise about the best-seller status of my memoir, exhaling delight that so many others had found it so helpful, marveling that my particular had somehow tapped into the universal.

I took Theo Nestor’s class, but no liberation came, no book leading to an interview with Terry Gross. I bought a shelf full of memoirs and read them. Several I quite enjoyed. I read the books on craft that Nestor assigned or recommended, too. I even tried to write a few scenes, to begin scratching out my own memoir. I sat in a cafe, working against what felt like an intense psychological headwind. But I didn’t want to give up. I told myself that writing for me might always feel like pushing a bolder up hill, but, dammit, I’m getting too old to squander any more years, and writing is what I feel called to do—what I must try my level best to do—so scribble on! “Stay in the saddle!” I told myself (Sisyphus on horseback?). Keep going “by any means necessary” I told myself; whatever you do, never, never give up!

But it . . . Just. Didn’t. Happen. God, I felt so demoralized. I thought I’d seen the path forward, a way out of my chronic failure to write. I’d felt finally on the cusp of my metamorphosis from failed writer to guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Yet the writing still wasn’t coming.

One thing happened in the class that should have tipped me off that I was not yet with the right tribe. Nestor assigned us readings about narrative theory. We learned about classic story architecture: Act I, introduce characters with some dramatic tension (someone who wants something, who embarks upon a quest). Act II, protagonist struggles against a series of increasingly difficult or menacing obstacles, encountering allies and enemies. Act III, protagonist faces an ultimate challenge or nemesis; protagonist overcomes (or is defeated by) the final, ultimate interlocutor—the external action is resolved, and the principal characters have internal shifts, too.

Once you get this basic outline—the hero’s journey—you see it everywhere, in classic works of literature, popular movies and TV shows, books you read your toddlers and even in “reality” TV shows where producers force it onto more random human interactions. To take but one example—one that clearly evidences I’ve  reached middle age—I sometimes watch House Hunters on HGTV. Episode after episode, the producers force a classic narrative arc on to home buying. Act I, couple wants a dream home but can afford less, plus one partner wants a rustic farm while another partner wants a modern urban loft (or some other dialectical opposition). In Act II they look at options, shooting withering looks at each other or at the realtor as tradeoffs and disagreements are confronted. In Act III they make a choice, electing to buy some property (external situation resolved), striking some truce with market realities and/or compromising on their divergent views, or one partner succumbing to the other’s preferences (internal change accomplished, too). They get stainless steel appliances, a choice that may one day seem as dated as green shag carpet, then presumably live happily every after.

Narrative arc. It’s everywhere! This for me was by far the most exciting part of the memoir writing class.

Nestor assigned us Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story. Both discuss this archetype of inward/outward journeys, this underlying architecture of stories.

I was utterly taken with the notion of narrative arcs, the geometry of stories. I read everything I could find on it. I was enthusiastic about Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters and Robert McKee’s similar Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. I had no whiff of an idea that I would write scripts, but I was lapping up everything I could find on narrative theory. Trying to trace the idea back to its headwaters I got Aristotle’s Poetics and works by Joseph Campbell. I also bought more contemporary, derivative works aimed at us would-be writers—paperbacks titled Story Engineering and Story Structure Architect and Architecture of the Novel. I dove into a tome called The Seven Basic Plots that tries to reduce eons of storytelling, across myriad cultures, to a handful of plot devices.

Narrative theory is off-putting to some in a fundamental way. I remember talking to Nestor after class one night, telling her how much I liked the material, asking her if she’d read Vogler’s book. She was polite but a tad aloof. Perhaps because I seemed wild-eyed and made her uneasy in my enthusiasm? Perhaps because she had, over years of teaching, seen how some students feel as deflated by these ideas as I felt stimulated? For some, narrative theory seems to drain away the magic, pull back the curtain on creativity in ways that make them feel bereft of imagination. To think about story writing and character development in abstract terms chills their creative process. If they wanted to theorize, perhaps they’d be getting degrees in literature, not creative writing.

For me narrative theory did the opposite. It felt empowering. I sensed that I had the keys to the kingdom. I easily imagined a structure for my own memoir. Act I, verbally talented protagonist wants to write but feels blocked. He loses jobs and becomes unhappy—anguished—by his chronic failure to write. At midlife, fear of dying without having written finally outweighs whatever forces constricted him, so he embarks upon a quest to resolve his fundamental problem. In Act II the protagonist, with great difficulty and after many setbacks, gradually has series of hard-won epiphanies that help him learn to write. In Act III the protagonist figures out the last piece of the puzzle “why can’t I write?” and publishes a memoir that meets with critical acclaim and commercial success. He lives happily every after, productively spinning out of outwardly-directed prose.

That was the plan.

But it didn’t work.

I stalled.

Yet again.

It was not for lack of effort. I listened closely to Nestor’s lectures on scenes. I gave rapt attention to her line-by-line exegesis of how certain memoir writers had constructed scenes in the memoirs she had assigned the class. I bought supplemental books on crafting scenes (How much money is made offering products to people aspiring to write? A lot!). I earnestly tried my hand at it. And I failed.

I am no more a scene writer than I am a musician. I love music—Bach, Miles Davis, bluegrass and Gregorian chants, if you want to know about my record collection—and I can relish a well-crafted scene in fiction or nonfiction. But I am not on this earth to play music or write scenes. This I know. My life, my story, amply depicts that I am no storyteller. This I have been duly shown.

I slunked away from the class, despondent that I was still blocked, that I had not yet found my way out.

The story could end here, in either resignation (oh, I guess I’m not a writer after all; let’s go have a beer and watch a basketball game), suicide or some garbled muddling through. But it doesn’t. Resistance to writing has indeed been my chronic curse, but somehow doggedness has been an equally characteristic trait. And, perhaps surprisingly, so has self-confidence. Despite the decades of contrary evidence, an utter belief, a bedrock certainty, that I am a writer persisted. Even as I floundered in that memoir writing class, I continued to believe—I still believe—that I can produce good work if I can just find a way to coax it out of myself.

In the back of Nestor’s book Writing is My Drink she lists “Recommended Readings.” One item listed is Philip Lapote’s To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. She also recommends the introduction he wrote for The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology he edited. It so happens that just before finishing Nestor’s book, with all its funny, wise advice about self-acceptance and finding one’s tribe, I read Lapote’s To Show and to Tell. It was with me in New York a few weeks ago on my spring break writer’s retreat, on my Ash Wednesday Liberation Day.

Lopate opens a world for me the way Ephron did for Nestor. Grunt me like this grunt. Me want to do this grunt. Ruminating personal essays, written in  artful loops, driven by compelling ideas more than character-occupied stories—essays that invite you to follow a thoughtful, meandering consciousness across the page (or down a screen), essays that tune in to the associative music of thought: bingo. I have found my tribe.

I’ve been surrounded by evidence for years that I am an essayist, but somehow I didn’t quite get it, didn’t so name myself. Essayist. That’s not on the menu of vocational choices one is offered growing up in a middle class Baptist household in Alabama, even a nurturing, kind one like mine. Somehow even later I didn’t see it as a real choice, a possibility I might embrace. Clearly, I didn’t want to write academic papers, magazine articles, public relations missives, novels, short stories, poems or memoirs. I failed to write enough law review articles or other desiccated academic pieces to retain my first job as a professor, even though I can think of no other way to earn a paycheck that I would prefer. Duress wasn’t enough to get me moving. I needed to write and wanted to write, but I just couldn’t  bring myself to write (except in my journals, which is a topic for another day). So my career spiraled downward, and I grew more frustrated and perplexed (and at times so eager to escape my dilemma that I considered drastic means; I explored becoming a photographer, for a spell). Yet my core identity remains that I am a writer.

Well, write what, then? How?

Lapote signals a way out for me. He is skeptical of, maybe even hostile toward, unapologetic invention in nonfiction. As am I. He describes good essays as compelling “thinking on the page.” He enjoys artful, entertaining digressions. He writes essays in which the dramatic tension is between ideas, not imagined characters. He esteems non-cinematic writing. He champions the essay for its rich literary patrimony. His work is artfully constructed, and fun to read. Grunt, me like this, grunt. Me want to do this, grunt.

Joseph Epstein described his work as “taking a line out for a walk.” I remember that, though I must have read it a couple of decades ago. I met Epstein on the streets of Evanston, Illinois in my twenties. He lived a block over, and I often saw this nattily dressed man on the streets. Back then I routinely bought issues of The American Scholar, which he edited and to which he often contributed artful essays. I don’t think I’d ever seen a picture of him before, but one day I accosted him on the sidewalk and asked, “Are you Joseph Epstein?” He was so cordial, gracious. He seemed flattered and bemused that I’d recognized him. How had I? Because of some intuition and hints in things he’d written, I suppose. I mentioned having coffee later; he was agreeable. But, God forgive me, I never followed up. I don’t know why. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready and intuited that, too. Now, decades later, I know it’s my turn to take some lines out for a walk. I finally am ready, free at last, to tell a few things, to confess my identity as an essayist.

For this new phase of my writing life, I have been thinking of characteristics, themes or stances that I imagine will be typical of my work.

At this point, I anticipate my that outwardly-directed writing will be:

Honest. Everybody dissembles to some degree. We craft personas, wear social masks. It can be impolite and off-putting to drop these pretensions, to reveal too much. (“Spilling your guts is just as attractive as it sounds,” I once read). But I feel most comfortable and productive when trying to be honest. Reticence for me leads to silence.  This I have learned from decades of bitter experience—years of not writing, entire decades lost. Truth telling is liberating; honest prose begets more prose. So, within some minimal bounds of decency and prudence, I expect to err on the side of being overly transparent rather than reticent. That’s what suits me, what feels right and natural. Revealing, not withholding, helps me write.

Vulnerable. There’s no other way to do this, I think. Being honest is necessary for writing—for the liberation of my own voice, anyway. But it will involve some risks. Disclosure may not always be comfortable or in my best interest. It may strain some relationships. Disclosure may work against some facets of self-presentation that I’d like to maintain. But the risk of not facing such risks is continued chronic block. I simply can’t have that! So a truth-telling we will go, with some acutely sensitive nerves exposed, ready to wince, shudder and maybe scream. I know it is necessary but dread it—feel trepidation—nonetheless. 

Contingent, speculative and open-ended, not oracular, declarative or authoritative. Wanting to be in control and make pronouncements, to speak in an authoritative way, to avoid mistakes and inept phrasings, wanting to make brilliant utterances and be loved for them—all that has been characteristic of how I’ve thought about and approached writing. The problem is, all of that can be lethal to my impulse to produce outwardly-directed material. I have to make mistakes, show ignorance, get things wrong, speculate and spew inanities sometimes, if I am going to get any writing done. Trying to write perfectly makes me mute. “Perfect” equals “never done,” and I am so done with not writing! Therefore I will not—cannot—assume a stance of trying or expecting to write perfectly. I have assumed such a stance before now, mostly without conscious intent, and that a stance contributed mightily to my chronic block. For me to generate writing I need a speculative, inquisitive, open stance. I need to accept and even consciously affirm that my work will sometimes sound clanky, bloom with errors and at times seem just downright stupid. Those aren’t goals, of course. But if I don’t lower my standards below “excruciatingly, impossibly high” and permit some level of error and ineptness, the writing that I long to do just won’t get produced. Only imperfect work exists. Only imperfect works. Mess first; masterpiece later. That is the necessary order. I therefore grant myself permission to write loopy nonsense, to change my mind, to show that I don’t know stuff that I probably should  (and imagine that many others do). I grant myself permission to learn through writing, to wonder aloud about things (thereby betraying my gaping ignorance). I grant myself permission be wrong, clumsy and sometimes moronic. That’s the only way I may sometimes stumble into  being correct, elegant, erudite and perhaps worthwhile in a few others’ estimation.

Process-oriented. Writing to learn; having an open, not declarative, stance; and giving myself permission for error are all part of treating writing as a process of discovery, not a means to proclaim settled truths. For decades I’ve been prolific with respect to private journal writing but nearly mute with respect to other forms of writing. A reason for this is that in journal writing I use writing as a tool for discovery and contingent ordering, not as a means of virtuoso performance. Journal writing feels for me nearly as effortless as breathing, whereas writing other stuff—outwardly-directed writing or ODW as I’ve sometimes called it—has felt nearly impossible—comically, tragically difficult for me, creating the most absurd self-defeating patterns. To break those patterns, I am going to—I must—let ODW be more like my journal writing. Sure, writing made public is inevitably a public dance, the “finished” in some way private journal writing is not. But if I think of generating ODW as chiseling on eternal tablets, I know from experience that I won’t get any public writing done. So I must treat writing always as process, not definitive performance.

Disintermediated. I hope in time to amass some “pub credits” and build a traditional (dead tree era?) body of “published” work. I’ll confess that I’d like, someday, to have a piece in The Best American Essays of 20xx. I also want one day to see my name on a traditional, bound book. But getting writing done, not third-party sanction, is my first goal. I need to write, not be distracted by chasing others’ approval. I do not want to look for an agent. I do not at this early stage even want to worry about publishing outlets. I’m impatient, too impatient to endure the whole query-send-out-manuscript-get rejected-and-resubmit process. Peer review for me, for now, means readers—should there be any, which I acknowledge is a hope not an assumption—can review it after I’ve hit “publish.” I have waited decades to begin writing outwardly-directed material. That’s much, much too long—an appalling delay. Having misspent so much of my “professional” life and almost missed what I perceive to be my true calling or vocation—almost missed living “my real” life—now that I finally feel ready to write in a more public way, I will, I think, publish and disseminate my writing with modern tools—via this blog, for instance. Viva the internet! Viva digital technology! Hooray for full-text indexing and searching, so that readers can find things that interest them without the intervention of editors or support of any institution! Viva disintermediation! Maybe, once I have built up and shaped enough ODW, I will knit it into a self-published ebook. Maybe that will be picked up by a third-party publisher. We’ll see. But yearning after or awaiting upon third-party permission isn’t my path.

Incremental. I would love it if work tumbled out of me in big, polished pieces. But it doesn’t. I will work in short bursts. I may craft longer pieces from the fragments, but I won’t await a huge expanse of uninterrupted time to commence The Big Work. That, too, I have learned, is a good way for me to never write anything.

Promiscuous and with respect to topics. I like writing. I am interested in China, and I have spent decades learning about China. I went to law school. I’ve taught in business schools for more than a decade. I grew up in Alabama and was imprinted by its religion-besotted culture. I am interested in many things, and I have significant background with regard to a few. But trying to write about only one subject or subset of my interests—say the regulation of financial markets in China, an authentic, longstanding interest—paralyzes my voice. I can’t have that any longer, so henceforth I will broadly indulge my interests, writing promiscuously with respect to topics, following associative chains wherever they lead.

Promiscuous does not I hope mean superficial. I do like to “grok” on complex subjects. In fact I become exquisitely uncomfortable when I have to work in areas in which I feel no mastery. But trying to present myself as an “expert” in some area creates pressure. It causes me to feel an obligation to cover or react to everything important that arises in relation to my chosen “fields” (contemporary China, PRC capital markets, whatever). This become burdensome and counter-productive. It starts to feel like a job, not a passion. Such a sense of obligation repels me, makes me to want to avoid following and writing about the very things that once so animated me. It drains the fun out of things. I write best when I feel playful, not obligated. So I grant myself permission to seem random, to be promiscuous with respect to topics and to be wildly non-comprehensive. I will write about whatever I fancy, with no implied promises to faithfully cover any particular “beats.”

I probably will in time write about contemporary China, PRC financial market regulation, creativity and writing (or, to begin, my long experience of “not writing”) and personal information technology. All those things interest me and have for decades. But I also like intellectual history, photography and architecture. I also am a parent (“Daddy” is my favorite title of any I’ve ever held, by far). In bookstores I graze across subject areas, so I will probably offer criticism and responses, I hope not too flippant, to a wide variety of others’ work, both current and older. I work in the education “industry” and am interested in its contours, disruption and internationalization. I may write about any and all of that, as well as unforeseen topics.

These are my thoughts as I commence this new, liberated phase of my writing life. I offer them honestly, feeling slightly vulnerable (and also relief) for revealing them. I may change my mind about how I’ll be as a writer. This just a speculative fragment, a shard created along the way toward some fuller explanation of my writing self. Also, it’s “just” a blog post, jotted and released into the world without third-party screening or polishing. The next thing I write may be an extension of my thinking on this topic, or not. But I have for today written something. That is for me the point.

I declared yesterday Liberation Day for my voice as a writer.

Today I awoke thinking: I should take down that post!

Not because I doubt that my writing voice is finally, actually liberated. I feel a calm assurance that I am indeed, at last, ready to produce outwardly-directed prose. I have ripened much too late, but I do not doubt that I have finally ripened.

Rather, I was tempted to take down the post because it frightened me to imagine how some audiences—some that might have some bearing my future—will see it as derogatory and unseemly.

There is an unwritten rule that when one crafts a public persona it ought to be flattering. You’re supposed to show accomplishment, a movement from triumph to triumph, strength to strength. Life of course does not always unfold that way. Nonetheless, public portrayals of oneself are normally positive and upbeat. The aim to impress. That’s the tacit rule for cover letters, the “bios” posted on organizational websites, the elevator pitch one delivers about oneself, the author blurb on a book jacket (I hope one day to need something in that tiny genre).

In my “Liberation Day” post on Ash Wednesday I 1) claim that I am now cured of my chronic block and finally am ready to flourish as a writer, and in so doing I tangentially 2) admit that I have chronically failed for decades to write outwardly-directed material yet 3) have nonetheless harbored an abiding confidence that I am quite capable of writing well if not brilliantly.

I winced to think how my students might react to these claims. The students who for example just performed poorly, as a class, on the midterm exam I gave last week. They are not just now disposed favorably toward me. A good number of them are no doubt angry about their low scores. “In my whole life I have never studied so hard for a test, and still I only got a 64! WTF! Why won’t you scale the scores? This test was way too hard!”

They are angry. They are hostile. Yet I am throwing them red meat—posting a public lament that their professor has for decades failed to write as a professor should, radically under-performing relative to his own apparently lofty perceptions of his ability. Instantly they will see that I a) can be condemned for my confessed under-performance, or b) mocked for harboring an exaggerated sense of my capabilities. Either way, I will have, through willful self-incrimination, made myself vulnerable to attack—invited it, really.

And that’s just one of my classes. Students in my other class, more justifiably, are grumpy that I have been slow to grade and return papers to them. “What’s he doing, off in New York on some ‘writer’s retreat’ when he should be grading our assignments? WTH! And if he can’t write, who the hell is he to try to teach us how to?”

Besides the possible ridicule from students, because of that post I risk looking bad in front of my colleagues, top university administrators and various important alumni. Indeed, my timing is acutely bad; in May there will be an investiture ceremony for the endowed chair that I hold. I am incredibly fortunate to have my current job, and I’d really like to keep it! So it is scary to think some worthy alumnus—an important donor, for God’s sake—will receive the announcement about the upcoming investiture ceremony, Google my name and find, gasp, not some impressive list of achievements but instead a bizarre and off-putting lament that for decades I’ve chronically failed to write for publication. Worse, this disclosure will be accompanied by an ipse dixit declaration that I am now, somehow, ready to live another way—as if a flippant blog post can override decades of contrary evidence. “What a shame, that he’s a failed academic. What a joke, to think his future won’t look like his past. How sadly delusional, to think that he’s got it in him yet. And how infuriating, that he’s bloody broadcasting his inadequacy, as if jumping up and down, waving a signal flare to bring disrepute to the institution. How unprofessional!” It is not good for a business school professor to be called unprofessional, is it? “A little adult reticence, please! At least don’t get the timing so spectacularly wrong! How can someone with such bad judgment possibly give students good advice about how to behave?”

So, yes, I imagine many good reasons to take down that post declaring that I am now liberated as a writer.

At least I should post it later—after the investiture ceremony is over. Wouldn’t it be better not to declare victory over chronic writing block until I have already built up a store of high-quality posts that I can release on a schedule? What if I don’t follow through, after such a public pronouncement? Why risk—publicly—fizzling yet again? Shouldn’t I hold off on grand pronouncements until I’ve published some peer-reviewed work to evidence my “liberation,” instead of just resting such a claim on my bare assertion?

What I am experiencing here is that personal truth-telling makes one vulnerable, and feeling vulnerable is exquisitely uncomfortable.

And it is risky. If any reactions similar to those I’ve imagined do materialize, will I have inflicted a career-wrecking self-injury? I imagine some important donor thinking, ”Really? Is this the best we can do? Surely not!”

How will I, jobless at midlife, support my children? It is extremely unlikely that a person like me—someone who loves being a professor but has essentially no publications record—could get a better academic job than the one I have now. Miraculously, I failed up; I did not “perish” from the academy when I failed to publish. Instead, I am compensated, quite adequately, to mostly teach. I love teaching. I adore the oceans of formally unstructured time than being a professor affords me. I love the constant learning that is encouraged if not mandated by an academic life. I thrive on feeding my head, and that is an essential part of my job now, rather than a distraction from it. Realistically, I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather do to support myself than be a college professor. If I have to have a job, then this is the one I want! I’d like to keep doing this until I am too old to hear or speak. So, obviously, I should shut up, be thankful for what I’ve got and take down that damn post!

. . . But I am not going to.

Because it’s real. It’s true. And for me the path forward requires this truth telling, this dropping of alternative personas.

Yes, my failure to write is embarrassing. I feel ashamed that it has taken me so long to break through the constraints that inhibited me. Undeniably, these constraints were self-generated. I have not been thwarted by bad parents, economic deprivation, an unsupportive spouse, bad luck, substance abuse or vindictive teachers and colleagues. Quite the contrary. This failure is all mine; I own it. It is as if my whole career to this point has been an astonishing succession of “own goals.” I now realize that my chronic failure to produce outwardly-directed prose stems from some pretty simple things—a few basic cognitive errors and misapprehensions about myself. In other words, I have for decades been acting really dumb.

Even though one part of my self-text (that collection of associative thoughts and language churning in my head) yells, “No, don’t confess all that!” I know that I must, because if I don’t confess it, I’ll be stuck in the same pattern, trying to feign a persona that just doesn’t work.

I have to write, and to write I must confess that I’ve chronically failed to write, despite believing that I can write and having had jobs that require me to write. I want to explain why chronic “not writing” happened to me and make explicit how I’m now going to overcome it.

In other words, I am going to begin to write by writing about my failure to write. Not Writing a Memoir of Failure, this blog’s current title, has no semicolon in it! I am done with not writing. That means I am done dissembling about my difficulty writing. I am now writing about not writing; I am not writing a memoir of failure.

Of course, my flashes of dread about how others will react to my Liberation Day post belie an assumption that someone might care. Quite possibly, nobody gives a rat’s ass. Which is leads to the question: is it more narcissistic to suddenly declare oneself a writer, or to worry that others may find that proclamation and the circumstances around it troubling? Who knows. And here I agree with my imagined interlocutor: who cares? I’m doing what I need to do.

The post stays up.

Today is my 解放日: Liberation Day for my voice as a writer. I hereby so declare.

I’m in New York City. It’s Ash Wednesday. This is an ideal place, and a good day, to do this. It is grossly overdue.

It pains me that liberating my voice has taken so long. Forty-five is nearly too late. I may still have years of productivity ahead, but, oh, the decades I’ve lost! The cost! How could I let so much time slip away, chronically failing to do this very thing I feel best equipped to do?

I just wasn’t ready. No amount determination, resolve or longing solved the problem. Duress couldn’t conquer it, either. Pressure, whether external or self-inflicted, failed to move me.

It’s been the great, tortuous paradox of my life: I’ve always been drawn to writing, yet I’ve always struggled, inordinately, to write—or at least I have struggled to write in certain situations; I want and need to write outwardly-directed material, and I know I can, but too often—usually—I’ve failed to do it.

For some, aphasia comes from fear of withering criticism from others or a lack of self-confidence. But, perhaps oddly, that has not been my problem. I have known that I can do it; I believed—felt certain—that the work would be good if I could just get it done. I have wanted to do it. I’ve needed to do it. Yet I haven’t, and my chronic failure to start, sustain and complete writing projects, whether self-assigned or given by others, has caused a lot of upheaval and heartache in my life.

Every job I’ve held—graduate student, editor, lawyer, professor—has required felicity with language and has in fact demanded that I write. My verbal ability and promise has helped me get excellent opportunities, yet in all those roles, over many years, I have struggled—to a pathetic and bizarre, inexplicable degree—to coax language out of myself.

Why? I recently embarked on a systematic quest to understand that. I had to. I couldn’t give up the sense that I ought to write; the desire to write has been as constant as my failure to do it. As middle age approached, I knew that I was running out of time. Either I had to fix this problem or die a failure—a failure at least in the sense of not managing in my lifetime to use my main, most self-defining trait. It seems that fear of that prospect came to exceeded, in my subconscious bog, whatever complex of maladies, fears, vices and misunderstandings thwarted for so long my outwardly-directed writing. Compelled to understand and fix my problem, I assayed my past, searching for an explanation from my first difficulties completing school assignments to more recent professional travails. I had a series of “epiphanies,” if that is not too grand a word for what now seem like painfully obvious insights. But sometimes one has to return to the place one began and see it for the first time. I wish I hadn’t spent so many years floundering. I wish I’d asked for help earlier. But at least now I get it—I understand what caused my chronic failure to write outwardly-directed material, and I know a way forward. I will be, ah, writing a lot more about this.

It is a good, important day for me. But, like the religious observance that my private moment happens to coincide with, it is a somber one.  It is not a flippant thing to give up my chronic failure to write. Hard work stretches to the horizon.

But the paralysis has passed. This moment thus marks for me an important shift, a happy rupture: My writing voice is liberated! 我解放了!

I started blogging in 2003, nearly ten years ago. That was relatively early. Not precociously so, but relatively early—that date reflects I suppose the familiar “second wave adopter” position in which I often find myself—not on the bleeding edge of trends or technology, but trying out new things before many of my peers do.

For a while I blogged with great elan, then gradually less so, then quite infrequently, then in recent years hardly at all. Most of my posts lately have been automated weekly aggregations of my Twitter feed, and even those Tweets have mostly been links to random things I’ve read and found interesting, not pithy original content. (Actually, the mechanism for slurping my Tweets into this blog sometimes broke, so not even all my Tweets, such as they are, are cataloged here).

In a final collapse, last year my sites got hacked—hijacked and infused with some noxious malware. My several WordPress sites on Dreamhost became a barely-functioning mess. I took it all offline (my public blog, a private one that I used to keep, even the sites I kept about my kids pre-Facebook).

The clean-up became a huge black hole, devouring oceans of time. It hardly seemed worth it for a public blog that I hadn’t been actively using. So I left it all offline and didn’t fix this blog until just this week (I hope it’s now fixed!).

Besides recovering my legacy posts, I want to rejuvenate this blog as part of a new phase of my writing life. I also will be announcing some new career developments soon. So it’s a good time for re-launching my blog.

More forthcoming on all this, and I anticipate much else, soon.

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  • The politics of establishing a Confucius Institute @ a US higher ed institution: http://t.co/CTRm5z3H #

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  • Statement from UW Pres Young regarding governor’s proposed further budget cuts: http://t.co/6Te96fUz #
  • Listening to Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, hearing how Jobs commissioned Paul Rand to create Next logo #
  • . . . Hearing how Jobs argued with Paul Rand about kerning of period after P in Steven P. Jobs . . . maniacal! #
  • Signed on for Red Lemonade. Requested "beta" author membership. They must be flooded now, after Poets & Writers article on Richard Nash. #
  • Deny PRC air is as bad as US embassy readings indicate. Then buy machines for air filtering. Nice! NYT: http://t.co/TZCx4Wid #
  • Boston College Prof. Philip G. Altbach on higher ed in India, the US & the limited prospects for cooperation: http://t.co/DBAqsKta #

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  • Read Riding in Cars with Boys for Theo Nestor's memoir writing class. Enjoyed it. http://t.co/LKqSyWaz #

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  • Wu Jinglian decries bkward motion on economic reforms, SOE revival SCMP.com Slowdown in reform efforts under attack http://t.co/32AOXFu2 #
  • Baseline Scenario crunches #s on, er, baseline scenarios for US deficit, finds things bad but not as bad as many expect http://t.co/SM5CDR2W #
  • Tsinghua's Patrick Chovanec thinks abt whether China about to have an economic crisis http://t.co/DWd6MbAK #
  • Arghhh, @Engadget liveblog feed from Apple event malfunctioning. What, I may have to wait whole minutes to know about the new iPhone. Noooo! #
  • From @Engadget liveblog of ongoing Apple event: iPhone 4S is both GSM and CDMA. Nice . . . so carrier free version will cost . . . ? #
  • Ok, I'm buying an iPhone 4S for camera alone . . . unless the iPhone 5 tops it? #
  • RIP, Steve Jobs. You changed the world. #
  • RIP Derrick Bell. NYT obit: http://t.co/FpLUMhfP #
  • US gives WTO list of Chinese subsidies that it says violate WTO rules, NYT: http://t.co/MT3zItro #

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  • Worth reading: Privatisation in China: Capitalism confined | The Economist http://t.co/MP4JkZx via @theeconomist #
  • All digital parliament "Dutch senators get iPads, claim to be 1st Euro leg to go fully digital" http://t.co/1gguATq via @washingtonpost #
  • Another dist. ct. judge somehow "distinguishes" precedents to : http://t.co/OlTIKGX #
  • Sup Court cases say growing wheat/pot for personal use substantially affects commerce so Cong can regulate. But not not buying health insur? #
  • Seems to me if judges want to invent a rule that says Cong can't make you buy xyz, they should find it in Bill of Rts, not commerce clause. #
  • US health care costs 2.5 trl/yr 18% GDP, >43 bil in uncomp care/year, yet not buying health insur doesn't subst affect commerce? Puleeeze. #
  • Yes, the insurance purchase mandate invades liberty. Yes, it is novel. Yes, lots of people don't like it. But not ok under ICC? Can't see it #
  • I think 6th Circuit got it right: if you don't like Obamacare, vote. Political backstop, not ICC judicial activism, is remedy. #
  • Unless we want to disassemble the world as we know it, define commerce as guy with STUFF in wagon crossing state lines. Only Justice Thomas? #
  • Irony, of course, is that forcing people to buy private health insurance was alt to creating a single payer system, was the less rad US plan #
  • Separating the wheat from the chaff in China’s data jungle http://t.co/zrfuZfr via @globeandmail #
  • Wed my Business, Gvt & Society class talks abt US debt. Might use: NPR PlanetMoney Podcast: When Congress Plays Chicken http://t.co/5ml8Nxs #
  • OK Sen. Coburn says law school dean unqualified to be fed judge b/c she knows too much about intl law? Sheesh . . . http://t.co/YLovjxc0 #
  • Shenzhen Stock Exchange website down for maint, coming back 9/17 8:00 pm. When Apple does this means new products. Hmm. http://t.co/5cPzT7TX #
  • China's CSRC "Intl Advisory Committee" mtg, talking derivatives, infl on China from wave of global stock exchg mergers http://t.co/aeey5lR5 #
  • Comp China seeking intl input & advice to abet "continuous improvement" vs US Sen. Coburn thwarting judicial nominee b/c intl law expert! #
  • Hedge funds research researchers, pay them to "consult" NYT: Columbia Professor Linked to Insider Trading Case http://t.co/8ZWe2WX8 #

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I love being a professor. There are lots of great things about it. One is the joy of watching students blossom. Another is all the learning I get to do. In my current Business, Government and Society class I am enjoying both these benefits, watching students accomplish much while also learning a great deal myself. Right now we’re mutually learning details about the:

  1. fight over the constitutionality of the recent law to reform the US health care system;
  2. lawsuit the Department of Justice has filed to stop AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile (T-Mobile is based in Bellevue, Washington which is the venue for this class!);
  3. complaints some NGOs have voiced about Apple’s manufacturing operations in China (via its contract suppliers), including both their environmental and labor practices and
  4. lawsuits the regulator/conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has filed against Goldman Sachs and other sellers of mortgage backed securities.

The course is designed to acquaint business majors with how firms are affected not just by markets and internal management issues but also by the actions of governments and civil society.

I assign a textbook for the course—one of the standard texts for the field, now in its 13th edition, but I like teaching about topics “ripped from the headlines,” things unsettled and so contemporary that they are not yet in even the most recent edition of a textbook. I hope it makes the students feel drawn into important, ongoing dramas. Sometimes this works beautifully, shifting their perspective, prompting them to care about a topic not just because it will be “on the test” but because they become sincerely interested in it.

I think it is good, too, to give students primary source materials rather than something derived from a journalistic or textbook account of a matter. It can be challenging for them, but they get a lot of benefit from wrestling with these primary sources (the actual appellate court decisions in the health care fight, the actual DOJ complaint in the T-Mobile case, the actual FHFA complaint against Goldman Sachs in the mortage backed securities case and the full report of an NGO in the Apple matter). It helps them learn to read carefully and critically, helps them practice extracting and synthesizing information from a complex text—skills that will benefit them long after the Supreme Court has decided whether or not Congress can make everyone buy health insurance, long after they’ve forgotten the relevant seven magic words of Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution (and who Roscoe Filburn and Angel Raich were!). I hope they’ll develop a lingering respect for the judicial system and some pride that they have read some judicial opinions “in the raw” and extracted facts and arguments from them—I hope the course builds, to be blunt, their self confidence about what they can do (which is infinitely more than load some vapid bullet points from canned textbook PowerPoint slides into their short-term memory right before a test!).

For our unit on the health care law their assignment is to write an opinion on whether the insurance purchase mandate is constitutional, as if they were a Supreme Court Justice. They are to lay out the key provisions of the act, cite the relevant parts of the Constitution (the Commerce Clause and the 10th Amendment, with some nod to the concepts of enumerated powers and federalism) and distinguish or apply a handful of key precedents to substantiate their conclusion. It is a lot of work for them—these, again, are undergraduates—but I think students in my BGS class know more about what “Obamacare” actually provides (and requires) and how it is being contested than most any undergraduates in America. I am proud of that, and hope in the long run they will be, too, along with accruing a surfeit of other benefits.

Aside: besides the primary source materials, I am proud of having managed to assign a perfectly apt article from the Onion (“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be“).

  • Neo-Mercantilism dept. Building a nativist house not so easy. NYT: All-American, Floor to Roof? Not So Simple http://t.co/fVb9Clb #
  • NYT on the US diplomatic cables from China divulged in WikiLeaks "In Secret Cables, Oddities of U.S.-China Relationship" http://t.co/O7AY94z #
  • I know Penetta is the US sec of defense, but I thought Li Peng retired! :-) "Pennetta upsets China's Peng to reach US" http://t.co/5zxU5Od #
  • "车多力量大" becomes 计划生育? NYT: China Carmakers Told to Seek Fuel Efficiency, Not Sales: http://t.co/sX9Av2T #
  • Singapore's "Temasek Buys China Construction Bank Shares for $2.8 Billion" Businessweek http://t.co/A2S29no via @BW #
  • Schadenfreude & "sensitivity"/censorship in PRC intl reporting -LATimes Chinese state media walk a tightrope in coverage http://t.co/jDT7Yjz #
  • Interesting China-India comparative analysis: In either Beijing or Delhi, governments respond to middle-class protests http://t.co/Pj7xTUe #
  • Now for a little nerd porn via @apttherapy Design Inspiration: Bookcase Stairs http://t.co/WreWGtR #
  • US-China WTO dispute on tires, appellate body opinion circulated Sept. 5, avail here: http://t.co/fuAzQXN #
  • PRC predictably unhappy that WTO panel ruled US tire tariffs didn't violate China's WTO accession agreement: http://t.co/99e0pLA #
  • BBC reports Dell & PRC search leader Baidu (Nasdaq BIDU) planning more coop. on mobile phones, new product in Nov? (中文) http://t.co/wbUWNZN #
  • Pattern: Corp buys blog I love, founders leave, spark flickers out. Examples: JKOnTheRun, Engadget, now TechCrunch? http://t.co/mGhkAz2 #
  • China bans some scholars from coming back after they published a book on Xinjiang http://t.co/e7MgFgE via @washingtonpost #
  • Ok, ChinesePod broke this story BEFORE NY Times! Chinese Law Could Make Divorced Women Homeless: http://t.co/M0CKOkI vs http://t.co/B5DSsXB #
  • RT @ChinaNewsDaily: China's Amazon Eyes $5 Billion U.S. IPO http://t.co/8jCk8i3 #
  • The Economist on Chinese science http://t.co/InighXX via @theeconomist #
  • REALLY?? Yuan Will Be Fully Convertible by 2015, Chinese Officials Tell EU Chamber – Bloomberg via @BloombergNow http://t.co/eNPeveX #
  • HUMMER, MG, SAAB all Chinese brands now? "Potential Saab savior gets good signs from Beijing" Reuters http://t.co/80qnpQK via @reuters #

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  • Problems Building for Chinese Banks – Reuters BreakingViews: http://t.co/VBQz27U #
  • Bank of America sells half of its China bank stake | cleveland.com http://t.co/Q0eDDFL #
  • Case Western Reserve U law school looking for China scholars: http://t.co/DOMhMzj #
  • Echoes of Tom Robbins? http://t.co/mNz5hSo #
  • Chinese Telecom Executive Sentenced to Death for Bribery: http://t.co/DLWvK0j #
  • NYT Dealbook: U.S. Moves to Block AT&T Merger with T-Mobile: http://t.co/Erse2lo #
  • Here's the full complaint for US Gvt. suit to block AT&T TMobile deal: "U.S. v. AT&T" on Scribd http://t.co/FzyQBFQ #
  • Protection of three-dimensional (3D) marks in China: http://t.co/7timfvh #
  • On the one hand, they're nuts. On the other hand, they are completely wacko. "Scientology Strikes Back at New Yorker" http://t.co/RBQcLCX #
  • Btw Cheney & my fellow Alabamian, I believe Rice. Reuters: Condoleezza Rice fires back at Cheney memoir http://t.co/WdqXzYx #
  • I agree w/ P Krugman: Huntsman attractive in GOP field. Pro-science. Decent ("I respect the President"). Understands China, speaks Chinese #
  • Guessing China DID notice recent anti-corruption mvmt. NYT: India Measures Itself Against a China That Doesn't Notice http://t.co/kWorztz #
  • Shenzhen Stock Exchange on 9/1 launched a host of new indices, including a SZSE 200, 700 and 1000, complimenting existing SZSE 100 & 300. #
  • SZSE link for new indices announcement: (中文) http://t.co/1cHVi0g #
  • If Fannie wins, will banks then ask for bailouts to pay the damages awarded? NYT: US…Ready to Sue Banks Over Mortgages http://t.co/cALQw4r #
  • Sobering. NYT: Recent College Graduates Wait for Their Real Careers to Begin http://t.co/I7MyDtt #
  • Deanna Fei on love, money, race. In NYT Modern Love – The Trophy Wife http://t.co/NgA4yXt #
  • AT&T, T-Mobile merger in hands of Judge Huvelle – The Washington Post http://t.co/YDt4mk2 via @washingtonpost #
  • Chronicle of Higher Ed blogger attacks NYT piece on underemployed recent college grads: http://t.co/TVXPOFu #
  • WP: Amazon offers Calif. 7,000 jobs to hold off on tax law http://t.co/6CwpuPl #
  • FHFA's press release: http://t.co/ujondNS Their actual complaints: http://t.co/umiNdjG #

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