I was surprised when Steven Pinker told me, as we discussed the writing biz, that he would be daunted by the terms under which I have written for The Chronicle for the past seven years.
Once each working week, on a quasi-randomly chosen day that The Chronicle stipulates, I have been required to come up with a readable 750-word post suitable for a mainly academic readership. Steve told me he couldn’t take that pressure — not 50 weeks a year. Though he seems undaunted by the task of coming up with a fat nonfiction best-seller every few years while carrying a full teaching load in psychology at Harvard. So our arrangement is that he doesn’t have to be me and I don’t have to be him. That strikes us both as a reasonable deal.
I have worked under weekly deadline conditions since August 2011 with no vacations or sabbaticals. This post is number 360 (see this list of all my posts with their dates of publication). I’ve actually found the pressure useful, and even enjoyed it.
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a quirky BBC comedy sci-fi radio series broadcast between 1978 and 1980), said he loved deadlines: “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by,” he said. His lack of discipline meant there were times when the producers and cast had to lock him in a room adjacent to the studio to make him write the next page of script while they were in the studio recording the scene he’d just finished. My experience is very different. I like actually meeting them: polishing up some little thought, trimming my thoughts on it to something like the length The Chronicle prefers, and getting it into the virtual hands of our fine team of editors led by Heidi Landecker.
This schedule of vaguely academic, partially recreational writing has demanded that I never sink into total unproductiveness for longer than a few days. Even during weeks when ideas for academic publications were not really moving right along, I always had to get something ready for Heidi, and risk putting it out there to be read by colleagues and strangers. It energized me. Sure, a skeptical blog post on (say) Cadillac car alarms and prairie dogs or adjectival wine descriptors might be fairly trivial, but it was something, and kept me feeling alive and active.
There were some periods when that felt extremely important. In four eventful years I moved from Edinburgh to Providence, R.I., taught a course at Brown, re-emigrated back to Edinburgh, proposed to a woman I had come to love, and married her — and then unexpectedly within a year had to support her through the failure of palliative treatment for cancer, from which she died only 13 months after our wedding. But right through the whole time I maintained my Lingua Franca commitment. I would write and submit posts even when daily life was over-full with oncologist appointments, chemotherapy sessions, and hospital visits. That little bit of deadline-driven writing each week made me feel that perhaps, despite what was happening, I could hold my life together and survive. And I found that I could. Eventually I could even laugh again.
Of course, writing short posts for a broad, diverse, and opinionated public is not all unmitigated joy. You’d be amazed at how often I receive hostile out-of-the-blue emails from total strangers who disagreed with something I’d said and wanted to reach out and say something mean to the man who wrote it. But one time when this happened I realized with pleasure that I could take my idle thoughts about possible replies and turn them into a new post. The result appeared here as “Academic Hate Mail.” People told me it made them laugh out loud, which pleased me. But what’s most important is that I really enjoyed crafting it. You may not always have enjoyed reading my stuff, but I have definitely had fun writing for you.
That last sentence is expressed in the present perfect rather than the present tense, of course, because it’s now over: Lingua Franca is being discontinued as a Chronicle feature, and you won’t read me in this blog ever again.
I do plan to write again for The Chronicle, but only under two strict rules: (1) you must only read what I write if you feel you want to, and (2) I’ll only write if I find it satisfying or enjoyable to do so. I hope that strikes you as a reasonable deal.