Advice

Scholars Talk Writing: Michael Bérubé

'I still have the standard anxiety of a struggling musician: Regardless of the gig, I want to be invited back.'

April 17, 2016

Chuck Fong, Studio 2
Michael Bérubé
Sixteen years ago, when I was asked to write regularly for The Chronicle, I was as cowed as I was excited: This publication has one of the best educated and most intellectually demanding readerships around. While I got great editing from the staff, I always worried that I would write something wrong or stupid (yes, guilty, repeated offenses), and so I searched for people who could comment on my drafts and help save me from embarrassing both myself and this publication.

One of those early readers was Michael Bérubé, a chaired professor of literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State. In addition to his scholarly work, he has been an effective advocate for those with disabilities, and also for the large, exhausted, and most disempowered labor force in academe — contingent faculty. Michael is a generous reader, a snappy dresser, and an all-around badass.

You were in grad school for English during the heyday of High Theory. Can you talk about what, if anything, reading all that theory did to your prose? Did you feel like you had to write "like that"?

Bérubé: Reading all that theory simply convinced me that theory wasn’t some kind of Instructor’s Edition — you know, the textbook with all the answers in the back? I understood the texts of theory as being just more texts about texts. And no, I never wanted to write "like that." My prose models in the 80s were people like Ellen Willis and Christopher Hitchens. Though I will admit that I had an unfortunate six-month period in which I thought it was clever to sprinkle hyphens liberally throughout my prose. Thank goodness no one will ever find out about this.

Do you have an activist’s need to reach a wider audience?

Scholars Talk Writing

In a continuing series, Rachel Toor talks with noted scholars about the joys and pains of writing.

 Bérubé: Yes, certainly — especially when the subject is disability, which has obvious and immediate implications for public policy. But my desire to reach a wider audience predates my writing about disability. It goes all the way back to my sense, in 1990, that people in my business weren’t responding very effectively to the "political correctness" brouhaha, and that even though I was a second-year assistant professor, I might as well give it a shot.

About that. You started writing for a general readership at The Village Voice early in your academic career. How did that happen? How did it affect your scholarly work?

Bérubé: In 1991 I submitted an article on conservative attacks on "political correctness" in academe to Harper’s and received a very flattering rejection letter from then-editor Michael Pollan himself, telling me that he enjoyed my writing but that the PC thing would probably blow over.

So, I sent the essay to the Village Voice Literary Supplement. They loved it and made it a front-page thing. I will always cherish that cover: Dinesh D’Souza’s picture under the banner "Wanted for Intellectual Fraud." (And since then, wanted for much else! Though he has always distinguished himself in intellectual fraud.)

Over the next three years, the VLS asked me for a whole mess of things: an 8,000-word essay on postmodernism and a 10,000-word essay on cultural studies; a whimsical essay on my experience as a 30-year-old visiting lecturer in Brazil; a review essay on Bruce Robbins’s book Secular Vocations and Carl Boggs’s Intellectuals and the Crisis of Modernity; and a profile of then-MLA-president Houston Baker.

That experience fundamentally changed the way I write, although nobody would know this, since it happened so early in my academic career. Laura Kipnis speaks of this phenomenon in her interview with you, when she says writing for the Voice "was like going to writing school for a year crammed into a couple of days of editing." In fact, when I commented on the amazing rigor of their editing, which involved a dizzying number of rewrites, my VLS editors said, "We think of it as BDSM and you’re the bottom."

My experiences with Harper’s and The New Yorker were even more intense. Harper’s basically threw out half my essay and ordered me to reorganize the rest. The result? A sharper, cleaner, far less throat-clearing essay shorn of long passages quoted from Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. The editing process at the New Yorker went on for two months, right down to the day the issue was going to print.

So I learned from all that to be a much more severe and remorseless self-editor. I learned to treat every draft as provisional. I learned to treat deadlines as real things. (I can’t possibly overemphasize the importance of that.)

And I also learned to negotiate with editors: The VLS wanted to cut, from the PC essay, "If I hear this nonsense one more time I’m deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off." But when I said we had to keep the allusion to Moby-Dick, not least because leftist professors were being accused of systemic hostility to the dead white men of the Western canon, they got it. I have had less happy experiences with some editors since, but the important thing is that I learned how to read my writing as if someone else were reading it.

You were one of the early academic bloggers. Can you talk about what blogging did or didn’t do for you?

Bérubé: Well, it brought some of my work to the attention of people who would never open an academic journal. And it allowed me to develop some whimsical and satirical modes of writing that I would not use in any academic venue, though I think I mostly managed to avoid the ALL CAPS OMG TOTAL FREAKOUT!1!11!! mode that some bloggers adopted. Most of my blogging consisted of responses to the events of the day, and it took me almost a year to realize that the medium could be symbiotic with my academic work as opposed to a distraction from it.

What are your revision strategies?

Bérubé: Because I assume everything will have to be revised many times, I am relatively cavalier about first drafts. I know I can write freely on the first draft, and call in the Quality Control Department for inspection a few days later. At the same time, I believe I should not waste my own time as an editor; I try to leave myself working drafts that are in good shape. And I never submit something for publication unless I have already revised it two or three times.

One of the highest compliments I ever received from an editor was that I am a "clean edit." My drafts arrive in pretty good condition, such that the mechanics don’t have to bust out the tool kit and fix a bunch of simple and avoidable mistakes. I told that editor that I still have the standard anxiety of a struggling musician: Regardless of the gig, I want to be invited back.

For me, revision is usually a question of what to cut. I try to leave myself more material than I need, and I try not to grow so attached to any paragraph, passage, or phrase that I cannot imagine an essay without it. (Sometimes that is impossible, because I like some of the things I write, but I try anyway.) And then there is the process by which I go back and think, wait, I forgot about X and I meant to say Y. I try not to do that after I’ve submitted something, but one of the editors I’m working with right now knows I sometimes overthink things and want to make one … last … change …

How do you work with students on their writing?

Bérubé: I now try to give students the kind of attention my best editors have given me, and I tell them that my responses to their work are informed by the kind of rigorous word-by-word and line-by-line editing my work has gotten from various newspapers and magazines.

One semester I showed my students what an editor at The New York Times had done to a 2,000-word piece I submitted. It was radical surgery, but it was beneficial at almost every point (and I managed to convince that editor about the one point on which I thought he was mistaken). The class was amazed — and all the more so when I told them that the editor had done all this work in the course of 90 minutes. The lesson: revise, revise, revise. And always imagine other people reading your revisions.

I no longer accept hard copies. I deal with all student papers in Word format, using comments and "track changes."

Favorite style manuals? Practices to get psyched for writing? Quirks?

Bérubé: May I take this opportunity to say how much I detest Strunk and White? And anyone else who tries to make their idiosyncratic style preferences into some kind of universal theory of prose? (John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, you know I’m looking at you.)

In graduate school I used to try to clear vast stretches of time and go through various mental calisthenics before beginning to write. After my first child was born, when I was 24, the "vast stretches of time" option disappeared, and once I started writing to real, by-5-o’clock-at-the-latest deadlines, I ditched the warmup drills as well. I’ve written any number of short essays — usually forewords and afterwords — in coffee shops and pubs.

So I don’t have any writer’s routine, any take-a-walk-brew-the-tea-don-the-smoking-jacket rituals. However, I almost always write with one of Brian Eno’s ambient-music CDs in the background. The music is indeed ambient, and sometimes quite beautiful.

I never stop writing for the day by stopping on a "stopping place." I reach a stopping place that feels like a good stopping place, and then I write another couple sentences, or a sketchy paragraph, or a series of shorthand notes to myself. That way, when I get back to my work, I don’t have to start from a dead stop. Like this one.

Can you say anything about how your work on behalf of contingent faculty members relates to writing and publishing?

Bérubé: It’s hard to say. I am not sure this business makes it possible for contingent faculty members to write their way out of precarity, though contingent faculty members have written some brilliant things about precarity. And if I had my druthers (as you know), there would be a path for conversions to tenure regardless of whether the people on that path were doing any research or writing.

Unfortunately, because that path to tenure is sometimes called a "teaching-intensive tenure track," it gave some contingent faculty members the mistaken notion that the conversion to tenure would somehow prevent them from doing research and writing.

My advice to them? Write all you can — and organize!

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.