Filmmaker James Ivory studied Architecture at the University of Oregon.

Interview with Writer, Educator & Scholar

Photo: Dan Fridman

NAME:  Eric Darton

JOB TITLE/OCCUPATION:   Writer, Teacher, Independent Scholar

PROFESSION/INDUSTRY:  Fiction, Cultural History of New York City

EDUCATION & CREDENTIALS:   B.A., Interdisciplinary Studies, Empire State College (1990); M.A., Media Studies, Hunter College, New York (1994)

AWARDS & FELLOWSHIPS:  Breadloaf Writers Conference, New York Foundation for the Arts (fiction writing)

ADDITIONAL PURSUITS & AREAS OF INTEREST:  Ba Gua Zhang, a Chinese internal martial art, ancient Chinese history, culture and art, Daoism

WEBSITE:   www.ericdarton.net

For the first half of my professional life I was a graphic designer of, primarily, print materials — everything from logos to books to full-on ad campaigns. Mostly this was back before design went digital, so our skills had to live not just in our eyes, but in our hands.

Over the years, I got very curious about the social forces behind the material I was churning out — and how the mass media industry had developed — so I went to college, at the age of 39, to try to find out something about that.

I was in the middle of writing a school essay when I hit “save as” and turned it into a piece of fiction — kaboom! — the first story I’d written since I was a kid. And the tales and books just rolled out from there.

In grad school, which I did immediately after getting my BA, I really honed in on media as a social force, but also discovered the joys of teaching since I was lucky enough to become a teaching assistant. Later on I designed some courses and taught them and that was even more fun. Since then, I’ve taught at several undergrad and graduate schools. In my next lifetime, I want to teach pre-K.

For my masters degree I had to write a thesis. But I wanted to do something concrete, not theoretical, so I chose to write about the World Trade Center, in part because I’d grown up in New York and damned if I knew how these huge buildings had gotten there. This was in 1992. Early the next spring, the WTC was bombed and I thought, whew, this is a hot topic.

When you write a thesis at the age of 42, you’d better intend to turn it into a book or you’re just burning the furniture to keep warm. I’d already published a novel, but this was a cultural history, and much more challenging. It required a different skill set — or rather a serious remix of my skill set. For one thing, I had to tell the truth as best I could. I wasn’t, as in advertising or fiction, being paid to lie.

After I got my degree, I kept working on the thesis, adding material and trimming it too — turning it into a book. Which was finally published in 1999.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Divided We Stand: A Biography of the World Trade Center became the “before” book and hit the NY Times bestseller list. Looking back, I’m glad that it took so long to write because I had to really learn a new craft and consider a complex subject over time. Of course, I hadn’t (and couldn’t have) realized beforehand how the sweat I put into it would end up being worthwhile.

As a sidenote, I was going broke writing what turned out to be the book — we’d just had a kid, I was trying to finish school and my design business was in a down phase. My wife’s aunt, not a big reader or intellectual, had the emotional intelligence and the raw generosity to shoot us some much-needed bucks. Without that, no degree, no writer, no book. She got the picture on some level I don’t really understand and did what she could with what she had — unasked. Which kind of anticipates the next question.

 

This is going to sound flippant, but it isn’t meant that way. My mentors are all the people I’ve had interesting conversations with over the years, and all the terrific books I’ve read. I have two families: my relatives, my wife and daughter. And then there’s my art-history-literature family. Of the latter, some are contemporaries. Others have been dead for centuries and still communicate powerfully to me through their ideas and the strength of their language.

The great thing about being a writer is that everything you experience or observe is potential material. And that awareness can be cultivated as a skill and transferred, at least in part, to nonfiction writing such as history. You’re looking for anomalies and patterns, oddities and structures — and how the two relate. Like science, only it doesn’t need to be repeatable.

So every boss I had was a mentor — even the lousy ones. Every teacher. Every co-worker.

Some folks really encouraged me, as a designer, or a writer, or a historian, and that felt great. But learning is where you find it, not where it’s advertised to be. Schools of all kinds are good places to concentrate on certain kinds of learning, but they generally don’t do half of what they claim. And they certainly aren’t the only path to becoming educated. An important consideration about schools is how powerful are the credentials it can offer in relation to the energy and money invested.

If you think about it, you’ve probably learned more from conversations with, and working among, people who were knowledgeable or skilled about something and tried to impart some of that to you — whether consciously or not. In school or outside of it, what and how much you learn is largely based on your ability to make a lot of random stuff meaningful. Teachers can help, but unless you put it together yourself, it won’t be something you can really use.

Probably the most important thing that fostered my capacity to become a writer was being read to every night and told stories as a child. I learned how to listen. To figure out words I didn’t understand through context or repetition. And to not feel dumb about asking a question if I couldn’t make sense of something. Everything else was icing on the cake.

Writing is nothing more than the conscious application of alphabetic, idiographic or pictographic language to the task of asking how the world works. But one of the secret powers of writing — though under-realized and undervalued even by good writers — is that the words on the page let you know what you’re thinking in a very different way than the thoughts that live in your head, or say in conversation do.

Over time, what you write down diagrams your mind for you — it gives you important clues as to who you are and what matters to you. And it can help you understand the crucial distinctions between yourself and others. Other people become real, even when they’re fictional. It’s a magical — very scientific and arty all at once. Then too, writing and reading books is one positive thing about modern life. It compensates somewhat for our having being ripped out of nature by the jaws of Progress.

 

The easy and true answer is the digital revolution. It substitutes enormous power of a certain kind for actual contact with material objects, including other people, animals and plants. In the digital world, everything tends to become an abstraction. If you don’t believe me, try opening up your computer and finding where the zeroes and ones live. Try going into PhotoShop and pulling a C-print out of the binary code.

Teaching, of course, is affected too. And books have lost their central position in knowledge production and distribution. I don’t think books will go away, but people are losing their patience with any course or any text that you can’t play like an app. This isn’t sustainable, but no one can say so, and even if they could, it’s a big historical tide to turn. It has to play out.

All our recent technologies are deeply unstable. If you wanted to create a cultural collapse, you couldn’t design one any better than loads of well-meaning people are doing right now all the while imagining the amazing, groovy cyborg future. Has anyone tried to play a 50-year old CD? I’ve had ’em go blank after ten years. Things go from information, to data to no data in a nanosecond.

For that matter, has anyone seen a hundred year old acrylic painting? Wonder what it’ll look like. Broadly speaking, rapid change is taking the place of durability. Were busy unlearning how to build anything we might need to rely on later.

As you can see, I’m for what I and others can do with our hands in cooperation with the power of the earth to generate and sustain all life, including ours. Lots of smart, and even economically well-off kids I know are out there woofing — just because they want to know how to grow something, and learn how things grow. How can you cultivate peaches without pesticide? Pick fruit when it’s ripe. Timing. Cycles of life. Or they’re learning how to make actual things like a chair, or a clay bowl or a house. You can’t drink oil or eat an iPhone. I mean you can, but…

 

As I suggested above, things are pretty polarized in the job and career world. Some people are spending the best years of their lives designing apps, using them and being used by them. What will they see in their last moments? A million hours in front of a screen and the time they passed out at hot yoga?

Others are out there figuring out how infrastructure works, how nature works, how the body works. Or maybe repairing elevators. In one part of the world, a humanities PhD will get you a get a job at Trader Joe’s. In other parts, the minute you can walk it’s off to the chip factory, or the sweatshop. Assuming there’s enough of an economy happening to exploit your labor power. If not, you migrate halfway round the world to give someone a little less poor a manicure or do the jobs they tell themselves they’re too good for any more.

What I am seeing in a critical minority of the young folks I know is that they are trying to learn to have a conversation with reality and lots of techno-crap is getting in their way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting a return to the stone age. That may happen as an unintended consequence of we’re doing now.

But there is the reality of seven billion folks on a planet we are busy making uninhabitable with our ideas about what we “need” — or worse yet what the market needs. Throwing endless amounts of crud into the air. And no amount of cool technology is going to prevent that becoming irreversible. An oak is an oak and a mangrove is a mangrove — they took a long time to evolve and they do some important things just growing there and then decaying where they lived. So sending a whole bunch of heat deflectors into space to solve global warming — where’s that at?

Sustainable life is an awareness game, not a technology game. Technology that flows from an awareness of real human needs will be less likely to screw us up while trying to solve things that don’t have to be problems in the first place. Ninety per cent (don’t take me literally) of the physical and mental illness in the developed countries could be solved by people simply getting a bit more sleep. That’s before you even talk diet or stimulants or drugs or anything else. Just sleep another hour every night. Do less more often. Make it a habit. You’ll be better prepared to deal with the stresses of being awake.

So some of the questions that have been gradually taking hold — whatever one’s profession or desired career — are: How do I keep my footprint grounded but light weight at the same time? How do I  give back to the universe the same amount of energy I take out of it? And what are the social systems that encourage balance, harmony and real exchange among people and what are the ones that discourage it?

The basis of all human economy — and by this I mean social life as a whole — is simply this: What can I do or make for myself? And what we need to do or make together, and trade with one another? Love is great — I’m big on love — I’ve been married 35 years and adore my wife. But love is the cherry on the cake. First thing is: How to live? We’re approaching a moment when the question: What do you do? becomes: What do you make? And if we give the wrong answer, not only will we be out of a job, we’ll be out of a planet.

Again, this may sound off the cuff, but the one thing I’ve observed time and again is that the root of human education and survival is having conversations. Some of these can be non-verbal. Some of the deepest ones are, say learning to fish from someone who just knows certain things. Or learning to play by sitting in with really good musicians — by which I mean musicians who can listen to one another. Observing how skilled people do their thing and figuring out — if you have any basic aptitude at all — how you can make that skill yours and allow it to sustain your life. The ultimate skill is learning to learn and teach alternately, back and forth like an endless soccer game where goals just emerge out of the act of playing

So one notices that the way Player X bends a kick is not how Player Y bends a kick. But they’re both good, because they’re doing the “form” their way.

If what I’ve said makes any sense to you, then you owe it to yourself to learn a form — a practice — something that takes time and incremental learning and patience — and get really solid in it. You’re probably already doing this, or have an inkling of what it would be like from the times you’ve been really caught up in something and cared more about the doing of it than the outcome.

Looked at in a certain light, any true skill is transferrable. In fact, transferability is one good test of whether a skill is real.

 

Eric Darton was born in New York City in 1950. His books include Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York’s World Trade Center (Basic Books, 1999, 2011), and Free City, a novel, (WW Norton, 1996). The final two books of his five-volume cultural memoir Notes of a New York Son, 1995-2007 were published in November, 2013.

Currently, Darton teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Center for Labor Studies (Empire State College) and New York University. He is a senior editor of Tupelo Quarterly <www.tupeloquarterly.com and has been an editor of Conjunctions, American Letters & Commentary and Frigatezine.

Darton is currently writing a book-length study of the literary, political and philosophical ideas of James Baldwin.

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