Conan to Caro: “I respect you too much to have you on my show”

Conan and Caro

Conan O’Brien recently interviewed historian and writer Robert Caro.  John Kelbin tells what happened in his recent piece at The New York Times.  Here is a taste:

“They probably told you,” Mr. O’Brien said, “I’m a fan to a disturbing level.”

“I want to say, if I’ve ever been asked to be on your show, my publisher never told me,” Mr. Caro replied.

“I like this way better,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I respect you too much to have you on my show.”

The host then asked Mr. Caro if he agreed with Ernest Hemingway’s comment that a writer should not “exhaust the fuel tank in one writing session,” so that it’s easier to start again the next day.

“I want to say, if I’ve ever been asked to be on your show, my publisher never told me,” Mr. Caro replied.

“Yes, and you’re the first person that ever mentioned that,” Mr. Caro said, before noting that he had written his thesis at Princeton on Mr. Hemingway.

“Why am I in comedy?” Mr. O’Brien said.

Did Mr. Caro ever take breaks? Sneak away from his desk to an afternoon movie?

“See the new ‘Avengers,’” Mr. O’Brien suggested. “Ina doesn’t have to know about it.”

“Never in my entire life,” Mr. Caro replied.

Mr. O’Brien proposed coming by Mr. Caro’s office one day and taking him to a matinee.

“If I don’t answer,” Mr. Caro said, “it’s because I’m so deep in the work.”

After a Q. and A. session and another round of applause, Mr. Caro seemed pleased. “I thought these questions tonight were exceptional,” he said in a side room. “Incisive.”

Read the entire piece here.

Robert Caro on Working in Archives

Robert Caro, author of "The Power Broker," a biography on Ro

Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Lyndon Johnson biographer, recently published Working: Research, Interviewing, Writing.  Here is a the publisher’s description:

For the first time in book form, Robert Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces. He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses; what it felt like to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ’s mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of working in solitude, he found a writers’ community at the New York Public Library, and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books. 

Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences–some previously published, some written expressly for this book–bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.

Over at Popular Mechanics, Eleanor Hildebrandt talks to Caro about his work in the archives.  Here is a taste of their conversation:

Popular Mechanics: What do you bring with you when you go to the archives?

Robert Caro: It depends on the archive. I have a computer on my desk [a Lenovo Thinkpad], although I still write and do most of my stuff on this typewriter. The reason I have a computer is that some years ago, the Johnson library said that my typewriter was so noisy, it was disturbing the other researchers. So I bought a computer and I took all my Vietnam notes on it, but I still write on the typewriter and in longhand.

It makes me think more. Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.

Almost two years ago, Ina [Caro’s wife] and I went down [to the archives], and I’m sitting there, in the reading room, writing my notes. Everybody else is standing there taking photographs of their documents. They do it with cell phones now. If you saw me there, you’d see one person who’s not in the modern age.

PM: Have you ever been tempted to switch to pictures?

RC: No. I feel there’s something very important, to be able to turn the pages yourself. I don’t want anything standing in between me and the paper. People compliment me on finding out how [Johnson] rose to power so fast in Congress by using money. That happened down there, and it was a vague, amorphous thing. I was sitting there with all these boxes, taking all these notes. And you saw letters, his very subservient letters—“Can I have five minutes of your time?”—and then you see the same letters coming back to him. And I said, Something happened here. What’s the explanation? Why is a committee chairman writing to Lyndon Johnson, asking for a few minutes of his time? So I sat there and put my notes into chronological order. And then it became absolutely clear.

Would the same thing have happened if I’d stood there taking photographs and went back? Possibly. But I don’t believe it. To me, being in the papers is really important.

Read the entire interview here.

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Robert Caro Will Publish a Reflection on His Writing Career

Caro

It  focuses on his career as a writer and historian.  It will be titled Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing.  Here is a taste of a story by the Associated Press:

Robert Caro’s next book isn’t his fifth and final volume on Lyndon Johnson or like anything he has done before.

“Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing,” to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in April, combines personal reflections and professional guidance as Caro looks back on his singular history as a writer and reporter. The book includes previous lectures and interviews, but also new material. In the introduction, the 83-year-old Caro writes that the 240-page “Working” is not a “full-length memoir,” which he still hopes to write, but a more informal gathering of “thoughts” and “experiences” behind such prize-winning books as his Johnson biography “Master of the Senate” and his classic book on municipal builder Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.”

“Here we have … some scattered, almost random glimpses of a few encounters I’ve had while doing the research on the Moses and Johnson books, encounters both with documents and with witnesses,” he writes. “It includes also a few things I’ve learned or discovered, or think I’ve learned or discovered, about the writing of biography and indeed nonfiction in general which I’d like to share or pass along.”

Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards said this week that Caro had been thinking about the book for a long time and that it “opens a window” into his career.

Read the entire piece here.

Lepore: “Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass”

These TruthsEvan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed Jill Lepore about her new book, the academy, identity politics, and writing.

Here is a taste:

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.

A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.

Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.

A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”

For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.

Read the entire interview here.

It Turns Out I am Not the Only Historical/Political/Online Writer in the Family

Ally at CFH

From the “proud Dad” files:

My daughter Allyson, a junior psychology and history major at Calvin College, has been writing (for money!) at a website called Listserve.

Here is a taste of her piece “10 Wildest Filibusters in History“:

The late Strom Thurmond, once an ambitious and fiery senator from South Carolina, still holds the record for the longest spoken filibuster by one US senator as of late October 2018.

His passion?

Stopping the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He was well prepared for the big moment, dehydrating in a steam room to avoid going to the bathroom and bringing cough drops and candy to the Senate floor. He also placed his aide in the coatroom with a bucket in case he had to take care of business. His preparation was intense.

His fate?

Thurmond began speaking at 8:54 PM on August 28, 1957. His speech included renditions of the entire Declaration of Independence, US criminal code, and voting laws of each of the 48 states. The other senators were not thrilled.[1]

Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois even attempted to sabotage the operation by putting a pitcher of fresh orange juice in front of Thurmond, whose aides quickly snatched it and placed it out of reach. Thurmond spoke more than 24 hours, ending at 9:12 PM on August 29. He successfully stalled the passage of the bill, but he didn’t stop it.

Or check out her piece “10 Famously Hard-Core Female Spies.”

This weekend she is taking some time off from writing to try to help her team win the Michigian Intercollegiate Athletic Association volleyball championship and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.  Some of you know that the Calvin Knights are currently ranked #1 in the nation in NCAA Division 3.

Stealing “Evangelical”

On April 25, 2010, I wrote about writer Richard Rodriguez‘s 2003 address to the graduates of Kenyon College.

Watch it below.  It is short and worth your time:

There is so much to say about this speech.  I get something new out of it every time I watch it.  I watched it again the other day and I was struck by the way he defines the vocation of the writer:

I write books about the political language of our time.  I keep trying to steal the language of our time away from politicians and those talking heads on CNN and Fox. I want language back, into the realm of the writer.  So when the politicians go on about “minorities,” I want to steal the word back.  When the politicians talk about “borders,” I want that word.

This time around I thought about Rodriguez’s words in the context of my own book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  I am an evangelical Christian. I want to steal the word “evangelical”–the Gospel, the “good news”–back from the pundits, politicians, and talking heads.  Perhaps Believe Me is an attempt to do this.  I need to give this more thought.

One Space or Two Spaces?

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Do you leave one space or two spaces following a period?  I always use two spaces.

There is now a scientific study that says “all readers benefit from having two spaces after periods.”

Read all about it in James Hamblin piece at The Atlantic.  A taste:

It appears in the current issue of the journal Attention, Perception, and Psychophysics. As best I can tell, psychophysics is a word; the Rochester Institute of Technology defines it as the “study of the relationship between stimuli (specified in physical terms) and the sensations and perceptions evoked by these stimuli.” The researchers are also real. Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor in Skidmore’s department of psychology, led the team. Her expertise is in the cognitive processes underlying reading. As Johnson told me, “Our data suggest that all readers benefit from having two spaces after periods.”

“Increased spacing has been shown to help facilitate processing in a number of other reading studies,” Johnson explained to me by email, using two spaces after each period. “Removing the spaces between words altogether drastically hurts our ability to read fluently, and increasing the amount of space between words helps us process the text.”

In the Skidmore study, among people who write with two spaces after periods—“two-spacers”—there was an increase in reading speed of 3 percent when reading text with two spaces following periods, as compared to one. This is, Johnson points out, an average of nine additional words per minute above their performance “under the one-space conditions.”

Amen.  Read the entire piece here.

Writing Accessible History

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Maybe if one of my books sold 350,000 copies I would not need to do this

Last summer a group of K-8 history teachers urged me to write a popular biography of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Here is what I wrote back then:

I am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

I thought about this possible project again after I read Elizabeth Elliott’s AHA Today post: “Experiments in Writing History.”  Here is a taste:

Laura Kamoie still receives periodic royalty statements for a book she published over a decade ago—an economic history of the early American Tayloe family, based on her PhD dissertation from the College of William and Mary. She knows that, to date, it has sold 773 copies, an ordinary showing for a first book that might be assigned in a university class once in a while. As for the next work she lists under the publications section of her CV? That one has sold over 350,000 copies. 

The wildly successful America’s First Daughter (2016) is not an academic history but a work of historical fiction. Using “the exact same research process as I did for my dissertation,” Kamoie, along with co-author Stephanie Dray, wrote a novel from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Patsy. Headlining the jam-packed AHA18 session “Historians Writing Historical Fiction,” Kamoie talked about the ways she finds writing academic history and writing historical fiction similar, arguing that “both attempt to link known facts and try to shape them into some kind of a narrative. Both make historical contributions, and both are meant to generate curiosity about the past.”

Read the entire piece here.

Can You Write “On the Side?”

Writing

Scot McKnight does not think so.  I think I agree with him.

Here is a taste of his recent post at Jesus Creed:

I don’t write “on the side.” Many take up careers, most often as professors or sometimes editors or pastors, with the plan to write “on the side.” Most editors I know struggle, once they become editors, to write on the side. Not enough time, and the best hours of the day already consumed. And most pastors don’t have time, nor the practice, to write on the side. What might surprise many of you is that the vast majority of professors also don’t write “on the side.” Why?

My explanation is simple: writing can’t be done on the side because, as James Vanoosting says it, “Writing is not pedagogy but an epistemology” (160).

In other words, writing is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of being, a modus operandi, a way of breathing and eating and drinking. Better yet, writing is a way of learning, a way of coming to know what someone wants to know, a way of discovering.

Read the entire post here.

The Latest From Marilynne Robinson

RobinsonNovelist and public intellectual Marilynne Robinson has a new book of essays out.  It is titled What Are We Doing Here?

Over at The Guardian, Robinson answers a few of Vanessa Thorpe’s questions.

Here is a taste:

Are you likely to be best understood by an ideal reader who comes to you with Christian faith already in place?

I don’t really have an ideal reader in mind at all, whether one with or without faith. When I write it is to try to figure out something for my own purposes. It is self-indulgent really. It is much more the blank page that I write for, in some way. I have this feeling, should a problem present itself, that I should try to resolve it.

How troubled have you been by the extent of God-fearing Christian support for Donald Trump in the last two years?

The terrible turn this part of the populist culture that calls itself Christian has taken is appalling. It is terribly destructive, too. It is a failure of the Christian argument. Religious leaders have failed in that they have not inculcated a good enough understanding of what Christianity should be. They should have paid much more attention to this. That is not to say that the history of Christianity is not pretty scary, even before now. It is very liable to being treated as subservient to some other cause or political purpose.

Read the entire interview here.

Stacy Schiff on Writing Biography

SchiffIf you are unfamiliar with the work of Stacy Schiff I would encourage you to read her books on Ben Franklin and the Salem Witch Trials.  Over at The Paris Review, Schiff talks about her work and the writing of biography.

Here is a taste of the interview:

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t set out at the beginning knowing the story you want to tell?

SCHIFF

Absolutely not. I think it my obligation to set out with neither thesis nor agenda. Time and again I think of E. B. White’s counsel—“It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” The preconceptions, the convictions are what blind you. Similarly, I feel the material should dictate the form of the life. With the Nabokovs, for example, there is throughout the book a sort of fox-trot between past and future. That was not something I could have anticipated. I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would. I’m unapologetic about this. It means the reader and I arrive together at our destination, which strikes me as the point of the exercise. 

INTERVIEWER

How does the book evolve? 

SCHIFF

I begin to write only after I’ve completed the bulk of the research. This is not the most efficient way to proceed, but it’s the only way I seem able to. The themes have emerged by then. Sometimes the shape of the narrative has begun to glint in the distance. Which won’t matter, as it will evolve anyway.

The years in the archives can feel endless, as if you’re on an eternal grocery-­shopping expedition and will never actually cook anything. If ever you were actually a writer, you are no more. You’re more like a sponge, with all the personality of one. Finally one day you wake to discover sentences forming in your head, the signal that it’s safe to leave the archive. And of course your deadline is by now also uncomfortably imminent, if not somewhere behind you. The panic is propulsive.

Read the entire interview here.

How Maya Jasanoff Writes

Finalists at Mount Vernon

2011 George Washington Book Prize finalists: Ben Irvin, Maya Jasanoff (winner), Ben Irvin

I’m still mad at Maya Jasanoff for beating me out for the 2012 George Washington Book Prize. 🙂  (I had that $50,000 targeted for a writing shed in my back yard!)

As I deal with my ongoing bitterness, check-out this interview with the prolific Harvard historian:

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Michelle Obama or, though I’d probably lose my appetite, VS Naipaul.

What book changed your life?

Orientalism by Edward Said. I have many disagreements with the book, but its meditation on the intersection of politics and culture hugely influenced my thinking.

When did you first know that you were going to be a writer? I

remember getting turned on to the power of storytelling by Charles Dickens, when my mother read Nicholas Nickleby to me as a child.

Do you have a writing routine?

Edit what I wrote the day before, feel a sense of progress, start a few new paragraphs, feel exhilarated, fine-tune what I wrote in the morning, feel despair, give up for a few hours, force myself back, wrestle with a difficult passage, feel mildly satisfied, turn off computer, rethink everything I wrote that day, realise it’s terrible, go to bed, start again.

Read the entire interview here.

Another Piece on Bad Academic Writing

c504f-snoopy-good-writing-is-hard-workOver at The Atlantic, Victoria Clayton wonders why academic writing is so complex.  Here is a taste:

A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.

Read the entire piece here.

The Writing Grind

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Writing is hard work.  How do writers deal with the grind?

Here is some advice from Helen Sword at Literary Hub:

A PhD student approached me after a writing workshop to recount his tale of woe. “I write these messy, incoherent first drafts,” he lamented. “They’re absolutely awful! Then I have to work on them for hours and hours to bash them into shape. It’s such a frustrating process, and so discouraging. My PhD adviser is a really good writer; she makes it all look so easy. I wish I were more like her.” I didn’t get a chance to interview the student’s supervisor; but if I had, I can guess what she might have told me. Probably something like this: “I write these messy, incoherent first drafts—they’re absolutely awful! Then I have to work on them for hours and hours to bash them into shape. Writing can be a hard and frustrating process, but for the most part, I really enjoy the challenge of honing and polishing my sentences until I get them just right.” Same story, different spin.

Sword has talked to a lot of writers.  These are some of the things that they think about: elegance, concision, structure, voice, identity, clarity, accessibility, vocabulary, syntax, agency, audience, story, “the big picture,” layout, and the “technologies of writing.”

Read the entire piece here.

How Scot McKnight Writes

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Our evangelical readers will know Scot McKnight.  He is a New Testament scholar, a prolific author, the proprietor at the incredibly successful blog Jesus Creed, and the guy who once tried to teach me biblical Greek.

In this post he discusses how he pursues “The Writing Life.”

Here is a taste:

Here’s a good (and typical) day, and it would be every day if my school somehow got the idea that funding a professor to write without teaching would be a good idea, and if they’d point my finger at me when they called forward the one they wanted to assign to The Writing Life.

Until that day, and I’m not waiting on it, I do this when the day permits.

I get up somewhere between 5 and 5:30am, spend some time pottering around the house doing all the things that folks like me do to rev up the engines for the day, like eating breakfast (Greek yogurt), making a cafe latte, saying my prayers and reading the news online, checking on the blog and making sure the tweets are ready for the day. Between 7 and 8am I descend into the bowels of my house (the basement) and get to my desk and work there — with normal breaks and interruptions — until I’m done, usually by 2pm and occasionally not until 3pm. I used to be able to work later, and I spend the rest of my day reading or pottering around.

The Writing Life is about routine, day after day, month after month, year after year, and it takes a decade or more for The Writing Life to make sense and to be natural. If I miss a few days it gets hard to get back into the rhythm, and a week or two away and it takes at least two days to feel comfortable again.

On my off days and in the summer and over breaks I do this every day. The days don’t vary much unless I have coffee with a friend or a luncheon. I’d like to play more golf but I manage that rarely these days. I wonder if my golf game will desert me while my neighbors must wonder what I do in this house all day because nothing seems to be going on from the outside.

Read the entire post here.

Writing Advice From Alan Jacobs

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From his blog:

1. Find the time of day when you do your best thinking — when your intellectual energy is at its highest — and set that time aside for writing. (If that’s impossible because of work or other responsibilities, then find the best time that’s available to you.) Then preserve that time. Be flexible and generous all the other hours of the day, but be rigid and ruthless about your writing time.

2. Write to think. Don’t try to know where you’re going before you start writing, but write to find out what you think, or find the story you need to tell. Never expect that a particular time-unit of writing will produce a given number of publishable words. You must learn to think of your writing time as a period of discovery, in which you find out what you think, or what images and rhythms tend to emerge from your mind, or where a story seems to want to go. If you focus on discovery, then something worth sharing with others will emerge, in its own way and on its own schedule. But that’s not the kind of thing that can be forced. Allow yourself the freedom to explore.

Writing and Editing Are Two Different Things

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Check out Natalie Houston‘s piece at ProfHacker.  She offers some good writing advice, with the help of Anne Lamott.

A taste:

As Lamott describes it, letting yourself write “a self-indulgent and boring beginning” or a paragaph that is way too long for the total length of the essay frees you from the critical voices sitting on your shoulder:

I’d start writing without reining myself in. It was almost just typing, just making my fingers move. And the writing would be terrible. . . . But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process — sort of, more or less.

Once you have something — anything — down on the page, it’s easier to return to it for a second draft. But the pressure of deadlines and the ease of revision on the computer means that many writers, particularly students, are not fully comfortable with writing essays in multiple, distinct drafts.

Read the entire post here.

On Writing Your Second History Book

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Benjamin Park, an early American historian who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has live-tweeted a great session from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) on how to go about writing a second book.

For most academic historians, their first book is a revised version of their dissertation. Much of the research and writing for the first book is accomplished during graduate school. (Although revisions are always necessary for turning a dissertation into a book). Second books, however, are usually written under different circumstances.  Graduate students become faculty members and their lives change.  They have to prepare lectures, attend meetings, and, for some, take on the responsibilities of family life.  Writing that second book become a lot more difficult when one’s attention is pulled in so many different directions.

The members of the panel:

Kathleen DuVal of UNC-Chapel Hill

Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society

Timothy Mennell, University of Chicago Press

Tamara Plakins Thornton, University at Buffalo

Catherine Kelly, University of Oklahoma

As I read Ben’s tweets I once again realized how different my career has been when compared to the traditional career trajectory (or at least the one that is considered normal among people who attend SHEAR) in the profession.

Here are some of Park’s post

The Reading Habits of Journalists and Public Intellectuals

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Check out Danny Funt‘s piece at Columbia Journalism Review titled “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader? In the course of the essay he discusses the reading habits of Adam Gopnik, David Brooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rebecca Traister, E.J. Dionne, among others.

Here is a taste:

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most respected magazine writers of the day, as much for the sharpness of his sword as the depth of his artillery, once wrote, “The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.” There’s a lot of equipment inside a gym—without knowing better, you might spend an hour doing a few curls and then bouncing around on a balance ball. A balance of news and broader information is desirable, but the optimal proportions can be elusive. Discussing reading habits tends to make people nervous about coming off, as one newspaper writer put it, “like a pretentious twit.”

I encountered no fanatical workaholics like Aristotle, who read with a brass orb in hand so if he dozed off and released his grip, a bang on the ground would startle him back to work. None was quite as industrious as the late writer David Foster Wallace, who advocated studying a usage dictionary on the toilet. Nor did I interview any stunt readers like Esquire’s A.J. Jacobs, who spent a year ploughing through Encyclopedia Britannica A to Z, 44 million words in all.

A couple years before his death in 2008, the legendary critic John Leonard estimated that he’d read 13,000 books for work. As he once explained, “I spend half my day writing about television, and the other half writing about books, and I read instead of sleep.” One way or another, Serious Readers must overcome a basic problem: There are only so many hours in a day.

In the Trump era especially, just keeping up with the news can be suffocating. At 7 each morning, the New York political analyst Jonathan Chait gets up in his Washington home and reviews the tweets he slept through, followed by policy news and Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. From 8 onward, with a break to cook and eat dinner with his family, he’s plugged into following news on the computer, taking short pauses to write when inspiration strikes.

“I’ve been draining down my long-term capital because the value of reading books is very high even if the payoff is delayed,” Chait says. “I can constantly get ideas from the news, but you need depth elsewhere.”

“You can’t live like this forever.”

Read the entire piece here.