Thursday, March 13, 2014

A year of writing

Today's post is self-indulgent. It was one year ago today that I began thinking of myself as a public writer. Also please read this essay. It's one of my favorites, as events over-ran it so it got very little play.

I had written a few op-eds before. About the Crusades in contemporary political conversation and about the language of abortion and Down syndrome in the wake of Sarah Palin's nomination. In the fall of 2012, I took weeks crafting a piece about what I call the "angel/retard dialectic." The dehumanizing nature of positive language (notice all of these pieces are about discourse) had long been on my mind, and irritating me, so I finally put it together in about 1000 words, had many people help me polish it, then my friend Bruce Schneier sent it to CNN Opinion for me.  It wasn't especially widely read for a CNN piece - 3000 facebook shares today, but in the 2600 range back then, but the 15000-25000 views blew me away and I received lots of good feedback from people in the disability studies world.

As I've recounted before, I then finished my scholarly book and sent it away to the editors. For the first time in years, I couldn't work on it. Suddenly the Pope retired. I posted some comments about medieval canon law on facebook thread, and it blew up with positive reactions, urging me to write it up. I sent a note to CNN, they wanted it, I wrote it.

A few weeks later, an editor from The Atlantic named Olga Khazan emailed me, asking for historical context in case an African pope was elected (as seemed likely at the time). Oddly, I had spent a lot of time on social media talking about Khazan in the previous week, thanks to the publication of emails she had exchanged with journalist Nate Thayer. The whole issue of writing for free and the value of producing content in the new media landscape interested me and my friends, so we debated. I ended up feeling that Thayer, a veteran, had the right to be grumpy and had the right so no, but had kind of bullied the very junior Khazan as she was just starting out. She was playing the cards she had been dealt. Be angry at the deal, but not her (and later there were arguments about the extent to which Thayer had properly attributed his sources in the article in question). At any rate, it was odd to see her name suddenly in my email box.

As it happened, though, I had been working on an essay that pretended to be able how history might help us make sense of what was about to happen at the papal conclave, but was really about the value of the liberal arts in a complex and changing world. It's a good essay and I'm proud of it. It's here: History and the Papal Election: Thoughts for a Sede Vacante (Atlantic.com, 3/12/2013). Almost no one read it (by internet standards), because the soon-to-be-named Pope Francis was elected so quickly, making it irrelevant.

But Khazan emailed me again, as Francis emerged, asking for a reaction piece, and I wrote it as quickly as I could, while watching the balcony, the opening words of this new Pope, and thinking about the layered meanings of the name "Francesco." It was as close as I had ever come to being a journalist, publishing quick reactions to globally significant events. They put my piece on the front page of The Atlantic website the next morning. It made me hungry for more.

So I kept writing. Ethan Saylor. Teaching online. The crisis in Turkey. My daughter's school and gender. I began this blog. I gave talks about work-life integration. I posted every day from May to November, when I had to pause to finish my book.

Well, the book is done, I'm back to writing, my blogs last week were the most read pieces I've put here (THANK YOU!), and I've got one essay out on CNN and another with the Chronicle coming next week.

This wasn't a planned component of my academic career, but I'm excited that it happened and looking forward to seeing what the next year brings.


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