[Skip this one if you don’t want to read me writing about myself.]
Yesterday I scheduled my doctoral defense. All that stands between me and a mostly unscathed exit from the academic world is a period of weeks, a few questions, and a slip of paper. Moreover, a few days earlier I received confirmation that a plan I’d been hatching for several months was officially possible: in June I will dispossess myself of everything but the contents of a backpack and embark upon longterm travel.
For the first time in — yikes — 22 years, I won’t have the infinite academic maw into which to pour my excess intellectual energy. My smart-as-hell social circle of grad students and adjunct professors will no longer be available to listen to my ranting. My reading, thinking, and writing will no longer be spent on dissertations, academic articles, peer reviews, conference presentations, lectures, or comprehensive exams. Before long, I won’t even have my beloved university library. It’s not as if the loss of these resources marks the cessation of mental activity, however. I’ll still read, still think, still write. But what for and what about?
There’s literary journalism. It’s pretty cool that I can get paid to review books and write essays (and it’s also fiscally crucial). I’ll be doing more of that. But exchanging the indulgent yet rigorous intellectual activity of graduate school entirely for journalism would not satisfy the part of me that wanted to go to graduate school in the first place. I don’t think this is just the sunk-costs fallacy speaking, but a genuine recognition of something in my character: I need to be studying something.
There’s fiction writing. After attending Clarion West last summer, my literary aspirations have floated to the top of my list of priorities. But I know myself well enough to recognize that if I poured all my time into writing fiction, the slow and chancy progress might very well break me. Fiction writing is a slow-burning commitment. If someday I become a full time novelist, I’ll be overjoyed; but I’m not holding my breath. I put in my hours every day, send out my stories, study my craft, slowly get better. But keeping other intellectual irons in the fire while I work on fiction is my personal adaptation of the good advice, “don’t quit your day job just yet!”
What I’d like to do, in addition to literary journalism and fiction writing, is some kind of serious, scholarly, but non-academic nonfiction writing. I’d like to write books: about places and people and ideas. Literary biography, for instance. Popular intellectual history also attracts me, like Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful At the Existentialist Cafe. And I’ve been reading around in nature and travel writing, thinking, hey, I could do that!
A few weeks ago a friend asked me, “what job offer would make you give up your itinerant plans?” On reflection, I told her, only one: if somebody paid me to do nothing but write, each week, the most fascinating essay I could about anything I wanted, I’d settle right down to it. She asked: “What would you write about right now, if that were your job?” The answer immediately came to mind, and what surprised me was that I would never have considered writing about that thing under any other circumstances.
So what I plan to do, for, oh, the rest of 2018 (barring some unexpected opportunity), is to pretend I have been offered that fantasy job. To keep my intellectual muscles in shape, I’ll imagine I’m obligated to research, write, and publish, here on this blog, one high-quality, well-researched, beautifully written, and entertaining essay every week, about whatever I’m most interested in at the time. I’m hoping this will help me sort out the kind of non-journalistic, non-fiction writing I want to do.
In the meantime, if any of you want to hire me, well… You know where to find me.
[Edit: to answer a question I received immediately after posting this, yes, I still plan to post all my little 500-word posts about the 2018 reading project. Posts on Tolstoy and Flann O’Brien are in the pipeline even now.]